From the Teaching column in the February 1998 Perspectives

Teaching the History Survey Course using Multimedia Techniques

Charles T. Evans and Robert Brown, February 1998

After years of considering how (and what) technology could best be used in introductory history survey courses, the humanities division at the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) decided to offer in fall 1996 a revised version of the history of world civilization course. Instead of the traditional paper-writing assignments during the semester, students, working in teams of two, created simple, interactive multimedia projects. Each project was a combination of text and textual analysis, reference information, graphics, and audiovisual material packaged into a single, interactive program. The projects supplemented midterm and final exams and classwork grades for the course.

Rationale

This course option was the result of a long-standing desire to introduce technology skills into the humanities curriculum at NVCC. One of the college's general education objectives was to improve technology usage among students in all courses so that "students will be[come] computer literate." Our desire to use interactive multimedia technology stemmed from a familiarity with various authoring systems (software that enables multimedia publication) and the availability of some grant support (reassigned time) from the Virginia Community College System.

As we approached this version of the world history survey course, three sets of questions came to mind. First, how much work (and time) would it take to bring students up to speed in the use of the necessary technology (assuming that they had little or no background to begin with)? How much history content needed to be sacrificed for the development of multimedia skills? Was that a useful exchange? Second, what kind of work were students capable of producing with this new technology medium? Were the rumors that we had heard--that this next generation of students is a video- or computer-oriented generation-- correct? If so, how competent were they with technology? Third, how viable was team- teaching (in this case, pairing a history teacher and multimedia instructor) in one course? What would result?

In response to possible concerns about the proposed course, and especially the use of history class time to learn a multimedia authoring system, it is our belief that requiring a multimedia project in a history course and then teaching the skills necessary to accomplish that is a valid pedagogical undertaking for a number of reasons.

First, in this computer age every course taught at the college level needs to have some technology component: technology must be pervasive. Faculty have always complained about the student ability to pigeonhole knowledge--what they learn in English, they forget in history; what they learn in history, they forget in psychology. One impossible solution to that problem is to teach everything everywhere, but if we want students to develop their computer skills, we cannot just assume that they can do so only in computer classes.

Further, giving students a brief introduction to interactive multimedia is especially valuable today given the changing faces of technology and given the fact that students might not get that introduction in any other currently offered courses. With the ever-growing presence of different technologies in the world today, students need exposure to multiple variations of technology applications--even in a history course. For instructors to prepare students to be successful in the world, all classes need to use some form of technology.

In addition, it is not clear whether the traditional written term paper will last much longer into the future. With the kind of materials (video, audio, and textual) now available to students on the World Wide Web (WWW), they are confronted with the possibility of writing (and not limited to just words alone) in a nonlinear, almost three-dimensional, multimedia format as an established way of life. Faculty must begin to discover how to teach that type of writing.

Yet another reason for offering this particular type of course is that we have always required much formal writing in the Western civilization survey courses taught at NVCC (usually four or five one-page papers, and three-page essays for the midterm and final exams). Toward this end, many of us have devoted considerable class time to the analytical writing effort. Again, we cannot just assume that students know how to write a paper of historical analysis or that they will learn that in a college composition class (which they might not even have taken yet), so it is necessary to devote class time to working on their writing skills. Now, in the newly developed course, we would devote class time to developing a different type of communication skill.

Another justification for this approach is the fact that the multimedia project in the course required students to do a substantial amount of historical research, and to do so working in groups. The students were not just pasting images, sounds, and text together; instead they had to prove that they understood what they were putting together, that they realized why they were putting the materials together in a particular order, and that they had done an introductory analysis of the primary document selected for their project.

Additionally, multimedia can allow students to think about history in a different, nonlinear way. Students often have trouble grasping the fact that history does not necessarily move along a preordained, determined line and that there are options. They also have difficulty identifying distinct elements of causality. Although this particular exercise had a limited scope, it did demonstrate that history does not move in a straight line from point "a" to point "c" via point "b"--it can move from "a" to "x" to "b" to "r" to "c." The nonlinear nature of this exercise allowed students to explore different historical factors according to their own choice.

Finally, we wanted to see if we had the right equipment to do this type of instruction, or whether what we had was still too intrusive in the instruction process. If the equipment was intrusive, then we needed to know what had to change.

Project Requirements

The basic multimedia assignment was to locate a suitable primary source document from world history before 1500 C.E., for example the Bhagavad Gita, and put the work into electronic form. The actual wording of the assignment follows:

In this course, students are required to complete one multimedia project, which will be produced on a Macintosh Quadra work station. Students will save their work-in-progress on an Iomega zip cartridge. The project will consist of taking a single historical document from the course and "hypertexting" it using audio, textual, video and graphical materials. When finished, the document will provide a brief historical background (including map and visual imagery), information about the author and historical era, the document itself (in a hypertext format) and a conclusion. Students will be able to use material for the project from any of the following CD-ROM sources or other approved locations, including the WWW. The resulting multimedia project will be shown in class at the end of the semester. A good example of what students will be attempting to produce can be found on the CD- ROM, Creation Stories.

The project also required the creation of the necessary background graphics and text labels, as well as a credits and bibliography page, and programming for the whole project.