Digital History — Spring 2010

May 6, 2010

“American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century”: Prototype and Proposal of a Course Website

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 9:19 pm

Hi guys! The class has been a pleasure. Check out my final course website proposal below, and my prototype here. Also, if you’d like to gain access to the SharedDoc portion of the site, comment and I’ll send you an invitation. Thanks!

Introduction:

This website is envisioned as a crucial learning supplement to a proposed upper-level course in American intellectual history. Incorporating readings from journalists, cultural luminaries, reformers, and average people as well as the “great men” of the time, “American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century” introduces students to some of the main trends in the intellectual history of the early United States. The course encourages students to critically examine primary documents and to relate them to the larger historical context.

This latter goal can prove rather difficult in a class where students have a wide range of ability levels and familiarity with the overall arc of American history. Thus, one of the major goals of this website is to provide differentiated background resources for the students in the course. This includes students who may be lacking basic definitions or general chronological mooring. Identifying and addressing these deficiencies in a class period can be difficult for a variety of reasons; however, with the final realization of this proposed website, students in need will have a low-threshold clearinghouse for information that is crucial to comprehending the primary texts. Furthermore, with links to external content and secondary scholarship on certain topics, advanced students will be able to independently move beyond what can be done in the classroom. The objective here, then, is to approach the students in ways that are appropriate for their varying needs, but that conserve the professor’s sanity and continue to reinforce the student’s ultimate responsibility.

In addition to the aim of supplying much-needed historical context, the site is also intended to provide students with tools and exercises designed to bolster their critical reading skills in directly useful ways. The syllabus incorporates a variety of reading assignments that use a collaborative annotation interface. By making the student reading and reaction process more transparent, the professor will be able to see where students are missing key points independently, therefore using instructional time more efficiently. Occasionally, the professor can model their own reading process for students, bridging the gap between their homework and the development of professional skills. Finally, on assignments that involve large-scale collaboration, students can help each other through difficult concepts, or engage in extended discussion about points of interpretation. The goal of these exercises is to get students to draw a firmer connection between reading merely to prepare for class, and reading as a process which stimulates thinking and comprehension.

Concept:

Keeping the goals of context, differentiation, collaboration and skill-building in mind, the project entered an initial stage of conceptualization and comparative research. Two main research strategies were utilized: an evaluative survey of some successful websites (course-based and otherwise), and an interview with the producer of a successful course website and with a member of the site’s target audience.

The first website surveyed was actually a book: Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. While there were many fascinating aspects to the book itself, the element most pertinent to this project was Fitzpatrick’s use of CommentPress, an application that allows readers to comment in the margins of the text. In addition to exploring CommentPress, other collaborative marginalia platforms were investigated, including a CommentPress variant called digress.it, and a collaborative document hosting service called SharedDoc.

Instructional websites were investigated next. Professor David Pace (Indiana University) hosts two main course websites: one for an introductory course aimed at first-year students, and an upper-level cultural history course about Paris and Berlin in the 1920s. Although they show their age a bit in terms of design concept, both are wonderful resources, filled with images, primary sources, and learning strategies that would be immensely useful to students in the course. Pace’s decision to split the site into three units, comprised of pages of origin for each week, each equipped with standard features (readings, questions, web resources) created a very straightforward format for the site. Each website incorporates the ability to submit weekly assignments through the site, ensuring that students are visiting the site at least once a week for a short amount of time. However, Pace’s assignments also require students to explore at least some of the content on the site, and occasionally other external sites. This is a good way to encourage students to see the website as an integral part of the course, rather than just an optional add-on.

I was also able to gain access to two course websites hosted by Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard University). Professor Ulrich is well known for using digital media to enrich and extend her teaching – a wonderful example of this, albeit for a public audience, can be found at dohistory.org. The first of Professor Ulrich’s course sites is on New England as a region, and the other is about life in the Revolutionary War period. Like Professor Pace’s websites, these both utilize images of the period particularly well, helping students to begin to understand how to appreciate images as suggestive historical evidence as opposed to just aesthetically pleasing works of art. Professor Ulrich seems not to have arranged the site by units/weeks, opting instead for a conventional PDF syllabus. However, on the regional site, she does include a variety of activity modules which correspond with different phases of the class. Both of Ulrich’s sites incorporate a host of supplementary material, including primary sources, video clips, external resources and even the occasional chance to examine scholarly articles.

In order to find out more about the process of developing a course website, and using them in the classroom, I interviewed Professor Pace. He began developing his sites in the mid-1990s, after students’ repeated queries about images used in class made him realize how helpful it would be to have a clearinghouse for all of this visual information that would be impractical to include in a conventional course packet. (However, he also mentioned that many students still prefer printed readings.) Over time, the scope of the websites has shifted to support the submission of students’ weekly responses. Additionally, Pace mentioned that his own sense of the technology’s potential had shifted: “My breakthrough moment was when I realized that the set of limitation imposed by the technology had lifted. The site still needed a core, but my goal became to seed the site with materials that they could use, and to provide the students with tasks that would the materials without dictating the exact parameters.”

