Illumine’: The Power of an Online Classroom Format

Guest Post by Dr. Jackie Fowler
Faculty Director and Associate Professor, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University System

Dr. Jackie Fowler is the English Program Director for our School of Arts and Humanities at APUS. She is writing today’s guest blog article about teaching English in the online classroom. Her thoughts are helpful during this pandemic season when many faculty and students will need to go online to finish the spring semester on time.

One of my favorite memories of graduate school was from the morning we discussed John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Nerdy, I know. Thirty years later, I still remember the more than hour-long conversation we had about the title. The title! The professor asked us why we thought Milton chose to put the adjective after the noun instead of before it.

After all, Lost Paradise is more in line with the dictates of the English language. As a kid from the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, I would never have noticed it, but the conversation that ensued from her query was exhilarating!

While a reflection on a specific work’s title may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I can point to that singular moment as the reason why I changed from pre-law to English. After graduating with a degree in English Education, I began teaching iconic works of literature to high schoolers: To Kill a Mockingbird, Night, and Romeo and Juliet, among others.

Later, when I finished my doctorate, I moved to the university level to teach literature and writing. No matter the level or format, however, we—the students and I—analyzed and reframed the works through conversation.

The Advantages of Teaching in an Online Classroom

When I moved to an online classroom for the first time in 2004, I wondered how I would replicate the interactivity between and among the participants in the new teaching and learning environment. The online classroom is a different methodological beast, to be sure.

Yet I have found that what I love about the traditional ground classroom can be comfortably adapted to the online one. It takes work, of course. But teaching English online can be equally inspiring. More importantly, the online classroom actually enhances interaction.

An online classroom is flatter; in other words, neither the professor nor the bolder, less risk-adverse students control the ebb and flow of the conversations. Shy and reticent students can find their place because they are encouraged to participate, and they are held accountable for their participation.

In an online class, all students—shy or bold—have the opportunity to think, write, and revise before participating. This format makes the online classroom feel safer.

Discussion Boards in the Online Classroom

Discussion boards introduce students to the basics of online conversations. With well-written, thoughtful questions—especially in threaded forums—students get the chance to flex their discussion muscles.

The ability to journal and/or blog is another way English instructors are able to integrate conversation into the online classroom, and posting student entries for peer and professor critique is a great way to teach writing. If the discussion boards, journals, and blogs are set up to work together as a whole—not as separate entities—they are not only tools to teach analysis and interpretation, but they also act as the prewriting stage for assignments.

In his article, Teaching English Literature Survey as a Writing Course—Online, Mississippi State University instructor Rich Raymond suggests that “journaling and discussion boarding help students to develop their analytical skills and to find motivation for such analysis in having discovered the relevance of the reading to their own lives.” Teaching English online, then, gives our students the opportunity to filter the content of the course through their own lenses; asking them to write about it gives the whole class the opportunity to expand their personal viewpoints by learning from others in a dynamic way. Students also practice articulating their expanded ideas in writing and using argumentation and persuasion to change minds.

When I think back on that conversation about John Milton’s Paradise Lost, I am reminded of the power of a classroom discussion to sort through new and challenging material and to teach emerging scholars how to ruminate on rather than rush through new ideas. In an online classroom, our conversations become permanent through writing. Students have a chance to look back on what was said and to see how their thoughts have changed or grown throughout the course.

In other words, students are able to trace their own trajectories as learners in an online classroom. “What is dark within me, illumine,” John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. As an online English professor, it is this Milton quote that hangs above my computer, my connection to discussions.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence