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So You Want to Try Writing an Online Course?

Mr. Gould was responsible for writing"History 315L, The United States since 1865" for the Distance Education Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Mr. Gould and Ms. Morse collaborated on the transformation of HIS315L into an online course. The course recently received the 2003 Distance Learning College Course Award from the University Continuing Education Association.

Writing and teaching online courses can provide an exciting and creative means for historians to reach out to an audience beyond the traditional classroom. In shaping our course at the University of Texas at Austin, we found that the flexibility and richness of the web enabled students to become enthusiastic participants in the process of analyzing and evaluating historical problems.

The course was developed at the Distance Education Center in the Division of Continuing and Extended Education at UT Austin (DEC), using a homegrown course management tool, Speedway, the talents of a team of distance learning professionals. The Center specializes in online college and high school courses.

This U.S. History survey course has all the traditional elements--a popular textbook by Edward L. Ayers, et al., American Passages A History of the United States, its companion documents reader and a rich mix of essay and identification questions for students to answer in each of the written assignments. To ensure the course's success, we chose a sound text that provides the students with an accurate foundation to understand the unfolding of American History. (It also helps that one of us, Gould, is a co-author of American Passages; students know that the course's author is also one of the contributors to the text.

To complement the traditional elements, our DEC team selected a variety of primary resources online; these transformed the course into a tool that enables students to become full partners in the learning experience, not just the recipients of knowledge. Using these abundant online resources, we constructed questions that progressively build writing skills while encouraging persuasive interpretations formulated for a broad array of topics. As students work their way through these questions, they learn how to identify historical arguments, interpret original documents (textual and visual), and ask critical questions of historical actors, events, and concepts.

For example, in a question for the first assignment about President Ulysses S. Grant and his "peace policy" toward Native Americans, students read several online documents to construct their answer. Some of this research involves role-playing as Indian leaders, while other aspects require students to examine and appraise primary documents and to relate evidence to the study of Native American history. Other assignments include questions about the rise of industrialism and require students to use the photographs and writings of Jacob Riis, the impact of the San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike, and the career of Emma Tenayuca in the labor movement of the 1930s. As the course progresses, it encourages interested students to use other online sources to broaden their historical perspective in ways that are relevant to them.

One of the additional virtues of this complementary online approach is that it allows us, as history teachers, to frame questions for each lesson that go beyond a single ideological, thematic, or chronological perspective--political, economic, and social--and enables students to explore issues from varied points of view. The online environment breaks down the barriers that occur when students are confronted with a single text and narrative based on the views of a lone historian or on the collective vision of multiple authors. The problems of ideological bias that have been so much a part of recent discussions on HNN are, thus, much relieved when students are able on their own to visit a broad range of sources, documents, and historical writings. By drawing upon web resources, this course promotes an eclectic, inclusive approach to history and enhances students' ability to think for themselves.

Introducing greater complexity with each lesson can be done in a number of ways, depending on how web resources are used. The reliance on student choice makes the course different for each student and yet broadly similar for all those enrolled. The course also includes "Past and Present" discussion questions that encourage interaction between students and instructors. In all aspects, the course encourages students to make connections, to ask critical questions, and to explore history from a variety of perspectives.

The key to this course's success is the collaboration between writer (Gould) and course designer (Morse). As our experience with History 315L proves, a collaborative course should be more than just the vision of the historian who is writing the individual lessons. In a few instances, the author will have the expertise that will not require the assistance of distance education colleagues on campus. Far more often, however, a blend of substantive knowledge and online skills from several collaborators will produce a course that is better than the sum of its instructional parts.

Or, as HIS315L instructor Kim Richardson notes, online history courses "bring history to life at the fingertips of the students. They don't need to go to a library or bookstore to read beyond the materials given, but have a whole virtual world at their fingertips. I love teaching online. It allows me to work one-on-one with students in a unique way. Many students enter the course believing this to be an easy 'A.' They quickly learn this is not the case, but they also discover that they can have fun and learn history at the same time." For us, comments like this prove that the time and effort we put into a course pay huge dividends for history students and teachers. Yes, history does go the distance!