‘Dynamic Syllabi for Dummies’: Posting Class Assignments on the World Wide Web
Teaching Digital History
This article was originally published in Journal of American History 84, 4 (March 1998): 1447-53 and is reprinted here with permission.
As my friends at the Irvin E. Houck Computing Center at Oberlin College, where I teach, can attest, I am not a geek. I never fiddled with the “autoexec.bat” file on my old DOS computer, I do not know any hard-core programming languages, and I still have trouble remembering which combination of keys to hit when an application freezes. Without question, my three children (ages nine to thirteen) are more comfortable with computers than I am or ever will be. But that very fact has spurred my fascination with educational technology. The coming generation of students will arrive at colleges and universities with many years of experience using computers for education, communication, and entertainment. To ignore or willfully deny this historical transformation is foolhardy, I believe, if we wish to reach and teach these students effectively. Whatever personal ambivalence we may feel about computers, we need to prepare ourselves for the brave new world of bits, bytes, network protocols, and a glut of Internet resources.
Fortunately, it is getting easier for klutzy folks such as me to use sophisticated technology in our teaching. Most college professors today have access to the user-friendly World Wide Web from our offices, our homes, and/or public computer labs on campus. Many have surfed the Web, at least occasionally, and some have developed their own Web pages. A very few have become involved in “distance learning” strategies aimed at “delivering” courses electronically to students off campus. I am not among the last group. At Oberlin we are firmly committed to face-to-face, “close proximity” education. Yet within this conventional collegiate context I have experimented with creating Web-based “dynamic syllabi” for my American history courses. The experience has been rewarding for both me and my students. Below I will briefly chronicle my efforts and offer a few suggestions (and warnings) for others interested in pursuing this approach.
Having first encountered the World Wide Web in the summer of 1994–when Mosaic was the reigning browser–I set about creating a Web site for the Oberlin College History Department in January 1995. I started by enlisting the assistance of a history major who was pursuing a minor in computer science. He didn’t have any prior knowledge of HTML (hypertext markup language, the lingua franca of the Web), but he quickly learned the basics and in turn instructed me. Within a month’s time we had our site up and running on Oberlin College’s campus-wide information system, which in March 1995 was opened to global access as a site on the World Wide Web. I have been the history department’s Webmaster ever since.
For the first year maintaining the department’s Web site was pretty easy. Most of the posted information–about course offerings, faculty specialties, the honors program, and the like–required only occasional revision. The biggest challenge was keeping a list of links to other history sites on the World Wide Web up to date. In the spring of 1995, the list consisted of about a dozen sites. Twelve months later it numbered over a hundred, and I was having trouble finding enough time to surf the Web, locate new sites, and post additions. (Note for philosophers of history to ponder: It is useful to think of change in the field of information technology as occurring in “dog years”–several times faster than in most other fields of human endeavor.)
In July 1996 I participated in “The New Media Classroom: Narrative, Inquiry, and Technology in the U.S. History Survey,” a faculty institute conducted by the American Social History Project (based at CUNY) and the Center for History and New Media (based at George Mason University). Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by Baruch College, “The New Media Classroom” brought together college professors and high school teachers for a week of demonstrations, discussions, and hands-on exercises involving the use of CD-ROMs, presentation software, and the World Wide Web in teaching American history. I learned a great deal about pedagogy as well as educational technology. Inspired by others’ examples, I returned to Oberlin eager to try my hand at creating a Web-based dynamic syllabus for my survey of American history to 1877.
The results of my initial effort can be found at http://www.oberlin.edu/~history/Korn103.html
Although the first generation of software that facilitates authoring Web pages was already on the market, I composed this syllabus in “raw” HTML. To enliven the syllabus’s appearance, I downloaded images from various Web sites using Netscape Navigator, and I scanned in additional pictures from hardcopy sources. To introduce students to the potential of the Internet, I integrated into the schedule of lectures, discussions, and writing assignments a number of links to recommended Web sites. I also included a link for sending me e-mail. Then, as the semester progressed, I linked lecture outlines and writing assignments to the syllabus so that students who lost such handouts (or failed to pick them up in the first place) could find them through the dynamic syllabus.
The advantages of an on-line syllabus became evident the first week of the course when, by wonderful coincidence, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities announced that its archeological team had located the remains of the original fort at Jamestown. I could direct students to the Association’s Jamestown Rediscovery Web site, which was already linked into the syllabus, to learn more about the project and how digging for artifacts continues to broaden our knowledge of American history. Similarly, when the Atlantic published Conor Cruise O’Brien’s controversial attack on Thomas Jefferson in its October 1996 issue, I added a link from my online syllabus to the electronic version of the article on the magazine’s Web site. I could easily use new technology to modify the course in a timely fashion–and without having to seek permission from the publisher to make multiple printed copies.
