Screencasting in College History Courses?

My husband teaches history at a small liberal arts college in Michigan. The education students receive there is, in my view, absolutely exemplary. Professors are completely dedicated to undergraduate teaching (in stark contrast to the recent critique offered by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa on the abysmal state of undergraduate learning nation-wide; NPR Story). The college offers students incredible research opportunities and a curriculum that expects both breadth and depth in the liberal arts tradition. Students live on campus and the ethos of the place is about living and learning together.  The model of instruction is suitably traditional which, of course, goes along with the traditions of academic excellence this college values so highly. And yet, it seems to me that beyond the use of Moodle coursewebs to organize content and PowerPoint presenations to display images, data and content, web-based technologies have not really been embraced as powerful learning tools by my husband and his esteemed colleagues.

Why not?

There are probably plenty of reasons, not the least of which may be a general feeling that technology may somehow compromise a good thing. If it ain’t broke…

More than anything, however, I suspect my husband and his colleagues just haven’t had much chance to explore the range of web-based technologies that could support — and dare I say, even enhance — their curricula and teaching.

In a 15-minute brainstorming conversation yesterday, my husband and I came up with several great ideas for using screencasting technology in his college history courses. These aren’t revolutionary or anything but they are ideas that he felt a) were do-able and b) would offer learning support to his students without compromising academic rigor.

Here’s a list of screencasting ideas that could support undergraduate history students:

1) A guide to the “how-to” document that my husband gives out on the first day of class. The document outlines how to write a history paper, how to cite sources, how to format a history paper, how to conduct research. Highlighting the important elements of this document alone might make it more accessible for students and ultimately increase the number of students who actually read it and use it during the semester.

2) Brief tutorials on how to cite sources. The screencasts would render transparent both the integration of cited material into a paragraph and the thought process that goes into deciding when and where to cite a reference. These tutorials could be created by capturing a short five-minute paragraph writing session during which the professor composes in a Google Doc, inserts citations and thinks aloud the whole time.

3) Showing students how history papers are graded so that they are aware of how professors think about argument, the substantiation of ideas and good writing. This could be done with a tablet PC and screencapture software like Camtasia so that students can see the professor writing comments and narrating the process along the way.

4) Students could submit screencasts of their own writing with questions related to any aspect of their work — we imagined students showing the professor a paragraph and identifying the specific issue they were struggling to overcome. For instance, “In this paragraph I am using information from work by X. I’ve summarized his ideas — do I need to insert a citation here? or here? Where should I do this?”

Of course, this back-and-forth between professors and students ideally happens face-fo-face in class but we all know that learning a complex skill like how to write a history paper takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. Screencasts posted to a CMS permit just-in-time support for students that can be revisited over and over again. And, when students create screencasts for professors, they’re thinking critically about their learning process (always a good thing) and creating a record of their learning development. To me, this application of technology is absolutely aligned with the core mission of a small liberal arts college.

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