Developing Interactive Online Teaching Modules for the Humanities


In Fall of 2013 I was engaged in a workshop led by the Berkley Center for Religion and World Affairs concerning the future of Global Liberal Education (GLE). I brought this experience with me into the 2014 ITEL cohort in an effort to broaden and deepen the applications of technology for student learning I had learned. I came with a fairly well-developed pedagogical project, well-developed materials and teaching experience in the field. I wished to expand the possibilities in delivering this curriculum using teaching methods and technology content delivery derived from digital gaming, a phenomenon I had witnessed as tremendously captivating to my thirteen year old son and his friends. I attended the TLISI workshop in May 2014, had my project for the Gaming Cohort accepted, and attended a series of meetings in late summer and throughout the Fall term 2014.

I had tested my GLE materials in two courses taught in Fall 2013 and Spring 2014:

  • ENGL 687-01 Intro. Critical Theory (Grad), enrollment 15, instructor Schwarz, and
  • ENGL 273-01 Intro. Critical Theory (UG), enrollment 23, instructor Schwarz.

Although I was not formally teaching during the period of the ITEL workshop, I was nonetheless able to marshal a troupe of graduate students to contribute to a trial run of the technology developed during the ITEL workshop, and so to generate assessment data for the purpose of this exercise. This data follows the written description.

The Project

An assumption of the GLE workshop was that liberal education was in a period of catching up in relation to STEM classes, and that its methods and content could be streamlined and delivered more efficiently with the aid of technology.

Part of the focus of this workshop was to develop teaching modules or clusters that could be packaged and interchanged in different types of courses.

I designed a two week (four meeting period) undergraduate module focusing on the public performance of political dissent in contemporary India. The GLE facilitated this project by helping to produce a videotaped introductory lecture that included some graphics, maps, charts and other visual aids to comprehension. The introductory lecture guided students to further reading and viewing material, which was available on Blackboard in a graduated, step by step format. It was intended to save time and provide orientation before a first class meeting, and students were asked to view it before attending class. Also included were basic resources for assessment, such as quizzes and prompts for short writing assignments. The focus was on inspiring and sustaining student initiative to create new learning opportunities modelled on the material.

The payoff of the module was to engage with a theatre professional trained in the Boalian method of Theatre of the Oppressed (a "jester") during our final class period. During that period students produced their own problem plays that dramatize issues of importance in their lives. This class becomes a springboard for subsequent modules throughout the semester in which students use the tools learned here to further their learning exploration.

Students watched and critiqued the lecture, and they had no trouble accessing video and textual materials on Blackboard. They enjoyed thoroughly the engagement with the Boalian jester and participated enthusiastically in class discussion and in theatre exercises. They wrote papers of insight and sensitivity into the historical materials and the contemporary process.

The numerical assessment was the standard university- supplied multiple choice form used for all courses. Students were effusive in their written comments. The instructor received the typical overall evaluation of between 4.5 and 4.8, and the usual number of students either failed to fill out the survey or did so in perfunctory manner.

Within the context of the ITEL workshop there was only one other Gaming cohort participant. She came with a game plan, and presumably followed it through. I did not have the opportunity to see her present her work. CNDLS staff made two or three suggestions for further reading. The four day May workshop did not touch on gaming. I did attend several presentations that I found stimulating, including one for NearPad that put tablet computers in each students' hands and asked them to take a tour of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That was interactive, fun, and critically enriching.

Since I was essentially alone as a Gaming learner, I was pulled into the Tablet cohort for a time. As I explored further I quickly found the NearPad content to be sterile. Finally, around November I was offered the assistance of some technical advisors to help develop my project. This was a breakthrough. Two CNDLS staffers showed me how to digitize video and post it online, as well as to rip mp3s from YouTube. This allowed me to significantly enhance my Bb teaching module by providing new content that I hoped could be made interactive.

In the very last weeks of the semester I was introduced to Voicethread, a video editing and annotation tool that could potentially be used to comment on the introductory lecture for the course. I can now see how Voicethread could become a platform for improving that video with student input to create a genuinely user-friendly design for the self-guided course. Unfortunately Voicethread was not yet licensed or approved to run under the Blackboard umbrella, so our hands on utilization of the technology was very clunky, full of bugs and incompatibilities with Bb. For example, Vt was not able to interact with my Introductory video because that was presented on YouTube. The video had to be ripped from YouTube and re-formatted to be accessible. I was told several months later that Voicethread had finally been incorporated into Bb, and so now might run more smoothly.

