Teaching and Technology: Notes and Reflections

Our event on ‘Teaching and Technology’ at Liverpool John Moores University on 15 March led to a very productive and inspiring discussion. Here, co-organiser Lucinda Matthews-Jones reflects on the themes that emerged and how we can embed digital technology in the History classroom in meaningful ways.

Universities are increasingly being asked to make their courses more digitally informed. History is not exempt from this. Indeed, as a subject area, we have benefitted from the digitisation of many of our sources. Like many historians, I have enjoyed thinking about how to use these digitised sources in the classroom. But I’m also increasingly aware that we need to reflect more widely on the relationship between pedagogy and the digital. I was therefore delighted to be asked to co-host, with Catherine Feely, an event on this theme for History Lab Plus. In this blog post I will provide notes on the themes that emerged from talks by Elliot McGaffney, Bob Nicholson, Melodee Beals, Jamie Wood, Allegra Hartley and Martin Hewitt and in the ensuing conversations.

Students have a very different relationship to digital media technology then we as teachers do. They appear to be constantly connected to social media, and digitally savvy about their interactions there. But, as Helen Rogers observed, this does not necessarily make them ‘digital natives’. Melodee Beals expanded on this idea to suggest that the relationship students have with digital media technology is more complicated than the suggestion that they are simply ‘natives’ in the digital sphere. Rather, students come from safe, enclosed, digital spheres which can make the transition to the digital tools we ask them to use difficult and unfamiliar. This was apparent in Bob Nicholson’s paper on his experiences of teaching his third-year module ‘Digital Detectives’ where students are generally unaware of how to search digital newspaper archives effectively. This raises questions about how we perceive the ‘Google Generation’. As Bob Nicholson noted, many of the digital resources we use look and feel very different from what students are used to. They are more familiar with apps than databases. It’s possible that the advantage is actually with the older generation: Melodee Beals pointed out that many academics have some memory of DOS and familiarity with coding.

Our digital modules can therefore shatter the safe digital spaces that students have created for themselves. This raises interesting questions about how we design and construct digitally informed modules. Many of the digital modules that were discussed at this event are taught in blocks of 2 hours or more. These sessions are often an exclusively digital classroom exercise. ‘Digital Victorians’, a module run by Paul Ward, Allegra Hartley and Martin Hewitt, provides an innovative way to think about how to design digital modules. Balanced with fieldtrips and other offline content, students are introduced to Pinterest, Google Maps, Slidely, timeline software, Youtube and Vine. They are, like Helen Rogers’s students on ‘Prison Voices’ and ‘Writing Lives’, encouraged to use social media to share their findings. Allegra Hartley’s engaging paper discussed digital assessments. She noted how students used digital resources that had not been discussed in class, confirming that once equipped with the skills for digital research, students are capable of doing it for themselves.

One of the reasons we are being encouraged to embed digital skills into our courses is to create more digitally savvy employees for the world of work. Is it enough, then, to include digital skills only in certain modules? There was a sense at this event that many of our digital modules were free standing, viewed as add-ons to courses, and that they don’t necessarily include all students on a degree programme. Should this be the case? Should specific digital option modules be devised simply as a tick box exercise without incorporating all students and – dare I say it- staff? I would argue that digital skills need to be embedded at all levels, with a foundational first year module in digital history. Jamie Wood showed us how he uses social book marking in a first year skills module to understand how students read and engage with secondary and primary sources. By using social media book marking students would then devise seminars by providing key questions. Meanwhile, Jamie would then be able to look at how they had engaged with and understood their reading by looking at how they had highlighted and archived their work.
When we get digital pedagogy right we can enlighten and enliven the learning experience for our students and train them to be the digital historians we want them to be. As Allegra Hartley noted, many of her students found ‘Digital Victorians’ to be ‘liberating’. This was confirmed by Elliot McGaffney, who gave a paper on his experiences as a mentor on Helen Rogers’s ‘Prison Voices’ module. Having finished this module last year, Elliot assisted Helen by mentoring students, helping them set up their own blogs, proof reading student’s work and writing support material for other students. This experience, he noted, now takes centre place on his CV. It was wonderful to hear from a student about how they had benefitted from being involved in a digital module like this one.

We need to remember that digital history is an expansive field. The papers at this event demonstrated that there are a wide range and variety of digital tools that we can incorporate into our degree programmes. These can range from blogs, social bookmarking, newspapers, database retrieval and social media tools. But, we also need to think carefully about the digital platforms that we use. Jamie Wood noted that both students and staff do not perceive VLEs to be the places where the best digital learning occurs. This is largely because we envisage VLEs to be lecturer led, and as repositories for lecturer created materials.

At the same time, we need to think more about the rooms we create for digital modules. There was a feeling that static PC rooms were not useful for digital modules because they prevent group work. It was also noted that desktop PCs create a barrier between students and between student and lecturer, whilst also being noisy. Universities therefore need to think more about infrastructure. Many of us were impressed by the classrooms that the University of Huddersfield have created. PCs are hidden in the tables, which are arranged in small groups in front of a flat screen TV which can show a lecturer’s PowerPoint or used by the small group. One of the reasons I really like this room’s arrangement is that it encouraged us to think more about how we incorporate digital skills into our sessions. At the moment, we separate digital and non-digital modules by the fact that our seminar rooms do not have IT provisions for all students. I believe that this needs to change.
All rooms should have computer provision these days almost all teaching involves digital content of some kind. I’m always surprised at lecturers who bemoan the lack of ‘good’ reading and ‘good’ primary material when marking student essays. But how are students supposed to define the good, the bad, and the ugly within our modules if we do not actively teach them in the classroom? I also believe that all seminar activities should include the primary source databases that our libraries subscribe to. This would not only show off what we have in our e-libraries, but also incorporate all our colleagues and hopefully prevent the idea that there are those staff members who are digital historians and there are those that aren’t. We are all digital historians.

There must therefore be greater training offered to staff in this area. We need to recognise that academics need to work in safe digital spaces. The only way we can fully respond to our students needs as future digital workers is if universities and professional bodies also start to recognise that we need training in this area. Moreover, we need to consider how we disseminate our digital teaching practices and resources. Martin Hewitt noted his surprise that we still don’t share these more fully. I’ve been pondering this questions ever since. We don’t need to reproduce the same material all the time. Perhaps with digital resources this is especially the case. More importantly, this has led me to think about how we talk about teaching more generally. It’s interesting that we all describe our modules as either research led or informed. But, we rarely offer a teaching strand in our conference calls for papers. Teaching is usually confined to teaching conferences. Academic conferences should surely start reflecting on how we teach our research. These would be a great place for us to learn how our colleagues are advancing digital pedagogy.

Catherine Feely and I plan to organise an event that picks up on these themes. Let us know if there is a particular digital tool you think we should look into.

Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Liverpool John Moores University – @luciejones83

Further Resources

Elliot McGaffney’s presentation on ‘Blogging Beyond the Classroom

Jamie Wood on ‘Social Bookmarking and the Questioning Historian

Allegra Hartley’s blog post on ‘Digital Victorians