I love synchronicity. As part of David Socha’s research agenda is the rethinking of how one transforms a class from professor centered to student learning centered. As part of the ever flowing collaboration between David, Alan Wood and me, we are creating alternative ways to teach Alan’s upcoming senior level course on History and Globalization for undergraduate business majors at UW Bothell.
As we were wallowing in alternative designs, Alan came across a seminar in the digital humanities arena from the UW Simpson Center for the Humanities. A long time colleague of Alan’s, Míċeál Vaughn, sent a note inviting him to hear English Professor Lorraine Stock from the University of Houston give a workshop on “Designing and Teaching ‘Hybrid’ or ‘Blended Learning’ Courses: Why and How?”
As Alan was introducing us to Míċeál before the workshop, Míċeál shared that medieval scholars were doing digital humanities long before the term came into popularity. Why? Because all of our primary material is unique, there are no two manuscripts that are the same. We study things that are well before the age of reproduction. To gain access to these rare documents everything has to be in digital form. And just to hurt my head some more, Míċeál shared that he was heading up a new effort on textual studies.
I had to ask what he meant by textual studies in the digital humanities sense as in does text include art and images. “Of course,” answered Míċeál. Now I am in real trouble if I can’t even keep clear what is meant by a text. Something tells me this is another longer conversation we need to have.
Míċeál introduced Lorraine and both shared that they’d studied at Cornell University about the same time.
“The undergraduate Chaucer course is an intensive literature class about texts created in a culture located across an ocean and over five centuries removed from that of contemporary students, and written in a difficult language that is at best a distant, sometimes unrecognizable ancestor of modern English. The themes and genres of medieval literature are strange, and visualizing this temporally remote and geographically distant period is difficult for students native to Houston, which does not even boast a pseudo-gothic cathedral. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a text about medieval people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, the shrine of Thomas Becket, telling tales in a storytelling contest to alleviate boredom. Teaching this material in a regular face-to-face class is difficult enough; to make the medieval period come alive, extensive “show and tell” of pictures, films, and music are usually employed. Much more challenging is the task of keeping students engaged when the material is presented through distance learning, which adds yet another layer of “distance” from the course materials.
“Having agreed to teach Chaucer as a “hybrid” course, with 50% of course content delivered through electronic or other means, Lorraine Stock set out on her own pedagogical pilgrimage, attempting to create or find available and suitably engaging content to compensate for the 50% of class time that she would not be meeting her students. Organizing the course around the metaphor of “pilgrimage,” she constructed the curriculum as a pilgrimage, tracing the students’ journey from ignorance about Chaucer and medieval life to mastery of The Canterbury Tales. Using an interactive map of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury as the course guide, she constructed learning modules about the phenomenon of pilgrimage in general, Chaucer’s life, major historical events in Chaucer’s period (the Black Death and the 1381 Uprising of Peasants), the different literary genres practiced by Chaucer, and other topics. Materials created or found and utilized include self-created webpages about the content (featuring text and images), radio programs, photo galleries, QuickTime film clips, music files, podcasts, and other materials. Employing “gaming” in the design of the course’s writing projects, Stock assigns each student a medieval pilgrim identity, which they research and then create a self designed persona, in whose “voice” they write for assigned writing exercises.”
For most of the presentation, Professor Stock had an image of a map of the Canterbury Tales on the screen. It was interesting that for a talk on “hybrid learning” the three hour workshop was almost entirely in traditional lecture format with only a couple of uses of visual images about two hours into the presentation.
The map on the screen looked something like:
Using the metaphor of the journey fit well with the Canterbury Tales with each city being the starting point for a given lecture and the resources available for the lecture.
I was as fascinated with the tips and tricks that Lorraine shared as well as the business rationale that Houston used to encourage teachers to go to this hybrid learning format. Once again I was impressed with how much could be accomplished using just Powerpoint and Google image search within the context of the Blackboard learning system. For a humanities professor that is not part of the digital generation, she’s put together a well thought out set of content with loads of practical learning.
From a business model standpoint, Houston was encouraging professors to go to this format so that they could essentially double the existing classroom space. By having half of the learning outside of the classroom, face to face time could be reduced to a single class meeting per week. As Houston is a commuter school, this also reduced the number of times a student would need to come to campus. Space is always the final frontier at a university and this business model pays for itself very quickly.
By all indications the students are happier with this format, the professor is happier, and the administration is happier. Win, win and win.
What most surprised Professor Stock was how the quality of the class discussions dramatically improved. In her 30 years of teaching, she has never experienced how excited the students were to talk about Chaucer, medieval times and the implications for their avatar. As part of the class, Stock has each student select one of the pilgrims for their avatar and then they do several written assignments in the voice and mindset of their embodied pilgrim. She pointed out that not only were the discussions lively but the students writing was much better and a lot more fun to read.
She also described that in some of the classes she and a Teaching Assistant made the session more lively by channeling Black Adder and Baldrick routines. I must confess I had no idea what she was talking about. With my trusty iPad, I found a pointer to the BBC shows and bookmarked them for later viewing.
Over drinks later in the UW Faculty Club after the workshop, Professor Stock shared that doing this hybrid course reinvigorated her understanding of Chaucer and how much more she learned than in all her previous 30 years of scholarship with Chaucer. As I pushed her to provide examples, she came back to the example of the houndfish. She’d been reading the following passage all my scholarly life:
In scholarly texts, you might have the houndfish in a footnote that just says “houndfish.” It wasn’t until she looked in Google image search and saw what a houndfish actually looked like that she realized how much the beard bristles really hurt.
I can only imagine what the power of including images with the text does for a better understanding of an otherwise foreign language (Medieval English) and culture for the students.
I always enjoy the special knowledge byplays that come with two colleagues who have a deep understanding of a topic. Lorraine and Míċeál started a discussion about a recent movie of Beowulf. Míċeál immediately exclaimed how the movie ruined “our” Beowulf. An energetic discussion ensued. Finally, Míċeál realized that the rest of us didn’t understand what they were arguing about. Succinctly, Míċeál shared that he is interested in “translation” and Lorraine is interested in “adaptation.”
Through their artful discussion, I now have new distinctions of translation versus adaption to take into my future.
Thank you Lorraine for your trail blazing work in “Hybrid Learning” and more importantly for your excitement in sharing what you’ve learned.