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Author: Alan MacEachern
Title: The :-) and :-( of Teaching History on the Web
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 1998

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Source: The :-) and :-( of Teaching History on the Web
Alan MacEachern

vol. 1, no. 2, November 1998
Article Type: Work in Progress
PDF: Download full PDF [33kb ]

The :-) and :-( of Teaching History on the Web

Alan MacEachern

Adjunct Professor in History & Environmental Science
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario

Abstract: In the 1997-1998 academic year, the author developed and taught North American Environmental History over the web for the University of Prince edward Island. This essay explores the advantages and frustrations of web-based teaching. Notably, the author suggests that the computer itself does not play as large a role in shaping the educational experience as does the distance between teacher and pupil. A version of this paper was presented to the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.

I was first inspired to teach on the web by a beautiful website. In the summer of 1996, I came across the Cimarron County Historical Museum of Kansas site, which ran a permanent exhibition on the web about the Dust Bowl. Through evocative photographs and personal accounts, the museum explained how the massive dust storms had pounded the region in the 1930s. How helpful it would be, I thought, to use this in a course. Tell students about the human and natural causes of the Dust Bowl and then — click — take them to a small museum in a town where it happened. I could think of no other medium which would allow a teacher to teach history in just this way.

I should begin by saying I don't know much about computers. Like a lot of people, I know exactly what I need to know to get through the day, and nothing more. I own an old Mac with very few programs and no modem, and I surf the net and email from my office. But in the 1997-1998 school year, I found myself teaching environmental history on the web for the University of Prince Edward Island, 800 miles from my home. This course was to be an experiment in the new technology and its value to teaching; UPEI and I, even the students thought of it as such. The following pages (scrolls?) will take you through the course's first year, and introduce some of the successes and frustrations that occurred along the way.

For the past few years, I have taught North American Environmental History by correspondence for Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Correspondence courses are the poor cousins in university programs, but I'm not sure why. There is opportunity for teacher-student dialogue by phone or, increasingly, email, and the lecture notes are if anything more informative and polished than a lecturers' last minute remarks. I know that both the professor and the students enjoy the freedom of working on their own time. I especially valued the diversity of students and the subsequent diversity of their written work: my classes tended to be sprinkled with students from around the world, mature students, and the incarcerated.

Since all my course notes were already on disk, I asked Part-Time Studies at Queen's if they would put them on a web page. I then spent a couple of days rummaging around the web, picking out relevant sites to link to. In those heady days of 1996, widespread interest in the World Wide Web was just catching on (at my university, at least) and I hoped that a few students would choose to read the notes that way, jumping to Cimarron County and elsewhere while they were there. The website also seemed a way to advertise myself as an environmental historian; my Ph.D. was nearing completion, and I soon would be looking for a job. Part-Time Studies saw it as a way to advertise the course, and perhaps saw it as the shape of things to come.

I mentioned the new website to a friend who teaches history at the University of Prince Edward Island, a school of about 2000 students on Canada's East Coast. He visited the page, and asked me if I would be interested in developing and teaching a similar course over the web. This would be the first time UPEI had run such a course, and of course it would be my first time, too.

As a web neophyte, perhaps I should have demurred. Was this like accepting a job to teach Esperanto? Should I have known much more about computer-aided teaching and web page creation before I deserved to teach on the web? For a variety of reasons I decided not. First, it seemed appropriate to think of the computer and the internet as just any other teaching aids, like a slide projector. I needed to be able to use them, not fix them or know everything about how they worked. I even fancied myself a relatively unbiased experimenter since I am neither overly fearful of the computer, nor of the opinion that it will save the university as we know it. Second, many of the students themselves would be new to the web, maybe even relatively new to computers. If the web is to be a democratic teaching tool, this inexperience should not prevent them from taking the course, any more than an inability to run a slide projector would keep them from taking a lecture course. This was to be a course in environmental history, and the web would only be the medium that allowed the course to happen. Third, students and I would have technical support from UPEI, making sure that the virtual slide projector was running smoothly throughout the year.

