Learning Through Creating

Mills Kelly has a simple argument. We learn best by doing. This is not what most people want to discuss (or argue/yell/::shake fists::) when they hear the concept behind “Lying About the Past,” his reimagining of the historical methods class. They want to talk about ethics and the historian’s version of the Hippocratic Oath, “tell no lies” (some historians take the Doctor thing very seriously). But they miss some of the important innovations and successes that digital pedagogy brought to Dr. Kelly’s course. The students were extremely motivated, they willingly visited archives and sought direction from more senior scholars and librarians, and they created history. It may be helpful to investigate how his class succeeded because of the web, and not incident to it.

One characteristic unique to the digital is the low barrier to creation and remix. With blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, and Wikipedia, it was very easy for the students to create public content. Instead of term papers created to be eventually filed away, students could unleash their work on a real audience. It is somewhat thrilling to have your work viewed by people you never anticipated and to receive feedback, good or bad. Another aspect of the digital is that it flattens traditional authorities. Mills class learned best when they attacked specific problems in small groups, not necessarily directed by the Professor. Many of the book’s pedagogical techniques came from surprising ways that students interacted with the course material.

Despite the focus on digital techniques, “analog” history was not forgotten and students had to supplement digital knowledge with traditional secondary and primary sources from a variety of repositories. Digital historians know that the librarian or archivist is still a crucial collaborator. While they supplemented their digital work with analog sources, they also “remixed” these existing digital sources for their own purposes, another characteristic of digital culture.

Because one can never quite cover every new technology in the rapidly changing digital field, Kelly’s book did not cover one of the major developments in digital pedagogy, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). When I first heard about MOOCs, I figured Professors in digital history and at CHNM would be wildly in favor of them. They seemingly check many boxes that the Center is interested in promoting. Open and Free? Check.  Massively promotes history to popular audiences? Eh, mostly check. Encourages University-level learning? In a way…

So MOOC platforms never fulfilled their lofty promises even from the first iterations. But I didn’t understand the resistance to MOOCs until I looked at how they used the “digital”: top-down directed learning and rote evaluation with little human feedback. The primary strength of MOOCs is their efficiency of scale- more appealing to venture capitalists than educators. Unlike MOOCs, Mills used the digital in ways to promote learning rather than distribution. First, the digital allowed for easy creation of content and feedback. Second, learning partly happened through non-hierarchical communities and with collaboration. Third, the class reused digitized sources in new ways while also adding “analog” information from archives and libraries to the web.

As digital historians, we frequently argue that historians need to “meet the public” on the web where it lives. But we must also remember to use the particular strengths of the web to match our pedagogical aims. Trying to shoehorn previous ways of teaching into a digital format is bound to fail.

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