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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.)

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