Technology alters literature class discussions at ECSU

Kesha Williams
July 24, 2009

This summer, the list of online courses at Elizabeth City State University included two courses that have long been cherished for their classroom discussions-English 425-Shakespeare and Black Writers in American Literature.

The ECSU faculty who teach those online courses, admit the lack of classroom discussions was one of their early concerns. Classroom discussions, after all, create an instant exchange between students and the instructor. The language of a play written in the late 1500s hardly reflects today's use of the English language. For Dr. Chantelle MacPhee, the instructor for English 425-Shakespeare, those were very relevant issues for an online course. It's a paradox to mix literature and technology, she said, but an interesting change in education.

"One of my concerns was the language. It's important for students to hear the language aloud and for instructors to see the students' facial expressions when they hear it," MacPhee said. "Yet, the purpose of the course is to have students understand how Shakespeare influenced American literature and British literature. We've used several Internet resources to achieve that goal in this course."

MacPhee references Internet sites to help familiarize students with the life and times of Shakespeare. On some Web sites, students can view recorded performances of Shakespeare's plays. Students use a course management system, Blackboard, to access the assignments and quizzes. The system allows students to communicate with the instructor and their peers online. While the use of technology has taken instruction to a new level, the expectations for students have not changed.

Students are expected to learn literary terms and various approaches--historical, cultural-- to help them interpret literary criticism, and to identify and to develop analytical and research skills. Students must complete essays that demonstrate their ability to write concise, critical responses to literary criticism. The class syllabus outlines the number of essays, quizzes, research projects required and the percentage of their grade related to the completion of those tasks.

"They use online blogs to relay their thoughts. So far, students are using the technology well," Dr. MacPhee said. "This course is mandatory for most of my students who are planning to become teachers. Other people may take the course because they enjoy Shakespeare's plays. Online courses are convenient for people who are working fulltime and taking care of a family."

One of her students agrees. Ashley Prophet is taking online courses for the first time this summer and has adjusted quite well. She's also identified some advantages of communicating by Internet.

"Being able to orally discuss literature is nice, but it is not an advantage. One can easily do the same via Internet. I am still able to communicate with my professor, ask questions, and discuss literature with my classmates on the discussion board," Prophet said.

"Taking literature online is more comfortable to me because I read at my own pace, instead of reading or following along with the teacher in class. I do not hesitate to ask a question. I can send it to my professor privately. Literature online is just as productive as literature in the classroom. One disadvantage is waiting for a response to my questions. I am used to having them answered immediately."

Bria McCloud, another student in the class, admitted there are advantages and disadvantages of an online literature course.

"The disadvantage of taking a literature class online is the lack of personal connection between the student and professor and to hear the opinions of my peers about certain pieces from Shakespeare," Mc Cloud said. "The advantage is the homework can be turned in by 11:55 p.m. --adequate time to finish my homework after work."

Last semester, the ECSU Division of Academic Affairs and the Office of Distance and Continuing Education collaborated to train faculty in the development of online courses. Participants learned how to integrate new, emerging technology with traditional classroom instruction. ECSU, like other universities, is expanding the selection of online courses to accommodate busy students.

Dr. Donald Jenkins, the instructor for Black Writers in American Literature, said that training was helpful. Using the technology to teach a course online, to post and check for completed tests requires faculty to expand the scope of their skills. Professors have taught this course since the 1960s, but Jenkins said this technology represents a new era of instruction in literature.

Black literature evokes a series of emotions for students. The topics spark vibrant discussions during the traditional classroom sessions. Slave narratives, Jenkins said, provide a realistic view of slavery-- not the Hollywood version that has at times made slavery seem palatable. Literary works by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison offer students a poetic view of the Black person's experience after slavery.

Jenkins also uses poetry, essays, sermons, novels and more in the classroom. After completing those reading assignments, students revealed an array of nonverbal responses-- raised eyebrows, frowns, heads shaking in amazement-- to an eye witness's account of slavery. Jenkins can't see those responses when students take the course online. He has noticed a change in the selection of student comments on Black literature.

"People are more discreet with what they put in writing because an e-mail message is a message that can be seen, even reread. So you realize the level of discussion may change with an online course," Jenkins said.

"For many college students this is new material. Blacks (slaves) came to stay permanently in America in 1619 and so much has changed since then in real life and in literature. African American literature, over the years, has also been about protests, black male and female relationships, urban issues- the drug culture, socio economic conditions, hip hop. This information hasn't been offered in traditional literature courses so I think people will continue enrolling in the course."

Students in both courses completed midterm exams online with few problems. The exams are timed and students can only access the exam once. Both professors say they are likely to add or delete resources used in the online courses. The summer semester ends July 29.