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Building a Class Website

Now, I am no expert here.  I am just a prof with 15 or so years behind me, in the generation of folks who have seen the digital revolution up close and personal.  The fact that I went to college as a freshman with a typewriter and left grad school on my second or third laptop says a lot.

The digitization of everything has opened great new options for teaching but also posed some headaches.  On the plus side, the fact that I no longer have to sort slides in a tray prior to every class meeting is a huge win; the can’t-miss-’em monuments exist in handy PowerPoint slide shows that are three or four clicks away.  On the negative, I was never sold on laptops and other keyboard-enabled note-taking devices in class, and recent studies have backed up my suspicions.  They are bad.  Students will continue to use the oldey-timey technology of pens and notepaper in my classes, even if they have to do it through weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So, I am trying to be pretty thoughtful and selective about how to manage the class through online resources (make no mistake, this is not an “on-line class;” we still meet in a room, three times per week).  Most of what happens here, I think, can be divided into one of two categories:

  1. digital delivery of traditional materials: links on the website open PDFs of traditional course materials (calendars, assignments, etc.)
  2. all-digital format: pages on the website have active elements, e.g., thumbnail images that link to big versions of the image for study purposes, a calendar that includes links to study materials

One of the concerns I have, and which requires this split approach, is the threat of making too much of a big deal about the technology and allowing it to get in the way of the material.  I resist the Celebration of the Gizmo.  I also recognize that the myth of the “digital native” is just that; I’ve had plenty of students with personal tech issues and don’t believe that all students will cotton to an all-digital class. There’s also the matter of my university’s readiness to adapt fully to the potential of these resources; central admin will still require a PDF version of a paper syllabus to file in the provost’s office.  And if I have to generate one for him, why not just keep everyone on paper?  Students are notoriously bad about reading this document that is full of serious and important info.  Are they more or less likely to absorb it in digital or paper form?

I’d love to hear from others who are depending more and more on electronic devices to facilitate their teaching.  In the meantime, I am trying to be very selective on the course site to turn to digital options when they truly promise to facilitate my teaching and my students’ learning; otherwise, we will stick with the tried and true.

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Upgrading ARC 231: background & introduction

I’m dedicating the Day of DH to one making upgrades to one course.  ARC 231 is the first of a series of four classes in architecture history at Judson University.  I have modified this class continually through the years, sometimes through changes to content (e.g., expanding its Islamic material) and sometimes through alterations of delivery–especially as I have become aware of new media and tools that enhance the delivery of the class.

The biggest steps to date have been introducing VoiceThread in 2013 as part of the prep that students complete prior to class and making the shift from 35 mm slides to digital slides (I have, after all, been teaching this thing since the last century!), which was a pretty big transition that, probably, all art & architecture historians had to deal with in the 2000’s +/-.  My university subscribed to the Blackboard system for most of my years there (recently it has turned to eLearn), and across time I moved more and more materials to the site.  It offered some advantages but wasn’t perfect, and was certainly clunky to use (both for me and students) and had severe limitations in the design department.

I was really happy to be accepted into the DH for Art Historians institute held last August at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  During this two-week super-immersive experience, a group of great facilitators introduced us to dozens of new programs and tools, as well as leading discussions on the sometimes-thorny issues that litter the digital landscape.  Overall, I left even more enthused than I had been at the start to get going on transforming my scholarship and teaching.

The former is the harder part, in particular since I am at the tail-end of a big, lengthy, behemoth of a project that was started in traditional means of research and will conclude in traditional means of publishing.  Maybe the next project will be “born digital,” but this one is already well into cranky adolescence.

But the teaching part is different.  That’s something that has always been flexible; there’s never been a year that I did not fuss with a class to try and improve it.  This year is a bigger overhaul, given my attendance at the DH institute at GMU, the past sabbatical year that I have been able to really think about my class without the overarching need to tend to it, and participation in this Day of DH in which I will formalize my goals and tidy up aspects of the class design that I have fiddled with, but are not yet quite ready for prime time.