Monday, December 8, 2008

De Re Militari is an outstanding website. It's great because it is maintained by academics and holds to scholarly principles. It's also reasonably well organized.

The site, as the name says, is about military history. What the name says only by inference is that it is only about pre-modern military history, so it's not burdened down with endless WWII files. For those of us in ancient or medieval history, that's a real boon.

The site has numerous scholarly articles, and even a few books, online. All open to the general public, as *all* scholarship should be. In addition, it has links to radio broadcasts, primary sources, and course syllabi, among other resources. There are special sections for the Crusades, the Byzantines, the Anglo-Normans, and the Vikings. It holds the Journal of Medieval Military History since 2003. The bibliography at the site is extensive, current, and informative. Finally, there's both a blog and a forum. In short, this should be a stop on any researcher's first, second or even third journey into the topic of medieval military history.

The site is also available in English, Spanish, French, and Italian, though the articles are in whatever language in which they were written.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

On Active Learning

I'm really tired of hearing about active learning as if the phrase had meaning.

One way to deconstruct a statement is to consider its obverse. If there's such a thing as active learning, then there surely must be something called inactive learning. Let us try to construct what that might be.

The literature around active learning rarely addresses this matter directly (there's a huge literature--just Google it). Instead, advocates of so-called active learning set up dichotomies in which the "inactive" learning is cast as lecturing, usually associated with "old" or "traditional" and, very often, with "not using technology." Let us set aside for the moment the obvious fact that the dichotomy is asserted but not proved, and look at the bogeyman of "modern" teaching: the lecture.

Inactive learning entails (we must assume here, since the picture is rarely painted in detail) students sitting passively, just listening. They cannot be taking notes, for that would be an activity. They cannot be thinking or reflecting, as that is also an activity. Still less can they be raising a hand and asking a question. All those are activities. Active learning.

I will grant to the advocates: if the student is sitting like a lump on a log, devoid of thought, then that would be unfortunate. I will assert, however, that this is not inactive learning but is not learning at all.

If learning occurs, it's the result of an activity--no action on the part of the student, no learning. Period.

"Active learning" is therefore a phrase with a useless adjective. There is no distinction between active learning and inactive learning, for the latter doesn't exist. Adding "active" adds no meaning.

Stripped of the rhetorical device, what then do the advocates of "active learning" actually advocate? Two things, above all. First, collaboration (=group work). Second, use of technology and especially whatever is hot in the computer world this year.

Those who know me will know that I'm indifferent to the former and that I'm keenly interested in the latter. I love to explore the interstices between technology and pedagogy. But I do try not to confuse the two.

I'll take up collaboration in another post. For this one, I only want to urge clarity on this business of active learning. Remove the adjective and go from there. Seriously. Having students click through a Flash tutorial is no more active than is reading a book. I could make the argument that the latter actually requires a deeper and more sustained level of engagement.

There's a topic related to "active learning" that talks about "student-centered" learning. This language also prefers the word "learning" to the word "teaching" -- indeed, that literature tends to disparage teaching. I'll get to that one too.

Later, later....

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Uses for Google Earth

One day last year I was tootling around in Google Earth, which is a fun place in which to tootle, and happened to be tootling through the Alps. The Simplon Pass, to be precise.

The view was incredibly dramatic, and I suddenly realized that this would be a great vehicle for any sort of narrative that involved travel. I thought first of my Virtual Pilgrimage, but I reconsidered and chose instead a merchant route over the Alps (because I wanted that Simplon Pass view). It so happened that I had a route with at least some good specifics from Peter Spufford's book, Power and Profit, a really excellent work on late medieval economics.

My idea was to create a route in Google Earth that students could follow, reading text and viewing pictures along the way. This involved writing KML, which was no small undertaking. I retained the help of a student in our Academic Technologies unit, who built the skeleton and gave me enough to work with. From there, I tweaked heavily.

The result is satisfactory, though not brilliant. There's not a good way to incorporate multiple pages or images at a single stop. There's not a good way to include large sections of text.

