With every step of designing HIST 3410, History of US Popular Culture, Professor James Miller and Instructional Designer Daphne Uras had student engagement in mind. For some, this means direct engagement with the instructor and being in the same room with students. For Miller, with the online platform he has come to master, it means something a little bit different.

HIST 3410 explores American popular culture from the early decades of the 19th century to the eve of U.S. entry into the First World War. It questions what makes culture “popular” and answers this broad question with various forms of entertainment that have attracted the masses throughout American history. The course surveys every form of pop culture, from the penny press to dime novels, and spectacles such as world’s fairs, amusement parks, and the early days of the U.S. film industry. While it has obviously attracted history students, the course has also successfully drawn in students from other disciplines. And that is because of the way in which it was designed, with a “no student left behind” mentality and structure.

Still from The Great Train Robbery, 1903

“Being face-to-many-faces is crucial – I get that, but for me I’m more concerned that students engage directly and consistently with the materials, subjects, and ideas being studied,” Miller stated. Together, Uras and Miller devised a structure that would complement this learning style, in which Miller was the facilitator of learning, rather than the source of knowledge. The result was an equal harmony of structure and flexibility, a learning environment that is unique to an online format.

One of the main design elements students particularly appreciated, Miller said, was the way the course followed a consistent path each week. As the designer of the course, Uras said this strategy is often used to help keep students on track, “because it can be so easy for students to fall behind in online courses.”

The “Course Essentials” section organized all of the important course documents, assignment instructions, and submission links to help students succeed. “I wanted the students to be challenged with the subjects and materials, and not with figuring out what they are supposed to be doing next,” Miller said.

With the help of a well-organized course page, Miller said the nature of weekly assignments also allowed students to “find and develop their own voice in a way that large in-class courses often do not.”

Students who took History of US Popular Culture for the first time this past winter lauded the teaching style and web design of the course. Countless student feedback evaluations showed that the organization and careful consideration that Miller and Uras took with designing the course paid off.

By Bianca Chan

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