Participants in a historical 'soap'

June 20, 2003

Graham Rogers explains how an interactive website bridged the gap between teaching and research

As another academic year draws to a close, the therapeutic process of trawling through files and weeding out the detritus begins. Some research material has seen publication, much has not. My drawer is an Aladdin's cave of teaching materials, an untidy record of how I went about research and teaching in my discipline - history. It tells of partial success, cautious insights, unresolved problems and unfulfilled promise.

The contents reveal little about my real frustrations.

One frustration is that a lot of this hard-won material will never see the light of day, in the classroom or in print.

Another is that my students are often less than active participants in the learning process. Many enter colleges such as my own, Edge Hill, with unconventional qualifications and from backgrounds with no tradition of higher education. Many lack confidence and are unsure of what is expected of them. They often take the line of least resistance in the way they learn. When faced with historical questions, they answer by way of a reference to a lecture or an article buried in the library.

I want to see stronger engagement in the task of wrestling with materials, evidence and ideas. I want to see students involved in the "chase" - much like the researcher.

Like many colleagues, I have proudly worn my "Luddite" credentials in relation to learning technology. But, more recently, I have come to appreciate that technology has the potential to take students out of the comfort zone of the lecture, textbook and seminar.

I decided to make use of my college WebCT platform to design a website for a case study about the enclosure of land in the 18th-century Lancashire village of Croston and its impact on the community. Ten years ago it had been the subject of a research publication. Now, at the click of a mouse, students could have access to a stream of digitised documents, navigable maps, pictures and a rich database. Through estate records they could chart the experience of families, rich and poor, in detail.

I carefully structured and scaffolded the case study so that students became immersed in the complex and messy business of interrogating real historical problems. Using the website and its conferencing facility they started shaping ideas, contesting arguments and interpretations. The conferencing facility led to lively exchanges. If they reached different conclusions, they defended them. Refreshingly, they did not go in search of the "right" answer. One student reported at the end of the course: "For the first time I really felt that I was writing history, not just other historians' views." She probably echoed the sentiments of many colleagues who demonstrated an unbounded enthusiasm for a study that perhaps unfolded like a historical "soap".

Technology allows tutors to track when students are online. A midnight posting from one student reported that she could not sleep: she was still grappling with a historical concept that did not seem to fit the evidence.

Astonishingly, she got an almost immediate reply from someone else in her group. Either these two students were captivated by what they were doing or both of them needed a sleeping pill.

Employing technology in this way does not work for every student, nor is it intended to displace conventional teaching methods. But lectures and seminars certainly became livelier as students' interest was kindled.

Whether results improved as a result of the website experience is a little harder to determine. There is the anecdotal evidence of students' reactions and post-course evaluations. A more rigorous analysis of the 1,750 emails posted over 12 weeks may reveal significant gains.

But if technology fails to capture what the historian - or any expert in his or her field - does, then it cannot justify the cost and will meet with resistance from teachers and learners.

For me, technology helped to build a bridge between teaching and research by immersing students in the same intellectually creative endeavour.

Students were able to become not just competent managers of information but more confident knowledge creators. They saw the value of their own contributions to our understanding of the past.

I am still tidying my filing cabinet in case other gems are hiding there.

It's worth a look...

Graham Rogers is principal lecturer in history at Edge Hill College. He is also one of this year's winners of a national award for history teaching from the Learning and Teaching Support Network history subject centre.

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