We called busy teacher Courtney Reiner late one afternoon to chat about her experience in one of Ashbrook’s new online seminars for social studies teachers. Reiner was folding laundry, her five- month-old son watching from his bouncy chair while her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter helped by handing mom items from the laundry basket. Reiner had just finished a full day of teaching US history to eighth graders and modern world history to ninth graders, but she talked animatedly about the MAHG program and the final course she was taking to meet her credit hours, the great texts course on The Federalist.
“I have really enjoyed Dr. William Allen’s class,” she said. “He is a very helpful and thoughtful teacher.” The webinar format allows students to see the professor who is lecturing in a full-screen computer image and to pose questions in real time. It also allows students to follow the professor to a different venue; on the previous evening, the class had watched as Professor Allen delivered a Constitution Day lecture in Hartford, Connecticut.
Most MAHG students and faculty chose the program because its schedule of traditional classroom-based courses offered on a summer schedule provided the opportunity to interact with colleagues who have a common passion for teaching the story of America. Competing online programs are notable for their lack of interaction, and there was initial trepidation when the program’s first “online” classes were proposed.
The more they learned about the “live” nature of MAHG’s online courses and the way web conferencing effectively replicates the feeling of a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, the more they embraced the concept. Reiner saw the option as an invaluable opportunity to finish coursework and move toward the thesis work she plans. She had already taken the pilot online course last winteran American foreign policy seminar with John Moserand that had worked well.
Moser admitted he had been hesitant when asked to teach the class. “I had taught one online undergraduate course at Ashland, and wasn’t at all happy with the experience. I could assign readings, and have students take quizzes and exams online, but comments on a bulletin board or in a chat room were no substitute for actual discussions. The worst part was that I couldn’t bring myself to care about the students taking the course; after all, I never really interacted with them. As a result, my work for that course always ended up falling to the bottom of my to-do list, and I’m sure the students who took it would say the same thing.
“I soon learned that the experience of a MAHG online course is completely different. The fact that it meets in real time, with face-to-face videoconferencing, is the key to its success. Even though I was in my home in Ashland, and the students were scattered across the country, we were able to have a real conversation, almost as if we were all together in the same classroom. The students seemed to enjoy the experience as much as I did; when they showed up on my computer screen they had clearly done the reading and were prepared for discussion.”
The Federalist is one of the more challenging courses offered in the program, since it involves close reading of this and other 18th century texts written during the 1781-1788 ratification debate over the US Constitution. To supplement the primary document, Reiner and her fellow students are reading a commentary on the work written by Professor Allen himself, allowing them to pose questions directly to the person most qualified to answer them.
Given Reiner’s goals for her own teaching, she will use the online opportunity to get the best grasp she can on this fundamental text in American political history. “I used to just try to follow the curriculum standards, figuring that if I gave my students the information outlined in those, and they memorized these facts, they’d be fine. Not any more. This year my goal is for my students to get itto grasp the overarching theme of each unit, and how that history relates to our own time, and then to build on what they’ve just learned in the next unit.”
“I really like the MAHG program,” Reiner continued. “I’ve never met a group of more intelligent yet more down-to-earth professors. They understand we have lives outside of class, yet they find a way to keep pushing us to think harder, outside of the usual textbook-designed box.”
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