Tag Archives: Distance Education

History Spaces (II)

In my previous post in this series I argued that we need to think critically about the physical spaces that make up our departments as we look forward into the coming decade. One of the main reasons why I think it’s worth trying to do something about the shape and form of the typical history department is that our departmental spaces are one of the few spaces on campus that we have much to say about.

Sure, we are sometimes consulted about classroom design, or about “learning commons” spaces in the library. But those spaces belong to others. To the degree that our departmental spaces belong to us, we at least have the opportunity to reimagine how they might best serve our needs and the needs of our students going forward from where we are today.

The first possible reimagining of a departmental space I want to throw out there is one that addresses the growing importance of digital in the history curriculum, but also in the work we do as scholars. The standard history department space of the long hallway of professor offices in no way facilitates the kind of collaborative work that is at the heart of digital historical work (and the digital humanities in general). Although digital tools certainly make it possible to collaborate with colleagues across great distances, our experience at the Center for History and New Media, and the experience of colleagues at digital humanities centers around the world, is that there is no substitute for a team of scholars (or students) sitting around a table, throwing out ideas, working through difficult coding challenges, etc.

Therefore, if we are going to do digital right in our departments, we need to create collaborative spaces where the making of digital history can happen.

That making can take many forms. It could be a “maker space” like the ThinkLab at the University of Mary Washington, which is the kind of space where, to quote Audrey photo(1)Watters, the focus can be on “play and creativity and exploration.” In such a space, students and faculty can begin to play around with the basic assumptions of digital history, can hack things together or apart, and can begin to create new forms of knowledge representation that can be shared across a variety of media.

Another such space that can be a model for what we need in history departments is the Design Lab 1 space at the University of Michigan, where students and faculty are urged to “drop in, start something.” This space was designed by a small group of students and faculty members from several colleges who wanted to lure in fellow travelers and curious others to start making things. According to Matthew Barritt and Linda Knox, who have written about DL1 in Planning for Higher Education (42/1, October–December 2013), “Gradually, the room developed into a multifaceted learning environment with a distinctive cultural character representative of its members.”

Imagine what if would be like if, in a history department, we made a space that nurtured “a distinctive cultural character” that was representative of our discipline and its future potential in the digital age? Such a space would invite students and colleagues in, encourage them to work together, and would give them tools to play around with notions of how the past ought to be represented in media beyond the book and the academic journal.

But most importantly, and this is probably the biggest hurdle we’ll have to get over as historians used to doing our work the same way it’s been done for more than a century or two, it will have to be a space where research, learning, and and the production are understood to be a shared endeavor. The spaces we inhabit today reinforce the notion that these three central activities of any history department are top down endeavors, where experts transmit their knowledge to novices. To be successful in a world where digital matters, we’re going to have to accept that some, if not a good bit, of what we will be doing should be built on a different — a truly collaborative — notion of teaching, learning, and research.

Then we just have to build, or more likely retrofit, spaces where that collaboration can actually happen.


History Spaces

Close your eyes. Now, visualize a college or university history department. Maybe the one you work in, or perhaps the one you studied in as an undergraduate. Or if you weren’t a history student, one you visited at some point in your life.

I bet I can tell you what it looks like, floating there in your mind. There is a hallway. Maybe a long hallway. With lots of posters and flyers tacked up. And a sign that says “Department of History.” You walk in and find a receptionist and a bunch of faculty mailboxes. Maybe a printer or a copier. And up and down the hall are doors, almost all of them closed, with cartoons, announcements, and other ephemera of faculty lives taped on those doors. A few of the doors are open, so you peek in and you see books. Lots of books. Some of th10250968414_cdf0d135e9_ne offices are neat and tidy, others are pretty messy. Almost all of them are small.

You might wonder what sorts of intellectual work takes place in those offices. Research? Writing? Collaboration with colleagues in other states or countries? Probably some grading too. Those offices can be interesting and inviting, or so messy that they are a little scary, but they tend to fit our notions of what a professor’s office looks like, even if the work taking place there often doesn’t. Too often what happens there is all about just trying to stay on top of email or campus committee work. And grading. Plenty of grading. Research does happen, but most of that is across an Ethernet or wireless connection these days.

History departments around the country are of a piece with this description because they’re artifacts of the way the professoriate in most universities has developed – the professor as semi-independent contractor, who has a campus office that is his/her base of operations for teaching and research. Those offices are places to meet with students and colleagues, but only rarely are the location of serious, sustained intellectual work. That part of our professional lives mostly takes place elsewhere, most often at home, but also in libraries, archives, in the field, or in a coffee shop with a good wireless connection.

So what? Why worry about our physical spaces when we have so many other issues on our plates? After all, we’ve muddled along with this physical model of history departments for more than a century. Why not just stay the course, or at least ask for a bigger office, preferably with a window?

