The course – Introduction to International Human Rights – is part of the undergraduate Conflict Studies and Human Rights program at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It is offered to upper year students, and originally was taught face-to-face, following a standard 80-minute lecture and discussion format. Over the course of some 24 lectures, students were introduced to the rights protected in United Nations (UN) treaties and other documents, the UN institutions and mechanisms set up to apply and monitor these treaties, and the way this system operated in specific, thematic areas (women’s rights, minority rights, protection of civilians, etc.). Class size averaged around 25-30.
The face-to-face format proved frustrating for both the professor and students. For the professor to deliver key information and elaborate on the reading material for each class inevitably took a full hour (or very close to it), leaving barely 20 minutes for discussion. As the topics so often touched on current events and controversial debates, the professor wanted to encourage much greater discussion in class; the student evaluations also drew attention to their desire for more discussion. To allow for this, the course moved to a blended format. Lectures were recorded and put online, and class time was used mostly for discussion.
This worked well, but in 2016, the course became mandatory for second-year students, dramatically increasing class size (from 25 to 170). Even in a blended format, such a size does not allow for meaningful discussion. Working in collaboration with the Centre for Innovative Pedagogies and Digital Learning of the Teaching and Learning Support Service, the course was converted into a fully online course, with students divided into 6 study groups that hold weekly, online discussions led by teaching assistants (TAs).
In first the blended, and then the fully online format, the course was restructured around ten online modules, each with clear learning objectives. The modules included short video lectures (some 25 in total - and transcripts were provided), self-assessment quizzes, online readings, and other multimedia content. There is a discussion exercise for each module, where students post short replies to a question, and then must respond or comment on the replies of other students. As noted, they do this in study groups of some 25-30 students, led by a TA.
Online tools were developed to assist students in grappling with the material. These include a “Human Rights Map”, allowing students to locate and read about specific types of human rights abuses in countries around the world. The “Map” also introduces students to reliable sources of information on human rights. A second online tool is the “Enforcement Spectrum” that provides a means of organizing and displaying in a visual, and interactive format, the many different procedures and mechanisms that can be used by a variety of UN bodies to persuade or enforce countries to respect rights. Short videos explain how to use the tools.
The self-assessment exercises include multiple choice quizzes and other more interactive quiz formats (“drag and drop”, fill in the blank, etc.). They are included at various points to ensure key concepts are understood.
Some effort was put into including the perspectives of the many actors – diplomats, NGOs, human rights defenders – who are actively engaged at the UN in the efforts to protect human rights. Video interviews (some original, others found online) of various actors are included.
The online course is very structured, with a timetable setting out when each module should be completed, and when the discussion groups should begin for each module. Students must complete a short, multiple choice test at the end of each module and before a set deadline. They can, of course, work ahead, moving faster than the timetable. But to complete the module tests, they must not fall behind each deadline. The module tests are worth 25% of the overall mark. This structure has worked well, and indeed many comments students provide in the evaluations refer to the “well-structured” nature of the course.
Students must submit two short written assignments. In the first they choose and describe, with reference to international legal standards, an example of current human rights abuse somewhere in the world. In the second, they critically analyze how the various UN procedures they have been introduced to might be used to address that abuse.
From the perspective of Professor David Petrasek, the key benefit is the involvement of a much greater proportion of students in expressing their views and commenting on the course material. Over 80% of students surveyed said they participated more frequently in discussions compared to other classes and almost 60% said they interacted more frequently with other students in the class, compared to other classes. The absence of a face-to-face component was noted as a problem only by a handful of students surveyed; 43% were “very satisfied”, and 52% “satisfied” with the course in its fully online version.
From the students’ perspective, a key benefit of the course is the flexibility it allows. They report welcoming the opportunity to complete modules in a manner suited to their own schedules. For students not required to take the course, this is the main reason they chose to enrol.
The short video lectures (professionally-recorded), self-assessment exercises, and module tests are all rated favourably by the students as valuable learning features. Many also find the discussion exercises useful.
Students do not indicate that the online course requires more or less effort than a face-to-face course. From the perspective of the professor, the time savings are minimal. When the course is running, approximately one hour each work day (5 hours/week) is devoted to monitoring student performance, answering questions posted on an “open discussion forum”, or occasionally meeting students experiencing difficulties. This is less than an in-class course, which requires about 8 - 10 hours/week, including class time. However, taking into account the time spent in advance on preparing the online course, those 5 hours saved quickly disappear. On the other hand, given the fact that the course is online, it does provide a great deal more flexibility for the professor during the semester regarding time spent on campus.
A key challenge concerns the online discussions. Though scheduled to begin on a certain day (and with an end date) they are asynchronous, and students tend to post their required contributions towards the end. 43% of students surveyed agreed the study group discussions were helpful (10% “strongly agreed”), but 34% disagreed, which the professor sees as too high. Possible solutions include better training of and preparation by the TAs who lead the discussions or moving to a synchronous format.
Another challenge is keeping the course ‘fresh’. The subject matter is very topical, and the video lectures and other multimedia content can appear dated very quickly. This requires at least several days’ work before the course is launched each time to update material and re-record some of the video lectures.
Additional funding will allow the inclusion of more direct interviews with those actors actively engaged in the UN human rights regime (diplomats, UN officials, human rights activists), who will be encouraged to comment critically on its strengths and weaknesses. Work will also continue on including more self-assessment exercises and possibly developing additional interactive learning tools.
There will also be an effort to pilot some forms of synchronous discussion exercise, possibly using Adobe Connect or similar tool.
More broadly, the high level of student satisfaction with the course – and their high participation rates in the online discussions – clearly shows the potential for a fully online course to engage students.
For Further Information
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
Faculty of Social Sciences,
University of Ottawa