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Harvesting the Fruits of the Undergraduate Classroom
December 16, 2013 - 9:05pm

It’s hard to believe that just a year ago debates about MOOCs dominated the conversation about new media and higher education in the twenty-first century.

Proponents promised that MOOCs would bring massive productivity gains to higher education, enabling individual professors (albeit working with expensive and expansive teams of developers and technicians) to reach thousands or even tens of thousands of students simultaneously.

To draw an analogy to the work of ministers, MOOCs would do this by offloading professors’ pastoral duties—the time-intensive task of mentoring individual students—to feedback-providing, adaptive testing algorithms, freeing faculty to concentrate exclusively on preaching—conveying knowledge and ideas through recorded lectures and other online-friendly delivery mechanisms—to now huge audiences.

While it’s probably too early to pronounce the death of the MOOC movement, a year after its media heyday we’re now obviously hearing a lot less talk about MOOCs affecting a revolution in higher education. (For evidence, just check out the front page of the December 11th New York Times: "After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought.")

While assessments of MOOCs are ongoing, the early evidence indicates that computer algorithms are sorry substitutes for faculty-student relationships and that delivering information to be passively absorbed is a shallower learning experience than actively creating new knowledge.

Put another way, MOOCs likely have stumbled because of faulty pedagogical premises rather than anything intrinsic about the educational potential of digital technologies. Years before the MOOC movement, a group of historians — Ed Ayers, Andrew Torget, Scott Nesbit, and myself — conceived and helped develop a very un-MOOC-like online pedagogical tool, the History Engine.

Instead of trying to revolutionize instruction, the History Engine attempts to harness the instruction and learning that already happens in classrooms—the research and writing that students do and the irreplaceable mentorship that faculty provide—to amass a free and publicly accessible online archive of materials about the past.

The History Engine is a large collection of historical vignettes about American history written by students at a variety of colleges and universities around North America. Students contributing to the History Engine all complete a small research assignment: they each find an interesting primary source and do some reading among secondary sources to be able to understand more about the relevant historical context.

They then engage in a modest but challenging exercise historical storytelling: they will write a short account, typically around 500 words, that uses their research to explain something about the past.

Each of these student uploads his or her episode, along with some basic metadata—dates when it happened, one or more locations where it happened, and two or three tags describing the historical subject — to the History Engine database where it will be publicly discoverable.

In a lot of ways this is a very conventional research and writing assignment. But these vignettes differ from the thesis driven papers we often ask our students to write. In the History Engine explanation and contextualization typically is built into stories rather than into arguments.

While of course students need to learn how to articulate and defend an argument, contributing to the History Engine gives them an opportunity to practice a different but related skill: crafting an engaging, thoughtful story for a general audience who are not professional historians.

This is a traditional assignment in another sense, one quite different from the underlying premise MOOCs. In the History Engine assignment, faculty work intensely with students to improve their writing. I’ve found the concision of History Engine episodes to be of great value in this regard.

While I can’t read and respond to multiple drafts of fifteen-page research papers, I can work intensively with students on short vignettes, going repeatedly back and forth with them about particular paragraphs, even individual sentences. We also rely on the faculty who use the History Engine to protect its quality by vetting their students work to ensure that the archive does not contain factually inaccurate or badly written episodes. When I’ve used the History Engine in my classes, for instance, I have only allowed students who have achieved a B or better to make their episode publicly available.

The idea behind the History Engine—again one pretty different from many MOOCs—is that students will learn more about history by actively doing and producing it than they will just by hearing about it. Happily, producing these vignettes is something that most undergraduate students can do well.

Although it wouldn’t be reasonable to ask a typical undergraduate to produce an historical arguments that would be of interest to either professional historians or the general public, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to write short historical accounts that accurately depicts something that happened in the past and conveys enough information about the historical context to allow a reader to make sense of that event. While not easy, that is something most of them are capable of doing.

In other words, short historical episodes written by undergraduate students can and do end up being of interest to a broad public. Since the History Engine was launched about five years ago, students at a number of US and Canadian colleges and universities have collectively contributed over 3,000 episodes to the History Engine, and these episodes have received a wide readership.

Recently the History Engine has been receiving over 50,000 visits per month. Rather than writing papers that have been read by just a few dozen professors, amassing their work in the History Engine has allowed it to be read and used by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. 

Any faculty teaching college or university courses is welcome to create an account with the History Engine. If repeated use is any gauge, many faculty who have used to History Engine have been happy with the exercise. Many have used it in two or three courses; others in as many as ten individual courses.

To date the History Engine has only been available to faculty teaching American history. We are now completing a redevelopment of the project, in partnership with the University of Toronto Scarborough, to redo the way the History Engine handles geography. This will make the History Engine useable in courses from classical history to French medieval history to nineteenth-century Ottoman history. 

Unlike MOOCs the History Engine does not attempt to use digital technologies to escape what I analogized as faculty’s “pastoral duties.” It doesn’t increase their individual productivity in terms of saving time or scaling up the number of students they can reach.  Instead, it proceeds from the opposite premise.

Digital technologies might better be used not to transcend the interaction between teacher and student but instead to collect and publish the valuable fruits of that relationship: the thoughtfully researched and often eloquent work that students produce under the guidance of engaged faculty.

Robert K. Nelson is the Director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond.

 

 

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