The real reason I accepted, though, was that it seemed so sensible: all the players would benefit from a web-based course. The students would have the opportunity to learn environmental history, a field otherwise unavailable at UPEI. Their course notes would be supplemented with the wide range of information available on the WorldWideWeb. And they would enjoy the flexibility of a correspondence course, able to work on it anytime they were within reach of a computer. For my part, freedom was also an attraction. Once the course notes were written, my teaching time would be unstructured. I would be building up my resume by teaching at two universities, without commuting. And again, this offered me unparalleled opportunity to promote my work. As far as I know, no environmental historian had yet taught online, or even set up a comprehensive website. I was intrigued — and a bit intimidated — by the chance to present my thoughts on environmental history for the world to see. Of course, UPEI had its own agenda. It would gain a course in a discipline that no faculty was interested in teaching, or for which none were qualified to teach. Also, the course would be a logical extension of the university's Extension Department, a potential glimpse of what all their correspondence courses in the future would be like.

Readers will no doubt imagine that for UPEI this was also an experiment in faculty outsourcing. The existence of web-based teaching in the university system certainly leads to questions about job security and the maintenance of educational standards. I recognized that, but felt that the best precedent I could serve was simply to teach the best course I could — and protect my interests throughout. UPEI is not like some schools that make you sign over your rights to the course you've created; if it was, I would not have agreed to develop the course. We avoided the messy intellectual property question altogether by having UPEI agree — in writing — that I would have first chance to teach the class any subsequent time it was offered.

When we began discussion about the course itself, it was clear that both UPEI and I wanted to run it, if possible, entirely by computer. The course notes were to be placed on a web page, class discussion and bulletins were to be distributed through an email listserve (a discussion list accessible only to the students and myself), even papers were to be emailed to me. Though students could courier papers, and phone or mail me if they had questions, we encouraged students to rely on internet resources first. The only concession to paper was that students did have textbooks, available through the UPEI bookstore.

Having decided how the course was to be structured, it was time to begin actually constructing it. UPEI and I faced a misunderstanding immediately. Up until now, I had been dealing with UPEI's History department. The Extension department, learning about me second-hand, had understood that I would create the website, perhaps that I had already done so. I had understood that they would, once I delivered a disk copy of the class notes. My thinking was based on two factors. First, I had never built a website — obviously this was a problem — and UPEI would be neither helping nor paying me to learn. Second, I worked off the Queen's University account. It seemed doubtful that Queen's would appreciate my running a course for UPEI on their system, or that UPEI really wanted one of their courses to have a Queen's address. I convinced UPEI that they should create the web page as part of their site. Of course, in retrospect I regret this. I would have gained more in the long term by learning to build the page myself. It would have been easier to edit, and it would have made my claim to ownership of the course much clearer. (And beginning around this time, servers made it much simpler to create websites unaffiliated to universities or other institutions.) But at the time, my reticence was understandable: I was being paid a small enough fee to develop and teach the course as it was.

I wrote the course notes, suggested links to other sites of interest, and sent the material to UPEI. On the very day of registration for the 1997-1998 academic year, a website was completed for two one-term North American Environmental History courses, History 491 (fall term) and History 492 (winter). After all of our preparation, only six students — all from Prince Edward Island — enrolled for the fall session. I was disappointed, and worried that the university would cancel the course, but both the Extension and History departments were quite content: this was a fourth year history course, and unknown to students because it was not in the catalogue, so this number was not deemed unreasonably low. Besides, History 491/492 was an experiment; UPEI was happy to start small. Considering that I was expecting it would take longer to mark an emailed assignment than a paper one, and considering I was being paid a flat rate, not per student, I was happy to start small too.

When students accessed the website they came upon twelve lessons for the term. Each lesson consisted of lecture notes, questions about the assigned readings, and links to related sites scattered throughout. In developing History 491/492, I grew more and more enthusiastic about the role that links could play. In Lesson 2, while reading about the overkill hypothesis (that the extinction of thirtysome large North American mammal species 9-12,000 years ago was caused by Paleoindians cutting a southward swath through the hemisphere), students were directed to a helpful animated map of the event created by the Illinois State Museum. In Lesson 3, reading about Chief Seattle, whose 1854 letter to the President is often cited as evidence that natives were the first ecologists, students could move to one website proving the letter to be largely myth, and another from a native activist defending its truth. In Lesson 12, students were invited to visit the home page of Stephen Pyne, one of their textbooks' authors, and even email him with questions or comments. As a teacher, I was excited by these opportunities to inject contemporary, global, visual material so conveniently into a history course.

Of course, this assumes that students accessed these links and read them thoroughly — I suppose it also assumes they read the lecture notes at all. This raises a fair question about web teaching, or about any distance education: do students put as much thought and work and time into a course in which they know they will not have to face their professor several times a week? My sense from email conversations with students of History 491/492 (and from the quality of their work) was that some students — perhaps those with the greatest interest in computers, or the best access to them — made full use of the notes and links. Others read some or all of the material at the last minute, when work was due. This did not seem much different than any other university course, distance or not.

