Assessment of Web Modules in an American Indian History Course

1. Introduction

I was invited to join the Wisconsin contingent of the American Historical Association’s “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age” in 1999. I brought to the project prior experience in the use of email lists to support student learning in survey courses. As with many of my colleagues, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sudden explosion of historical sites and materials on the World Wide Web. Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity to help fellow historians (and myself) in sorting through the expanding number of Web sites so as to pick ones most likely to help students learn.

2.  Compiling the Web references

My particular assignment was to search for the best sites in American Indian history. I approached this task from an openly present-minded point of view: I believe it is important for students to understand that American Indians have both a history, a present, and most definitely a future. In other words, I want students to understand that American Indians are not just a distant relic of American history.

I try to use the term “American Indian” with care, rather than the more popular “Native American.”  The term “American Indian” is a legal one that means someone who is a member of a tribe recognized by the U.S. government and, as part of that membership, occupies a special place in the American polity. Thus, American Indians are not defined by race, but by tribe. More than three hundred separate tribes (sometimes called nations) have their own admission and membership criteria. There are other people who call themselves “Native Americans,” but this term has no legal meaning. That is one reason there are many more “Native Americans” counted by the census every decade than there are American Indians counted on the rolls of the federally recognized tribes.

The difference between federally recognized “American Indian” tribes and “Native Americans” shows up frequently on the Web. There are numerous sites on the Web produced by individuals claiming to be Native American. No doubt many of these people are earnest in their professions and beliefs. However, there are other sites promoted by charlatans. Without some expert guidance, our students are as likely to go to the suspect sites as the good ones.

My focus on American Indians means that I have given extra weight to Web sites that emphasize the themes of history important to American Indian tribes today, particularly sovereignty, tribal identity, culture and religious freedom, federal Indian policy, wars and conflict, and economic development. Finally, I believe that a great power of the Web is to make primary sources available to students in introductory history classes, much in the way that microfilm made primary sources available to scholars of an earlier generation (and continues to do so today). Therefore, I emphasized sites that put original, primary sources on the Web for students to study, discuss, and analyze.

I worked throughout the summer and fall of 1999 to compile the list of Web sites useful for studying American Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty. I continued to refine and update the list during the spring semester and summer session of 2000. I did not keep a log of my hours spent on the project, but I estimate that I probably spent about fifty hours between August of 1999 and August of 2000 on related work.

3. Use in classes as a handout

My teaching assignment at UW-Eau Claire in the 1999-2000 school year had me teaching the U.S. survey for general education students and Civil War/Reconstruction and U.S. Economic history for history majors. I reproduced copies of my draft handout on “Useful Web Sites for Studying American Indian History” and made them available to my students by request in my U.S. survey sections, but did not have specific assignments for the students. Similarly, I distributed the handout to the courses of several colleagues in and outside the Department of History who invited me to teach a class as a guest lecturer. I did not do any survey research about how students used the handout.

4. Implementation in UW-Eau Claire’s “OnLine University”

About the same time I completed the first draft of  “Useful Web Sites for Studying American Indian History,” I was invited by the Provost at UW-Eau Claire to be the first academic humanist to teach an online, distant learning course on the Web for the University. I decided to offer History 240, “American Indian History,” which is a general education course that does double duty in satisfying the University’s history requirement and ethnic studies requirement. As such, it is very popular with undergraduate students in the three colleges (Arts & Sciences, Business, and Professional Studies) at the University.

The University gave me a one-course time reassignment grant for the spring semester of 2000 to prepare the online course. In consultation with professional staff in the University’s IT division, I decided to use Lotus Notes’ “Learning Space” as the Web courseware for hosting History 240. Learning Space has four Web databases: a Schedule Room for posting the syllabus and assignments; a Media Room for posting documents and links; a Course Room for discussion and papers; a Profile Room where students can introduce themselves, and where the instructor can post grades.

I understood in preparing the online course that I would have an unusual opportunity to test the “Useful Web Sites for Studying American Indian History.” Early on in my planning, I placed the list in the Media Room of my course and planned to structure some of the discussions in the Course Room around the Web links in the list.

My course ran online from June 19th through August 11th. I began with forty-six students, but a dozen withdrew from the course or failed to take part in any way, despite remaining registered. I have learned that this is typical for online courses, which tend to have a higher attrition rate than traditional courses. All of my students got online tutorials in how to use Learning Space, and in addition, had ample online and telephone help throughout the summer. I had a higher number than usual of non-traditional aged students, but otherwise their mix of majors and concentrations was typical of the student profile in any general education history course.

Throughout the summer, I used the Media Room and Course Room in a mutually reinforcing manner. I made reading assignments among the documents and links in the Media Room, and then asked the students to write weekly essays on their readings in the Course Room. The students made extensive use of the “Useful Web Sites for Studying American Indian History.” As a class, we discussed the issue of membership in an Indian tribe, and I was able to use the links to refer students to different documents that explained the differences between tribes. We also discussed the proliferation of casino gambling among Indian tribes and the law and policy behind that spread. Again, the links in the list were helpful in allowing students to see the key documents.

5. Results of Student Evaluations and Analysis

I administered a twenty-question survey to the students in History 240. Ten of the questions were common ones used by all of UW-Eau Claire’s summer OnLine courses. The other ten were questions used in the History Department’s standard course evaluation survey. I attach the summary results to this report in full. The very first question asked was “Course-related resources were available to me.” All of the respondents answered either “strongly agree” or “agree.” This was gratifying to me and testified to the success of putting documents and links in the Media Room for the students. Similarly, ninety percent of the students strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement “The technology interfered with my learning.” The survey also revealed that only one of the respondents had ever taken a Web-based class before, so the experience was brand-new for almost all of the students. It seems clear to me that students will succeed in making use of Web sources when they have the necessary training and guidance from their instructor and from the IT staff at the University.

The key question that the History Department asks on all its surveys is “In this course, I learned to think about History conceptually.” Ninety percent answered “strongly agree” or “agree” to this statement. Responses to other questions on the survey showed that the students were pleased with their online course and felt overall that they learned as much in this format as in a traditional class.

6.  Conclusion

I believe that the History 240 OnLine course was a fair test of the “Useful Web Sites for Studying American Indian History.” My experience shows that an instructor is likely to have success when linking specific Web documents and links to a particular outcome, in my case, weekly essays and discussions. The documents and links in the list of “Useful Web Sites” worked well mainly because they fit into the course content about American Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty. This was demonstrated in our online Course Room discussions about tribal membership and casino gambling. The type of questions that general education students have in a history class are readily answered by studying the documents available from the list.

I will be teaching a course for history majors this fall, “Wisconsin Indian History” and expect to test the utility of the “Useful Web Sites” in an upper division course for history majors.