December 10, 2005
final thoughts on teaching history via the web
I don’t really like the sound of “final thoughts”, as no thought of mine has ever really been final…but just the same, it will likely be my last blog for this course so here goes…
I have learned a lot in this course; much of which (here’s a nice, ironic surprise) I did not anticipate learning, as both a student and as an instructor. I am equally excited and afraid for the future of education, specifically for the basic education of our young people in public schools. Too many classrooms are in effect run by administrators who don’t understand student’s needs or how students learn and retain information. Many primary and secondary teachers are overworked, underpaid, and ill prepared to engage youngsters and encourage them to learn to build academic skills on their own. As more multiple choice tests are given to expedite the process of testing, students are left with fewer literacy skills to support their academic careers later in life. We need to find a way to bridge the gap between rapid and effective teaching, to pay more attention to how students learn today and put aside old outdated modes of instruction. Society is dynamic; therefore education should not be static. An unexamined course of education is not worth following.
Modern technology and in particular, the use of computers, has become a double edged axe. While the web offers us a new universe of teaching possibilities, it also has rendered many students incapable of demonstrating basic skills. Ensuring the mastery of basic skills has become more treacherous with computers and calculators that have removed the need to learn mathematical skills and grammatical rules. Spell check, for example, has replaced proper phonetic and spelling lessons, resulting in a generation of people who commonly cannot spell without spell check. As Dr. Kelly reminded one of his students, although his was not an English class, one needs to have good writing skills to clearly demonstrate their knowledge in any subject.
I wonder how the English department sees the future of web based instruction; are there “grammar sites” developed to enhance and aid the learning of basic writing skills? I certainly hope so. As an educator in the field of history, I am challenged every day to find a way to help students develop the basic skills they need to succeed in life. Students need to learn to read and write before they can express their opinions of historical matters and themes. I have had to spend much more time correcting grammatical skill errors than those made regarding the historical subject at hand. There are more obtacles to teaching, however, than just basic skill instruction.
Something modern educators need to address is that information creeps in even when you don’t anticipate it; it’s not always achieved by an overt effort on the part of the professor or the student. A student can learn a lot from surfing on the internet for history sites. As Dr. Kelly reminisced, he sent students out to find primary documents and they returned with enthusiam and interest he had not seen prior to the self appointed assignment. He also gives them the freedom to choose which documents to read, allowing them to find and develop their own interests within a subject. Some professors would shrink at the challenge of keeping up with a student's individual trajectory, but I think this is one of the best ways to inspire students to learn; it builds confidence, teaches responsibility, and helps to develop research skills.
Students can also learn a good deal from other students. I see the good students have discipline and enthusiasm for their work. By reading another student’s work, I can see where I fit into the program; if I need to work harder or if I am on par. So why, I ask, does so much of early education in this country consist of memorising dates and facts, and working completely on your own? Are we really that incapable of constructing a more useful programme of study for our youths?
It appears we learn the most in the process of researching and writing, when immersed in the subject, while interacting with the factors and actors in the subject. We have never really learned anything valuable from memorising dates and facts, unless our goal is to become a Jeopardy contestant. Many professors and instructors will agree that memorisation is ineffective, but they have no choice but to test this way due to time and budget restrictions. There has to be a better way to educate and inspire our youths to continue on an academic course.
For history, I see huge potential in web based instruction, a positive step in education when used responsibly. Web sites are ever engaging and instructional, immersing the student in visual and audio experience alike. Web based instruction can be an experience, similar to a museum visit, rather than another dry text or lecture. Once immersed and interacting with a site they become engaged, and are likely to retain more information in general than if sitting in the back of the classroom listening to the professor drone on. As long as solid, foundational reading and writing skills are obtained early, web based learning should not hinder the traditional expectations of educators; it should surpass those expectations. Students aren’t reluctant to learn; they’re reluctant to be bored.
Instructors who are new to the web are in urgent need of catching up and facing the future with hope and inspiration. We could also use a mandatory course on education in our training. Perhaps if more professors became involved in web enhanced programs and updated their teaching skills we wouldn’t see so many bored, uninspired students, and bored, ineffective professors. They might even learn to enjoy teaching again.
I have heard professors complain that the web has provided students with an unlimited opportunity for plagiarism. This has frequently led to restricting student use of the web as a study aid. But if these same professors teach their students how to use the web effectively as a learning tool, they might not face the volume of plagiarism they now see. Students tend to plagiarise when they don’t understand or have not learned the material. Making learning fun and interactive by incorporating engaging web sites and projects in the lesson plan can direct students to learn the value of education on their own, build their self confidence, and improve their lives overall. Properly instructed, they will learn how to do research, read primary source documents, create archives, and assess other student material uploaded on blogs and blackboards.
I am glad to have had this exposure to the web early in my professional life as an educator and as a graduate student. It has expanded my horizons and brought me culturally closer to the students I will teach. I must stay current with technology if I am to compete on a level that will benefit both my students and my own education. I have learned much from both the instructor’s wise guidance as well as from my fellow students in this course and I thank you all for your eager participation and comments.
Happy holidays to you all.
Posted by avonargy at December 10, 2005 03:48 PM
Hey Amanda - Hope this finds you well and happy new year! Gene and I were just in South Carolina for a little vacation, your name came up and we thought we should google you and see how you were doing.
Send us an e-mail and let us know whats up.
Posted by: Mark Dederer at January 3, 2006 05:42 PM