But overall, the result is quite good. Students start in Paris and follow a series of obvious next clicks, moving south through France, Burgundy and Savoy, over the Alps at Lake Lucerne, then down along Lake Maggiore to Milan. I definitely can envision other such journeys, including ones by sea, around the Mediterranean or into the Baltic.

If you have Google Earth, you may wish to talk a walkabout yourself. You can begin here:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Digital versus Print

Daniel Paul O'Donnell has written a thoughtful piece on digital scholarly works and printed scholarly works. He criticizes the usual practice of presenting these as opposites. Even though it's written by a medieval historian, I think you may find his argument relevant regardless of your discipline.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Quarterly I receive a very nice (print) publication from Educause, rather unimaginatively entitled "Educause Quarterly". Quarterly I read this very nice (print) publication, and every quarter it gives me heartburn and makes my teeth itch. More or less at random, I'm choosing exerpts from an article from the latest, which like countless others before it speaks to the importance of new technology in education.

The article is about a "seismic shift", which brings me to my first complaint: these people are interested in change only when it is seismic. By which you, gentle reader, should understand means "changes upon which the author, who positively must get published this semester, has chosen to fasten." Incremental change interests them not at all because, well, one doesn't get published when one writes about small change.

The article skates on the thin ice of "Web 2.0", which the author uses to set up a standard School of Education dialectic between the old and the new. In this case the author chose the phrases "Classical knowledge" and "Web 2.0 knowledge" and this leads me to my second complaint: the inability to find much of anything good in the education system as it existed prior to, oh say, last week. This same education system that gave us [insert endless list of intellectual titans here] is presented as a penniless waif so bereft of merit that it resembles a cartoon character. Let me inflict upon you some example statements.

"In the Classical perspective, 'knowledge' consists of accurate interrelationships among facts, based on unbiased research that produces compelling evidence about systemic causes.... In the Classical view of knowledge, there is only one correct, unambiguous interpretation of factual interrelationships."

This is nonsense so nonsensical as to cause this reader to stop dead in his tracks. No scientist would ever say such a foolish thing. No social scientist would even begin to form the thought. Facts? I don't know about you, dear reader, but my experience of higher education was focused on the challenging of facts and on holding that every interpretation has ambiguity within it. This fellow has created a cartoon character so that he can go on to accuse it of being two-dimensional. (I pass in silence over the redundancy of "interrelationships" ... oh, all right, not entirely in silence, but at least in parentheses)

But wait, as the voice on TV says, there's more. For, the silly statement is merely predicate to the silly conclusion. To wit: "In Classical education, the content and skills that experts feel every person should know are presented as factual 'truth' compiled in curriculum standards and assessed with high-stakes tests."

Yes, by all means, let us have only tests where little is at stake. That aside, I'm hard-pressed to figure out how a skill is presented as factual truth. Content, yes; but a skill? Never mind. The author is by now hounding after its true prey and mere comprehensibility is about to become the victim of friendly fire. Here come the indictments of the "... Classical view of knowledge, expertise, and learning." (which, being uttered in the same breath, are the same? are different?)

"Curriculum standards ... stem from disciplinary experts' determination of what students should learn." (I remind the reader that this is said as a Bad Thing)
"Presentational/assimilative pedagogies [I believe he means lectures] convey 'truth' from content experts to students, who learn by listening."
"Students who have mastered large amounts of factual material and are fluent in academic skills are believed to be well prepared for a successful, prosperous, fulfilling life."

Good heavens. If the above were true, we should be in bad shape indeed. Happily, the above is pure silliness. I have never told my students that learning history would make them successful, prosperous or fulfilled. I do expect them to listen when I talk, I confess it. I even expect them to learn from what they hear. I never for an instant expect that this is the *only* place they will learn, though, and I rather resent being portrayed in this way. Any history teacher knows (to speak only for my own discipline) that the place where students learn history is in the term paper; that is, they learn history by *writing* history. The rest is merely supplemental.