My goal for the ITEL workshop was to supplement this successful experiment in technology-assisted learning with some additional hardware or software, preferably related to video gaming.

I thought it might be possible to offer a gaming experience to proceed through the material even more enthusiastically than they had in previous semesters. I was particularly hoping to influence self-guided learning. I read essays about turning a classroom into a game-centric experience. I had heard that other colleagues were "reading" video games in their classes like other texts. Gelardin Library had been collecting/ curating video games. I was intrigued.

When I organized my 8 graduate student test group in November 2014, I was at a loss to explain to them what was at stake. After six months in the ITEL cohort, attending workshops regularly, I had little to show. So I turned my students loose on the re-edited videotape and Blackboard module from the GLE workshop. They were very enthusiastic. I also asked them to experiment as best they could with Voicethread, which they found entirely confusing, at least partially for the compatibility reasons mentioned above.

Students filled out an evaluation form designed by CNDLS and tailored to the specific cohort we were engaged with. This form was rather less detailed than the standard university evaluation form, and contained questions about technology at Georgetown and in my class in particular. Students were extremely generous with their written answers. Numerical evaluations showed that students were predictably middle of the road in their assessment of how well Georgetown professors incorporate technology in the classroom in general, and how well it was incorporated in my classroom in particular.

Of the three written responses, all three said they had made a good faith attempt to work Vt, but that it was impossible despite using online tutorials. These tutorials however did not show Vt working within the Bb framework, so several functions were not applicable between the tutorial and their lived experience. All students commented very positively on the intro lecture. One student asked for more guidance in navigating the material.

The data told me that it was quite possible to design a student-led learning module by providing content on Blackboard. The overriding conclusion is that the experience of accessing new material and using it critically is good, but not as good as the actual learning that occurs from in-class discussion.

I will certainly teach this course again and will attempt to move forward with Voicethread. I envision a student collaborative project of annotating and editing the Intro lecture so that it incorporates hot links and quotations from other items in the module. If Vt is functioning smoothly it could potentially serve as a collaborative video editing platform used to produce student designed work. The virtue of a collaborative platform is that students experience ownership and decisions can be made collectively based on competing opinions. It seems like a potentially good teaching tool. I will also search for a video workshop with the Boalian jester that can be made accessible. It is always more fun to do theatre games in groups, but individual students can be exposed to the principles through self-direction in expectation of a later group activity.

My experiences of floundering in both the TLISI and in pursuing my course design were ultimately beneficial as they taught me two main things:

  1. to grab a program associate early and work one on one to develop the specific application.
  2. Stick to a personal project despite the distractions. I wanted to learn something new about gaming, and in the process found ways to improve my existing course content.

It would be useful to have an overview of available technologies for enhancing the classroom presentation, or discussion about the effect of technology on learning. Much of the ITEL workshop consisted of participants being shown someone using Lecture Capture, or Collaborate, or or the TESOL copyediting shortcuts but not presenting a synthesis of content and format. There is an implicit assumption that technology is good for something. Most of the presentations seemed designed as timesavers; a teacher could post a lecture capture as a substitute for a face to face class. Professor Elham Atashi actually demonstrated all sorts of cool uses for putting a tablet in every hand as a classroom activity in her simulation of a border crisis on the US-Mexico line.

The ITEL culture seems more concerned with numerical assessment than does the Humanities disciplines. In my classroom, the test of success is a good conversation, and that is an outcome that cannot be quantified. The next good result is a well-written, well-argued essay. I don't regularly use quizzes in my classes, but I rarely have difficulty awarding a fair grade.

The undergraduate liberal arts classroom is one of the very few places a 20 year-old can ignore her cell phone, escape from advertising, and have a face to face interaction for an hour. If she is asked to operate some clunky software for no immediate gain the experience will be negative. To the extent that new programs like Vt can be made idiot-proof for humanities instructors, we will experiment. But the learning curve is still too steep for many of these tools to be incorporated effectively without appropriate tutorials. Instead, we were requested to collect data about student experience and turn it over to others.