Teaching About the Past

Teaching, Technology, and the Classroom.

For technology and teaching, there are, as I see it, three main ways that it can be approached. First is classroom enhancement, which uses digital tools to improve learning in a classroom environment. Second, is what might be termed classroom outreach, taking lessons learned in the classroom, and turning them into public utility, such as Martha Saxton’s Wikipedia project. Third is classroom replacement, which is what the rapid spread of corona-virus has forced. This is in some ways the most challenging of the three, because at one time, the technology has to be accessible, user friendly, and engaging while maintaining academic rigor.

With classroom enhancement, the fundamental challenge is how to use the expanded toolkit without creating distractions for the class. While using personal devices to record the class, take notes, quickly search for relevant information, or assist with disabilities is a good starting place. (Educause: Experience With Instructors and Technology) There is far more that can be done.
In a personal example, Dr. Fredette uses ASULearn to give quizzes in class. These are taken with your personal device, and then I can grade them digitally. These are usually two short answer questions, or multiple choice. The advantage here is not so much to the students, but rather to the professor and teaching assistant, because it makes it so that I don’t have to keep track of, and faff around with a giant pile of paper, and ensuring that every paper gets back to the right person. This system is still fairly manual however, and other people, such as Amy Cavender have done a far more automated system, using google forms to automate what might well be called drudge grading. However, there is more that can be done to enhance the classroom than simply grading. One example is the use of instant polling, such as PollEverywhere, to guide lecture and presentation. The educator can ask a question, and then rather than selecting a few (un)fortunate souls to give answers, the entire class can respond, using a word cloud, multiple choice, or other data visualization to find either gaps in the information, or look at classroom engagement as a whole. Similarly, the collaborative aspects of Zotero create an environment for a class to find interesting primary and secondary source material, and more importantly, give the teacher a way to personalize the search for useful, reputable sources, and intercept bad sourcing before the paper. The key idea with all of these however is that they do not fundamentally change the classroom, but rather attempt to streamline or enhance already existing tools of teaching, or solve long lasting issues with how teaching works.

Second is classroom outreach. Most classroom work does not produce anything of real lasting value. A paper likely only matters to the student and the professor. A project is a fleeting moment of creation, but soon forgotten. Classroom outreach attempts to change that. Rather than the value in the assignment being the skills learned while doing it, classroom outreach projects attempt to create value long after the actual assignment is completed. To return in more detail to Martha Saxton’s students, their expansions of women’s history gave them means, motive, and opportunity to engage in a broader public discourse about the role of women in history and how to present it to a broad public. While much of their work has not survived long term, it is in many ways a more meaningful approach to doing history than simply another paper, because it puts them in direct contact with a historical public, and the biases and limitations of that population. One key takeaway from the article, at least when it comes to women’s history, is just how little it matters to the editors of the source. Another example of the uses of Wikipedia comes from the University of Edinburgh, which every year hosts an “innovative learning week” (often disparaged as: innovative skiing week). In 2015 (my freshman year at the university, although I was not involved in this particular event), one of the events as part of the ILW, was a Wikipedia editathon on the history of the Edinburgh Seven, which were the first women admitted to a UK medical school. This experiment showed many similar things to the key problems faced by Saxton’s students, and many similar themes. One key piece is that this project gave students a sense of agency and ownership of the ideas that a standard paper likely does not. While Wikipedia is not the be all and end all of classroom outreach, it is one of the most accessible forms of it. This outreach is really about empowering students to go beyond simply learning the skills of the trade, and moving into actually applying them.

Finally, classroom replacement is not a new idea. Distance learning has been part of the educational system for all of living memory. (Holmberg, Research review: The development of distance education research) However, the modern challenges of COVID-19 is forcing a reconsideration of how to do this effectively for a majority audience. While tools like the Learning Management System offer a high degree of utility for students, it is not a replacement in value for personal interaction and engagement with professors. To maintain that source of value, new tools must be adopted. (Many of these examples come from entertainment rather than strictly academic backgrounds, because my experience with purpose built tools is effectively zero.) These tools must be able to balance between class size, interactivity, and ease of use. For example, with relatively small classes, such as this one or Dr. Silver’s Environmental History, tools like Zoom, or Kast, would likely work best. Zoom is more oriented towards discussion, while Kast, or Netflixparty, or one of a number of similar services, create environments to both watch and discuss media in real time. So, for example, taking the CSPAN feeds of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, or for a media class, engaging while watching John Carpenter’s The Thing. These tools mean that the class can engage and react in real time with the professor. With larger classes however, other tools will likely work better. Discord for example, creates a space for asynchronous class discussions, while also allowing a teacher to stream lectures or other content. Twitch is another live streaming platform, which is optimized for relatively large audiences. It does this by giving audience members a relatively narrow flow of outgoing information, while streaming video and audio to all of them. This platform is already being used for non academic political discussion, for example recent Democratic Party primary debates, where streamers commented over the debate. However, with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, this tool is almost certainly better as a lecture substitute, where the material is either in the public domain, or is original to the lecturer. As a lecture tool, the way I would see going about it would be an open live stream, and sending the link out to the class, after which it would follow as a standard lecture, but one with a sidebar interaction to react and discuss the points being made.

To attempt to sum up this sprawl, digital teaching is in some ways a transformation of how teaching is done, and in other ways is simply taking existing ideas and attempting to use tools to just do it better. In all cases, however, the goals remain the same. The purpose of teaching is to provide people with the tools, drive, and interest in conducting the processes of history for themselves.

(NB: This is not really intended towards a grade, but rather because I found this to be an interesting topic, and wanted to take a bit more time to look around and find more about the material.)