I can think of several reasons why right now, today, historians need to be not only thinking critically about the kinds of spaces we’re in, but also advocating as loudly as possible for change in those spaces. At the top of my list are three prominent contenders: the growing importance of digital in the history (and humanities) curriculum; the now seemingly ubiquitous pressure to incorporate more online or hybrid course options into our curricula; and the growing importance of undergraduate research in college curricula more generally. If we don’t press hard for changes in the spaces we have – the typical history department you imagined – we’re going to have a difficult time making any headway in either of these two emerging areas of our endeavors, both with undergraduate and graduate students.

Over the next several days, while historians from across the country and around the world are assembled here in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, I’m going to explore our history spaces, and how we ought to begin thinking about changes in those spaces to help us prepare for the teaching, learning, and research environment we’ll find ourselves in in the coming decade.

I’ve previously taken up the issue of spaces and learning in this blog, and my series this week is certainly inspired, in part, by the thinking I did on this subject back in November 2012. But that thinking was about classrooms. This series is more about our departmental spaces — spaces that I believe will be more central to our success in years to come than we currently give them credit for.

[Photo from Flickr]

The Online Course Tsunami (4)

The one issue I’ve not taken up yet in this series of posts on the sudden enthusiasm of higher education leaders for online education is the matter of teaching. Before I go any further, I have to offer the following disclaimer. I have not, nor do I intend to teach a purely online course. I have been teaching what are often called “hybrid” courses since the late 1990s, when such things were much more difficult than they are today, so it’s not as if I know nothing about the topic of this post. But it seemed useful to point out that I have never taught a course where the students never meet one another in the analog world.

I say that I will not be teaching such a course for a simple reason. I like meeting my students in the analog world. I’m more than happy to interact with people in the digital world. I’ve been writing this blog since 2005 after all. But I just like knowing my students, being in the classroom with them, laughing with them, watching their faces change either with consternation or sudden insight. Were we to interact only online, I would miss all of that and so I choose to not teach that way.

Which is not to say that I think history courses cannot be taught successfully online. Many years ago (January 2001, in fact), I was on a panel at the AHA with my now colleague Paula Petrik and Skip Knox of Boise State University (Stan Katz was the discussant). Skip gave a paper that day about his fully online Western Civilization course and in his presentation said that he felt that the online version of the class was so much more intellectually stimulating than the face to face course. Most of us in the room were, I think, a bit skeptical, until Skip explained all of his reasons for that claim. Since then, I’ve been much more happy to let 1,000 flowers bloom.

However, as Mark Edmundson points out in a recent Op-Ed in the Times, “The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.” Unlike Edmundson, I don’t believe that online teaching has to conform to a one size fits all model. Unless, of course, we are talking about MOOCs or video monologues like those available through shops like the Khan Academy. [For a critique of the Khan project, see this piece in the Washington Post.] These sorts of one-way content flows are not, to my mind, teaching. They are content delivery and so are no more “teaching” than is a movie or a book.

What then should we be doing at this moment when our trustees, presidents, and provosts seem to have drunk the online education Kool-Aid?

Given my earlier comments in this series, I think it’s pretty obvious what I think we should not be doing, and that is jumping on the Coursera/Udacity bandwagon. Until someone can show me real assessment data that indicate that the quality of learning taking place through these platforms is equivalent to what happens in the face to face classroom, I’m going to argue against these sorts of massive courses. They are, until proven otherwise, hype. And, as I argue below, the teaching methodologies they promote are wildly out of sync with the reality of our students’ uses of digital media.

The other thing I think we should not be doing is designing online or hybrid courses around single delivery platforms such as BlackBoard. As someone recently pointed out on Twitter (I’d quote them, but can’t find the citation), teaching students to use products such as BlackBoard is teaching them to use a product, not to think critically. Further, these erroneously named “learning management systems (LMS)” impose an outdated pedagogy on instructors and therefore on students. Worse, they are designed to port onto the Internet existing models of teaching and learning, not to help instructors and students mine the potential of the digital environment for new ways of thinking about the material in their courses.

Many years ago now, Martin Mull (apparently) said that “writing about music [or maybe he said painting] was like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said about trying to force an existing course into a digital realm that is inherently different from the analog one.

Here’s an example of what I mean: One research study after another demonstrates that when young people use digital media, they use it as much to create content as they do to consume content. Far too many teaching models in the analog world are predicated on push methodologies (professors pushing content at students) and, not surprisingly, the online courses that are taking presidential suites by storm are equally predicated on push methods of teaching.

For the current college-age generation, the digital realm is a creative space. Thus, using digital media to push content at students without giving them the opportunity to create is like dancing about architecture.