Pace also mentioned that students seemed to respond well to the technology – that most recognized the amount of work that had gone into the websites, and saw it as a good-faith attempt to connect with them in a comfortable medium. That viewpoint was echoed by a former student, who also appreciated that the website struck a balance between amorphous and super-structured. “Lectures are impermanent, so the website helps with that. […] It’s a meshing of assorted info, some of which is directly relevant, some of which is just interesting.”[5] The student also mentioned that it would be useful to have a digital element to the collaboration that Pace stresses in his classes, although he acknowledged that the quality would depend upon individual students’ willingness to contribute. Different motivational strategies for this collaborative work were discussed, including the concept of “micropayments,” where participation is recognized in a way that rewards effort, but makes it difficult to game the system without learning anything.

Development:

After this preliminary research, the project entered a pre-draft brainstorming stage, where ideas for the website interface were considered. The initial part of this phase involved synthesizing: (1) the evaluations of the website models surveyed; (2) the information gleaned from producer/consumer interviews; (3) the specific needs and goals of “American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century.” Once a final design was selected, the project went through initial revisions as gaps between the original website plan and the designer’s technical skills appeared. Nonetheless, the prototype fulfills several important goals of the project as envisioned. The second unit has been developed most fully, but a similar vision should be assumed for all other units.

Adopting Professor Pace’s structure of units and lessons, the site has been constructed in three main sections, dictated by the syllabus. However, I have adopted the uniform sidebar idea from Professor Ulrich’s regional history website, thus facilitating easier navigability. Key concept pages for each lesson will provide the basic background information on things like Transcendentalism and the Mexican War, but they also hint at the vast majority of professional scholarship available on these topics. Biography pages provided for the author of each primary source help the student to connect the ideas on the page with the life experiences of these nineteenth-century individuals, and therefore to understand the role of intellectual history in the larger scope of historical change.

External links will take the student beyond the confines of the course website to approved educational resources, again expanding the amount of time that interested students are engaging with ideas relevant to the course. In addition to external links, extensive intra-linking helps students see how these thinkers and thoughts were connected in their time. This navigability between different themes and units should help students begin to think comparatively about the trends and main ideas of the course.

In addition to the contextual function of the website, the external SharedDoc platform and accompanying collaborative/demonstrative assignments and opportunities will help students approach the assigned texts more productively. Taking into consideration Professor Pace’s findings, these digital texts do not replace a printed course packet. They do go beyond the course packet, however, in that they can be used to create a digital transcript of students’ reading strategies, and promote a collaborative text-centered environment of reflection, discussion, and clarification. If students have found planned course websites helpful because they capture lectures that are otherwise transient, hopefully this flexible format can capture some of the give-and-take of classroom-style discussion.

Finally, students who need a concrete incentive to participate in the non-compulsory collaborative opportunities will find a reason in the potential to earn ¼ of an extra credit point per substantive comment, with a maximum of 5 points to be applied to their participation grade. Hopefully, after twenty answers, students might become acclimated to participation in the discussion! This incentive has the added benefit of getting them into the website itself, with the hope that they’ll use the information there to enrich their understanding of the material.

Future Goals:

Although the prototype for this course website shows promise, there are several improvements that could be facilitated by grant money or the services of a tech-savvy assistant. The most obvious goal is to finish the other two units, and to continue to add background information and externally-linked content to unit 2. (The benefit of using Dreamweaver and CSS, of course, is that flexibility of revision is built into the code.) With the help of a committed assistant, the biographical and “key concepts” content could become truly polished in a shorter amount of time, not to mention extensively digitally footnoted in ways that could lead students to helpful resources.

Another major goal would be to migrate the site to webspace that would support the CommentPress plug-in – or to design software that allows students even more control over the type of annotation that they do. While SharedDoc has many benefits, the fact that students must be invited to each document individually is inefficient, and the viewing panels leave something to be desired. An ideal interface would allow students to annotate graphically – highlighting, underlining, stars, double-bars, etc – and would enable threaded comments linked directly to lines or words, but would hide them behind an expand-text command or mouseover, so that the screen stays relatively uncluttered. It would also be good to have levels of privacy and visibility set, so that for some assignments, students could see each others’ annotations, collaborate and comment; and for others, the document would only display to them their own work. A highly-customizable master interface would be an integral part of this new software. Something that would allow the professor to cycle through students’ submissions on a single document, sort the responses according to specific passages or sentences, enable search strings, etc, would be ideal.

However, one thing about SharedDoc that would be good to retain and extend in later versions of the website is the capacity for levels of secrecy and private content. I’d like to be able to password protect certain parts of the website – especially if, as per another revision I’d like to make, students will be submitting some assignments online. It’s only reasonable that students’ contributions would be kept safe and non-searchable; and it would probably best if at least some of the original content of the website was kept under wraps.

Alternatively, another option would be to clone the course website and make a crowdsourcing-enabled public resource out of the primary source documents, biographies, key definitions, etc. Obviously, this would expand beyond the original structure of the syllabus, becoming more like an American intellectual history wiki. Students could contribute to this larger site, interacting with visitors of varying levels of expertise, and experiencing the challenges of creating quality content for a public site. This is rather a departure from the initial project, but the idea of student contributions could work even for the more conventional course website, as well.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, the goal of these proposed revisions, and of the website as it currently exists, is to pique students’ interest in learning about what can seem like a dry collection of opinions and essays – but which are crucial to questions about American identity and experience during the nineteenth century. Along with building interest, students will build foundational knowledge and critical reading skills, which are exportable to contexts beyond the history classroom. The course website for “American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century” goes beyond what can reasonably be covered in the classroom; it is an invitation for students not only to work up to their potential in the classroom, but to learn and explore beyond the framework of the syllabus.

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