A couple of years ago I took the plunge into online teaching. It changed the way I teach.
My classroom in the cloud was a small summer seminar on global soccer for undergraduate history majors. The first challenge was how to deliver content and stimulate discussion without the benefit of physically gathering face to face in a brick-and-mortar space.
As PBS documentaries, “flipped” classrooms, and TED talks have shown, the “talking head” lecture format is neither terribly engaging nor uniformly effective. It is singularly unsuitable for online learners–members of a digital generation that has never known a world without the Web, smartphones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Amazon, Xbox, and Netflix.
So I ditched the idea of recording conventional lectures and indulged my inner Paulo Freire and Ken Loach. Using Camtasia, a simple editing software made by Techsmith, a local mid-Michigan company, I mixed off-camera oral narration with images, text, video footage, music, and sound to produce a series of somewhat lively 20-minute video presentations. As I gathered momentum, I went so far as to produce a short, fun promotional YouTube video to advertise the course. Here it is:
The class took place on the open web. I used the popular WordPress blogging tool and platform for a website that became our digital commons (see screenshot below). Here, students accessed the schedule, assignments, readings, and videos, published weekly blessays, and communicated with each other and me by commenting on the posts. For some private class communications, submission of the final exam papers, and grading, I relied on a course management system similar to Moodle or Blackboard.
My first adventure in online teaching was quite positive, except for the nearly suffocating amount of email. While I missed the personal interactions with students in and out of the classroom, the quality of their writing and critical thinking was comparable to analog seminars. What was different was how digital media triggered student creativity and raised interest in “doing history.” Once freed from the constraints of a didactic paper, they embedded YouTube clips in blog posts and linked to primary and secondary sources, current news articles, and other digital items. Content creation personalized the history and made it a bit more meaningful.
Something else happened. Unlike the conventional papers that disappear into recycling bins immediately after grading, student blog posts and peer comments remained accessible week after week. As the seminar’s accumulated collective knowledge, this online repository was dipped into again and again. It sprung ideas, raised questions, deepened earlier discussions, and generally kept discourse connected and more spontaneous. (The class has since morphed into an Integrative Studies [Gen Ed] class of 100-150 students, which I now teach online every summer with two TAs.)
Encouraged by this experience and backed by a department that embraces digital scholarship, I recently taught a PhD seminar titled South African History in a Digital Age. I had two main objectives in this course. First, to incorporate digital tools, sources, and projects into the study of modern South African history and historiography. Second, to provide our PhD students with IT chops that would equip them for 21st-century classrooms and aid them in a tough academic job market. I structured the class into four units: Digital Tools and Historiography; Liberation Archives; Nation-Building Histories; and Alternative Academics and Grants Proposals. Audio-visual materials were emphasized.
Six doctoral students in African history met with me weekly in a traditional classroom for three hours. This group of aspiring academic historians came into the “hybrid” seminar with varied research interests and different computing abilities. Their first task was to merge their professional and personal online identities. Instead of uploading weekly blog posts on the course website, each of them set up and managed individual WordPress blogs. With few exceptions, their blessays were of high quality: informed, edgy, hyperlinked—excellent springboards for class discussions.
The appearance, functionality, form, and content of student websites improved steadily over time. As their tech confidence grew, several added social media widgets (like Twitter feeds) and other bells and whistles. Soon students were bragging to each other about the size and geographical scope of their blogs’ readership.
The biggest risk I took in the PhD seminar was replacing the canonical 25-page research paper assignment with a major digital capstone project. These assignments eventually covered a rich set of topics and tools: graphic visualizations of Venda clan histories and Umkhonto weSizwe activities; web galleries of digitized British South Africa Company cablegrams and 1980s anti-apartheid posters; an online course on the Culture of South African Sport. The most radically innovative of these born-digital projects was Madiba Retweeted. Inspired by Nelson Mandela’s recent passing and an article by Benjamin Vogel in the digital magazine The Jacobin, it set out to discover how people were remembering Mandela on Twitter. (For the fascinating details on this #twitterstorian’s work click here, here, and here.) During the in-class presentations at the end of the term, students mentioned their surprise at learning that digital tools and media are not only useful for presentation of historical narratives, but can also be legitimate historical sources in their own right.
This thoroughly absorbing seminar would not have been as rewarding without the generous collaboration of colleagues who gave their time, wisdom, and expertise. Anthea Josias, a postdoc in our department and a former archivist at Mayibuye/Robben Island and the Mandela Foundation, helped design the website and gave constructive feedback when I was still planning the preliminaries. Dean Rehberger, Jessica M. Johnson, and Ethan Wattrall led a number of workshops that familiarized us with core digital humanities tools, methods, and practices. Sean Jacobs and Anthea made valuable video interventions later in the term via Google Hangout.
My journey into the dark forest of digital pedagogy continues. As of this fall, however, I’m fortunate to have a new partner: the Lab for Education in and Advancement of Digital Research (LEADR), which is based in the History department. Launched in September as a joint venture with Matrix and Anthropology (with funding from the Provost’s office), LEADR is a fully staffed creative space where undergraduates and PhD candidates work on digital and web-based history projects in collaboration with other students, faculty, and digital studies specialists. My senior history seminar on Race and Power in South African Sport meets in the lab regularly and adopts a more or less established approach for my hybrid pedagogy: we have a WordPress website; students manage individual blogs; and the main writing assignments consist of weekly blessays and digital capstone projects due at the end of the semester.
Digital work has become an integral part of my teaching, research, and public engagement. While I’m still a novice in the scientific art of bringing the classroom into the cloud (or is it bringing the cloud into the classroom?), I recognize how our students routinely use digital technologies to create content in their everyday lives–from YouTube and Instagram to Vine and Tumblr. This reality, and the fact that I am based at a university in the United States, is part of what compels me to give them more freedom to experiment with computer-based research and data analysis and present conclusions in digital formats.
I’m not arguing in favor of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Not at all. As an historian of South Africa, I believe we should continue doing what we do well: teach young men and women skills in critical and historical thinking, research, information management, and writing. However, students at all levels can also benefit a great deal, both intellectually and practically, from developing basic skills in data mining and big data analysis, web presentations of research, audio-visual production, and methods for digitizing, preserving, and accessing materials.
As Mills Kelly puts it in his recent book Teaching History in the Digital Age: “we should use digital media to create active learning opportunities” and “we should be open to the surprising results our students may come up with when they create that [online] content.”