The obvious difference is the lack of a live classroom. There are no lectures in this course and none of the spontaneous give-and-take that can be so stimulating in a live class. The difference in form, however, has led to differences in the function and structure of the class as well. For details on the form, consult the syllabus. I wish to talk here about the differences in function and structure.
This course is structured by the teacher but is driven by the student. The tempo and tone of a traditional class is largely set by the professor, but that is simply impossible in this course. Whether the class is lively and engaging is up to you, plain and simple. In a traditional class the student arrives at a room expecting to be told things. In this course, you check your mail every day to see what others are saying and to make your own contributions.
In order for you to make contributions, of course, you have to have something to say. This can take three forms: a question, an observation, and a reply. In each case, while you can certainly post a message off the top of your head, relying on personal experience and deduction. That won't get you very far. So, you'll need to read. The textbooks in this course play a vital role, for they are the substitute for lectures. They are your primary source of information. Ideally, you will have them all read by mid-semester.
My role in all this is to provide the structure for the class, to choose texts, create on-line materials, and make assignments in a way that will keep you on-line and participating over the whole length of the semester, from the first week to the last.
Once the class is running, I have several jobs. One is to act as moderator in the discussions, encouraging and directing. Another is to serve as a resource, answering questions that others cannot, clarifying misconceptions, and providing additional information where needed. A third job is to grade assignments.
You get a grade from this class by participating in the discussions, reading the texts, doing a term paper, and doing some shorter writing assignments. The middle two are the most important, for those are the closest to what working historians actually do.
The asynchronous nature of this course enables you to approach the material differently than in a live class. In a live class, everyone goes through the material more or less together, as the professor unfolds another aspect of the subject at each class meeting. In our course, though, things will proceed differently. We will all work together on some basic chronology for the first three weeks, but after that, you will be free to follow your interests.
The course is divided into five broad subject areas: social history, economics (and I've thrown exploration in here), religion and the church, political theory and institutions (and warfare), and all the cultural stuff. I've used these divisions to group the reading and to organize the material here on the Web. Discussions can, of course, range across these arbitrary divisions at will.
You will have to demonstrate some basic understanding in each area, but if one or more catch your eye, then you can explore them in detail. And you won't have to wait until the professor gets to that topic to begin learning about it -- you can dive right in. Whereas in a traditional class you might get one lecture on Renaissance diplomacy, in this course you can spend most of the semester on it, if it sparks an interest.
This is truly your class. Enjoy.