Teaching About the Past

Learning Online in the Age of Coronavirus

Well, these readings hit a lot closer to home this week than any of us expected.

I’ve never had to take a class fully online. And yet, for the next month and a half or so, I’m going to have to get a lot more comfortable with using technology in all of my courses. I’ve certainly used my laptop in the past to do research, but outside of the projects I’m working on for this class and using Google Docs to collaborate on projects last semester, it’s rarely gone deeper than that. I’m not too concerned about myself, though – most of my courses will be using Zoom to do class meetings, and most of our assignments can be submitted online. But I was concerned about the impact this might have on undergraduates’ education.

If my undergraduate institution is any indication, undergrads are concerned about that as well. A friend of mine made a Facebook post showing comments from students who didn’t want to leave campus and move to online courses. While the broader point of the post was to show the entitlement of a select few students (and it does – I’m not linking to the post because the way that some students put themselves before the health and safety of others is frankly disgusting to me), I thought that this particular comment was relevant to our readings this week:

Taken from a friend’s Facebook post.

Ignoring the selfishness here, I think this demonstrates a lot of students’ feelings about taking courses online; it is an inferior educational experience to having in-person classes. I wonder: is this true, or is it just what we’ve been taught to think?

This article on learning management systems claims that while LMS can be a great tool for students, it should only serve as a compliment to in-class instruction. The same website also asked students about their learning preferences with regards to online courses, and provided data showing that students generally prefer in-person classes. However, when looking at the “BA Public” section (which I would assume has the highest number of online students, though I may be wrong), more students are open to the idea of mostly or fully online courses. Does this mean that students who actually take online courses enjoy the experience, and don’t see a noticeable change in learning when compared to in-person-class students? I don’t know. If anyone can find data on this, I’d love to see it.

Of course I recognize that online learning has its drawbacks. I was saddened but not surprised when reading this book chapter about Wikipedia and Women’s History, which details how hard it can be to include women in Wikipedia articles due to the biases of those who edit Wikipedia. As I read through, I became more and more discouraged about the possibility of an open-source website like Wikipedia to be truly inclusive. But wait! I thought to myself, “This class project was done in 2011, and the book was published in 2013! Surely things have changed in seven years!” Things have not changed. I don’t know what the solution is, but we first need to acknowledge that this is a serious issue with very dangerous ramifications for digital learning.

Teaching About the Past

Teaching History with Technology: Useful, Controversial, and Revealing

Learning with technology is a component of nearly all higher education now. Professors and Students access online content through applications such as Moodle, Blackboard, or Chamilo; even in-person classes use an online site for assignments, readings, and contacting professors. These online sites are labeled Learning Management Systems (LMS). Although some professors choose not to use LMS for a variety of reasons, they may use some other form of technology in their classes. Professors display google maps of the countries they are discussing or use Youtube videos, for example. LMS are ideal for online courses and are a useful safety net for in-person classes when they cannot meet due to weather or other situations.

However, while most professors use technology in class, it is less likely that students use technology in class, except for note-taking and pulling up the readings for that day’s lesson. According to Joseph D. Galanek, Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks, and their article  “Experiences with Instructors and Technology,” this is not a unique occurrence in higher education. Technology has the potential to allow professors and students to dispense with the lecture format and move to a hands-on/project-based format. This education format will prepare students for their future work environment where they will have to collaborate with their co-workers. Project-based learning gives students practical experiences and skills they will use in their intended field rather than students receiving only theoretical knowledge of the subject matter.

Google has created several tools that are useful for teachers and professors in their classrooms and online. Some of these tools replace the tools that already exist in LMS. Zotero, created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, was intended to be used by scholars as a place to collect their sources, generate citations and notes for them. Zotero also includes a collaborative feature, which makes it ideal for use in the classroom. Chad Iwertz’s Article Teaching with Zotero: Citation Management for Feedback and Peer Review discusses using Zotero in school with students just learning to research.

Wikipedia is controversial in the education field. Some teachers are against it, as it is inaccurate and not always written by scholars with advanced degrees. Supporters of Wikipedia use, argue that reviewers moderate the pages, edit, and research content; so it is up to standard and not blatantly incorrect. Martha Saxton’s article Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience, outlines another issue with Wikipedia, namely the lack of diversity in its pages. In the article, Saxton discusses how there are separate pages for women in history. Still, women are generally excluded or added only minimally in other pages on general topics within US history. She goes on to say that the primary purpose of the project is to have women throughout US history. Women’s history should not be studied because it is essential to women’s history or to satisfy those demanding teachers present a more diverse history. Instead the project and study of women’s history should occur because women were essential to history, critical to how the US was formed and shaped the path to the present. It is also important to note that Wikipedia has a policy that their informational pages be unbiased. Saxton’s article mentions that some content about women in history is being blocked by other users because it portrays men in an unflattering light and therefore is biased for women. It is likely this is also occurring in pages that attempt or do not attempt to discuss other minority groups. An important question is, how can Wikipedia pages remain neutral if history was not? How can readers of Wikipedia confront the biases that are still present today if Wikipedia does not present the bias in history that lead to the prejudices of today?

Information presented via technology used by historians, teachers, and professors, contains bias. The presence of bias in information has existed since the beginning of print media. The need for the guidance in acknowledging the bias and its affect on understanding has long existed. Therefore, even with more modern content, when presenting information to the public and to students, the presenter must be aware of the bias in order to counteract it, or explain why it is there. Technology is useful for bringing education into the twenty-first century, however, those using technology must remember and account for the persistent and inherent bias in the content to utilize the technologies highest potential.