digital history

Here’s an interesting vision of digital learning. I can’t make any use of it in my large History 100 survey courses, because it would require more individualized work on methods than I have time for. For a smaller, more specialized course, however, it could work in history, as long as actual books were integrated into the plan too.

What I especially like about this idea is how it would help students learn about the social and institutional structures within which knowledge is produced and passed on. But is that even possible in a general education course, even if the number of students were smaller? Or is this more for undergraduates already in their third year or working inside their major?

[hat tip: Ed Webb]

I’ve started a simple blog called History Courses for my students beginning this summer. The point is to have a simple one-way communication stream, a bulletin board of sorts, although students are free to comment on the blog, if they want.

By the way, my iBook was out of commission all winter. That’s one reason for the paucity of new posts here. The other is that I have been teaching ESL instead of history, because budget cuts at George Mason University left me without any courses this winter. ESL entails a lot of hours in the classroom.

My Western Civ courses last winter and spring had some mandatory discussion components. Students had to visit the Holocaust Museum and talk about their experience online. I had them do the same with two old movies as well. (They chose from a list I had given them.) Both assignments went pretty well, except for a couple students who thought they only needed to copy and paste someone’s words from an online movie review. The other downside to the assignment was assessment. Blackboard gives precise statistics for each user, so it is possible to combine one’s impression of the students’ quality of effort with numbers. Wikispaces, which I like, did not offer these statistics. (It might for its Private Label version, but my school doesn’t have that. I had to set up my own Wikispaces account.)

What was really interesting about the Wikispaces experience, however, was that students started using the discussion feature in other parts of the course. It wasn’t mandatory, though I had told students I’d keep it in mind when doing their class participation grade. I’ve said the same thing to classes where I have used Blackboard, but without such positive results. The difference was related both to Wikispaces and the number of students involved.

Wikispaces lets people stay logged in on their laptops or desktop computers. That makes it really easy to check on a regular basis. Wikispaces also makes it easy to create course content that is easy to navigate. Blackboard makes creating course content much more difficult, at least that’s been my experience with their folders. I put course content in them and then got all kinds of emails asking where the stuff was. I never had that happen on Wikispaces. Obviously, I could learn to use Blackboard more effectively, but that will cost me more time than I’ve had, and the process of building pages will continue to be clumsy and slow. Wikispaces is so much easier, especially with one learns it’s easy markup, though that is not necessary.

My experience with Wikispaces forums was different for another reason, however. Last spring I put together all three courses on one Wiki. That gave me about 110 people. Since the course is required and not everyone is as interested in online participation, or even familiar with online forums, these numbers gave me the critical mass I needed to get self-sustaining discussions that did not require too much shepherding on my part.

By way of comparison, this fall I am using Blackboard again, because I did not feel like paying Wikispaces any money or dealing with student usernames. (Neither of these things would be an issue if the university bought the service for the whole campus.) The result has been mixed. I have not required online participation because of the bibliography project, but I was hoping to see a little discussion about the content of the course like I saw last spring. That has not been happening much. The problem, I think, is that while I have 95 students, they are split into two courses and therefore two places on Blackboard. (I should have asked for consolidation of the two.) This means I lost my critical mass. Also, logging into Blackboard is a pain in the neck. Not only can it not leave one signed in, but it insists on checking browser compatibility every single time. Why can’t it just drop a cookie? And Firefox asks me every single time whether I trust the security certificate or not. (Using Safari is not even an option.) These minor things really get in the way, because logging in distracts the user from whatever she might have wanted to say. Adding insult to injury, Blackboard automatically logs one out after a certain amount of time has elapsed, which limits the utility of its note-taking and calendar functions. (I’m not sure how much time has to pass, but the automatic logout has happened to me a lot this semester.)

One other thing I’ve noticed is layout. Many students need teaching about threaded discussions, no matter what platform, it seems, but Blackboard’s are just plain clunky next to Wikispaces’.

One important point to note about Wikispaces: The free version does not shield students’ comments from the public, and it includes ads via Google AdSense in the right-hand bar. The instructor can gain privacy and get rid of the ads by paying $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year. That is good if one
plans to recycle the same site. If not, the number of sites could grow. Sooner or later one will have to release the comments to the public and allow the ads. I knew this was going to happen, so I told students ahead of time that I would be opening the wiki at the end of the semester. I also offered to delete their names, though only one person took me up on that. Of course, none of this is an issue for universities with an enterprise edition. Also, teachers in primary and secondary education can obtain free wikis for their classes.

Bottom line? I wish more universities would buy Wikispaces Private Label, which is between $1000 and $8000 per year, depending on levels of storage and service. I don’t know what Blackboard costs, but I suspect this is a pretty cheap price that would make an invaluable tool available for student collaborative projects as well. And instructors would have control over their course websites and forums in a way that Blackboard users can only dream of. Of course, some instructors might be using Blackboard’s testing features, which Wikispaces doesn’t have, but I’m not.