Instead of rushing lemming-like toward push platforms like Coursera or the Khan Academy, we should be thinking carefully about how teaching and learning in the digital realm is different. Then, and only then, should we start creating new approaches to teaching and learning. BlackBoard and its ilk won’t help us. MOOCs won’t help us either.

Who then will help us? Our students, that’s who. By involving them in the process of creating something entirely new, something that maximizes the potentialities of digital media as lived by our students (as opposed to cadres of corporate coders), we will have a chance to get it right this time.


The Online Course Tsunami (3)

In the first two posts in this thread, I asked a series of questions about how we might assess both the learning that takes place in online courses and the economic impact of a shift to online courses, especially at a university like mine. Today I want to turn to a consideration of the broader impact of the current mania for online learning on our curricula.

After all, what universities offer students, at least in the intellectual realm, is a curriculum. Start ups, like Coursera and Udacity are offering courses. Of course, one day these platforms might offer entire curricula, but I’m more than happy to bet $50 that most universities will resist offering more than a basket of courses through these sites for the simple reason that our business models at the bricks and mortar universities are predicated on more than tuition revenues. We want students to live in our residence halls, buy food from our food services, pay for parking, and all those other ancillary revenue generators we’ve found to make ends meet.

It’s fine for a business like the University of Phoenix to offer only courses, because their business model was always based on tuition revenue (and possibly other sources such as advertising revenue). Also, the online only universities are not stuck with the fixed overhead factor called tenure. They can upsize or downsize their faculty at will. But the bricks and mortar institutions have physical plants to maintain (and rent out to students) and faculty like me who they are stuck with until we retire.

So, for the foreseeable future, the bricks and mortar institutions are going to be in the curriculum business, not the course business.

What, then, will happen to our curricula if our students begin taking lots of courses–likely introductory courses–through online shops like those just mentioned? While we might thumb our noses at upstarts like the University of Phoenix, can we really tell our students, “Sorry. We can’t accept that online course you took from Harvard/Virginia/Rice through Coursera.”

At George Mason, given our current “study elsewhere” policy, we’ll have to do just that unless our students, once they matriculate, receive prior permission to take these courses, and, according to the policy, those courses must not be available at our institution. Examples of how we grant students permission to study elsewhere are when they are at home during the summer (away from our immediate area) and wish to take a course from their local institution, or if they want to take American Sign Language, which we do not offer. Otherwise, they have to take the credits from us once they have matriculated. At a minimum, this policy will have to change for our students to take advantage of the offerings from vendors such as Coursera.

But more important than a policy shift is the question of what happens to our majors when our students take their basic courses from an online vendor?

History is always a particularly difficult curriculum to structure, especially at a university such as Mason where half our undergraduate students come to us as transfers. It is relatively easy to assume what our students do or do not know when they sign up for a 100-level course (we assume they know next to nothing). But what about an upper level course such as the survey of modern Eastern Europe I’ll be teaching this fall?

If I were teaching a 300 level mathematics or Arabic course, I would already have a pretty good idea of where my students are with the curriculum because they have proceeded through a sequence of courses to get to mine. Not so this August when I meet the students signed up for my East Europe course. I have to spend the first week or so gauging what they know and don’t know before I can really get going. That’s a week I am loathe to give up. As it is, I have to make it from the 1890s to the early 2000s in just 14 weeks.

Because we have a very good working relationship with our local community college systems, I know that whether these students have taken their introductory European history course from one of those colleges or from us, they will arrive in my classroom having taken relatively similar courses. But if those students have taken their introductory European history course from any one of a dozen or more institutions, I’ll have no idea whatsoever about their prior knowledge and skills.

Will such a situation ruin my course? Definitely not. But it will cost me at least an additional week trying to figure out what they know and don’t.

Then there is the question of departmental culture. Different academic departments lay out their curricula to emphasize particular skills or canons and therefore work together (generally) to inculcate these ideas and skills in their students. But if our students come to us with what amounts to a willy-nilly set of academic experiences, those common assumptions and priorities we have developed and (generally) agreed to over time may well not be a part of their academic repertoire.

The course I’m teaching this fall includes learning opportunities that help to reenforce my department’s notions of such things as the importance of analyzing primary sources from a diverse set of perspectives. If the instructor(s) of those online courses either disagree with these notions or simply provide no opportunity for students to develop such skills, then the exercises I have laid out in my syllabus will be that much more difficult for my students.

None of these issues are nearly as worrisome as what the advent of these online shops will mean for our fiscal future (see post #2 in this series), but if the online course tsunami does come ashore at the campuses where 80-85% of college students are being taught (community colleges and mass market universities such as Mason), we need to spend some time rethinking our curricula (and academic policies) to keep from being washed out to sea.