Teaching the history survey without a textbook: Episode 4.

28 04 2011

Go here and scroll down for other episodes in this continuing series.

Since we’re at the end of the semester, I handed out evaluations to the students in my survey class yesterday. No, I’m not talking about their evaluation of my teaching. We switched from paper to online surveys a few years ago, and the response rate dropped through the floor. Those evaluations have become utterly useless to both the university and me. I’m talking about the in-class survey regarding my non-text textbook.*

Besides seeing more student prose about the course than I’ve read in years, I think the most striking thing about them was what wasn’t on most of them. I only read one complaint about having to do their reading on a screen (and trust me, the syllabus was designed to force them into doing their reading so anyone who wanted a good grade had to do a good deal of reading there). Most were happy with the efficiency of an online text since they only had to read what I assigned and nothing else. They also seemed happy with a the $50 price (which surprised me, but, then again, I don’t have to buy new chemistry texts nor have any idea what people are paying for that text which Alan Brinkley stopped writing five editions ago either).

So my pre-evaluation decision to keep going with Milestone Documents seems like a good one. However, there’s one piece of advice to anyone doing this that seems particularly important. Put your syllabus online and lay the links out there for them so that they don’t have to navigate it. I know Milestone Documents will do this for you soon, but that will prevent you from changing assignments on the fly since they won’t necessarily be able to change your page for you in a timely fashion.

Besides, the time for online syllabi has certainly come. This kind of online text is simply an extension of that, and a more efficient one at that. I’m not sure I’d want students to gaze at hundreds of pages of neutral prose that way. [The notion that people are writing out their lectures and simply posting them for their online courses scares me to death. If you can’t get them to pay attention in class…]. However, when you break it up into pieces by assigning documents, it seems to be a popular compromise.

Pedagogically, I’m delighted by the ability to line up my lectures with the reading better. While there’s less reading overall this way, I can definitely live with that since I can tell from their surveys that they were definitely doing the reading that they had.

* And yes, Neil, I’ll drop them in a Fed Ex envelope for you later this afternoon.




4 responses

28 04 2011
Jonathan Dresner

Have you posted a link to your syllabus? I’d love to take a look at how you structured the readings, assignments, etc. I’m seriously considering this….

28 04 2011
Jonathan Rees


I have, but here it is again:


I learned what they now call SharePoint Designer ten years ago and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class except for the occasional xeroxed newspaper article ever since.

28 04 2011
Neil Schlager

Great news, Jonathan. I’m looking forward to seeing the student surveys. As you mentioned, we are indeed upgrading the “class page” substantially. This will give students and professors a convenient home base from which to use and interact with the site, and it will also let them collaborate and discuss the readings as well. I’m sure the various survey responses we get (from students and professors alike) from this spring’s trials will provide lots of other areas for us to upgrade and expand as well. Thanks for your ongoing support!

28 04 2011
Andrea Betts

This is wonderful to hear, Jonathan. To add on to what Neil said above, the system we are creating will in fact allow you to change assignments quickly. We’re setting it up so that you can put your reading list (and other stuff) on the site AND edit it any time. These features should be working by fall.

Looking forward to seeing the evaluations, and glad to hear we got a good report!

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