The air recently has that tinge of cold which I have dreaded my entire life. It means that school will soon start. Here at Chicago, we do not start until late, late September but a lot of places should already have begun the 05-06 school year. Shudder. I am not teaching this coming quarter but I know that some of my readers are; and I would like to get your thoughts on some matters related to pedagogy and technology. Let me preface by saying that here at Chicago, we pride ourselves on intimate, small classes taught by Nobel-prize winning economists. It works great, in general, but some untoward awkwardness does appear when the class in question is Introduction to Islamic Philosophy: al-Farabi to al-Sirhindi. In general, classes do not have any technological component in the humanities. The syllabi is distributed on paper; there is either E-Reserve at the library or a Reader at the copy center and the books are all the Sem Co-op. Some classes have a media component and they rent AV equipment for showing movies/clips.

Here is my recommendation for any class in the humanities:

  1. A class website with syllabi and reading lists [both in pdf and hyperlink formats].
  2. E-reserves of all articles/book chapters. If you can swing a password-protected site, you should host these locally.
  3. A listhost for class announcements.
  4. A class calendar online- also pdf.
  5. Online/offline resource link/bibliography [with good notations – that should tell the students what type of information it is and how valuable it is. If it extra-useful and online, archive a cache locally].
  6. Online maps – lots of maps – [but with notation] from the books or the internets.
  7. Lecture notes or outlines for each class, put on the class site before or right after each class.
  8. A blog/forum/bulletin-board.

All this may appear self-evident or superfluous to some. Allow me to make two arguments for such a setup. The first reason is archival. I am not at the point in my career where I have seven classes planned and lectured out. I found myself writing lectures right before class and then misplacing my lecture notes. So, for me, a class website is a great archive of all the information I need to teach a class – parts or whole of which I can use and re-use in the future. Second is access. A classroom is really a temporal and geographic block during which knowledge is deemed transferable from the teacher to the students. In good cases, such a flow of information takes place along all kinds of secondary and teritiary axis – usually, through discussion. A virtual classroom takes off the bounds of time and space. A student overcome by anxiety or the after-effects of too many pbrs the night before may not participate in your class but s/he can certainly have an opportunity to participate outside of class.

And that is basically my overarching point – that the instruments and tools of pedagogy should not stop when the time limit of the class is over. Discussion and interaction can and should take place outside of the classroom. Caleb, at Cliopatria, refers today the Gerald Graff interview in Common Ground [which also gave rise to my impetus for this post]. Caleb points that “even university professors who use websites, listservs, or course software like Blackboard still think of these tools either as bells and whistles–embellishments of classroom instruction rather than true extensions of the classroom–or as accommodations to some ill-defined “cyber-consciousness” that twenty-first century college students allegedly possess”. And that is exactly right. Technology that allows us to stretch the class outside of the classroom is, indeed, a boon. Pedagogy that directly engages with such advancements is, then, a must.

Of course, there are some mechanical and logistical details that have to be kinked out based on your teaching preferences, class type, institution type and, obviously, the subject. But, I cannot really postulate any class in the humanities that cannot be structured in the way described above. All faculty have access to a web server. Word files can be converted to pdfs with a click. Blogging software is easy and customizable. And many universities are starting to include wikis and blogs in their general offerings. There is always online help for the initial hurdles of setup. All that should not be of great deterence.

One last point re: blog. I don’t think blogging as it exists in the public sphere is the same as blogging within the classroom environment. It has to be structured – rigidly so, perhaps. There should be reasons to blog and reasons to comment and reasons to do group-work. That is, graded assignments. It isn’t that hard to come up with some. For example, in my last class, I divided the class into three small groups [small class]. Every week, one group had to post a response to the reading question. The second group had to post comments and questions to the response. And the third group would synthesize and post about the discussion. The groups staggered their roles next week. Then there were the individual assignements to post reading-responses and book reviews and campus talk summaries. In addition, I had people post links and comment on relevant historical references in the news feeds. For credit. Everything that they did, I gave them some credit. It did help those who were shy in class or not as verbally adept. The level of thought and expression was also healthy. I had a blast as well.

6 thoughts on “Teaching Bytes

  1. eric: blackboard is indeed a very clunky and unfriendly piece of software. I used it for one course and quickly dropped it. The students cannot be motivated to use a system that un-intituitive.
    In any case, I designed my own class website – simple html stuff – and converted all the readings to pdf etc. For the blog portion, I installed wordpress. Very easy installation/maintenance. I set up all the students as authors on the blog and there you go.

    Granted that one needs some technical skills to do so and also a university server that allows php files. The alternative of a blogspot account is not that appealing to me because one cannot password-protect it. I wanted to keep the blog private to the class. I have heard that the MSN Spaces has pwd capability but I am not positive. I am, still, dubious about commercial packages and doubt I will be using it.

    You should def. contact the tech people at your uni and see if they won’t allow you to run your own little server [if on a Mac OS X machine, 2 button clicks].

  2. I’ve tried a variety of web-based tools: using an existing mailing list as a source of discussion materials, using a Yahoo mailing list dedicated to the course. This term I am integrating Blackboard for the first time, since it is becoming standard equipment on campus. But the design is not encouraging — seven steps to do what other software takes one step to do. it seems like what you have got down is how to integrate the online component into the instruction, which is probably the biggest challenge. I’d like to get a clearer idea of how you managed this technically.

  3. I had a great time using a blog/discussion board this past spring. I posted info for folks who didn’t make it to class, topics that extended outside of classroom discussion, etc. It got people taking with each other – very cool. I graded it as a section of their participation grade. Some of my students that had the tendency not so talk too much in class posted a great deal on the board and asked really good questions that I later brought up in class.

  4. WebCT is another tool that does all of the above.

  5. yes, blackboard system is good for accomplishing most of the above. i have used it – clunky – but doable. If your institution has it, go for it!

  6. The Blackboard system is quite good for this purpose and it comes with all the features included (bulletin board, mailing list, discussion board, so on and so forth). It also interfaces with some nifty software such as Agilix GoBinder.

    I did take an Ethics course that used the Blackboard system. It was quite nifty.

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