March/April 2003 // Commentary
Adventures in Virtualand: The Challenges of Teaching an Online Children's Literature Course
by Holly Blackford
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Holly Blackford "Adventures in Virtualand: The Challenges of Teaching an Online Children's Literature Course" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Online humanities courses offer information to students in exciting forms, forms that have greatly altered the process of their learning. Within every online document are hyperlinks to other sites or pages for further research; this form presents knowledge as an endless, nonlinear "web." In a children's literature course such as the one I taught online, the student can move readily between the literary text, lecture notes, discussion questions, secondary source listings, and the message board to gather classmates' perspectives. Links to biographical information on authors, popular culture sites like the Wizard of Oz Club, and eclectic works like Lewis Carroll's original Alice's Adventures Underground all make up this web of experiencing a literary text. The organization of materials on the Web models the process of critical inquiry foundational to the humanities—there are always windows to open for further insight, ways to nuance ideas, and continual opportunities for evaluating the assumptions underlying cultural systems of signs. The Web course reaches a broad community of students who bring diverse life experiences to the classroom and learn from one another.

Yet the very wonders of the Web, the possibilities it invites for forging an intellectual community in hyperspace, create challenges for students who must materialize interpretations of literary texts. Unlike students of a course in applied skills, the humanities student must ultimately master critical thinking by pursuing and producing sustained, carefully developed arguments about interpretation. While the nonlinear form of cyberspace models the process of research, it can also frustrate the student of literature who must develop ideas through logical debate with others and articulate literary criticism in a polished piece of writing. Consequently, the challenge of the humanities instructor involves utilizing the potential of online learning to provide a multidimensional sense of the material, while at the same time fostering the sort of in-depth engagement required for well-written essays.

Such inherent challenges are amplified when an online humanities course is offered as part of a continuing education curriculum. In some respects, the greater flexibility of online education is compatible with the principles of continuing education: expanding access to learning, fostering greater diversity among students, and allowing education to meet a range of needs within the community. Yet it is often within such an environment that the potential of online education goes hand-in-hand with its obstacles. For when the asynchronous, distributed format of e-learning is accompanied by asynchronous student enrollments (i.e., when students do not enroll at the same time), as well as a payment structure that offers distributed compensation for grading individual essays (i.e., when instructors are paid only when they return graded essays), the task of maintaining a productive learning community becomes even more pronounced. While this scenario does not characterize all forms of online education, it represents a significant trend in its recent development within the academy.

It is fitting that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was the first unit of the course I taught. In Wonderland we have a parallel to "Virtualand," or the world of online learning. Alice's frames of reference disappear when she enters fantastic space, resulting in an academic parody as she loses a sense of her body, finds it difficult to communicate with the creatures there, and faces ambiguities in manners and conventional power structures. In Virtualand, the frames of reference of the physical classroom similarly disappear, putting students in the position of Alice—who fears that she will lose her head, a symbol for maintaining intellectual coherence in a seemingly chaotic universe.

By exploring the form of the Web within the specific context of a continuing education course at University of California at Berkeley Extension, this article explains how such factors challenge us to construct a classroom community with members who are required to produce and share written work.

Course Structure and Objectives

The course objective of English X75, Classics of Children's Literature, was to provide students with the opportunity to explore the complexities of children?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s literature, focusing on the ways in which literary worlds for children comment upon the real world and function to construct an idea of "the child" important to the authors' and our own cultural contexts. Students were presented with golden age Victorian novels written for children and asked to engage with historical and literary interpretations of the novels, ultimately to develop their own intellectual capacities for reading, thinking, and writing critically. A course like this depends upon the students' development of a strong foundation in discussion and logical articulation of ideas, along with the ability to research and sustain original interpretations of texts.

The course sought to produce a learning community of critical voices among its diverse student body, which included elementary and secondary school teachers, librarians, parents, and many with a general interest in the topic. The course offered Education credits for students completing teacher certification programs, but course enrollment was open to the general public for a set fee, and the topic of children's literature proved to have broad appeal. Enrollment was capped at 45, although students did not all begin the course at the same time; new names continuously appeared on my roster, which was updated weekly.

