In the months following my online teaching experiment, I quickly realized that there was much more creative content I might incorporate into my online courses. One of my chief goals as an educator has been to inculcate analytical reasoning in my students by highlighting cognitive dissonance, i.e., academic debate and disagreement about all manner of ideas, concepts and theories. I decided to introduce a Sherlock Holmes character (with pipe and deerstalker hat) into my video presentations, to raise multiple academic issues throughout the course. His recurring admonition: not to fall into the trap of twisting facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. I then challenged my students to keep a running list of Sherlock's issues throughout the semester, supplementing those with additional debates presented in the readings and phrasing each as an open-ended question that might be argued from either side.
Submitted electronically at the end of the term, this exercise told me more about the degree to which students grasped the analytical process than a score of essays. To facilitate this exercise, I encouraged the students to use online discussion boards for developing these academic issues and debating them with each other, prior to formulating their own comprehensive list at the semester's end.
In all of this, I felt that I had only scratched the proverbial surface of what might be done creatively in the online platform. For example, in another course I had for many years taught in person, the Jewish People in Antiquity, I decided to take my acting skills to another level via costuming and makeup, to bring characters from the ancient past to life. I portrayed them speaking the original Hebrew language, supplied with English subtitles by our video editor, so that students could for the first time get a sense of how the ancient tongue actually sounded. This added an entirely new element to the course, never before possible in a traditional classroom setting.
New Horizons: Innovating the Future of E-Learning
There is, however, much more to be done to enhance the online learning experience. Recently, I've teamed up with a professor of game design and a colleague in the field of game research to craft an online video game, designed to enhance further the students' analytical skills by leading them through a series of choices and possible outcomes. Certain characters I portray in my weekly video presentations, including Sherlock, will present issues and obstacles with which to grapple, taking them from one intellectual challenge to another. It may even be possible to incorporate video games into a web course in the place of one or more quizzes or exams.
In sum, never did I imagine that such innovative possibilities would present themselves when I sullenly approached my instructional designer during that first semester of online teaching. Indeed, the skeptic has become an advocate, and what I imagined as a career killer has become the most rewarding period of my career as an academic. Of course, not every online educator should be expected to copy these methods of innovation. There are, however, endless ways that each instructor can use the online platform to express individual pedagogical talents in previously unimagined ways. All that is required is the determination to innovate, to break boundaries and to ‘find oneself' in the brave new world of e-learning.
What I have discovered in all of this is that the embrace of technology in creative pedagogy may well hold the key to rescuing the traditional study of the humanities from obsolescence and perceived irrelevance, and lead the way to restoring its appreciation by a new generation of 21st Century students. A unique cluster of technological assets already exists at most universities and colleges, capable of bringing online education to a new level of sophistication. I am fully convinced that if we utilize these assets properly, we will produce learning outcomes that are far superior to any achieved in the past. As educators, this is our challenge; it is also our opportunity.
Kenneth L. Hanson serves as Director of the University of Central Florida's Interdisciplinary Program in Judaic Studies.