Blog introduction

Last spring, we (Danny Samson and Mike Driedger) began the design of a new online history course for Brock University.  The basic idea was to create a wholly online course that combined our specialisations in colonial North America (Danny) and early modern Europe (Mike).  Thus, we have a second-year course called “Money and Power in the Atlantic World, 1400-1830”; it will be delivered for the first time in fall-winter 2015-16.  The reasons for the development of the course will be the subject of a later post, but for now we’ll emphasise a desire to try to some new things, to engage some new students, and try our hand at teaching with digital tools.

More on that later, but for now we’d like to introduce why we’re doing this blog.  The main reason is simple: we want to document our experience. We are two mid-career academics, neither previously especially committed to digital anything, but intrigued by things we’ve been reading and feeling some obligation to push some boundaries.  In the academy, historians are a notoriously conservative lot, and even amongst the two of us one was much more willing to take the plunge than the other (you figure it out).  But in an age where digital media seems to be changing so much of the way we access and deploy knowledge, and where the humanities are increasingly being labelled out-of-touch with the “real world” (not to mention that that shows up as declining enrollments), we think we need to try to some new approaches.

So, why the blog?  We’re learning a lot. A hell of a lot.  And it seems worthwhile to write about it, both for our own sakes and for any others (mid-career, technologically shy or conservative, humanistically trained folks) who might be considering taking the plunge.  We’d like to extend our own conversations about what it means to teach online, the nature of “discussion” in a non-face-to-face environment, thinking about conventional historical issues using digital tools, using the textual environment as an opportunity to talk about historical thinking, and most of all as an opportunity to think about student learning.

Over the course of the next few months we’ll be posting on a number of topics, and many of those will not have been planned.  But we will certainly be talking about:

  1. Conceptualisation: a course that deals with standard historical issues of sources, narrative, continuity and change, interpretation, and historiography, but which does so in this new modality (a word we learned this year!).
  2. Why online: Lots of people have lots of concerns about online learning.  They range from the very thoughtful to the not-at-all thoughtful.  We can’t promise any breakthrough thinking that will answer the big questions, but we can talk about why we did it and what we hope it will generate.
  3. The work: Plainly said, developing an online course – especially if it’s a new full-year course – is a lot of work.  We had no idea how much time it would take; it is a genuine time-sucker. The reward, advocates always chime in, comes during delivery, when the course is more or less in place, and all the instructor really needs to do is manage the online conversations, the TAs, and grading.  We’ll see (and we’ll write about it!).
  4. Thinking about teaching:  Most academics have had lousy training in teaching.  We’re just supposed to pick it up.  Most of us do ok, some really well, some … But we don’t often get a chance to think about teaching.  One of the major opportunities designing this new course has afforded us is an opportunity to read, think, and talk about teaching in a sustained fashion.
  5. Using digital tools: Neither of us are what one might call digital historians.  But we have played around with some tools, and we felt it made sense to make digital tools part of the course.    Thus, at this point, we’re developing three assignments using Wikipedia, Voyant, and TimelineJS.  In each case, the students will use the tools, and then write short essays on the limits and possibilities of the various tools

We hope some of you will find this interesting.

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