How We Created a Video Production-Centered Online Course on Social Inequality

We designed our first online course that uses student videos as a driving feature of the class. The semester just ended. Time for reflection!

I’ve decided to write some reflections on running an online course on Social Inequality (Sociology) that I co-designed and taught with Andrew Penner here at UC-Irvine. After talking with colleagues, I realized that most people don’t know what online courses “look” like — it’s not so clear how they appear visually, how they are experienced day-to-day, and what the various opportunities and challenges are for online coursework using Canvas, a new learning management system. I hope to later write about various “lessons learned” from this instructional experience where students participated, both in real-time and asynchronously, in a video production-centered learning experience. Today, though, I thought I’d give a run-down of how we structured the course.

Lan finishes up her first video on cumulative advantage. The animated dandelions give it that extra special touch.

Social Inequality is a core course for undergraduates studying Sociology. It’s a class that typically covers a number of core concepts (stigma, institutions, cumulative advantage) and explores how these concepts map out across various axes (gender, race, class). We knew that Andrew, as a researcher on the topic, would draw on his expertise to select the key texts and assorted media (informative videos, podcasts, etc.) for required reading. We also knew that we wanted to create opportunities for informal discussion, and also have students create (graded) artifacts that require them to demonstrate synthesis of the readings and dialogues. We wanted these artifacts to be new media-rich — specifically, we wanted students to create videos where they summarize and reflect on the readings for the week. And we wanted these videos artifacts to be the focus of ongoing asynchronous discussions. So we had in our imaginations various elements of the course. We were less clear about how this could be operationalized online.

Once we found out we would have access to Canvas, the latest in learning management systems, we interfaced our imaginary class with the design tools to build it. Like all digital platforms there’s a learning curve. Building your class is in some ways like building a website using Wordpress or another blogging platform. We constructed our course page around our imagined week-to-week cycle:

  1. Students read the assigned readings on the weekend.
  2. Each week, I hold live, hour-long class discussions with small groups of students on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. One to two students from each group are pre-assigned to be discussion leaders and create a video summary of the assigned reading and assist with conversation threads.
  3. Discussion leaders turn in a video to Canvas by Thursday night before we meet as a full class online. Each video is three minutes long, summarizes key points, and offers critiques and questions to the class. This video thus presents an opportunity for students to develop and show mastery of the week’s concepts.
  4. Discussion leaders further demonstrate their mastery by sitting on a live videoconference panel during a full class online each Thursday evening. All other students attend, too, but only do so as observers who use text-chat with me to discuss themes the panelists raise. This allows everyone to participate even if they are not a discussion leader that week.
  5. Between Thursday and Sunday students leave text comments on the videos that co-leaders made that week.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

So the above was our imagined class. We then used Canvas’ design tools to build the infrastructure for this weekly cycle. We created pages for the syllabus, and created other sections to visually break up each week of the class. Each week we had three sections: readings, video assignment submission, and discussion:

The readings page included links to the required readings for the week. Andrew also posted a short video in this readings section at the start of the week to say hi and introduce students to the upcoming topic:

The video assignment submission page was where discussion leaders submitted their weekly videos to me for grading, and the discussion page was used so the whole class could engage with these videos:

Gabriela shared her video for the week on Thursday to the discussion page, and students (such as Gerardo) shared their thoughts between Thursday and Sunday.

Like other learning management systems, students have their own account so they can log in and access these materials. The platform also offers several different ways to create assignments, or construct graded experiences from simple behaviors like reading the syllabus to more complex behaviors like submitting a student-produced video or commenting on discussion boards. Critically, it has the capability to host video chats:

The above image doesn’t show the video part of this conference, but imagine a class of 60 students all viewing this page and chatting on the right-hand side. On the left-hand side, there were 5–7 students on video cameras engaging in conversations with one another. There were, essentially, two conversations happening simultaneously — one among videoconference participants (discussion leaders + Andrew), and another among text chat participants (the rest of the class + myself). Periodically I would interject the video conversation with questions from text chat.

So that’s the overview of the class. Weekly cycles of small group discussion, students creating graded videos that demonstrate concept mastery, full class discussion to tackle themes and showcase those students’ mastery, and asynchronous conversations among students about the videos they created.

In a later posting, I’ll discuss the final project called ePortfolio, where students were required to build websites based on topics of interest — such as undocumented women’s experiences, gender and sexism in video games, and family effects on criminality. The final project allowed students to explore topics we didn’t have enough time to tackle in class but were meaningful to them and allowed for application of concepts learned in class. In other writeups, too, I’ll tackle the hiccups along the way and what we learned, like how to juggle two conversations at once during full class.