Learning Our Way is an occasional series that explores creativity and innovation happening in CofC’s classrooms – whether in person or virtually.
Heath Hoffmann wasn’t planning for a global pandemic when he started training for online education in 2013: He was just diversifying his skill set and exploring new ways to teach effectively. But, with over 60 sections of 10 different classes in the online asynchronous format under his belt by the time the coronavirus did come along seven years later, the sociology professor was certainly prepared – at least when it came to teaching.
“I have been teaching virtually all of my classes asynchronously since 2015, so I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special,” says Hoffmann, who is teaching Criminology, Sociology of Alcohol and Drugs and a Senior Seminar on Crime and Justice Policy this spring. “Our students and our faculty are getting more comfortable with the asynchronous format now, and I think they’re starting to see that they can be just as high in quality, just as effective as – maybe even superior to – face-to-face classes and other formats. They just require different skill sets from students and faculty.”
Online asynchronous instruction is where the faculty member creates the course content using online materials and platforms. Students can access the course lessons, materials and activities at their convenience via online platforms instead of meeting at set times and days like you would in a traditional classroom setting.
The most obvious skill set required for succeeding in an asynchronous online course is, of course, technological. Instead of letting technology be intimidating and therefore get in the way, however, Hoffmann urges faculty to start simple.
“When faculty take the online education readiness course, they get all these great ideas and they feel like they have to implement them all the first time they’re teaching a class,” says Hoffmann. “But I always encourage them to do one or two things, and then build it up over five years. You don’t have to do it all right away. Find what works for you and keep it simple.”
Many of the ideas and discussions in Hoffmann’s classes hinge on issues unfolding in the news and in the students’ day-to-day lives – something that does pose some challenges when it comes to planning an asynchronous class.
“I have to keep that in mind, and be really intentional and purposeful in my classes,” says Hoffmann, noting that one way that teaching asynchronous classes differs from teaching in-person classes is how much time must go to assessing students’ work. “There’s not much time for creating new content and lecturing, so I try to make everything I do easy to edit, revise and maintain moving forward. I don’t want to try to reinvent the wheel every time. And so there’s more work for me on the front end in terms of creating the content and the discussion opportunities.”
Each unit of Hoffmann’s classes usually involves a quiz or some sort of substantive reflection and application assignment. And then there are usually two other discussion and engagement assignments where students have to demonstrate that they’ve actually read something and can apply it in a meaningful way either to their own lives or to a contemporary issue.
“The goal is to create content that is pretty easily digestible, short, keeps students attention and engages them,” says Hoffmann. “I try to do everything so it’s really student friendly to reduce student stress.”
Sophie Buchmaier, for one, appreciates the effort.
“Professor Hoffmann has really gone above and beyond to create an amazing online learning environment,” says the senior psychology major, who took Hoffmann’s Sociology of Alcohol and Drugs course last semester. “It was fascinating discussing the social problems that go along with and cause addiction.”
“He definitely wanted to create a learning community as best as he could. He’s got it pretty down pat,” says Bobby Valach, a senior communication major and sociology minor who has taken two online courses with Hoffmann. “He structures his classes in a way that is very clear, so it’s not confusing at all. I think it helps that you know what to expect, because the format of the class is very organized.”
In fact, students have told Hoffmann before that they appreciate having online classes that are well organized, which is why he sets up checklists in Oaks that are very specific to help keep them on track.
“I really like the checklists,” says Valach. “It always felt good when I checked something off.”
And to move forward students also have to keep up – something that takes self-discipline from the very beginning.
“It’s super easy to put off the work, especially since you usually only have one weekly deadline,” says Buchmaier, who suggests students create a schedule and stick to it. “I found it made the class easier to pretend it was like a regular class and to make a schedule for doing the readings and work.”
Valach agrees: “As long as you allocate your own time every week – set aside a couple hours at a certain time every week just like you would in a normal class – you can keep up and you stay accountable. If you wait until the day something is due, you just leave yourself more stressed out. If you allocate things out, though, you have more time to sit with the information and really absorb it.”
Time management is one of the many skills that students are learning in the asynchronous environment.
“In an online class, you can’t just sit there for an hour and 15 minutes a couple times a week,” say Hoffmann. “Instead, students learn to become active learners because they have to be regularly engaging in the course material. It takes a lot more work to do what’s required of them.”
In Hoffmann’s classes, for example, students are required to participate in “coffee talks” or “cocktail chats”: discussions centering around the contemporary issues that relate to that week’s unit.
“He has created an interactive environment where we post spoken comments and assignments so we can listen to our classmates, just like we would do if we were in person,” explains Buchmaier. “He has also created interactive VoiceThreads for us to ask questions so we can speak to him and he can speak back.”
“It gives students a chance to demonstrate that they’ve learned something, but also to articulate their ideas as if they were talking with someone over coffee or at a cocktail party,” says Hoffmann. “I’ve found that I just don’t get the same substance when they’re writing in discussion boards as I do with them articulating their ideas with VoiceThreads. Students’ thoughts are much more articulate when they’re recording; they’re just more conscientious about the work they’re producing.”
It’s also really nice to hear from the students who may not be the type to speak up in an in-person class.
“In a face-to-face class, I might hear from 50 percent of my students, but in an online class, I hear from all students, not just the ones who are comfortable talking,” says Hoffmann. “And so it’s really this great place for students who are shy, who need a little bit more time to formulate their ideas before they speak. ”
They also learn about one another.
“I’ve had students tell me that they have a strong sense of community in my class,” says Hoffmann, who credits that to the students’ listening to each other’s discussions and to the emphasis he places on self-care in each of his classes. “I just try to personalize it and make myself a little bit vulnerable. It’s led to a lot of students reaching out to me and feeling comfortable expressing that they’re struggling. And I think it’s because of that approach that students don’t feel like they’re just a number in an online class.”
“You can tell he cares – that he’s just a very good person,” says Valach. “Dr. Hoffmann is one of my favorite professors I’ve had at CofC because he is available for his students and passionate about what he does.”
And that, of course, is something that can be felt far beyond the four walls of a classroom.