Moby-Dick's Message Board: How Online Education Can Revitalize the Student Body

A week before classes begin, my enrollment is over 700 and growing rapidly every day. No, I'm not a star lecturer at a huge university--I'm teaching an online class entitled " Moby-Dick: From Fact to Fiction" for Barnes & Noble University. Working out of my home in Berkeley, California, I access the Barnes & Noble Web site, which has launched a series of free, nonaccredited online courses on subjects that range from music, literature, and the arts to astronomy, health, and technology.

My goals for this Web-based course are in many ways the same goals that I bring to a traditional classroom: I want to give my students both the tools and the freedom to make the material their own. I aim to facilitate, rather than dictate. I hope that my students (all of them!) will come away with a new understanding of Herman Melville's novel and the world that surrounded it, as well as a renewed enthusiasm for literature. I also want to grow as a teacher, and to reflect on principles of both online and traditional teaching that are relevant across disciplines. One of the first things I have learned is that online teaching involves striking a balance between maintaining control and letting it go.

"... This is the first online course I have ever taken, after years of going to college at night, and I have been thrilled with it. I've 'talked' much more in this class than I was ever prone to do in college, and I love being able to go back to other students' comments that really interest me. You lose so much of that in a classroom. ..."--Student comment

How I Got Started

While looking for a summer job to combine my academic interests and skills with Internet-based technology, I discovered Powered Inc.--an Austin-based company that produces and publishes courses for Barnes & Noble University, as well as for a number of other clients. I applied for an instructor's position through their Web site and was contacted several weeks later about developing a course on Moby-Dick and a companion text, In the Heart of the Sea. Together with a Phoenix-based freelance editor, who helped me prepare my materials, I ended up writing eight lessons of approximately 2000 words each. We worked to a strict deadline, and it took just over 1 month to get all the planning and lessons ready.

The Lessons

These lessons serve as lectures and are posted every 3 days--a faster pace than I would choose, since the amount of reading involved may not easily fit the schedule of the average adult learner. I also include short quizzes and questions, as well as reading assignments at the end of each lesson. All these materials are accessible at any time after they have been posted.

"... I love this ability to learn from qualified professors at my own convenience--at work or on the train--and to discuss issues with 'classmates'..." --Student comment

The diversity of enrollees gives the class a real vitality: There are students not yet out of high school, as well as those who graduated years ago. Some participants are interested in a first introduction to the material, while others want to build upon their existing knowledge of literature or Melville's novel. I therefore supplement the introductory lessons with more advanced questions that engage some of the complicated literary or historical aspects of Moby-Dick and the other assigned text. A diverse audience can prove challenging, but on the whole the course is greatly enriched by the variety of goals and points of focus that the students bring to it--especially through the message board.

The Message Board

The message board is in many ways the lifeblood of the course. It gives students the space to talk about any topic relevant to the subject or texts, and it also allows them to review discussions from the beginning of the course.

Practical Advice

While both traditional and online teaching involve creating ongoing enthusiasm and a sense of community, this is even more crucial when all of the class's communication takes place at a distance. Here's what you'll need to do to make an online course a success:

  • Create an environment where students feel free to express their ideas and ask questions.

  • Communicate your thoughts clearly, and make sure students do not misunderstand the tone or meaning of what you write.

  • Keep the students motivated with thought-provoking questions.

  • Provide a variety of approaches to the material.

  • Let students know that you are accessible if they have problems or concerns.

  • Solicit student feedback periodically.

The practical effect of the message board is that students don't wait for my validation of their comments. This encourages them to take control of the course's direction, facilitating a more student-centered experience by allowing them to post and discuss topics completely independently of me. The dynamic of the message board allows online students to debate and move toward consensus or respectful disagreement--even when discussing such potentially controversial topics as race, sexuality, or religion. This student control of the discussion contrasts with the traditional classroom experience, in which students may look to the teacher as the source of authority, even during animated discussions. In the traditional classroom, I may respond to this by dividing the students into smaller groups for independent discussion; in my online course, the structure of the message board combines the student leadership typical of small discussion groups with a conversation open to the whole class.

" ...I had no intention of (re)reading Moby-Dick, which I previously found tedious. Now, however, I am not only reading it, but enjoying it immensely. As for online courses in general, I think they have much to offer ... it will accommodate anyone's schedule. It's also an equalizer in terms of the ages and backgrounds, etc. of the students. No one need feel intimidated, and everyone benefits."--Student comment

It's been exhilarating to see the number of students who say how surprised they are to be reading Moby-Dick with real enjoyment, especially since a number of these students had been previously uninspired by the traditional academic environment. For this reason, I also make sure to initiate and encourage message board discussions that take a less scholarly angle. Students share personal anecdotes, discuss movies and other writers, and write passionately about the relevancy of this course to the modern world and their own values. Far from being a distraction, these conversations enhance the online learning experience and shed light on why we bother to read literature.

Such a message board could also be a useful supplement to traditional classroom teaching, because it gives students a space to meet and ponder the meanings of difficult texts--whether they be classic works of literature or scientific papers.

"... I like the fact that there's a quiz for each lesson. I think that motivates paying attention to the lesson. ..." --Student comment

The Lurking Majority

This doesn't mean that the course can be all things to all students. The shift to a more student-centered experience may not draw in all students, or it may be a little disorienting. Sometimes students still look to me as a source of information or authority, even on points of interpretation, and that's fine. I am more concerned about the students I don't hear from: Approximately 87% of the 1100 students who are now actively enrolled have not yet posted any messages. Discussions are often carried by a small percentage of students--although new voices continue to appear regularly. To try to keep the lurking majority from feeling overwhelmed, I make sure to give students periodic tips on navigating the message board so that they get what they want out of the course. On the whole, however, it is hard to complain about a message board that, as one student wrote, "overfloweth."

"... I really believe this way of learning and bouncing ideas off each other is tremendously effective and fun!" --Student comment

Motivated Learners Have a lot to Gain

While a less involved student may drift away from the course without having invested much, the motivated learner has a lot to gain from an online enrichment course. The community of learners that such courses bring together provides a structure and atmosphere that just might be the help or nudge they need to learn about a new area of interest. And those students who choose to be involved may find a real possibility for taking ownership of their learning in an environment that is at once challenging and supportive.