Online undergraduate course: Civic engagement and creative non-fiction

Cathy Shuman, Visiting Assistant Professor
English Department

Project Description:

As an experiment in online courses for undergraduates at Duke, Cathy Shuman taught Writing the Experience:  Civic Engagement and Creative Nonfiction during the Summer of 2010.  The course, targeting students in the Duke Engage program, provided an opportunity for students in the program to take a for-credit Duke course integrated with their on-site experience.

The course, running from May through July, encouraged students to write about their Duke Engage experiences through various writing prompts.  Students used Blackboard and Skype to critique works, engage in dialogue about their writing, and be guided through the writing process by Shuman.  The course was highlighted in a Duke Today piece about two experiments in undergraduate online courses at the university this summer.

Five students were enrolled in the course in Duke Engage (Chile), while others were working in different summer experience programs in other locations – Atlanta’s Habitat for Humanity, South Carolina Coastal Preservation, and Duke Global Health in Tanzania.

In the final evaluations, the students were enthusiastic about the course; the different summer experiences encouraged dialogue about their work.  With the small number of students, Shuman was able to give them personalized attention on their writing and became familiar with each other’s writing through peer review and workshops.

Students were required during the first eight weeks to each week write a five to six page assignment, read assigned essays and post to a Blackboard discussion board.  The last two weeks of the course were focused on revisions and assembling a final twenty page portfolio.  Shuman and the class used Skype and the Blackboard chat tool for individual conferences.  Only one of the students, based in Tanzania, was unable to access Blackboard more than once a week; but he was kept involved in the course activities through email.

“In my view,” Shuman said, “every single student’s creative nonfiction skills improved significantly over the course of the summer.  The small size of the class obviously had something to do with this, as well as the students’ genuine commitment to their own and each others’ work.  Each student had a different style and level of ability, making peer review particularly useful.  Students were remarkably insightful in weekly critiques and final workshops, and remarkably willing and able to adapt techniques they saw others using to their own work.”

Shuman plans to teach the course again next summer, reducing the workload slightly and, if student internet connections allow, including more synchronous interactions among the students via chat and video conferencing.

As part of the grant, CIT provided assistance with course planning and logistics, as well as participating with key constituents at the university in evaluating faculty and student responses to these online courses to plan and inform future similar offerings.

Full report – Distance Learning Pilots in Trinity College, Summer 2010 (pdf)

Project start date:  4/23/2010
Funding awarded:  $1,500