Tailoring assignments to the online environment

Preparing to teach online has encouraged us to make fuller use of the online world by utilizing the dynamic, interactive tools of digital humanities scholarship. For some time, digital humanities have come to be seen as something of a panacea. And now, the rise of “Big History”, which embraces “big data” and DH tools, seems poised to push the discipline in that direction. Neither of us has ever shared that view, but we have both been adapting gradually to the new possibilities offered by computer tools in research and teaching.  Over the years, both of us have developed databases working with census materials and vital statistics, experimented with alternatives to PowerPoint such as Prezi, taught with online research tools, and organized much of our own research with Zotero.  More recently though we have begun to explore the potential of tools for text analysis, something that pushes us more fully into the world of Digital History.  We hope the course we’re developing will encourage students to engage more fully with the possibilities of research in a digital world, while also giving us an opportunity to share the learning experience with them.

Our online course is giving us a chance to think more about how our students learn historical thinking effectively in digital environments. When we began planning for the course more than a year ago, our initial plan for assignments centred on a fairly standard model for history courses: regular posts to online forums (our weekly “seminars”), two shorter papers, and one longer final paper. A piece of advice we have heard again and again in more recent months is that online courses work best when they’re not simply an online version of a face-to-face course. At many levels this advice does not apply to our course on the Atlantic world, because we are building the course from scratch. We have come to realize more recently, however, that many of our guiding assumptions are suited best for a traditional, face-to-face history course. Thus, we’ve been rethinking our plan.

Our revised assignment plan includes regular weekly writing in online forums, and several shorter written assignments. Our three major assignments also involve significant components that are related to traditional essays, so we are certainly not departing too far from our familiar territory. What’s new in our plan? We’re now giving each of our three major assignments a significant digital component. One assignment is an analysis of Wikipedia entries; another requires students to compare two texts with the help of Voyant Tools; and the final assignment gets students to build and reflect on a timeline that they construct using Timeline JS. We’re now looking for ways to teach students to improve their digital literacy and computer research skills, while also paying lots of attention to good, old-fashioned humanistic skills focused around working with texts.

In future post, we’ll write more about how we hope our assignments will help students learn historical thinking skills.

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