Students had lecture notes and a critical reader mailed to them. They were to read the lecture, the article in the reader, and the discussion questions; they were then to post a one-page textual response to the message board and respond to other student posts (see Exhibit 1 for the syllabus and Exhibit 2 for a sample of unit instructions). Weekly chats were conducted but not required. One five- to seven-page paper was due after they had completed 6 units, and another was due after 11 units. This course model had evolved from a tradition of independent correspondence courses at UC Extension, a branch of the University of California, Berkeley, designed to create courses for continuing adult education.

The Challenges of Hyperspace: Asynchronous Learning and Asynchronous Enrollment

In theory, the way in which an online course presents "webs" of knowledge could be an excellent model for education as a continually unfolding dialogue between readers and texts. Within the message board, ongoing class discussion takes the form of folders embedded within folders, which are nested in other folders and so forth. Discussion is thus presented as a potentially endless, imaginative scholarship of nuances within nuances; students can return in 3 months and discover the new life of their words after other classmates have reinterpreted and challenged them with new postings. For example, one heated debate about the accuracy of Black Beauty broke out, showing that the form can work exceptionally well (see Exhibit 3). However, it took a year for such an interesting discussion to erupt, and I never saw another one take place. Because hyperspace encourages the maintenance of individuality rather than a blending into the group character fostered by a physical classroom community, posts tend to be personal and emotive (see Exhibit 4 for angry responses to the Alice books). As with Carroll's Wonderland, we have a certain beautiful and liberating anarchy, in which people are speaking but hardly to each other.

Wonderland teaches us that liberation from traditional rules of logic have certain consequences; likewise, we are posed with important pedagogical issues in Virtualand. The form of the Web works against students actually finishing the course. Student names would appear on my roster; perhaps these students would submit an assignment or two, and perhaps they would even engage in a chat—but then they would vanish into virtual air, like the Cheshire Cat. Most classmates were shy about engaging with other students' ideas because they had not met the writers, and the message board posts became a series of isolated responses, a mirror for the way students began to resemble Alice, alone on their journey through an intellectually challenging world. To feel like disembodied mouths, looming in and out of the classroom, is counterproductive. While students were supposed to respond continually to each other's posts, they instead treated the message board as a series of discrete assignments for the instructor, expecting substantial feedback from the instructor in a forum that would be inappropriate for criticism. Their aloneness, their anxiety about whether anyone was listening when they spoke, resulted in structural alienation from the energy that the physical classroom provides.

Because students enrolled at different times and progressed through the course at different rates, creating a learning community became all the more of a challenge. Mary Beth Almeda, Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Media and Independent Learning, notes that some instructors prefer a cohort model, which allows "synchronized group activities" and "a larger 'critical mass' to engage in discussion"; however, "because of the up-front course development necessary for program delivery, it may be difficult to recoup the investment in a course that is offered only at a few scheduled times and draws fewer students" (1999, pp. 9-10). Yet for a humanities course that depends on the students' exchange of ideas, the formation of such cohort groups is a crucial means of fostering sustained, thoughtful discussion of the material—all the more so within a virtual environment that does not rely upon the sort of face-to-face interaction that characterizes the traditional classroom.

As such a group dynamic influences the long-term motivation and engagement of the students in the course, asynchronous enrollment has an additional cost. Almeda (1999) acknowledges that "one of the challenges identified in the early states of the online project is that of aiding students in beginning their studies and motivating them to complete the courses" (p. 19). My first students had a year to complete the course, but the deadline was changed to 6 months to address the problem of "nonstarts," which tends to be a greater problem among online students than independent learning students; Almeda confirms that this area requires "further research" (p. 19). To redress this problem, online humanities courses must have specific start-dates and enforceable schedules (perhaps four or five start-dates per year, to accommodate ongoing enrollment), which stimulate small cohort groups.

