Of International Societies

I just came back from the annual meeting of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Vancouver, BC. In addition to deciding that I want to move to Vancouver as quickly as possible, I came away from the meeting with some new things to think about.

Sometime toward the end of the meeting it dawned on me that the presenters–the vast majority of whom were from the US and Canada, with a nice sized contingent from the UK and Australia–fell into three distinct groups:

1. The Americans tended to be focused on practical applications of SoTL research and were very worried about how they might convince their colleagues that the SoTL “counts” toward tenure and promotion in much the same way that more conventional scholarship might. They also generally expressed strong concerns about the motivation of their faculty colleagues to even consider the SoTL.

2. The Brits and the Canadians sounded much more like American educational researchers–lots of tables, correlations, that sort of thing. They seemed to focus on process and research outcomes much more than on practical applications and were hardly concerned at all that their work might count or that their colleagues would be willing to buy in.

3. The Australians were well ahead of everyone else in both practical applications of their SoTL work and in their integration of the SoTL into the lives of their institutions in all ways. On the downside, they were facing substantial interference from central authorities in their day to day work and some serious cuts in funding.

When I go to Sydney in two years for the next non-US iteration of this conference, I plan to try to figure out how our Australian colleagues got so far ahead of us. One good example of how we have so much to learn from them is the World History curriculum in the Department of Modern History at MacQuarie University in Sydney. In the US World History is a field with only one course–the freshman survey. For years, those in the field have dithered about developing a series of upper division World History courses, but in this department they have already brought several upper division World History courses into their curriculum and these courses are organized largely around the results of the most recent research in the SoTL in history.

The rest of us have some catching up to do…

SoTL in Action

What would it look like if the results of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning found their way into websites created for students and teachers?

For the past several years we have been doing just that at CHNM. Relying on the research of Sam Wineburg, Peter Seixas and others, we’ve created a series of online learning opportunities for students and teachers to see what happens when expert learners make visible their methods of inquiry and analysis. So, for instance, Dana Liebsohn, and Art Historian at Smith College, talks visitors to our World History Sources website through her analysis of the Codex Mendoza. Or, in our History Matters site, Larry Levine discusses his analysis of blues music.

As useful as these are, they are still not where we ought to be. Because we have to take into account the fact that many possible users of our sites still have limited bandwidth, we’ve set these up in Flash. Because we don’t have sophisticated videotaping capabilities, we provide an audio track only. I think it won’t be until we get the real live historian on video talking to students more directly that we’ll be able to realize the full potential of such an exercise.

The other thing we desperately need are specific examples of scholars and students engaged in “think alouds“, talking their way through their analysis of sources. It is through these kinds of exercises that novice learners can really see just how different their analysis of a source is compared to that of an expert learner. Again, though, I’m of the opinion that this isn’t really going to be effective unless it is done on video so that the viewer can see the person who is talking struggling to make sense of the evidence. Maybe now with the new iPod video capability (and the sure to follow imitators), we’ll have a technology that makes it possible for us to deliver such video easily to our students, rather than making them watch a stream cast on their computers.

Students Using Websites

One of the most common laments I hear from high school teachers and college and university faculty as I travel around the country is how uncritically our students use historical resources they find on the Internet. We all know examples of students going to their favorite search engine, typing in some likely search terms, and then clicking on the first few likely websites that appear in the list on their screen. From those few sites they pick one that looks reasonable and use it to write their paper, only to find that the website they were using had significant problems, whether it be that the site provides bogus or misleading information, it has an obscured agenda, or is simply a site put up by Ms. Johnson’s third grade class.

Several years ago I set about trying to put a stop to this problem. I know it’s not something that can ever be truly “fixed”, but at least one can try. The answer I came up with is the Webography Project, a database teaching tool that provides students with some basic advice about how to assess the content of the websites they visit and gives them the chance to enter reviews of websites into the project’s database. To date, 54 teachers (high school and college) have signed up to use the project and their students have already entered more than 735 reviews of websites into the database.

I’ve been gratified to see that the project has started to get some notice in other venues, including Academic Commons and Next/Text.

As nice as it is to have one’s work noticed, more interesting is the potential of this database for some interesting research that falls under the heading of the scholarship of teaching and learning. Anyone interested in how students make sense of what they find on historical websites need only search through the 500 plus public entries in this database and read what the students have written and the scores they’ve assigned to the sites. So, for instance, a key word search using the term “sourcebook” returns 35 different reviews of the various versions of Paul Halsall’s sourcebook project. Reading these reviews, one finds how differently students understand what they find on the same website.

I’d like to see more such resources developed–projects that make it possible for students to engage in serious intellectual work while also making the results of that work available for researchers to study.