Meet our guest blogger, Dr Nick Thomas, Department of History, who is showcasing his use of electronic resources in the class room.
Nick Thomas is the Director of Teaching for the Department of History. Research and teaching interests include the social and military history of the Second World War, post-war social change in Europe and America, post-war protest movements, permissiveness and censorship.
It’s all too easy for e-learning to seem intimidating and work-intensive, requiring academics to step outside their comfort zone and having to invest huge amounts of precious time in wrestling with software, creating new sites and systems. Students then vote with their feet by refusing to participate in the online forum you’ve spent so long constructing because they want face to face contact. Similarly, technologically sophisticated delivery of teaching, involving lots of expensive equipment, software and IT support, can be presented as an end in itself. Want to be seen as innovative and cutting edge? This latest piece of kit will fit the bill, even though it’s a gimmick which is adding nothing to your teaching. On the other hand it is tempting for teachers, both new and established, to rely on known methods – point and ask, student presentations, desperately boring lectures, etc. My approach to e-learning, in common with that of many academics, is to maintain a healthy scepticism while at the same time being open to the possibility that new approaches and technologies might add something new to the teaching experience. With so many demands on my time I am also unwilling to indulge in something for the sake of it when it is possibly of little pedagogical value. Teaching methods need to be flexible, easy to use, allowing one to think on one’s feet in front of a class of students, rather than tying one down and acting as a straight jacket. They need to allow for exploration of ideas in a way which stimulates students and academics. In addition, I want electronic resources to allow me to teach with imagination, but also to allow me to mix them with low tech methods and tools. Delivering teaching using an electronic format might look impressive but it isn’t going to hold students’ attention if it is the only method. Similarly, expensive equipment might hold all sorts of promise, but if the format of the teaching room is unusable, the furniture is inappropriate or low-tech tools such as flip charts and pens for writing on boards are missing, then the best teacher in the world isn’t going to deliver a good session. I should clarify that for the purposes of this blog I’m going to concentrate on the use of electronic resources in a seminar format, rather than using them in lectures or online delivery methods which are not reliant upon face to face contact, such as VLE’s, etc. The approach taken in seminars is to encourage active student participation in a learning process in which they are equals. This is not a pedagogical approach in which the academic teaches and the students learn in a passive manner. History is a discursive, interpretive discipline so in my seminars the emphasis is upon exploration of possible ideas, interpretations, and explanations. This is a non-confrontational approach which encourages everyone to participate in discussions. This entails planning seminars around a need for variety, imagination, and above all the creation of a learning environment in which students feel that they can express themselves. A typical seminar could therefore include a task-based approach, followed by an analysis of sources, discussion of representations such as film or images, as well as the use of electronic methods of teaching, among others. Students are kept off-balance, their attention is retained, and the different elements can combine in a complementary way which encourages active learning both for the students and for the member of staff. We have very bright students and every year I’m struck by the ways in which new ideas are teased out in discussions with students on my modules. So, yes we can plan the seminar, but this provides a framework for an environment in which we are all here to learn.
