Guest Post: Susie O’Brien’s DEH Course

December 9, 2015 10:13 pm
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Written by Susie O’Brien
This year I took some preliminary steps into digital environmental humanities in my second year class, “Shifting Ground: Nature, Literature, Culture”, a class with 144 students. I say “preliminary” because I employed digital tools primarily to enhance what I already try to do in the classroom rather than taking full advantage of what they have to offer to extend teaching and learning possibilities.

The Plan

I decided to employ a combination of two pedagogical strategies: blended learning in which part of the course material is delivered online, and elements of the flipped classroom—a process whereby students learn the material that would traditionally have been conveyed via traditional lecture on their own, and use the class time to engage in “higher order cognitive skills”, in groups and as a class. My main goal was to make class time more meaningful for students, allowing them to engage in hands-on learning, via discussion and small group activities, rather than just listening to me talk. I saw blended delivery as means to that end: if I could deliver at least some of the lecture material online, it would free up class time to do more interesting things. Blended learning also gives students more autonomy over their learning, allowing them to determine the place, time and pace of engagement with instruction. Lots of students commute to McMaster, so having the opportunity to listen to lectures off-campus makes sense for them. Finally, I also thought, in an admittedly hazy undeveloped way, that I’d like the class to some kind of an online presence, in the form of a blog or a wiki; this could be a place for students to share work and, eventually, to collaborate in broader online initiatives.

The Execution

I began the project of reconfiguring the course by enlisting the help of MIIETL (McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning) in recording the lectures and setting up the class website. With the help of Devon Mordell, (Instructional Designer) and Nicole Khosla (Research Assistant) I used Camtasia, video screen capturing software, to record the lectures, which consisted largely of PowerPoint slides accompanied by me reading a script (though each lecture began with a short clip recorded outside, a feature that seemed important given the subject matter, and that I see potential to develop further). You can view a sample here. I recorded six lectures, which were posted online, interspersed with classroom lectures in alternate weeks. Students accessed the videos through D2L, McMaster’s online learning platform (scripts and slides were posted as well). In the weeks in which I had pre-recorded a lecture, we used class time to focus more on discussion and workshop projects in small groups. You can see some example of the projects here, on the class blog. Though I had initially envisioned a wiki, in which students could actively participate in content provision, concerns about who would mediate and how (time constraints were key here) led me to centralize content provision; students would submit assignments online using McMaster’s learning management platform, and I or a TA would upload them. The process of preparing this material was more time-consuming than I imagined. The planning began in April, and online components were ready just in time for classes in September.


Format: Education research has shown that students’ attention span for watching video lectures is limited to about 10 minutes at a time. I found this to be a challenge—maybe specific to literary/cultural studies; working through the complex unfolding of meaning in texts doesn’t lend itself well to short segments. I got around this challenge by creating longer lectures—up to 30 minutes—but creating pauses, points at which I asked students to stop the video and complete a short assignment related to the reading, which they would submit via Dropbox. Another unanticipated challenge with the online lectures is that, in the absence of built-in opportunities for exchange, I had no way of knowing what aspects of the online lectures students struggled with. For example, I only learned in conversation with a couple of students that a number of them really hated Thoreau’s essay, “Walking”, and couldn’t figure out what he was doing in a course that was supposedly attentive to issues of race and gender. Though I’d offered a brief critique in the online lecture, had I been in the classroom, or provided an online forum for open discussion, the students would have had the opportunity to talk through their concerns. In short, pre-recorded online lectures made it easier for me to cover what I think is important, but they constrained flexibility in responding to student interests, questions and concerns. Though admittedly I only incorporated aspects of the flipped classroom (the evaluation piece was lacking), I feel from this limited experience that this may be a technique better suited to the sciences. In the humanities classroom, there is less distinction between fact and skill acquisition and “higher level cognitive activity”; i.e. discussion and problem-solving have always been integral to our pedagogical practice. On the other hand, I think next time I’d think harder about the kinds of material (e.g. explanation of concepts and theories) that could work well for an online lecture and save other things (e.g. close reading) for classroom discussion.

Technological Challenges: When I began this experiment, I knew next to nothing about the practical aspects of online learning. As the course wraps up, I know a little—but not much—more. The advantage of having tons of help from the Teaching and Learning folks was that it freed up my time to focus on content. The disadvantage is that I’m still not adept at using the recording software, or figuring out how to incorporate more online interaction. I was fortunate to have a TA with digital expertise (Rob Pasquini) to help with technological elements of the course in progress (e.g. uploading student assignments to the blog, a task that proved more complicated than anticipated because the platform, hosted by McMaster library, was limited in the size and format of files it could handle). Once again, I was grateful for the help, but uneasy about offloading—and not having a firm grasp on–such a significant part of the labour. It’s clear to me that part of the success of teaching initiatives like this one depend on an instructor having the time and inclination to mess around with the technology, to figure out what works, and what’s possible. Even when the inclination is there (and I have to confess there are things I’d mostly rather do), time is short. This seems to me to be the biggest obstacle to implementing DEH more thoroughly into teaching.

Sharing: Doing online lectures made me more attentive to copyright than I confess I’ve been in the past. Because these lectures are archived and may be widely shared, it’s vital that they conform strictly to copyright law. This meant in some instances writing to the owners of copyright to get permission to include images or (in one case) a video, a task that I was fortunate to have RA assistance with. Publishing students’ work on the blog also involved copyright issues that I hadn’t anticipated. Because the blog is on a public site (it’s maintained by McMaster library but anyone can see it), I had to secure permission from students to publish their work. I did this by asking students to include a note with their assignments giving permission to publish. A few students did this, but many didn’t, some, no doubt, because they really don’t want their work published, but others who likely forgot. In future I may need to devise another method for students to communicate a willingness to share their work widely—e.g. a check box.

Interactivity: One of the most exciting aspects of DEH is the potential for interactivity, an element that this course failed to incorporate to a significant degree. Figuring out how to get students actively engaged in the DEH component of the course will be top of mind as I rejig the course for next year. Two digital initiatives seem promising either as models or actual vehicles for student participation: 1) The Everyday Climate Change initiative on Instagram, in which professional and amateur photographers upload photos and accompanying narratives, and 2) The City of Hamilton’s “Put climate change on the map” website, which records climate change prevention/mitigation initiatives on an interactive map of the city: “ Collaborative projects such as these seem like particularly promising classroom initiatives in their capacity to link students to broader environmentalist conversations, and also to combat a sense of helplessness that the massive scale of climate change and related problems can engender. Emphasizing the “Humanities” aspect of DEH, it’ll also be important to supplement these kinds of initiatives with conversations about how environmental knowledge is produced and circulated. In my ideal DEH classroom, which I’m still miles away from developing, DEH will play a significant role in facilitating the key activities of communication, problem-solving and activism, as well as the less exciting but still vital function of literary and cultural critique.

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