A Terrible Tip

In the December 2012 edition of the AHA’s newsletter Perspectives, Patricia Limerick, the new Vice President of the Teaching Division, announced a new Association project, “Tipping Points for Teaching.” The project, as described by Limerick, has two main goals: to (a) gather and curate teaching tips from AHA members that can then be disseminated via a web interface, and (b) to somehow use these examples of teaching to help persuade “voters and public officials to recognize the value of face-to-face education…”

I will admit that there might be some benefit that accrues from collecting and disseminating exemplary teaching exercises that members might contribute to the website. But on the whole, I think this whole effort is a terrible idea.

Because calling something a terrible idea is a pretty blunt statement, I want to be very specific as to the reasons for my criticism.

The AHA is the largest and most important organization representing historians in the United States, so any AHA project signals to not only members, but to the historical profession, and the general public what the Association considers to be important work. The message of this project, at least as it is described in Perspectives, is that teaching about the past can best be improved by gathering and disseminating “tips.” Such a stance devalues teaching as an intellectual enterprise, reducing it instead to a cluster of skills that can be learned through imitation, and worse, essentially ignores two decades of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history – an effort that the Association has fairly consistently supported throughout those two decades.

As described, “Tipping Points in Teaching” makes no mention of the pioneering work on teaching and learning history of American scholars such as Sam Wineberg, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, Lendol Calder, Robert Bain, Keith Erekson, and Laura Westhoff, or of our colleagues in the UK, Paul Hyland, Sarah Richardson, and Alan Booth, or of Stéphane Lévesque and Peter Seixas in Canada, or of Sean Brawley in Australia. Nor does the site’s workflow diagram offer any hope that the work of these scholars will have any place in the website. In other words, those AHA members coming to this website will have no way of accessing the most important research on the subject they are interested in.

Imagine if the AHA announced a new project focused on the analysis of an important historical topic and invited members to contribute their best public lectures on this topic in lieu of essays that cited evidence to support the author’s conclusions. There would be howls from across the country that these lectures offered nothing of substance – artful presentations, perhaps, but no substance. But because the subject of this project is teaching it is somehow okay to resort to collecting “tips”?

A second problem with this idea has to do with the goal of promoting the benefits of face-to-face teaching. If the Association’s goal is to somehow stave off what I’ve termed the Online Course Tsnami, a website offering visitors a database of exemplary teaching exercises is about the worst way I can imagine going about this defense of face-to-face instruction. I’m sorry, but a database of inspiring teaching tips is going to convince exactly no one that face-to-face instruction is too wonderful to be replaced by online delivery systems.

No amount of assurance by otherwise excellent teachers that their students really “got it” in class is going to convince skeptics that face-to-face instruction is better than online instruction. The case for face-to-face instruction needs to be made with data derived from research, or not made at all. Data driven research on learning outcomes is what will make the case, and nothing less.

If the Association’s intention really is to put its weight behind a defense of face-to-face instruction, then the funds the Association plans to spend on the Tipping Points project would be much better spent sponsoring serious research that has the potential to demonstrate how learning outcomes differ in face-to-face and online educational environments. Or, failing that, the AHA should use its resources to help a team of scholars secure grant funding to conduct these sorts of studies.

Finally, the way this project has been described in Perspectives betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Once upon a time it was the case that it made sense to have people submit content, curate it, then post it online. But the advent of Web 2.0 changed all that. Now the crowd curates the content, votes it up and down according to popularity and usability, and the staff that once would have done the curation is there to resolve disputes, monitor for abuse, and promote the project.

Back in 2008 the Association proposed something similar with respect to historical websites. That project was never realized. As planned now, this teaching project will be hugely staff intensive and if it does result in a flood of contributions, will at worst collapse under its own weight, or at best will simply become too large to keep up to date.

Given all these problems, I hope the Teaching Division reconsiders this plan. I would hate to see the scarce resources of the Division used on a project that really has little hope of success.

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