My teaching explores how we manage and create knowledge – my earliest interest in history centred on how made choices between alternative options under conditions of limited information, and this has run through my teaching which has explored how people gather, sift, analyse information to inform choices and courses of action. I’m interested in the process of knowing, what I call the “Scholars Journey”
During my journey, I signed over my soul to a bank to buy a Commodore 64 to write my undergrad essays using EasyScript. I paid off the loan, but I’m still hooked into the Faustian pact with technology, knowledge and learning. A key part of my MA, on the history of Beamish and Crawford, was several huge spreadsheets of brewery accounts. The core of my Phd, on UN peacekeeping in the Congo (1960-64) was created by using Wordperfect macros to sift and arrange tagged research notes into thematic sections. After a mis-spent life playing with technology, I have got to a point where I can do most of my work on an iPad or Android tablet sitting in the coffee shop.
This is reflected in the range of courses I currently teach
DH1003 Introduction to Student Learning in the Digital Age
DH2005 Research, Analysis and Knowledge Creation in the Digital Age
DH2006 Data Curation
DH6013 Getting Started with Graduate Research and Generic Skills
HI3133 Digital History
Over the past few years, I’ve fallen into the trap of creating syllabii by dumping the selected texts into folders in Blackboard, with links to the discussions. (at times, our staff-student ratio in DH went north of 50:1, so I have an excuse!) Now, I have a little more time to produce proper, open course pages.
My teaching is not “normal’ I don’t lecture and I don’t examine. I lead discussions and I assess by continuous assessment, usually in a portfolio.
What this means in practice is that every week I set readings, and require students to respond to discussion prompts on them. I try to get students to post twice a week – once in response to the reading/prompt and later in response to the initial posts. In class, we pick up those dissensions and develop them in small groups or plenary sessions. If it works out properly (and it often does, because I design it: discussion based learning doesn’t happen by accident folks!) the end of the discussion raises questions which lead into the next topic. (I should do a nice diagram for this!)
Since discussion is important, I’m very open about the metacognitive research behind discussions. There is a huge body of academic research on how online discussions work, and we read some of that early on. Discussion is a game, that moves through phases, and it’s important to know how it’s played.
My assessment is almost always a portfolio created by assembling the terms work into a single “document” with an introduction and most importantly a final concluding reflection in which the student discusses which they have taken from the module. The elements are not always discussion posts – search and evaluation exercises, mindmaps, argument mapping, chronologies, web site design concepts, sets of interview questions, annotated pdfs, video and audio all come up as ‘evidence of a mind at work’. I’ve had several courses over the years where the assessment was a game design, or a large Model UN style simulation. Even in group work, where there is a big final product, documenting the process from week to week, using design thinking or Agile methods, is an important part of mapping the journey.
My courses are not tightly defined – there are key concepts and skills we must cover, but I recognise the need to have some leeway to explore emergent issues. Some topics do follow in a logical sequence, but knowledge is often messy, and sometimes we vary the pathways through the material, and can go off track to explore something “shiny” (Over time, one thing I’ve come to be good at is maintaining the link between happy deviations and what we need to cover. I put this down to years experience running old school tabletop role playing games.)
There must always be room in learning for failure, because we learn from it. We learn that everything doesn’t always go according to plan, we learn to deal with imperfect outcomes and how to work out what went wrong, and what we might do differently next time. I don’t create impossible challenges just to force people to fail, and I don’t go soft on failures, but if you mess up and can explain how, and show ways in which you can avoid that in future, you’ll get appropriate credit. And since my assessments are based on a range of tasks, things which you simply can’t do will only have a limited impact on grades.
I don’t execute people for plagiarism, and I find much of the discourse about it is profoundly negative, and unhelpful. Proper referencing allows me (and every other reader) to see how you have explored the field, what sources you have chosen and what points from them you have picked, digested and woven into your own argument, using your words. References, proper quotations, and good paraphrasing demonstrates your skills at locating and using material. In other words, it allows me to see how successfully you have “asserted your intellectual ownership of the material” (Prof Geoff Roberts, in conversation) and reward you appropriately. I’m looking for “evidence of a mind at work” (Prof Joe Lee, in a marking meeting) and therefore I don’t reward “Ctrl-c ctrl-v”. In terms of grade, I guess the end result is the same, but my philosophy is, I hope, more positive than penal.