History Spaces (III)

In my first post in this series I suggested that there were three main areas where we, as historians, should start thinking creatively about our departmental spaces and how they will or won’t serve us and our students well as we move forward in the coming decade. In the second post I laid out a series of recommendations for spaces that will help us take better advantage of the opportunities digital history offers us.

If your institution is anything like mine (or like most of the ones I read about and visit), you are being asked to think about how you might incorporate more online and/or hybrid courses into your curriculum. In our case here at George Mason University these conversations are being driven both by a genuine sense that we need to be part of the online delivery of educational content, but also by a space crunch that is only going to become more acute with each passing semester. Whatever the pressures or inducements are at your institution, it’s almost a given that you are hearing something from somewhere on campus about online, online, online.

When we talk about spaces and online education (under which I’m including hybrid courses that blend online and face to face instruction), there are both physical and virtual spaces to consider. I’m on record in many places as not liking BlackBoard or really any other commercially available learning management system (LMS), but I will admit that for many instructors, these open the box and use systems make a lot of sense if only because they are institutionally supported and relatively easy to use. I think they impose a particular set of pedagogical assumptions on the instructor, which is why I don’t use them, but for history departments that want to create virtual learning spaces quickly, the use of a commercial LMS may be the simplest option.

What I’m more concerned with in this series of posts, however, is the physical spaces we control — to the degree we do control them — in our departmental offices. If we are going to do online right, we and our students have to have easy access to two kinds of physical spaces — those that can be used for the production of online historical resources, and those that students can use when consuming those resources. For advice on the first of these spaces, I’d refer you to my prior post, in which I discuss what a digital production space might look like. For more on spaces for students engaged in learning online, read on.

I think educators enamored of online education cling to one really big mistaken assumption when it comes to student learning with online resources. Yes, it is likely that many students will sit quietly by themselves watching videos, working their way through problems, doing research, and interacting with other students enrolled in the same course. But does it have to be that way? Is this face-glued-to-laptop mode of learning the best use of online educational tools? After all, if that’s the way students are going to take our courses, then we don’t need our campuses at all, now do we? They can just sit at home, in Starbucks, or wherever, and consume our curricula all by their lonesome selves. Think of the money we’d save if we shut down all our classroom buildings for good.

What if, instead, we created learning spaces in our departments dedicated to students taking online courses? Such spaces could be Huntsmallish, meaning large enough for a couple or a few students, and wired, so that the students can all watch the same screen simultaneously, but have enough bandwidth to work independently on their laptops/tablets. The image to the right is from the Hunt Library at N.C. State University that opened last year and shows one of many such possible configurations of a space where students can work together, whether as part of an online course, or while planning a group presentation, or whatever.

If our students had such spaces and we designed our online learning opportunities to encourage them to work together in such spaces (or in their dorms, or a Starbucks), what could the learning outcomes be and how would those outcomes be different that what might be achieved in a face-glued-to-laptop mode of online course design? Because some of the very best historical work is the result of collaborative endeavor — showing drafts to friends, presenting to colleagues, etc. — it seems to me that it is incumbent on us to think more carefully about designing online learning around the kinds of collaborations we value in our own work. In that way we help to model a mode of knowledge production that we engage in ourselves. And we give them a reason to engage with our curriculum in our department, where faculty and other students might join in, be available to answer questions, or take part in the production of new knowledge as part of the kind of shared endeavor I discussed in yesterday’s post.

That alone would seem to offer a very good reason why even online students might want to be on our campuses rather than taking courses from online competitors.


One thought on “History Spaces (III)

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