I did make one big mistake. Although I assigned certain books and articles, I did not require students to consult the recommended Web sites. I was hoping students would choose to explore these sites on their own and to bring what they discovered on the Web to bear on class discussions. This hope was naive. In retrospect, I realize that by making Web browsing optional, I signaled that it was less important than doing the regular reading assignments. Students working under pressure quite sensibly skipped what was merely recommended in favor of what was mandatory.
In the spring semester of 1997, I tried a somewhat different approach in my intermediate-level course on Revolutionary America and the Early Republic. Once again I developed a dynamic syllabus, but this time I used Claris Home Page to speed and ease the composition of the Web page. I assigned certain readings that could be accessed only through the dynamic syllabus, and as an in-class exercise, I required students to evaluate selected Web sites for their scholarly content and historical reliability as well as for their aesthetic appeal. Although (or perhaps because) there was no truly outstanding Web site on the Revolution or its aftermath, this assignment prompted students to think critically about the information they located on the Web and to ponder the challenges of presenting history in a hypertext format.
Based on my limited experience, I offer the following suggestions and warnings to other nongeeks who wish to experiment with dynamic syllabi and, more generally, using the Web to teach American history.
- Explore what the Web has to Offer:
- Visit some of the most creative and comprehensive history sites on the World Wide Web to see what can be done with this new medium. Among my favorites are American Memory http://rs6.loc.gov/amhome.html; The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/vshadow2/; The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/index.html; and The New Deal Network http://newdeal.feri.org/.
- Browse the World Wide Web for sites relevant to your specific interests. Rather than rely exclusively on all-purpose search engines such as AltaVista, HotBot, or WebCrawler, you may wish to start with lists of links compiled by others. Good on-line guides to history sites include: American Studies Web, created by David Phillips and maintained by the American Crossroads Project http://www.georgetown.edu/crossroads/asw/; History Web Sites for Historians, maintained by the Center for History and New Media http://chnm.gmu.edu/chnm/websites/wsbest.html; History/Social Studies Web Site for K-12 Teachers: North America/Canada, maintained by Dennis Boals http://www.execpc.com/~dboals/amer.html; WestWeb, maintained by Catherine Lavender http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/westweb/; and Yahoo: Arts: Humanities: History: U.S. History http://www.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/History/U_S__History/. For examples of different kinds of dynamic syllabi, see the directory maintained by the American Crossroads Project http://www.georgetown.edu/crossroads/webcourses.html.
- Master the Mechanics of Posting Material on the Web
- Find out your institution’s policies and procedures for posting course-related pages on the campus Web server. Try hard to make friends with the support personnel at your institution’s computing center; they have tough jobs and can save you from disaster.
- Learn to use a Web authoring/editing program such as Adobe PageMill, Claris Home Page, Microsoft FrontPage, or Symantec Visual Page. If your campus computing center supports a particular program for this purpose, then you should probably use that program. The latest versions of Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer also include Web authoring tools.
- Get assistance from a Web-savvy colleague or student. Developing Web pages is not very complicated, but it helps to have somebody with prior experience available for advice and consultation.
- Be Creative But Not Fancy in Designing Your Online Syllabus:
- Copy and save images from existing Web sites to enhance the appearance of your syllabus. Standard browsers make this process easy–perhaps too easy. To give credit to your source, either add a caption or create a link to the site from which the image came.
- Don’t overload your syllabus with too many pictures. It takes more time to transmit images than text electronically, especially over a phone line. Your syllabus won’t seem very dynamic if students have to wait ten minutes to access it. If necessary, divide your syllabus into multiple Web pages with links connecting them.
- Bend the Technology to Your Purposes, Not Vice Versa
- Incorporate links in your syllabus to Web sites that you expect students to use in the course and develop at least one assignment that requires intensive use of a Web site. If you don’t think any site is a worth a “required” visit, then maybe you should not bother developing a dynamic syllabus.
- Be prepared for a wide range of reactions from students. Many are likely to be enthusiastic about the use of “new media,” but some are bound to be resistant. There are technophobic students just as there are technophobic teachers. Encourage students who feel uncomfortable with the technology to recognize the opportunities for creative exploration it has to offer.
In closing, I want to emphasize that none of what I have done with dynamic syllabi and the Web has radically transformed my pedagogical objectives. I still want students to explore the meaning of history and to reflect upon what history reveals about the potential and limits of the human condition. I still want students to grapple with complexity and confusion in the historical record and to debate the issues of causality and contingency in historical interpretation. Above all, I still want students to recognize the difference between data and information, on the one hand, and analysis and knowledge, on the other. To my mind, new technologies offer new, fun, and exciting ways to advance the traditional agenda of a liberal arts education.