Irony of Ironies

This semester I am teaching my graduate course — Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age — and on our first night of the semester we had what my older son would call “a fail.” In this case, it was a “classroom fail.” Why? Because the room to which we were assigned was not only almost too small to fit the 16 of us, but because the technological capability of the room was decidedly old school.

We had an overhead projector and a television set with DVD/VHS player.

Somehow, it seemed to me (and to the students), it was going to be a little difficult to teach and learn about teaching and learning in the digital age in a decidedly undigital room. Fortunately, I was able to locate a conference room (with a laptop and a projector) that we could use. Otherwise it would have been a very challenging semester, to say the least. It was, however, a good lesson for the students, many of whom are already or plan to be history teachers. You never know what kind of classroom you are going to get until you get there, so be prepared just in case.

And, of course, the power might go off, or the servers might crash, or your laptop my start smoking. So always be ready.

I would share my syllabus and/or class blog for this course, but this semester the whole thing has gone into a closed Zotero group. Like my colleague Sean Takats, I am teaching through a Zotero group (using the 2.0 Beta version) of the software instead of the blog I’ve used with such good results over the past six years.

Why would I forsake the blog platform when it has worked reasonably well? I am hoping that by having my students create a Zotero library for the course, complete with notes, tags, annotations, related resources, etc., something new and different will happen. In prior years, my graduate students used the class blog quite well, posting reflections on readings and talking to one another. But once the semester was over, pffttt, the blog was over. In six or seven years of class blogging with students, only once or twice did anyone ever go back to the blog and add something. And even then it was an isolated post that didn’t generate any response.

But, a Zotero library that will become an annotated bibliography on teaching and learning history is a resource that not only my students, but history teachers all over the world can use now and in the future. My hope is that not only my students, but also others (once we open it up to the public) will use and add to the library we are creating.

Why keep it closed to the public during the semester? Despite my devotion to opening our teaching to public inspection, at least for now, I want the students to have some privacy as they learn the ins and outs of Zotero. Also, because we are creating a public resource that will eventually become open to others who might want to edit or add to what we’ve created, I need to be able to assess the work my students have done for the purpose of grading them. If anyone wandering by can change their work, it will be quite difficult for me to give my students a clear and valid assessment.

Stay tuned for more updates on this project.

For those who have been regular readers of this blog, I apologize for going silent throughout the summer. Personal matters dictated that I push aside all but the most essential things and I have to admit that, as much as I am devoted to it, this blog fell into the category of an optional activity. I’m back now.

6 replies on “Irony of Ironies”

  1. Interesting idea. Will each subsequent class on the same subject start with a blank Zotero database or will you let them build upon the work of their predecessors?

  2. No, we’re going to use the same library each time, thereby building on what prior classes have created. I will probably lock down the library except to members of the group during the semester — leaving it out there for public view, but not public editing. By the time I teach the class again, Zotero will have been substantially updated, so it’s difficult to know exactly how it will play out.

  3. I like your plan. It sounds like it will challenge each class to stretch beyond what the previous class accomplished and to come up with something innovative.

  4. I’m also using a private group during the course of the semester. It’s already challenging enough getting students to share their work with each other, let alone the wider world. Are you encountering any resistance on this front? Perhaps worth investigating in a future post.

  5. Hi Mills,

    I’m teaching a digital history graduate seminar for the second time this spring. Would you be willing to share your syllabus with me, please?

    The Zotero group strategy looks interesting. My students didn’t take to blogging very well. Maybe this will work better.

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