One way I encouraged full use of the web was to make the first assignment first term an "Internet Field Trip." Having just learned what environmental history was, students were to pick a topic they felt would be relevant to environmental history, and research it on the web. They then were to write about their search, describing what sites they found and critiquing their search itself. Most importantly, they were to evaluate whether they trusted the material found on each site, and why. This project worked very well. Some students showed remarkable ingenuity and knowledge of how the web worked in tracking down information. Others stopped at the first roadblock and did not know how best to proceed by switching search terms or search engines, or they went too far into a deep but ultimately irrelevant website. This assignment proved a useful first step in tracking down students who needed help learning to search the web, and it made all stuents treat critically the information the web offered. I would most definitely assign this again.

As the year progressed, History 491 and then 492 ran quite smoothly. Students seemed intent on their readings, knew what was expected of them, and understood what the course — both as environmental history and as an experiment in web-based teaching — was hoping to accomplish. There were some glitches and disappointments along the way, however, due sometimes to the course design, sometimes to technical problems, and sometimes simply to the physical distance between teacher and students.

Most noticeably, the course was a failure in promoting class discussion. Students could potentially email the entire class (or me alone) with questions, thoughts about the readings, suggestions for other websites to visit, or what have you. I emailed the listserve repeatedly to encourage students to use it, even hinting that they could talk about assignments there. But such discussion never occurred. (It is possible they created their own discussion list among themselves, without telling me. I don't really think this happened, though: there was not that much cohesion within the class). Of course, I could have demanded class discussion by giving marks for class participation and by asking pointed questions over the listserve. But this was already a "correspondence course" and a "lecture course" of sorts: it struck me as unfair to demand of students that it become a seminar course as well. It also seemed too forced, too much an attempt to recreate the classroom experience in cyberspace, when freedom from the classroom had been thought a worthwhile reason to develop the course in the first place. I did not move to make discussion mandatory. Another year, perhaps the class would have used the listserve, if only a couple of students had eagerly taken it up.

Not only were students aloof when it came to class discussion, but also in regular correspondence between teacher and pupil. Having not received an assignment, I would send off an email and still receive no reply. One student even changed her email account without thinking to tell me or the university; the day before the take-home exam was due, she wrote me to ask whether she was to have received it yet. The physical distance between Prince Edward Island and Ontario, and the psychic distance between a professor and students who never met, meant that I was unable to maintain a good sense of how students were faring — to a far greater degree than in the correspondence classes I have taught, for some reason.

Another problem that cropped up periodically was the disappearance of sites I had linked to. The downside of the web's contemporaneity is that information soon seems old and is removed. This is sure to be a problem for anyone hoping to use websites in teaching. The Kansas museum website that had inspired me to imagine a web course in the first place? It was there when I wrote the course notes, but had been removed by the time UPEI built the site. I could find no mention of the Cimarron County Historical Museum, let alone its exhibit, anywhere. Since the notes for the Dust Bowl lesson were to lead into this website, the flow of the course was affected by matters completely beyond my control. Unless the teacher of a web course introduces material class by class, rather than ahead of time, such problems are bound to occur.

My computer inexperience did not end up hampering History 491/492 very much. I did occasionally have difficulty accessing papers that were sent to me as attachments. Though Queen's support staff were helpful at such times, students were ultimately told to send all essays directly as email messages. I found that marking emailed essays took on average 1.5-2 times as long as paper ones. Though I type well, it takes considerably more time to point out a dangling modifier or explain why a section is unclear than if I can make quick circles and arrows with a pen. If I had had to create the website myself, and if the class size had been larger, my workload would have been considerably greater than if this had been a regular correspondence course. It seems unlikely, though, that universities will factor this into instructors' salaries.

As the end of the school year approached, I was looking at History 491/492 as a qualified success. The six students in History 492 seemed to be doing fine. They emailed me periodically with questions, they seemed to be keeping up with their reading, and their first of two essays were handled reasonably well. But as I waited for the second set of papers to come in, a funny thing happened. They never did. Not a single paper arrived, nor any of the take home exams. The course ended with zero students.

It made marking easier.

