Teaching Humanities in a digital age with Blended Learning

Who would have thought that twenty years after receiving my diploma as an assistant programmer, I would again be confronted with coding? Or that I would become an enthusiastic advocate of teaching with digital tools in humanities?

Upon graduation from a high school that specialized in sciences and informatics I swore off technology forever and ritually burned all my science textbooks. Though it seemed interesting in the beginning, I did not find informatics attractive at all; I struggled through the four two-hour long weekly sessions, and had probably the worst grades in my class in informatics, doing otherwise well in other subjects and exceptionally well in literature and languages. Everything else seemed more stimulating than writing endless algorithms for mathematical problems I never fully understood. It is still surprising that I passed my final exam in programming, but I was happy that I did; otherwise I would have felt like a total failure for wasting four years of my life studying something I truly hated. When I was accepted to the university to study philology (which meant literature, linguistics, history, and culture) I was contemplating a future career as a literary scholar who uses computers at most only for word processing. I was the ultimate bookworm, living in libraries and loving the feel, the smell, and the sight of old books and manuscripts. I spent five amazing years studying English and American literature, Linguistics, Hungarian literature, and comparative literature, my ultimate favourite. I indeed managed to avoid technology as much as possible and wrote all my graduate essays on an old-fashioned manual typewriter inherited from my father. Not until I was working on my MA thesis did I finally purchase a battered second-hand computer.

Looking back on that time makes me smile, because nowadays I can hardly imagine my life without computers. I am the owner of several computers, two tablets, mp3 player, an e-reader, a smartphone, and many other gizmos, and when I travel half of my luggage is filled with chargers and digital accessories. I have both a physical life and a digital existence on the various social media; both lives are equally real and are connected with each other. This technological addiction happened gradually, unnoticed, and I never gave it a thought until recently, when I was asked by the university to read and comment on a ninety-page document about Blended Learning.

Blended Learning is generally applied to the practice of using both online and in-person learning experiences when teaching students,” according to the definition of The Glossary of Education Reform (http://edglossary.org/blended-learning/). It all sounded familiar, because that is exactly what we all do in our teaching anyway; so then why reinvent the wheel? The document I was asked to comment on was densely written, begged its own questions, and argued the obvious point that modern teaching does indeed involve a “blending” of online and in-person activities in the classroom.

We all use the internet and online resources for our research and teaching, and we do communicate with our students and give them various assignments through online platforms such as Blackboard. Why all the fuss about Blended Learning (BL)? Why invent yet another buzzword – like Problem-Based Learning, Research-Based Learning, Situational Learning, and so many other concepts I have encountered during my teaching career? In addition, the document mentioned countless instances of the pedagogical benefits of BL, but, alas, none of these examples came from the Humanities. Neither the faculty nor the students in Humanities were consulted. The document read like another top-down policy the university decided to implement regardless of our opinions. BL was presented as a cost-efficient and cutting-edge practice which, if regarded highly by the Faculty of Science, should work well enough across the disciplines, including the Humanities. The paper focused almost exclusively on testing factual knowledge and how technology can be used in big lecture rooms to give hundreds of students simultaneous and instantaneous feedback. What the authors of the study forgot to mention was how technology could improve learning in those disciplines where the emphasis is on interpretation and critical insight. Not a single example they gave could be used in teaching history, for example. How can one write positive comments about a policy paper that does not take into account the learning objectives of an entire field, or whose authors did not bother involving at least the professors from the Department of Digital Humanities at my university?