Related articles:

Update (1/7/2010): I have deleted the wiki initially linked to at the beginning of this post. As interesting as the experience was, I would like to maintain the privacy of the students, and I cannot afford the annual dues to password protect the thing. I do wish that the universities I teach for as an adjunct were subscribed to the enterprise version of Wikispaces.

Last winter and spring I had my students write Wikipedia articles and then monitor those articles to see what edits other people made. The point was to give them a firmer appreciation of how this online resource works, so that they would understand its strengths and limitations. The Wikipedia projects were of varying quality, but I wasn’t unhappy with them. The student feedback at the end of the semester also showed that most of them learned the lesson, though a few were excited to be exposed to this resource for the first time. To be sure, the latter kind of comment made me feel dirty, though I’m sure the students would have found Wikipedia sometime, at the very latest through Google searches, which is how I discovered it some years ago.

As much as I liked the Wikipedia experiment, I have decided not to repeat it this semester. For one thing, the process of helping 100 or more students find a suitable topic that has not already been done in Wikipedia is enormously time-consuming. So is teaching students how to use Wikipedia’s relatively uncomplicated markup. Contrary to the stereotype about the youngest generation of university students being internet savvy, many of them only know how to use the internet in highly specific ways. (If you can read German, see Jan Hodel’s comments on this issue here and here.) I did not have much time for technical details in class, so I had a lot of one-on-one student meetings in the computer lab. This circumstance does not mean that Wikipedia projects are not worth doing, but it is a significant factor to consider for the kind of large survey course that I have been teaching.

More to the point, however, the Wikipedia project and especially the group electronic scrapbook project I had students do revealed a more traditional weakness: too many students did not know how to do basic research using the library’s catalog, reference desk, and databases. Indeed, they did not know how to use Google very well either. Furthermore, most students did not know how to evaluate the potential usefulness of books they found. They seem to have just assumed that a book was a book. The idea of examining the bibliography, for example, never occurred to many of them, even though I discussed the issue in the directions as well as in class. I thought that this kind of need was supposed to be filled in required English classes, but if that is happening, it is inadequate, because most of my students last semester were not freshman.

Hence, this semester I have decided to incorporate research skills into my course. A research paper is out of the question with so many students involved. Moreover, a research paper can become a distraction, since students are often most concerned simply with producing enough text. At the same time, I want to do something that gives students some choice, as most students really appreciated that aspect of the course last semester. Hence, I have decided to have students choose a research topic, develop a bibliography and write a short bibliographical essay to go with it. If you are interested in learning more, see the current version of my directions for the bibliography project on one of my course websites.

I plan to devote some time to research issues in class and on a forum on Blackboard, to which George Mason recently switched from WebCT. Finally, I expect to talk to some students during office hours. Instead of giving technical lessons for Wikipedia markup, however, we will be able to talk research methods and history. Students also need to improve their electronic literacy, but I have to pick my battles.

Finally, some notes about plagiarism: An unusually high number of students thought they could get away with copying and pasting text for their online scrapbook projects. I instructed them about the university’s honor system, but it seems much additional work is necessary in this area, should I ever do electronic assignments again. Interestingly, though, I did not find such copying in the Wikipedia projects. Perhaps students understood that others would be reading that work? Some students actually commented to me on how good it felt to do a homework assignment that they knew others would be reading. Be that as it may, it is possible that this semester’s bibliography project will reduce plagiarism opportunities and temptations, since it will not be as readily available on the open market.

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, The Myth of Black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.

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A question about names: I refer to other historians by their last name in formal academic prose. In blogging, on the other hand, I generally refer to fellow bloggers by their first name. This post has left me unsure of how to handle this issue. Since it’s about blogging, I have decided to go with the first name. If I had been engaging historiographical arguments, I think I would have used the last name instead. What do you other blogging historians do?

Update (1/11/2010): Civil War Memory has moved to

It’s spring break at George Mason University (GMU), and, starting tomorrow, I will have the apartment to myself during the day. Of course, there is a mountain of student work to correct and classes to prepare, but I think I will be able to resume blogging here again. For starters, I do not have to spend three hours a day in busses and trains between Northwest DC and Fairfax, VA. Excuses aside, I sure do admire those of you who are able to teach and blog at the same time, and I hope to begin doing the same again myself. And, hey, I even have a TA this semester, though I don’t really have an office, unless having a place available for office hours that three other people use counts.

I’m teaching three sections of History 100 again, that is, GMU’s one-semester survey in Western Civilization. I’m doing it differently this semester than in previous semesters. I’ve thrown out the chronological approach in favor of a thematic one. I would have done this earlier, but I never got around to planning it out. This time I did not let a minor detail like that get in my way. Better to name six major themes ahead of time and then work my way through them during the semester. The chronological alternative was simply too frustrating for both me and my students.

