Online instruction provides many tools and resources to instructors and students. How can these technological assets, and the opportunities they offer for both content and communication, improve the quality and kind of learning students experience? This article will discuss the benefits of three communication tools in an online world history survey: asynchronous discussion, a private journal, and a course blog.
Discussions of online history instruction commonly emphasize several themes. Practitioners assert that proliferating online resources or "e-opportunities" encourage exploration of primary sources (Eamon, 2006) and active learning, "the process of dynamically interpreting and constructing the past" (Tebeau, 2003, p. 1491). A constructivist approach enables students to create narratives from online evidence they explore or discover and to escape the linear constraints of textbooks (Rommel-Ruiz, 2006). At the same time, "information literacy" pitfalls pose common problems, requiring that students understand plagiarism, authorship, citation, and other skills or knowledge needed to evaluate and responsibly use online information (Tate, 2005). The most discerning historians, and effective online teachers, recognize deep pedagogical and cognitive challenges--to engage students creatively in ways that meet traditional disciplinary demands while embracing new tools and capabilities (Vess, 2004).
All these concerns, and others, emerged in an introductory world history class in the City University of New York's Online Baccalaureate Program in Fall 2006. I had three main goals for Origins of the Modern World, 1500 to the Present: to incorporate strong online resources, to integrate both analytical and reflective writing into student tasks, and to introduce formal web site evaluation into freshman-level historical study. To accomplish these goals, I designed activities that included online asynchronous discussion, private journals, and a course blog. Students also viewed weekly online lectures I recorded, read a conventional textbook (Bentley and Ziegler, 2006), and wrote a research paper. There were no tests. My learning objectives--linking thematic concepts and historical patterns, and situating historical knowledge in contemporary context--would be met (or not) with online communication: online discussion, private journals, and the course blog.
Organization: The Topic Folder
The best content and most innovative tools mean little if students learning to navigate a course management system (in this case Blackboard) encounter complexities that prevent fast, intuitive understanding of tasks and deadlines. My solution was to package each week's content and assignments into a clearly labeled digital folder housed in its own area of the course web site. Each folder listed tasks, deadlines, and instructions, followed by links to external web sites and internally posted files. The sequence and presentation of this material had the same "look and feel" each week, allowing students to quickly establish work routines. The content of a typical folder is displayed below. All source documents were drawn from external web sites. The title of each source appeared as a hyperlink.
1. Read textbook, pp. 879-883, 892-905, 909-939.
2. View Online Lecture 10
3. Required Source Reading:
4. George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant," (link below)
5. Daniel Headrick, "The Tools of Empire" (on Electronic Reserve)
6. Review optional online sources (links below) to contribute to work on this unit.
7. Post to DB [Discussion Board] #9 and Journal Entry #9
Assignments Due: 9 PM, Wednesday, November 1
George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant" Orwell's brief, powerful memoir of his time as a colonial policeman will be this week's key text.
A French Politician on Empire Jules Ferry's 1884 speech expresses many standard arguments for imperial policies pursued by European powers in the late 19th century. …