Dual Challenges: Introducing Human Rights Online in 6 Weeks

This summer, I taught “Introduction to Human Rights” online for the third time. I have adjusted the course significantly, changed topics and assignments and moved the content “closer to home”. Today, I will share some of the things that I have learned, thoughts behind organizing the class and in general about teaching online. I will talk about assessment and tools in a future post.

Three years ago, I received a grant to develop the online version of Intro to Human Rights as a summer class. This grant came with the support of an instructional designer who built my class in our course management system (we use Blackboard) – support that was invaluable. The designer did not only make the class look better than I ever could, but also helped me to find the right tools that worked best. I could concentrate on the content and at the same time learned about how to set up the different tools, grade book etc. which now also informs (and I want to say has improved) my face-to-face and hybrid classes.

The most difficult thing that every instructor of summer classes faces is how to break down content that is usually spread out over 15 weeks to be taught in only 6 (I actually opted for an alternative summer session in my first year so that the course ran 8 weeks, but cut it down to 6 weeks in my second year, see syllabi of the first, second and third year). It was clear to me that I wanted to make the class as engaging as possible and, therefore, decided to sacrifice some foundational knowledge to be able to introduce a variety of issues. I wanted to include certain groups of people who are protected by specific human rights legislation and certain groups of rights such as economic and social rights as well as specific rights violations.

Choosing women, indigenous people and refugees as my groups in the first year covered a few groups, but left out others. The biggest change, which also allowed me to cut the class down to six weeks (from previously eight), in the second year was that I moved these groups into projects and only introduced group rights as a general theme. The students picked a group of people to research in a group project, thereby covering those groups that were most interesting to the students and at the same time more groups than I could have with the limited modules at hand (I will talk more about the challenges of online group projects in a future post). Groups of people this past summer, consequently, encompassed disabled people, children, refugees, LGBTQ, and indigenous people (I covered women’s rights within the module to introduce group rights in general). I could influence the content of each presentation less than I could have if I had presented the groups’ rights, but I value the advantages of letting students decide what information to present. Each project found a unique way of presenting information. The rubric made clear that they had to include historical information on their group’s rights, the UN convention (if there was any), legal proceedings as well as representations in film and literature – a set up that mirrors the interdisciplinary nature of the class.

Coming from a political science, history and literature background, I feel most comfortable in those areas. It was challenging to me to teach Economic and Social Rights. In my first year of teaching I borrowed a textbook approach, utilizing the corresponding chapter from Michael Goodhart’s Human Rights: Politics and Practice. I realized, however, that the students were not as engaged and attributed this lack of interest to my own lack of familiarity with the topic. Building more on my strengths in the field of literature, I adopted a “textbook” this time around: Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights published by Amnesty International, a collection of short stories that correspond to specific articles of the UDHR. When it came to Economic and Social Rights, I had students read the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as four chapters from Freedom that dealt with labor rights, health, education and poverty. The students then wrote blog posts analyzing one or more of those stories in terms of the corresponding rights. In an attempt to relate human rights violations that often “happen in a land far away” to the students’ environment, they also thought about ways in which these stories speak to situations in the US (something that I asked students to do in almost every module, thus moving the content “closer to home”). As in other modules where I used short stories from the book, the responses were outstanding (with some exceptions of course). Students carefully analyzed not only the rights and found more issues than the ones the stories were supposed to tackle, but also applied the stories’ content to a multitude of current events. This allowed us to speak about emergent themes that I could not have thought of when planning the class in Spring and made the class more tangible.

Since the beginning, I teach two concrete areas of violation: genocide and torture. The genocide module gives me the opportunity to talk about intervention, prevention and jurisdiction, and at the same time about responsibility (of a country and of the international community in general). It is a challenging topic to teach, but also a rewarding one as it puts into question some of the notions the students come with and enhances not only critical thinking in general but also a critical attitude towards news media and the ways “we” talk about these topics.

Similarly, the torture module aims to promote a critical attitude, this time towards popular media. In my first two years of teaching the class, I have worked with the tv show 24 (see lesson plan here). It came as a surprise to me in the first year that students defended Jack Bauer’s ease of utilizing torture in “ticking time bomb situations.”  Here, a disadvantage of online classes became clear: when I realized where the discussions were going it was almost too late to intervene. Students had already agreed on the advantages of torture and readily accepted them as a means of fighting terrorism. While I usually try not to force an opinion on students, the usual “try to argue this opinion from a human rights standpoint” did not work and students used utilitarian arguments to show the need for Jack Bauer’s actions. Fortunately, I had one student who adamantly argued against this mainstream class opinion and I asked her to contribute in each discussion forum. This way, I avoided lecturing and ensured this student’s future participation in class. The second time around, I was better prepared and let the students willingly run into this first skewed perspective of defending Bauer’s actions. I, then, asked everyone to read two articles that showed flaws in the arguments and then revise their first standpoints. This worked really well and led to some “wait a minute” realizations that I am convinced will be retained better than lectured content ever would.

A challenge that I still face, even after adjusting the course more and more over the years, is that I have to give up a lot of control and that I cannot always be sure whether the students receive all the information. Do they actually read my announcements at the end of each week that are my only way of wrapping up each module’s content? Do they ever go back to see what others have responded to their discussion posts after they are done with the assigned number of postings? And of course do students actually gain the knowledge that I set out to teach them about human rights? I will talk more about the last point when I talk about assessment (including quizzes, blogs, discussions, papers and projects) in a future post, but I do believe that blog posts and discussions promote a working knowledge of human rights (rather than factual knowledge), that will help students succeed in other human rights classes they choose to take after this introductory one. Can an online class do this better than face-to-face? Probably, as every student has the chance (and actually needs) to engage in conversations, form an opinion, defend it and respond to other arguments. Where in face-to-face classes, we might lose some quiet or shy (or inattentive) students, here they will be included (well some won’t but that is a different story). However, the emphasis on discussions can be realized as well in hybrid classes where there is an added advantage of catching some flawed arguments and more direction of learning. For some more information on hybrid classes, check out Cathy’s blog post here. There is one advantage of an online class that should not be underestimated, however, one that applies to the summer session itself. It is the possibility to earn credit and move towards graduation in a timely manner for students who have to work during the summer or are on internships abroad. For them, online classes are essential, and with this in mind I will continue on improving my summer online classes.

I look forward to thoughts, experiences and exchange in the comment section!