The university and I were obviously upset, and went looking for answers. The easy way for me to interpret it was as bad luck: I had run into a poor batch of students. The easy way for you to interpret it is that it was a bad course, that I had expected too much, that I marked too hard, that I am a poor teacher, etc. Talking to students, though, UPEI and I found no sign of mutiny against the web course, or even dissatisfaction; each spoke of academic or personal situations affecting their ability to finish the year. Interestingly, students did not say that the web-based nature of History 492 had even been a factor. My sense is that these were students who did not usually take correspondence courses, and took this one because of the novelty of the web. During the term, they found this course, this instructor easy to ignore. When they were faced with personal or academic problems, and had to drop one of their courses, this was the one to go. Looking back at History 491/492 with some critical distance, I am satisfied that they were as good courses as I could put together. But I am not about to say, "The operation was a success, but the patient died." Because the patient died, there is no way to measure success.

My year on the web taught me a couple of surprising things about computers and teaching. First, distance rather than the medium itself seems to be the most important element in a web-based course. A university which dreams of using computer teaching to greatly expand its student base is really only extending their correspondence service, and relying on present-day fascination with the net to make it happen. My experience suggests students do not make the jump to distance teaching so willingly. Correspondence courses have been around for a long time, and still students want to come to university. If, on the other hand, universities are willing to lower standards when making the transition to web-based courses, that is another thing entirely: students may very well be attracted if they can work less for the same credit. That has nothing to do with computer teaching per se, but with an institution's quest for bucks.

Second, the growth of the internet is surprisingly overrated. It is not at all clear that the range and quality of web material is improving (at least in terms of environmental history). Every six months for the past two years, I have asked the American Society for Environmental History's discussion list if anyone has come across websites of interest. The number of replies has decreased each time I have asked — in fact, there have been a few snippy calls that I stop asking. I doubt that a web-based environmental history course today would contain any better links than one created two years ago. That is pretty surprising, considering the hoopla about the web in the interim. Perhaps this is about to change. Many more academics are putting course syllabi and course notes on class web pages; they may soon put up more of their own research. It may be that we are presently relying on the sites of the first generation of web users, and will have a much deeper web when the next generation catches up. But the point to be made is that if teachers decide we want to use the web, we will have to set good examples by creating our own sites, showing off our own work, and encouraging others to do so.

Despite the disappointing conclusion of my web course, I may very well teach History 491/492 again. Now that the course and its website have been designed, it will be quite easy to re-offer it. Lectures will change somewhat, new websites will be scouted out, and I will probably impose some small marks for class participation, but the course's basic structure will remain intact. Another year should show whether the poor completion rate was an anomaly or not.

Throughout the past school year, Queen's colleagues kept up-to-date on my web-teaching experiment, and asked tough questions about it. Isn't opportunity for immediate dialogue a necessary component of teaching? Do students learn as much when they don't have face-to-face contact with their instructors? Having made clear their primary concerns were pedagogical, their questions would then invariably turn to the profession's survival. Aren't you helping make professors irrelevant? What's to keep a university from forcing you to sell your course outright, and then hiring you at a much lower rate to subsequently teach it? Isn't this course the thin edge of the wedge? Aren't you contributing to a process bad for educators, if not education? It was interesting to hear tenured faculty — making ten times my salary on, at most, twice my teaching load — express fear of possible academic exploitation. But I had asked myself the same questions, of course. Universities may very well find it attractive to offer courses without needing to pay for classroom and office overhead, never mind permanent salaries and benefits. In the future, even fair-minded schools like UPEI may very well decide it makes more economic sense to demand that the creator of a course agree to sign over ownership. And it occurred to me that a Noam Chomsky or a Bill Nye the Science Guy might realize they could make a little extra money teaching a course like mine (the marking done by graduate students) to 100 different universities which would be happy to have them onboard. Imagine: a freshman sits in front of her computer at home and registers to take English from Margaret Atwood, Biology from Stephen Jay Gould, History from Simon Schama, Women's Studies from Gloria Steinam, and Religious Studies from the Pope. Of course, that student would learn quickly not to have her heart set on a job in academia.

Right or wrong, I do not feel that I participated in the death of the classroom. In a tough job market I found a way to introduce an interesting, challenging course in my specialty to students at a university a time zone away. In doing so, I maintained ownership of the course, and ensured I was not exploited — or at least, no more than when I am hired to teach any other single course, without benefits or opportunity for advancement and tenure. Perhaps I should think about developing a North American Environmental History course on a website of my own, and offering it to the hundreds of universities and colleges across the continent that have distance education programs. Who knows, if only 2% of the schools decided to hire me on, I could make a nice income out of my home. But don't email me just yet for more details. I'm old-fashioned enough to still dream of finding a traditional teaching job, in an educational system that has room for young academics.

Alan MacEachern