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The Blue & Gray Press | September 26, 2017

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History goes digital

By ERIN COX

Amidst the droll of typical morning classes in Annex A, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one class attempts to break the traditional pedagogical mold.

It’s the second time Dr. Jeffrey McClurken, associate professor of history, and department chair, has taken on the senior seminar he created two years ago titled “Adventures in Digital History.”

The course “balances intellectual pursuits with [the] practical realities of finding a job,” McClurken said.

The 16 students, all juniors and seniors, are broken into four groups, each focusing their time on separate projects to be completed over the semester.

The students had the opportunity to choose their topics, which include the James Monroe papers, the history and legacy of Mary Ball Washington, a comprehensive organizational system to identify the thousands of unnamed alum in the UMW archives, and research on the history of Civil War hospitals in the Fredericksburg area.

All of the projects are related in some way to the history of the Fredericksburg area, or to the university, and are “locally related with larger implications,” McClurken said.

The course incorporates both an instructional base from both the professor and UMW’s teaching and learning tech staff, as well as coordinated small group efforts. McClurken said the course redefines the traditional senior seminar packed with reading one book a week and writing a final research paper by providing a “very different approach.” “Think about what things we might accomplish if in groups,” he said.

During the semester, in addition to traditional lectures and readings from their online textbook, the groups must compile a contract, including their intentions for the project, and a timeline by which they are to complete it.

They then work together to build a web site presenting an exhibit of that information. Additionally, for the first four weeks, UMW’s teaching and learning tech staff provided informational sessions on a different online tool once a week. This “digital tool kit” introduces, and “almost intentionally overwhelms” the students with a wide array of programs and sites which can be used towards the development of their websites, McClurken said.

These tools include delicious.com, omeka, gmail documents and google wave, Murphy said.

The hands-on interactive tutorials provide real time demonstrations according to senior Jonathan Wigginton, one of the students taking the seminar.

“This is really helpful because you are doing it as they are teaching you, and you are able to ask questions at any juncture,” he said.

The students aren’t being extensively trained in each program, but simply introduced to each one’s potential because of the rapidity of programs becoming obsolete. By doing this, Adventures in Digital History is “not fundamentally changing what history does, but changing the tools used to present the story or narrative,” McClurken said. The class will continue to visit issues of copyright, new techniques, etc. throughout the semester, molding to the quickly changing technological environment.

A class without formal evaluations of each individual’s progress warrants uncertainties towards free riders, as well as recognition for outstanding work. Which is why McClurken has emphasized transparency in all project formats.

One half of the assessment at the conclusion of the semester is on how well the group adhered to their original contracts, as well as an evaluation of the final product. Additionally, the other half analyzes the individual’s participation, and rewards those who contributed immense efforts.

McClurken said the students were warned ahead of time about the structure and difficulty of the class, emphasizing that it would be unlike anything else they had done. They needed to go into the semester “trusting me not to take advantage of the unusual nature” of the class.

“The class is very different from what I am used to, and I think it will be extremely useful in the future,” MacKenzie Murphy, another student said.

“Especially if I work in the kind of job where I have to have skills to work in groups, build a web site, be able to present a certain type of information in an effective, visually pleasing way.”

The class format offers a break to students, many of whom spend 14 to 18 hours a week in a lecture formatted classes.

“I benefit much more from this type of environment, a hands on approach to learning,” Wigginton said.

While there are few courses like this at the undergraduate level, George Washington University has incorporated the digital history idea into their graduate program for their Department of History and Art History. This emerging style of teaching, as well as McClurken’s class, have been reported on and talked about in various educational publications including the American Historical Association online; EduCause, a nonprofit organization advocating for the use of information technology in higher education; and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This inclusion of online tools increases the ability of a project to move from just a teacher-student readership base, to a public piece of information.”
The projects live on after they’re done, [it is a] persistent resource that’s left behind,” McClurken said.

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