A good example of this process is provided by a seminar for my second year option on the Second World War. This module concentrates upon the social history of the War, especially the lived experiences of ordinary people on the Home Front in Britain. One seminar looks at propaganda, both in terms of its reception and its production. With an average of 20 to 25 students in each seminar, the tables in the room are divided up to allow for the creation of small groups of perhaps 5 or 6 students. These groups are issued with flip chart paper and pens and I get them to work together to write an outline of a newspaper article about the bombing of London at the start of the Blitz in September 1940. Students are asked to consider the challenges faced by journalists and editors by discussing what they should or could include. What do you leave out because of censorship, not wanting to inform the enemy, wanting to maintain morale, etc? By doing this in small groups and urging students to use their imaginations to place themselves in the past the task is conducted in a way which is non-threatening and which makes it possible for all students to participate. After the task we go over the results as a class, but then I put a real example of an article from The Times on the screen and we discuss it, especially in comparison with the assumptions that informed their own articles. We have a subscription to The Times which gives us access to every article over a 200 year period. This is searchable and is available to students via the eLibrary Gateway. Of course telling students that it is there rarely results in them using their own initiative to look for it, for all sorts of reasons including a lack of familiarity with primary sources and a strategic approach to learning which means we have to work hard to get students to see the value of primary material. Using this online resource in the seminar therefore provides all sorts of positives. Because the article is projected onto a screen everyone in the room can see it, so it’s as inclusive as possible. It is even possible to increase the size of the text. The process of getting the article onto the screen shows students how to access the source, how easy it is to use, and encourages them to use primary material for themselves. The task also encourages students to think about the contrast between their assumptions and what was actually happening in the past, adding weight to my regular verbalisations of the importance of looking at primary material in order to allow an informed and critical reading of secondary material. A further example is provided by a seminar for my Special Subject on the 1960s. This is a year-long 40 credit module for finalists which allows for much greater depth and specialism than any other part of the degree. The subject matter of the Special Subject usually links to the 10,000 word dissertation and students often name both the Special and the dissertation as the most enjoyable and stimulating element of the degree. This is where they get to immerse themselves in a time period and they are encouraged to conduct original research for themselves. Having introduced the use of primary sources in the second year of the degree, in the seminars for the Special Subject we place a particular emphasis upon the interpretation of primary sources, both as an important part of the intellectual progression which is built into the degree and as training for the dissertation. Among the first few seminars for my Special Subject is a session on the Cold War and its impact upon western societies. At this stage of the module we’re just starting to explore the possibilities which primary sources present for critical analysis. With this in mind I again use The Times to introduce the possibilities for a critical analysis of one source. An brief article from 1951 is projected onto the screen and it is possible for me to read out the few sentences of the article in a couple of minutes. That article tells the reader very little but talks about two British ‘diplomatists’ who have gone missing. There are clues as to their disappearance, including sightings of them in France, but it’s all very mysterious. It isn’t clear why they were in France and it could be that they were abducted. At this point the names of the two men become important – they were Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean and far from being ‘diplomatists’ they were members of the secret services. They were also double agents for the KGB and the article in The Times is describing them escaping just as they were about to be caught. This is in fact one of the first stories on what would become one of the scandals of the decade, the discovery of the Cambridge Spies. Of course we know this now with the benefit of hindsight, but how much was known by The Times in 1951? Would readers have been able to put two and two together? How did the newspaper couch the story to its readership? What was that readership in terms of its demographics, politics, etc? As a class we pull the document apart, with students getting a sense that a tiny document can open up all sorts of analytical possibilities, plus of course we discuss the Cambridge Spies and 1950s Cold War anxieties. The task is very successful at capturing students’ imagination. It gets across the idea of sources being clues which need to be read closely, often in combination with other clues and dealing with sources in this way enables a discussion about primary evidence which isn’t about finding ‘facts’ but instead is about developing one’s own ability to interpret evidence. Central to such interpretive skills is embracing the assumption that all evidence is flawed, compromised, incomplete, etc while encouraging students to develop the ability to come to conclusions based upon the evidence which is currently available. It also entails showing a source rather than describing it and it is worth remembering that until the digitisation of sources within the past decade academics were reliant upon photocopies from their own research or taking students to archives. Multiple issues are being addressed then, including historical method, big issues to do with the use of evidence, as well as challenging assumptions about the discipline, objectivity, and so on. It’s a lot for students to cope with and it can make students uncomfortable to be told that they need to embrace uncertainty or differences of interpretation as interesting in themselves. Nonetheless my experience has been that students, including those who feel uncomfortable with these issues, are consistently excited and stimulated by the topic and the analytical ideas which this particular approach to teaching with electronic resources opens up to them. I find this immensely rewarding as a teacher.