I’ve also dispensed with traditional exams and writing assignments. Instead they are each doing a Wikipedia project, an idea I got from Mills Kelly. They are also doing a group research project (three to four students each) that will result in electronic output, whether a wiki, a blog, an old-fashioned website, or something on GoogleDocs. Traditional writing and research skills still matter, but I thought I would give them assignments that teach other skills as well.

One thing I’ve learned in the process already: I have to spend a lot of one-on-one time with individual students who are less familiar with this media. But they’re catching on, and the course wiki I set up with Wikispaces is working well. Each page has a place for threaded discussions, and the students are talking. I’d like to think it was for the love of the subject, which in some cases it is. I am also basing a substantial chunk of their grades for the course on online and class participation.

I do not think my thematic approach will have implications for my summer session at Georgetown University, where the mandatory survey, Themes in European Civilization, lasts two semesters. Also, because each course meets daily for five weeks in the summer, there will be no need for a wiki and there will be less opportunity for a long-term project. I’ll probably work with the old format of exams and short papers, but I want to give that a little more thought.

Producing Knowledge

Mills Kelly of Edwired responds to the notion that the historical profession is about writing and therefore about publishing in traditional academic print media:

It seems to me that the essence of scholarship is the circulation of knowledge and the discussion of that knowledge among both peers and other interested parties. How is knowledge circulated? Print, the Internet, a museum exhibit, film, radio, are all methods for circulating knowledge and all of them require some sort of writing–even if that writing doesn’t result in yet another monograph or journal article. Just as one example–this blog had more than 75,000 unique visitors in 2007. If I’m lucky, my book will sell 1,000 copies. So how is more knowledge circulated?

Teaching Survey Courses

In The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media, John McClymer makes an interesting point about one major difficulty of teaching introductory history classes:

I routinely begin our explorations of topics by asking students to come up with questions. There are several reasons. The most important is that it legitimates confusion. All learning begins in puzzlement, but teachers and students routinely connive in the illusion that students understand the causes of the French Revolution and any number of equally complex developments. The first and second year students in my “Modern Europe and U.S.,1815 to the Present” do not. This is not a failure on their part or mine. A good undergraduate math student can learn to integrate equations in a Calculus I course. An equally good history student cannot master the causes of the French Revolution in an introductory history course.

My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea.

The first two hits on Google led to web sites that seek to appear legitimate, but which are in fact sites that deny the Holocaust and consider the Nuremberg Trial a travesty of justice. How did Google mess this up? Have some Nazi would-be academics learned search engine optimization (SEO)? Or was this blind luck? I’m not sure how Google’s search engine works, but the results here certainly point to the limitations of algorithms that rely on the syntactic relevance of a site. Also, while no one is linking to the articles about the Hossbach Protocol directly, there are many links to the main sites on which the articles appear. (You can determine who is linking to a site by typing into the Google search box, unless the site is using the nofollow attribute in its links.) In other words, the sites appear to be popular and therefore relevant in Google’s eyes. In fact, Google has blessed both sites with respectable, if not overwhelming page ranks (PR). The first one Historical Revisionism, comes in at a PR 4, and the second one, Institute for Historical Review, at PR 5 on a scale of 0 to 10.

Now I could stop with this warning about the limitations of Google search results, but perhaps there is more to be learned here. Perhaps I should also issue a plea to historians to both learn SEO and write for general audiences on the web. Like it or not, Google is the first place many people turn for answers, and anyone seeking one on the Hossbach Protocol can be easily led astray. Actually, historians might not even need to learn SEO. Wikipedia already has a high page rank and its pages turn up regularly at or near the top of Google search results. Perhaps all that is needed is more and better Wikipedia articles. The Hossbach Protocol doesn’t show up in Wikipedia. If it had, the search results would have been different.

Wikipedia brings up another twist. Typically, when one uses one term in Wikipedia that is more commonly known by another, Wikipedia will at least offer alternative results. (It’s better than Google that way. Google can only offer spelling alternatives.) In this case, though, the more typical American name for this document did not show up in the search results. Only after I typed Hossbach Memorandum did I find what I was looking for. I then typed this term into Google and came up with much more satisfactory results. Only one of the right-wing links came up on the first page, and this time near the bottom.

This final result brings me back to Wikipedia and SEO. We need to enter all possible variations of terms in Wikipedia articles so that they show up in search results. (Sure, I should have entered “Hossbach Memorandum” right from the start, but I translated directly and that was that. As the first set of search results shows, others have done so too.) We also need to do the same thing with web articles and blog posts. It won’t do to leave the field open to the bad guys, simply because the world of SEO isn’t part of our training and does not make or break historical careers. I don’t know if Deborah Lipstadt does any SEO, but her three-year-old blog combats holocaust denial and has a PR 6. More established historians need to follow her example in their respective fields.


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