However, reading through the document proved to be a rewarding exercise after all, since it made me think about the ways we have already integrated digital technology into our courses, and about how BL could be used effectively in the Humanities. As the chair of the Board of Studies in my department, I was also asked to participate in a conversation about BL with an “educational technologist” from Brussels whom we invited to one of our regular staff-lunches to give a presentation about the digital tools most useful in the Social Sciences. I did my own research on the internet about BL, which proved incomparably more informative and helpful than browsing through the massive document I was sent by the university. The snowball-effect kicked in and one useful link led to another, and I became more and more convinced about the potential and necessity of using digital tools in humanities. Meanwhile I realized that, though I have used practices associated with BL in my courses, I could integrate digital technology in a much more targeted and effective way in my teaching. During my preparations for the meeting with the educational technologist I made a Powerpoint presentation (Blended Learning-Krisztina) that clarified what BL is in my field and gave me a solid basis on which I could build in the future.

The most useful sources I discovered during my research were blog posts by W. Caleb McDaniel, Associate Professor at Rice University (http://wcm1.web.rice.edu/history-major-in-digital-age.html) which led me to some illuminating examples used in the courses devised by Michelle Moravec, Associate Professor at Rosemont College in Philadelphia (https://nl.pinterest.com/professmoravec/digitally-assignments/) or such brilliant books as Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) by T. Mills Kelly, Professor of Historical Pedagogy at George Mason University, and Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005) by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, both also professors at George Mason University. Reading about their approaches to digital media in teaching history made me eager to try some of their recommendations and urged me to explore the possibilities offered by freely available apps on the internet.

Here are a few useful and easily accessible apps. I tried some of them with good results and I am keen to experiment with the rest.

  1. Network visualization – https://gephi.org/
  2. Network overview – https://nodexl.codeplex.com/
  3. Map-making and geospatial information – http://www.qgis.org/en/site/about/features.html
  4. Creating websites – http://www.wix.com/
  5. Creating fake ‘Facebook’-like pages for historical figures – http://thewallmachine.com/
  6. Whiteboard-style animation – http://www.videoscribe.co
  7. Blogs and media projects- https://wordpress.com/
  8. Organizing research – https://www.zotero.org/
  9. Video projects – www.youtube.com & https://plus.google.com/
  10. Presentations – https://prezi.com/dashboard/

Sceptics might wonder about the added learning benefit of these apps and question the necessity of playing with websites, video projects, or blogs. No matter how distrustful one is about the pedagogical value of digital (new) media in the classroom, one cannot deny that we live in a digital age where technology is at our fingertips. Our students are children of the Web 2.0 era, in which users not only consume but also generate and transform the content on the internet. Why should the Humanities retreat into a museum of its own and focus only on traditional ways of preserving and transferring knowledge?

Our students take notes on their laptops, browse their smartphones, and chat on social media, often even during the lectures. We could either ban the use of technology from the classroom, or co-opt our students’ familiarity with modern technology and encourage them to use it for learning purposes and scholarly projects. Many students start (and some of them end) their research for their papers on Google and Wikipedia. What is not visible or available online does not exist for them. As teachers we often get annoyed by their lack of interest in searching for sources in the library; however, anyone visiting a modern library cannot help noticing that the long open bookshelves have been replaced with computers. Primary and secondary sources still exist, but one can only access them through a digital catalogue and by using a sophisticated search engine, which our students actually find quite a challenging task. Nowadays libraries are online and are rapidly being digitized. As Mills Kelly observes, LexisNexis claims to have “billions of searchable documents and records,” the Europeana.eu project has more than 20 million digitized sources, the Library of Congress has 15 million digitized primary sources, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers has 25 million digitized pages (Kelly, 62). The trick is to teach our students to find their way in this maze of digital information.

No matter how familiar our students are with 21st-century technology, they often do not know how to search effectively in large databases for specific information, and they have difficulty evaluating the scholarly value of the sources they find on the internet. Instead of banning internet sources, our task as teachers should be to help them to make use of online resources in a scholarly and efficient way. Regardless whether we ask students to read novels, listen to music, watch movies, or browse through archival material, we have to teach them how they should appreciate these media in their own right and how to use them accurately for their historical narratives. The internet and new media is no exception. We need to educate them about how they can not only read but generate, criticize, and improve historical content on the internet. Writing a Wikipedia site, for instance, and connecting through it with many professional and amateur experts can be a very rewarding and instructive experience.

