Teaching sociology online influenced by reading student’s online comments

Sociologist Mitchell Duneier writes about how his online teaching was enriched and influenced by the comments students posted online:

My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands.

Although it was impossible for me to read even a fraction of the pages of students’ comments as they engaged with one another, the software allowed me to take note of those that generated the most discussion. I was quickly able to see the issues that were most meaningful to my students…

With so much volume, my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall. This happened as I got to know them by sampling their comments on the forums and in the live, seminar-style discussions. As I developed a sense for them as people, I could imagine their nods and, increasingly, their critical questions. Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars…

Nor had I imagined the virtual and real-time continuous interaction among the students. There were spontaneous and continuing in-person study groups in coffee shops in Katmandu and in pubs in London. Many people developed dialogues after following one another’s posts on various subjects, while others got to know those with a common particular interest, such as racial differences in IQ, the prisoner abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib, or ethnocentrism—all topics covered in the lectures.

A few thoughts about Duneier’s discussion of online comments about his lectures:

1. It is good to hear that some online comments can be rewarding and constructive. It is hard to be positive about such interactions when so many online discussions involve yelling past each other. I imagine there might have been some negative or less constructive comments but perhaps people were more restrained knowing they were part of an online class. In other words, the commentators had more of a stake in the conversations.

2. I am intrigued by the idea that Duneier got more feedback from this than in “a career of teaching.” I don’t know if this says more about the potential of online feedback or the lack of feedback and interaction in a traditional classroom.

3. Could there be a way to efficiently sort through such comments? Duneier suggests he was able to see what students cared about most by looking at which threads generated more discussion. But does simply having more responses indicate a more substantive discussion?

4. I wonder at the end of this: does Duneier think teaching online is a superior or equal experience to teaching at Princeton? It certainly is different…but how does it compare?

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