Fostering Community in Hyperspace

Part and parcel of making people feel embodied as intellectual agents is making them feel part of a larger intellectual community. How can the form of an online humanities course be utilized to enhance this sense of community?

Chats and the message board both address this challenge, but they need to work together to marry the vitality of the one with the depth of the other. Students who chose to participate in the scheduled chats steadily progressed through the course; while the chat gave them linearity, it also encouraged their investment in collaborative learning, allowing them to overcome their isolation through the energy of learning together in real-time dialogue. In this way, chats can organically produce a set of collaborative learners who read and respond to each other's posts on the message board as well as chat. But we must also face the challenge of the chat format, by its nature informal, emotional, full of humorous quips, and in a word, "chatty" (see Exhibit 5 for examples of chats). Given the one-line limits to chat text, interruptions abound. Chatters move on while someone else responds to something said a few lines back. Although the chat is hardly recognizable as an academic discussion, it can help generate a vital engagement with the text that students then transfer to the message board.

Chats and the message board are completely different forms for exchanging ideas, and both are necessary for the integrity of class discussion. The main effect of the message board format is to posit the importance of interpretative points of view. Student responses to the text stand side by side to represent a variety of readings of texts, which teaches newly enrolled students, at a glance, what literary interpretation and the literature course are all about. In contrast, the chat's primary purpose is to establish group learning within a nonhierarchical space. Small-group chats need to be a required element of the humanities course, because unlike special interest groups that organically form on cyberspace discussion boards, students need to meet classmates in real time in order to feel committed to discussion on the message board. Such chat groups should in turn be taken advantage of and assigned collaborative intellectual projects.

What kinds of collaborative projects? The quality of the literature course would be much improved by creating the technology to facilitate teaching close reading and the proper use of literary evidence. I have never found a technological avenue for forcing students to interrogate the language of passages together, such as a way to post a passage in hypertext for all to view during chats. With multiple-screen capability, however, we could present a passage that contains interpretive folders linked to significant words or at the end of sentences. Just as I graded papers by highlighting the student text and my response to it in different colors—thereby positing our relationship as a dialogue that expands their paper's limits—hypertexts within passages for collaborative close reading would take advantage of the Web's ability to present interpretation as a relational activity, as the development of a point of view that can be argued with careful use of evidence and with careful writing.

Returning students who benefit from Web courses are busy and have complex schedules; yet this does not excuse the failure of investment in the learning community that a literature course thrives on. Having taught the course for 2 years, I had 6 students finish, yet up to 45 active students on my roster. We must understand how the form functions and give students both a yellow brick road and a buddy system through the Web. I suggest enrolling students in cells of three to four people and assigning projects to the cell group; as the building block of the human form that could readily become a communal form, the cell would be responsible for putting together and following a schedule for collaborative close reading sessions in chat rooms, exchange of work on the message board, peer editing of papers, and perhaps a group research project. If we take away the burden of independence from independent learning, the increasing alienation that Alice feels in her nonlinear setting will cease; we must remember that the way she gets through the wood with no name is by embracing a faun, a real body to give her journey meaning.

Collaborative Learning and Writing Instruction

A learning community to whom the student is accountable would provide the linearity required for students to progress through the course and produce written work. Paper-writing was the most daunting project to my online students. Students were responsible for setting their own deadlines and looking at paper-writing guides on their own, which often posed problems for improving their writing skills. Examples of close readings, qualifications for a good paper, topic suggestions, and questions to ask of film were all in the resource file, but few students read them. Most students turned in first papers without receiving any assurance that their ideas conformed to the standards of literary criticism. In a traditional classroom, I dedicate certain days to writing issues: a day on writing a literary analysis, a day on generating a thesis, a day on use of textual evidence, a day on argument structure, and a day on prose revision. Paper-writing in my physical classroom is hardly the same solitary experience that it is online. In my online course, the students occasionally sent me their topic ideas via e-mail, but one cannot assess the quality of an interpretation from an announcement of topic.