European Studies at the University of Amsterdam has a rather special position, because as a discipline it is located in the Faculty of Humanities and not in the Social Sciences, and has a strong historical component. We emphasize in our programme the importance of historical thinking and the humanist dimension in understanding current political, social, and economic problems. As far as our courses are concerned, we already use BL by definition. Digital literacy, however, could be much better represented in our curriculum. It would be nice if teachers could have more opportunities to train and equip themselves with technological knowledge and could receive help from the ICT department to realize their digital projects.

I have experimented with BL and digital media in some of the courses I taught at both BA and MA level. For example, in my modules on nationalism and European colonialism I asked students to work in small groups and make 10-minute video projects about different topics related to our main theme. In order to make the video, they were required to research the topic as if for a traditional essay: they had to write an outline for the structure of their movie, and needed to justify the scholarly importance of their choices and approaches. All their work was recorded in a digital portfolio which I monitored in the course of the semester. The movies were recorded and posted on a special channel on Youtube. (See some of them at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCckIvezeFBWp2f5ZDkiAG9g and (in Dutch only) https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClx7TpscGlWYuB6w_LxSYbw). Students enjoyed this work and gave very positive feedback in the final evaluation forms. I also found it a very satisfying experience, because the project combined research and presentation skills with teaching visual and digital literacy, and it actively engaged their interest. Our students are accustomed to text-based history and are still mainly required to read and write about history and literature, which are indeed very important skills; but BL practices can make them aware that historical records are more than just written documents: everything can carry precious historical information as long as one knows how to decipher, interpret, and apply it to answering current questions.

The critical integration of social media in my course on nationalism engaged the interest of my students and was very instructive. In the past couple of years, we have witnessed the rise of nationalist sentiment and xenophobic discourse in the public sphere. In my M.A. course on Cultures of Nationalism in Contemporary Europe one of the assignments was to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and other internet sites to gather information about nationalistic groups, analyze their discourse, identify the ways in which this discourse relates to nineteenth-century nationalism and how it differs, and study the ways national history is recycled, reinterpreted, and generated on the digital media platforms of the 21st century.

The creation of fake Facebook-like pages where a historical event is “posted” and commented by the different historic actors also works well at B.A. level, as it requires creative thinking, a thorough familiarity with the details (otherwise they cannot really write proper comments), and critical insight to assess and express multiple perspectives on the same event. This kind of “cognitive reenactment” makes students aware of the subjective nature of history and its correlation with its temporal and spatial context.

Jeremy D. Popkin in his book From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography (2016) quotes Robert Rosenstone, the author of History on Film/Film on History (2006) who argued that visual representations of history (in film and on television) are no less important than textual media, and that “to leave them out of the equation when we think of the meaning of the past is to condemn ourselves to ignore the way a huge segment of the population has come to understand the events and people that comprise history” (Rosenstone, in Popkin, 176). One could also argue that ignoring the internet in our research would mean overlooking the ways in which we currently live our lives and experience our history.

BL and digital literacy should be – and no doubt in many cases already are – a constitutive part of teaching in the Humanities. To ask our students to present and organize their knowledge by making a website, designing “visual essays,” experimenting with videos, writing WIKIs, reflecting on the remediation of cultural objects, or keeping digital portfolios will integrate research with their everyday experiences and will bring the Humanities to life and make it a prolific, fascinating, and future-oriented study that can be seen not as a backward-looking archival alternative to the sciences but as a vital complementary dimension of our complex world. We do not necessarily need BL to make students realize the fascinating potential of Humanities to generate renewable interest for itself, and its power to inspire subsequent generations to search for new meanings in old texts. Nonetheless, by using 21st-century digital technology in our teaching practices we can generate innovative questions and perspectives, and we can keep the conversation going not only with the old, but also with future generations.

Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013)