I spent many years managing a multimillion-dollar marketing budget for an online program and many years training faculty to be great teachers. One thing both experiences taught me is that institutions too often let marketing encroach on teaching. They do so when they create standardized templates and formats for online and face-to-face teaching material under the banner of enforcing “brand awareness”—for example, PowerPoint templates with the institution’s logo on every slide.
The problem, of course, is that branding has nothing to do with learning. The students in a course do not need to be reminded of which college they are attending on every PowerPoint slide; repeating a logo on every slide is PowerPoint spam.
Students expect a physics course to look different from an art course, and they are required to take different subjects precisely to learn about how they are different. Flattening content to make it look the same across courses undermines learning by making the content boring. The first step in communication is getting your audience’s attention, and thus teaching should start with piquing a student’s interest.
Moreover, as faculty we tend to separate our own immersion in our subject from our teaching about our subject. But one reason why faculty do research is so that students can learn how someone in their field sees the world. As an undergraduate, my favorite faculty where those who were excited about their field and expressed that excitement in their teaching. I felt like I was being invited into their world. I appreciated that invitation, and it motivated me to work hard and learn more about the subject.
This means that faculty should focus on building a course environment that invites the student into their subject. Yes, certain basic navigational functions should be the same across all online courses to reduce cognitive load being redirected away from course content, but as far as any learning material goes, the goal is to immerse students in the field so that they feel the subject. Here are some simple ways to do just that.
Show students the beauty of your field
As we learn more and more about a field, we start seeing its beauty. As this beauty is what brings faculty to a field, students should experience it as well. In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, a character says that “Bobby Fischer got underneath [chess],” meaning that he saw the deep patterns that make for great play. Today major chess matches are broadcast live on YouTube, with commentators providing the play-by-play like an NFL broadcast, and nearly falling out of their chairs in states of ecstasy when there is a queen’s sacrifice. Millions follow chess, never missing a game by their heroes and endlessly debating game decisions. If chess can generate this kind of excitement, you can generate it around your field.
For instance, I helped develop a quantitative reasoning, a topic that students would expect to find boring. To counteract this view, I started the class by demonstrating how numbers are cool and interesting. Thus, instead of the syllabus containing nothing but course format information, it started with the following:
Did you know that numbers have meaning, that the first word for the number one, used in Sumer in Iraq 5,000 years ago, was the word for man, and that the word for two was woman? That a recent experiment found that people were 10% more likely to guess a baby’s gender as male when its picture was shown next to an odd number rather than an even number?
Did you know that people view even, round numbers as comfortable, and odd numbers as edgy? That Levi’s 501 was chosen because the extra one signifies distinguishing yourself from the crowd? That the film 2001: A Space Odyssey chose 2001 because the extra one signifies venturing into the unknown? That an experiment showed that people preferred a shampoo with the name 24 over 31 because you can trust your hair to an even number?
Did you know that the Greeks did not have separate symbols for numbers, they used letters, and so a number could also be a word? That the number 666 represents the Devil because the Apostle John wrote his letter to a Christian community about it right after Nero starting killing Christians because he (Nero) blamed them (Christians) for the fire that burned down Rome? In John’s letter he says that the “the number of the beast is 666,” and the letters used for 666 spell out Nero Caesar.
Note the slight whimsy in the text that conveys a personal tone of speaking to the student. With some thought you can find something similar to say about your field.
Imagery for feeling
It is too easy to fall victim to using nothing but long blocks of text in online courses. But the web is a visual medium, so it’s important to use images to amplify the message. Once again, these should not be bad marketing stock photos, the kind with good-looking businesspeople high-fiving for no apparent reason. Instead, use images of real things and people. New Yorker cartoons are a treasure trove of excellent images to sprinkle across a course. Faculty are known to cut out and tape humorous cartoons to their office doors. Those should be in your online courses as well.
History and current topics
Faculty tend to leave historical information about their field out of their courses when it is not relevant to a lesson, but including historical asides can help generate or sustain interest. For instance, I included this short blurb about Archimedes in the quantitative reasoning course:
Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time and was known to run out into the street naked shouting and jumping up and down when he discovered a new math principle. He was working on a math problem in the sand while his city of Syracuse, in Sicily, was under attack by Roman soldiers. When a soldier ran up to him, he told the soldier not to bother him because he was working on a math problem, which was the wrong thing to say to a Roman soldier, and that was the end of Archimedes.
Every field also has cutting-edge research areas, and while contributions to these areas may be for scholars and graduate students, just describing the topic and why it is interesting can peak a student’s interest. Here again, I provide a brief aside to students about the Riemann hypothesis, the most famous unsolved problem in math:
If you want to earn a million dollars, prove the Riemann hypothesis, the most famous unsolved problem in math, which has major implications for the surprisingly little understood primes. It is a Millennium Problem, meaning that if you solve it, the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you a million dollars. But be forewarned: prove it, and I guarantee that you will have math groupies camped out in front of your house worshipping you as a god.
Courses are not marketing copy, they are teaching devices, and thus the goal is to make each unique and interesting. Think about what excites you about your field, and find a way to share that excitement with your students. Opening an online chemistry course should feel like walking into a lab, with a wild-haired chemist running to show you what they are working on. Invite students into your world to improve their learning and excitement.