Online Course Design with Shmoop University
One of the advantages of being in a place like Silicon Valley is that there are interesting opportunities everywhere. One of those opportunities arrived in my inbox in Spring 2013, just as I was starting to think about summer employment. Shmoop University, a local online educational start-up, was offering two summer internships to Stanford humanities grads.
Shmoop describes itself as "a digital publishing company with a point of view. Our teaching method revolves around the basic idea that learning is often too hard—so we carry gallons of academic WD-40 to squirt on the tracks whenever we can. And as an added bonus, we’re funny. At least we like to think so." Working with an educational company that thought learning should be fun sounded like a good way to spend my summer. When I found out they were looking for someone to design online literature elective courses for high schoolers, I was even more excited. I didn't have any experience with online course design, but Shmoop didn't care; they wanted my content knowledge and my teaching experience.
My first assignment for Shmoop was to design an eighteen-week long, online course on Holocaust literature and film. This was intense, as you can imagine, both intellectually and emotionally. It took me the better part of three months, and it involved revisiting texts that I hadn't read in quite some time. Going back to those texts with the eye of a teacher, rather than a student, was enlightening. Following that project, I designed two shorter courses for them, one on Kate Chopin and Emily Dickinson that was somewhat outside my wheelhouse, and one on Franz Kafka. Trying to make Franz Kafka funny was a bit of a challenge, but I like to think I pulled it off.
But whether the course was close to my own personal area of expertise or not, what I enjoyed about working for Shmoop was how much I learned from designing each course, both about the content (I know way more about Emily Dickinson now than I did before) but also about pedagogy. When you teach a course in a classroom, it's tempting to get sloppy. You say, "Well, Concept A will come out naturally in discussion," or "I'll make sure to bring up Concept B in lecture," or you give assignments without, perhaps, entirely thinking through how those assignments serve your learning outcomes.
But when you're designing an online course, even if it's meant to be supervised by a teacher or parent, you really have to think through how students are going to achieve the learning goals you set out for them and how they're going to demonstrate tha achievement. You can't rely on discussion or lecture to do the teaching for you, so the assignments and activities need to fit neatly together so that they build toward content and skills mastery. Working for Shmoop made me much more careful in how I think about course design and curriculum for my own classes, and it's taught me a lot about just how much room teachers can have to create assignments that promote learning in new and interesting ways. That is certainly a lesson that I will carry forward into my classroom teaching.