Teaching With Collaborative Digital Textbooks

Eric Weiskott says digital technology can present course materials in powerful ways -- but there are pedagogical drawbacks.

June 14, 2017

For the past two years I’ve experimented with a new pedagogical tool in my undergraduate courses: collaborative digital textbooks.

Using MediaKron, a WYSIWYG website builder developed at Boston College, where I teach, I created companion websites for two undergraduate seminars in medieval English poetry. MediaKron is a proprietary product of the Center for Teaching Excellence at BC, currently available to select partner institutions, but you can compose similar websites with Weebly or WordPress.

The idea is to build an intellectual resource and then invite students to contribute. In the first half of the semester, I use the MediaKron website as a textbook to convey basic information about the subject matter. In the second half of the semester, students break up into teams of three or four, take on specialized roles, and research, write, design, and publish new pages on the site.

The first course, Middle English Alliterative Poetry, was an undergraduate elective devoted to linguistically challenging 14th- and 15th-century English poetry. My MediaKron site, which I developed over the 2015-2016 academic year with the support of an internal technology grant, has pages for the pronunciation of Middle English, alliterative meter, and medieval English manuscripts. The pages are short and written without jargon. They include text, images, and hyperlinks and introduce fundamental skills in interpretation of a forgotten poetic tradition.

I also wrote a detailed page for one poem from the syllabus, as a template. Late in the semester, I assigned students to team up and compose new pages for other poems we read, including hyperlinked bibliographies.

Second Course, Different Focus

The digital textbook for the second course, Chaucer, has a different focus. I taught Chaucer this spring, for the second time at BC, and integrated a MediaKron website into the course. The site, Mapping Chaucer, focuses on visualizing the literary imagination of 14th-century London poet Geoffrey Chaucer through MediaKron’s Map Tour feature. Map Tours are interactive maps with points plotted in sequence and keyed to text, image, sound, or video. Two excellent non-proprietary alternatives for creating interactive maps are Google My Maps for Google account holders and Fabula Maps.

Map Tours, a recent addition to MediaKron, struck me as an especially productive way of engaging with Chaucer’s poetry. A career bureaucrat, Chaucer traveled extensively, from England to France, Italy, Spain, and the Low Countries, in the course of executing a variety of tasks for the royal government. His writing reveals deep familiarity with literature in English, French, Italian, and Latin. His masterpiece The Canterbury Tales is structured around a pilgrimage from Southwark, London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Kent. The Tales themselves take place in England or as far away as Greece, Morocco, and the Middle East. Chaucer’s cultural geography is a current hot topic among scholars, who increasingly see the poet as a peripatetic and transnational author.

Last fall, with the support of a second internal technology grant, I hired a former student from Middle English Alliterative Poetry as an undergraduate research assistant to design maps for Chaucer’s life, the Canterbury Tales frame narrative, and one tale as a template. The maps record places mentioned, visited, or alluded to by Chaucer, with passages from the original Middle English and commentary on the places’ geographical, cultural, and literary significance. In April (the month with which the Canterbury Tales famously begins), students broke into teams and created maps for other tales on the syllabus, one tale per team.

Both sites are public, which I think is important in order to signal that we take our students’ developing expertise seriously. I always give students the option not to put their names on their published work. The students generally enjoy these digital assignments, a rare chance for undergrads to contribute to public knowledge. The MediaKron project counts for only 10 percent of their course grade. Building a textbook, whether analog or digital, turns out to be good preparation for writing a research paper. The authoritative, general-audience voice of the MediaKron sites shows up in my students’ final papers, as do individual items of bibliography from the sites.

In addition to the benefits of practicing short-form public writing and project-based teamwork, the web designers also gain skills in digital content creation. All of the students come away with a digital publication for a design or writing portfolio.

There happen to be about forty surviving Middle English alliterative poems and about forty tales and poems by Chaucer, a good number that means future iterations of these classes can extend the efforts of the first cohorts. Eventually, I may have teams revise and expand existing webpages.

Authoring and overseeing the sites has complemented my research activities. After my critical editions of two 15th-century alliterative poems appeared in print, I boiled the essays down into plain English and published the highlights on the Middle English Alliterative Poetry website, with links back to the publications. Reviewing my students’ work on the sites has brought new literary details and scholarly sources to my attention. The exercise of visualizing Chaucer’s imagination informs one chapter of my current book project, which considers the relationship between Chaucer’s English and European literary identities. For the foreseeable future, the sites will persist as public documents of my and my students’ thinking.

Boston College’s Academic Technology Advisory Board (ATAB), the funding body for both of the internal grants awarded to my digital projects, has been remarkably supportive and responsive. Particularly valuable was a year-long faculty cohort associated with my first grant. The chance to discuss the textbook project with colleagues and to see the same technology put to diverse pedagogical uses improved my MediaKron website itself and my approach to the classroom assignment in the spring. I recommend collaborating not only with your students but with your colleagues when designing new digital resources.

Digital Textbook Drawbacks

Like any pedagogical strategy, collaborative digital textbooks have drawbacks. Assigning webpages means slightly less space for traditional primary and secondary texts. Digital textbooks work best for material that is highly unfamiliar to students (like alliterative verse) and/or easily visualized (like Chaucer’s poetry). Otherwise, the textbook might be redundant with common knowledge or with available web resources.

Some students may feel uncomfortable in their roles on their teams (researcher, writer, editor, or web designer). I email out a poll before the assignment begins, to identify students with web design experience who can serve as web editors.

Other drawbacks have to do with instructors’ finite time and energy. Not all teachers will have access to a technology advisory board, internal technology grants, or undergraduate research assistants. Building both websites on my own would have involved a larger time commitment and more trial and error. Grading digital assignments can be surprisingly labor-intensive, especially when the teacher must normalize the style of digital resources across different student teams’ work.

Digital technology can represent our course materials in powerful new ways. As compared with a learning management system (LMS), which my students tend to view as a repository of information rather than a digital space, an interactive digital textbook provides greater opportunity for meaningful intellectual collaboration.



Eric Weiskott is assistant professor of English at Boston College, where he teaches medieval English literature and poetics. Follow him on Twitter @ericweiskott.


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