Publication Date

August 13, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Digital Methods

As the pandemic triggered the sudden transition to remote teaching in spring 2020, professor Ada Palmer’s (Univ. of Chicago) inbox was flooded with Zoom tips, training webinars, and course-flipping guides. She found herself thinking: I bet a dozen professors out there would love to use episodes from my filmed discussion series on the history of censorship, but how do I let people know about them? The thought expanded: There must be a thousand people out there with materials like this to share. What better time for teamwork?

Online courses can involve either synchronous (real-time) learning, asynchronous learning (such as watching a prerecorded video), or a hybrid of both. Pikist/

As thousands of instructors raced to improvise web-based teaching alternatives, many were improvising the same alternatives or recreating things that already existed elsewhere. Instructors scrambled to prepare online readings and record lectures on the same topics, all with unfamiliar equipment while facing the intimidating vacuum of an empty room. A central online location could let historians share resources, dividing the labor at a moment when we all have fewer hours to give. In our digital world, countless teaching resources are already available online. Yet they are often hard to find, scattered across the websites of innumerable institutes, museums, projects, and schools. Those resources and the ability to locate them easily are newly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more instructors prepare to teach remotely.

So the AHA’s Remote Teaching Resources (RTR) was born.

Begun as a crowdsourced Wiki by Ada Palmer in March, the RTR is now part of the AHA’s National Endowment for the Humanities CARES Grant project, Confronting a Pandemic: Historians and COVID-19, which launched in July. The RTR’s goal is to help historians develop and teach remote courses without reinventing the wheel. The site compiles accessibility guides, remote teaching pedagogy resources, and material specific to a range of places, eras, topics, and fields, all shared by fellow historians or already available online. The project’s resources are useful to all history instructors and tailored to the needs of those teaching at the college level.

All resources are vetted by a team of historians at the AHA directed by Sarah Weicksel. The team members, including Maureen Elgersman Lee, Suzanne Litrel, Melanie Peinado, and Marketus Presswood, have wide-ranging historical expertise and experience in higher education, secondary education, and public history. By providing a central location for resources that have been professionally vetted—either by a member of the research team or a volunteer expert in the field—the RTR offers instructors access to high-quality materials that meet professional standards.

The Remote Teaching Resources project’s goal is to help historians develop and teach remote courses without reinventing the wheel.

One focus of the project is to help historians adapt to the online format. Remote teaching is not simply a matter of attempting to replicate in-person interactions online—that is impossible. Online courses can involve either synchronous (real-time) learning, asynchronous learning (such as watching a prerecorded video), or a hybrid of both. Each format has strengths and weaknesses, so the RTR gathers discussions of best practices, pedagogy, accessibility, and technology use. Much can be learned from colleagues who are experts in online instruction.

The other focus is to collect primary, secondary, and tertiary historical sources organized by period, field, region, and topic. These sources appear in a range of formats, including filmed lectures, podcasts, conference discussions, online museum exhibits, web-based walking tours, even filmed performances. Such sources can be assigned as asynchronous content or used to launch synchronous online discussion. Sample lesson plans and syllabi, assignments, primary sources with discussion questions, and a wide range of digital history projects round out the RTR’s resources.

The RTR can also assuage the “Sunday night anxiety” of instructors preparing materials for the following week or teaching new topics. Rather than search for and assess the quality of online materials, instructors can visit the AHA’s website, knowing that the materials found there are reliable. Nor should anyone feel that using someone else’s lecture is “cheating”—using nothing but borrowed lectures without discussion could be, but one of the best ways to teach critical thinking is to present one account of a history and then critique it live, letting the students see the instructor doing a historian’s work of challenging interpretations and filling in gaps, and inviting students to join in.

By using extant online resources as textbook and lecture substitutes, instructors can reserve their time and strength for more interaction with students.

By using extant online resources as textbook and lecture substitutes, instructors can reserve their time and strength for more interaction with students. When interviewing students this spring about what worked and didn’t as in-person classes moved online, Palmer found that students wanted more interaction where they felt present and listened to. Many said that their best experiences were small break-out sessions, or “Town Hall office hours” with four to 12 students in a meaty Zoom discussion with the instructor. Using prerecorded materials like those found in the RTR enables instructors to reserve their synchronous class time for the kinds of interactions students crave, and their working hours for essential tasks, grading—and self-care, since no one is helped by the instructor burning out.

Using pre-existing resources is not just about saving time. Among those who study the use of gaming in classrooms, there’s a useful principle: nothing we create with educational resources will hold a candle to the graphics quality poured out by the $150 billion videogame industry. It’s wisest to stick with low-tech text games and in-person role-play, or repurpose commercial games for teaching purposes (like teaching physics with Space Engine or Universe Sandbox, or economics using World of Warcraft, as explored in an MEd thesis by Ashleigh La Porta). Creating video and digital resources is similar: nothing we jury-rig with home webcams while under stress from a pandemic will match the polished scripts, calm performances, and studio quality of innumerable filmed lectures and rich digital history projects that are already online.

How can you help? By sharing. Synchronous classroom activities, generative discussion questions, lectures crystalizing your expertise, even your go-to website for timelines—no contribution to the Remote Teaching Resources project is too small. Pooling our resources can improve student experiences and lighten the burden on instructors. Many urgent needs—pedagogical, political, and personal—are pushing us to give our best now, even as the chronic stresses and fatigue that the World Health Organization has recognized as a world mental health crisis have us at our worst. This is a time for teamwork.

To contribute to the Remote Teaching Resources project, please submit materials using this form.

Ada Palmer is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. She tweets @Ada_Palmer. Sarah Jones Weicksel is research coordinator at the AHA.

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