We are posed with the challenge of getting students to write well-proven, well-structured arguments with a developing, complex thesis; to weed out unreliable sources in a universe where anything goes; to closely read and analyze by drawing upon textual evidence. My students had a wide range of life experiences, and their papers seldom conformed to literary interpretation. One paper claimed that Treasure Island proves Erickson's development theory; one claimed that Peter Pan's narrator is really a mother of a lost child; one paper argued that Anne of Green Gables follows the life of her author L. M. Montgomery; one took the stand that Wind in the Willows was written to make Grahame's son feel better about boarding school; one psychoanalyzed The Secret Garden's Mary and Colin as sufferers of reactive attachment disorder. All of these arguments offer valid points for asking questions of the texts, but they are hardly the kinds of interpretations a literature course should demand.

It may be useful to combat this problem by breaking down the paper into smaller tasks, which then would be peer-edited and synthesized into longer arguments. For example, if a student proposes to write a paper on social class in The Secret Garden, he/she would first have to turn in a close reading of one relevant passage, to be discussed with other students and the teacher. Based on others' responses, that student would then have to develop critical questions on the topic, a paper proposal, a preliminary thesis paragraph, a summary of secondary sources, another close reading of a second relevant passage, connections between the close readings, and finally, a three-page argument that the student eventually could develop into a five-page argument, based on peer and teacher feedback. In other words, we need to build linearity and collaboration into the virtual learning process for papers that have a sound internal structure and use literary evidence in a responsible way.

Distributed Learning, Distributed Compensation

This principle of breaking down paper-writing into smaller tasks to promote continual dialogue with peers and the instructor is contradicted by the UC Extension distributed compensation plan. UC pays one fixed amount for the development of a course and subsequently pays instructors a fixed amount per student, prorated by number of assignments and distributed to the instructor when he/she grades and returns an assignment to a student. For example, since I had two required papers for the course, I was paid half of my "per-student" amount upon grading the first paper and half upon grading the second paper. An instructor in a biology course with three exams would be paid a third of his/her per-student amount after grading and returning each exam.

As a consequence of this pay distribution, students in my course who discussed ideas, chatted, and posted responses to the message board but failed to turn in formal papers left me uncompensated—no matter how many of the "smaller tasks" I encouraged and reviewed. To be dependent on student paper-writing for compensation puts the power in the hands of the students. I became compelled to serve as a cheerleader for paper ideas rather than a critic of them. The students' topics were generally too broad for a successful five- to seven-page paper; one student, for example, proposed a paper on "mothering in classic children's literature." In such cases I had to be careful not to undermine the student's enthusiasm. In the physical classroom, I would ask the student to focus on a specific issue like maternal voice, perhaps suggesting Peter Pan and Little Women, and then I might require a response to one passage to demonstrate how the smallest scrap of evidence generates a lot of writing if the writer achieves analytical depth. In the online course, I quickly learned that some students did not respond well to such criticism and would not write at all, threatening my livelihood. Humanities instructors need to be compensated for running the course rather than grading papers. They should be paid either a lump sum for each run of a course, which would be clear if the course had specified start-dates, or an hourly wage based on billable hours.


We cannot let people pay their entrance fee and then allow them the endless play of the mad tea party; we must restore the energy, investment, community, linearity, and referential frames that the physical classroom inherently provides—the biweekly exchange of ideas with others engaged in a similar quest for intellectual growth. Classmates test your articulation, challenge you to consider new angles and sharpen your logic, provide deadlines for sharing scholarship, pace the presentation of material, and make you accountable to a virtual setting. In the physical classroom, a student may fail to prepare and speak, but he/she at least has to sit in on a dynamic dialogue. What is needed is a feeling among online students that they are "bodies that matter," even if, in hyperspace, these "bodies" remain purely discursive entities.


Almeda, M. B. (1999). University of California Extension Online: From concept to reality. Berkeley: University of California Extension.

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