From the Teaching column in the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
Using Skype to Teach History Transnationally: An Experiment
Eman M. Vovsi, November 2012
Think globally, act locally" has been popular mantra of environmental activists since the early days of the movement, and one increasingly adopted by historians, who are always looking for transnational perspectives in their research and bringing these perspectives into the classroom. By using readily available technology we can take this one step further and create a transnational classroom. This recently happened at Florida State University, where we experimented with linking, across the Atlantic, students from two classrooms via Skype.
In spring 2012, while working as an adjunct professor at FSU's Department of History, I taught "The Baltic states since 1300s"—a course that the department chair, Dr. Jonathan Grant, was eager to support as part of department's mission to include more diverse aspects of European history. The course was divided into two parts: the Baltic region from the era of crusaders to the final partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795; and the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emphasis on recent events in economics, international affairs, culture and traditions. While preparing the course, I had to address the fact that courses on Northern Europe are not very widely offered by Southern universities, and I knew that my undergraduate students would arrive with various backgrounds, preparedness, and overall expectations.
As a little exercise to help me get started I asked the students, as I normally do, to submit (anonymously, if they please) a few words about themselves and why they decided to take this course. The results of this little "survey" are, generally, encouraging. In this case, some students wrote that this Baltic history course "sounded intriguing," or took it "because [I] like everything that was and is European," or because it fit their schedules. Several students took the course because they were majoring in Russian and Eastern European studies or international affairs. Finally, almost all claimed that they would like to learn more about the Baltic – its, region, peoples, and culture.
Being myself from one of the Baltic states—Latvia—I saw a unique opportunity to present to a diverse group of students something new and challenging. While preparing the lecture outline and selecting reading material (which ran the gamut, from the 12th-century. Livonian Chronicle and the Letters from the Baltic published in 1841 by Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake, to the 1939 Soviet-Nazi secret protocol), I realized that along with the traditional lecture format we could do for something innovative. I contacted several Universities in Latvia and Estonia and this is how I met Heiko Pääbo, the chair of the Center for Baltic Studies at the Tartu University (Tartu Ülikool) in Estonia. Pääbo was teaching (in English) the very same subject to a group of international graduate students. After extensive e-mail exchanges, we decided to organize a series of webinars via Skype (which was developed in Estonia, after all!) to connect Tartu and Florida State universities in a common learning process.
When I first announced the upcoming Skype session with Tartu University at the end of one of my classes, students greeted the idea with enthusiasm. During the traditional lectures we watched many movie clips, discussed newspaper articles, and read various historical documents, so by mid-semester my students already had a general understanding of the history and development of the Baltic region. Today's tech-savvy students are familiar with using Skype in their everyday communication with friends and relatives, but none had travelled to any of the Baltic states. The webinar with Tartu's students presented the opporunity to think internationally about history.
The first Skype session was a dry run, with me dialing in alone, and took place early in the morning during the spring break. The class in Tartu was dedicated to the Independence Wars (1918–20) and was holding a simulation exercise where each Estonian student had to represent a major country involved in the conflict. Pääbo's students had a lively discussion and I was allowed to ask a question and receive a thoughtful answer, which I later used in one of my lectures while delivering a similar topic to my students.
The second session was the first time we brought our students together. Unfortunately, because of the eight hours time difference with Estonia, we had to hold the session outside of regular class hours, and only two students could show up. I selected a conference room in advance and on the given day and time the FSU library technician connected us to Tartu's classroom via Skype. The sound wasn't working well because the Estonian students had only one microphone for 10 people, set up somewhere above their heads. Nonetheless, it wasn't a big disadvantage as we had a perfect visual of each other and quickly adapted to the background noise. We started our webinar with a friendly introduction, and found that, in addition to several native Estonian students, Heiko's graduates came from all corners of the world—Kazakhstan, Belgium, Russia, Finland, and Germany, just to name a few. Then we watched as the Tartu class discussed the political system of the newly independent three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—between the two World Wars, in the period 1921–1939.
Because Pääbo and his Estonian students ran a bit ahead of us in the historical chronology, we were mainly listening and taking notes. Knowing this (at the beginning of the semester I've submitted to him a brief synopsis of my course), Pääbo thoughtfully organized everything in advance. He e-mailed us a custom-designed chart, "Comparison of the Baltic states political systems," covering ethic compositions, political parties, constitutions, and state symbols; so we could follow the discussion and fill in the blanks as the webinar progressed. However, we quickly found ways to enter the discussion: one of my students and I expressed interest in the history of the new, independent Lithuanian coat of arms and its origin. Our question was welcomed, and after a pause, Pääbo asked one of his students whether he could provide a response. One of them had found a good source on this, and quickly answered. Then, after a brief chat with my student, we made some additional comments on the Baltic symbols (we'd had, not long before, a class that covered, among other cultural topics, some of the well-known local traditions and legends)—and another Estonian student quickly picked up and elaborated on the subject. We all smiled in understanding and were pleased with this short, yet productive exchange. After an hour we bid each other farewell and agreed to do more in the future.
Overall, despite the fact that these encounters were brief, I was immediately convinced of their value. Later on, the students who participated told me they would like more lessons like this, and that their interest in the history of little-known geographical regions—with a practical application, wherever possible—had grown considerably as a result of this Skype trial. Many of them (even those who did not attend a webinar) expressed their desire to learn more about the Baltic countries and one day even travel to see things first-hand. Also pleasing was the fact that, although Tartu's students were experienced graduates with a lot of seminar skills, FSU undergraduates were almost an equal match in the short discussion that took place during the webinar session.
Moving ahead, I'll be interested in seeing how future students rate this exercise on evaluation forms, and how it assists with retention of information. Initial feedback tells me that Skype, or another application, should remain high priorities for further exploration. At this early experimental stage, it is clear that we successfully achieved our initial goal: modern technology brought together students and faculty studying the same subject matter on opposite sides of the Atlantic, which allowed us to explore the educational process from different angle. It showed us differences and similarities in our teaching techniques and helped us establish professional connections—and, possibly, new friendships—between two educational institutions.
Eman M. Vovsi is an adjunct professor at Florida State University.