Sociology professor Dr. DeAnn Kalich had serious misgivings about offering her Sociology 480 course online, but when the department was asked to develop a 400-level course for online students, she took the challenge head-on.
“I honestly felt like my death and dying class couldn’t be translated successfully, so it was a challenge that I put myself fully in,” she says.
Dr. Kalich, who also serves as department head of Sociology, Anthropology, & Child and Family Studies, had been teaching her death and dying course for nearly 20 years when she began working with the Office of Distance Learning to reconceive it as an online course.
“I committed to one semester,” she says. “I had to feel it’s sound enough because I have a tremendous responsibility. This material triggers people. I don’t want someone online feeling like they’re floating out there with no way to ground themselves because I’m just this invisible head somewhere."
One of the hurdles Dr. Kalich worked with instructional designers to overcome was how to bring the experiential activities of her face-to-face course to online students in a way that would be meaningful and supportive.
“I was devastated to see there were a couple of experiential exercises that I couldn’t translate. Then I came up with a really awesome option to do these VoiceThread micro-lectures,” says Dr. Kalich. “I told the stories of over the years, doing the activities in the face-to-face classes so that the character or essence of what happens in that exercise would maybe come through in the VoiceThread lecture.”
Dr. Kalich says her students have consistently reported back, of all the material she provides them, that those VoiceThreads have been among the most valuable.
Dr. Kalich says students completing the course should come away with the awareness to live fully in the present so that facing death doesn’t also mean facing regret. One of the ways she facilitates that practice is through “closure,” giving students the opportunity to say whatever they may need to if the group never meets the same way again.
In her online course, Dr. Kalich uses VoiceThread to recreate that activity, foster student-to-student interaction, and achieve course learning objectives.
“At first, I wasn’t sure — because it’s asynchronous — if it was going to be forced or more flexible and organic the way it is in a face-to-face class,” she says.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how in depth these students are willing to take that practice and what they get out of it. It’s amazing to me. It allows them to listen to their peers. They can go back and listen to them again. They get a lot out of those closure practices.”
Redesigning the course also changed how Dr. Kalich viewed online learning in her department and college. Dr. Kalich says as she reported back to her dean on the course’s progress, she was also able to report she could better assess faculty teaching online in her department and her own face-to-face pedagogy.
“We need to understand there is good teaching face-to-face as well as bad teaching face-to-face and good teaching online and bad teaching online,” she says. “It’s not that the delivery method is superior or inferior, it’s – as always – who’s doing the delivery. As faculty, we need to work on that whether we’re face-to-face or online to improve every semester.