Class-sourcing as a teaching strategy (essay)
Class-sourcing, my adaptation of the term “crowdsourcing,” is a teaching strategy that can help us reach our students, serve our discipline, profession, and the broader public, while staying relevant in this digital era.
Class-sourcing involves having faculty members give class assignments where students make publicly accessible online digital artifacts, such as wikis, websites, blogs, videos, podcasts and others. These projects aim to report on topics relevant to the class for a broad audience in a visually appealing fashion.
Similar to a research paper, students conduct independent research on a specific topic they chose, analyze the information they find, and organize and communicate this data, which strengthens research, writing and critical thinking. However, online digital artifacts provide additional benefits, as they advance our ability to teach students digital literacy skills relevant to professional and civic life in the modern digital age.
The novelty of class-sourced assignments improves student engagement, which enhances comprehension of course content. Additionally, the publicly accessible nature of the online projects, and students' knowledge that they will be used to teach subsequent classes, results in improved academic performance. Finally, students working in teams on these assignments strengthened teamwork and collaboration abilities.
Don’t take my word for it. Here is student feedback from an assignment in which students created websites in my spring 2013 course “Readings in Modern European History” at Ohio State University’s Newark Campus:
Creating the website was a great opportunity for the group to learn about something new and even when the project is over the website is still around for others to see and learn. In the future the members of the group will approach websites differently because this project has done a lot to show us how useful they can be as sources of information. Creating the website was extremely useful to our group for learning about the historical topic we choose. To complete the website we had to do a lot of research and go through a broad range of sources. The research put into the website was about the equal to the amount of research it takes to write a traditional research paper.
Other feedback from students resembles this one: excitement over the innovative nature of the website project; appreciation for learning novel digital and teamwork skills highly applicable to their post-graduate lives; pride over creating a digital artifact that will have a lasting presence, something they could reference in their future internship and job applications.
But how would you actually do a class-sourced assignment? It is surprisingly easy.
I will take you through how I conduct one specific type of class-sourced assignment, namely student-created websites, and share what I have learned. To prepare for the student-created website assignment, I would suggest devising a prompt that contains clear guidelines and a grading rubric, necessary for this unusual project. Here is a link to a prompt I created, please feel free to adapt it to your needs.
The prompt asks students to create a 550-600 word analytical statement about their chosen topic on the website’s home page, which has worked well for my students and I believe will work well for yours in providing space for their analysis of the topic. To provide evidence for their analysis, the several subordinate pages of the website include a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, embedded images and videos, and links to relevant websites.
To make the student-created website especially useful as a teaching tool, ask students to create a subpage with five assignments based on their website suitable for a high school senior class or a freshman-level college class. The grading rubric should assign a value to each of these components, with the analytical statement weighted most heavily to reflect the importance for history majors of a clear and well-argued interpretation. This grading rubric provided a team grade for each group.
To minimize the problem of some teammates slacking off, I have found it useful to ask all group members to evaluate each other anonymously. Then, the overall grade for each student combined their team grade with their teammates’ assessments, thus minimizing the problem of some group members not doing the required group work.
At the beginning of your courses, I suggest that you inform students about the upcoming website assignment, allaying anxieties among some about unfamiliarity with technology. In my classes, I also assigned as course readings some websites that students in my previous classes created, not only because such assignments serve as valuable teaching tools, but also because they show students that others like them have created such websites, and because it demonstrates that their own websites will be used to teach future students. You can find some sample websites created by students on my personal webpage if you wish to do the same.
I suggest beginning the assignments halfway through the course, after the students are comfortable with each other, since they will be working in groups. Groups of four or five students work well, with one member as the website coordinator. The teams should discuss possible website topics, and you should guide them to choose a theme appropriate for meaningful undergraduate research projects, similar to what the students would pick for a research essay. Next, the teams should plan out the individual responsibilities of each member and decide on their work plans and timeline.
Next, describe the website creation platform that you ask students to use. I use Google Sites, for its simplicity and clarity. The website assignment prompt includes tutorials on Google Sites. Students should set up their own websites, but also provide access to the faculty member leading the class, allowing her or him to observe student progress and intervene in case of problems.
To make sure that students stayed on track, I have found that it works well to ask each team’s website coordinator to report weekly to the class on their progress. Naturally, some challenges arise. Many resemble the issues typical for a traditional undergraduate research project, like students needing guidance locating appropriate primary and secondary sources. Occasionally, some groups required help dealing with challenging team dynamics. Other issues prove unique to the website assignment, such as advice on locating online content. Copyright questions came up with images and videos the first time I ran the website assignment, but Ohio State University’s copyright specialist determined that the fair use doctrine generally protects such limited use of copyrighted materials for pedagogical purposes.
Despite these minor challenges, in my experience running the website assignment so far in four classes, all the teams successfully carry through their projects and launch their websites. I have found it useful to have students do a class presentation about the websites, answering inquiries from me and their classmates. This develops public presentation skills and a sense of pride among students. To give the students a competitive drive, I suggest asking the class members to vote on the best website after the presentations. In my spring 2013 Soviet History class, the “The Dissident Movement in the Soviet Union” won (see the figure below), and each member of that team received bonus points.
Class-sourced assignments likewise work well for other types of digital artifacts. Students in my classes have used Delicious, an internet platform for organizing bookmarks, to create online annotated bibliographies. Pinterest, a platform that allows users to organize and share diverse digital media, has proved functional to create visually-oriented digital artifacts. The latter were especially useful for survey classes, whereas websites offer a better fit for more advanced students.
Class-sourcing has many additional benefits beyond its immediate impact on those students who created the digital artifact, as it produces content well-suited to teaching others. Class-sourced artifacts have the potential to help satisfy the demand among faculty and high school teachers for free class materials, especially ones available on the internet where our students spend so much of their time. Since faculty guide their creation, these products can be specifically tailored to the needs of teaching and learning, in comparison to crowdsourced sources such as Wikipedia.
Moreover, since faculty check and correct their students’ assignments, class-sourced artifacts deserve more trust than crowdsourced data that lacks such evaluation. Furthermore, there can be many digital artifacts dealing with the same topic: by presenting a diversity of perspectives and interpretations, class-sourced materials can offer a fuller and richer portrayal than the cohesive and unified narrative style of either Wikipedia or textbooks.
Once enough have been created and compiled together in an organized fashion, class-sourced projects would serve as a valuable informational resource for the public. Such efforts to organize these artifacts can start at the level of individual faculty, as on my personal webpage, and departments, as at the OSU history department’s Goldberg Center. It can then grow to span libraries, universities, academic societies, and eventually the national and even international level. Faculty can partner with schools, museums, governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and other institutions to create digital artifacts that serve the particular needs of such external stakeholders.
In this age of digital technology and tightening budgets, class-sourcing would help ensure that we stay relevant and demonstrates actively the value of academic contributions to society as a whole.
Gleb Tsipursky is an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University's Newark campus.