Inevitably, these authors must then trot out the virtuous alternatives of "Web 2.0 knowledge" -- the Three Gracies to settle the Three Furies. Herewith:

"Curriculum includes considerable variation from one community to another ... based on the types of content and skills valued within a particular geographic or online subculture."
"Active learning pedagogies emphasize constructivist and situated teaching approaches that scaffold students' co-creation of knowledge."
"Assessment is based on sophisticated performances showing students' participation in peer review."

It's a hard choice, but I think #2 is my favorite. I have to confess that at this point, YrsTruly is at a loss for words. If the above are virtues, I'm unable to grasp them; they swirl away from my reach like smoke. I certainly cannot come up with anything that would help a student understand the Reformation.

And so to a final complaint: the heedless insult. Not content with dissing the system that produced him, the Seer must also bash his peers.

"...the response of most educators is to ignore or dismiss this epistemological clash." (wake me up when you hear the sound of clashing) "Many faculty force students to turn off electronic devices in the classroom; instead, students could be using search tools to bring in current information and events related to the class discussion." True, they could. Most will simply IM their friends or work on another class' homework. Even if they did "bring in" information, what the devil does that mean? Will they raise their hand every time their RSS feed updates? or twitter everyone else in the room? Moreover, not everything is relevant. There's not a lot of late-breaking news on the Reformation. Does the author really think an 80-person chat room is an ideal learning environment?

"Some faculty ban the use of online sources and deride the validity of any perspective that does not come from a disciplinary scholar." I'll do my own deriding, thank you. I agree: any teacher who derides sources before the students ought to have his hand slapped. Our job is to get students to question, to come to their own conclusions; deriding a source removes that burden. That there are bad teachers is an eternal truth (note the lack of quotes); one cannot derive from this the conclusion that most teachers are bad nor that the educational premises of academia are faulty.

And then the coup de grace: "This refusal to acknowledge the weaknesses of the Classical perspective and the strengths of Web 2.0 epistemologies is as ill-advised as completely abandoning Classical epistemology for Web 2.0 meaning-making."

I'll give you a moment to recover.

First, I protest: Web 2.0 gets multiple epistemologies whereas Classical gets only one. Unfair! We (I presume I'm lumped in with the Classicists) take a back seat to no one in epistemology-making (not to be confused with meaning-making, though the reader may be pardoned for confusion on the point). Second, I protest again: the punch line is punchless. Going to one extreme is as bad as going to the other extreme. Is this the best he can manage? After all the name-calling, I was really hoping for something epochal -- a jeremiad, at the least.

Frankly, dear reader, after all of this, YrsTruly is fair worn out. It's exhausting, wading through nonsense. I do not single out this one article. "Educause Quarterly" comes out with multiple articles every issue and has for years. They all trumpet the latest development as being Clearly The Future, and they all wish to blast everything prior into the past. It's rather a surprise to find there is an entire publication in which it is possible repeatedly to cry wolf.

I feel better, though. I've used Web 2.0 technology to vent, and isn't that one of its greatest virtues? Or at least most frequent uses? I'll toddle off now. And please, most sincerely, dear reader, if you should happen to see me attempting to scaffold students' co-creation of knowledge ... please, just shoot me.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why a blog is not a planning tool

I thought I should use the blog to think about blogs, so I started this blog. So I could blog, you see.

Since planning how to use a blog in my Reformation course next spring is currently on my mind, I naturally began writing those thoughts out here. For a while (see earlier posts), I thought this would work out well.

Now, I'm not so sure.

Because I'm using other tools as well; specifically, wikis; and most specifically, Google Sites (an unfortuate name: GoogleWiki is both more precise and sounds better). So I set up a wiki for the course and started typing stuff in there as well. I'm already starting to realize that this plethora (yes, I said plethora) of tools is the electronic equivalent of having Post-It® notes everywhere—convenient for making any individual note, but a nightmare to organize.

What goes in the blog?

What goes in the wiki?

Damnedifiknow. But I noticed something right off. I'm trying (see older posts) to puzzle out how to construct actual assignments for my students relating to this Blog Thing. I started sketching my latest ideas in the wiki, then wondered if it should go in the blog instead, and realized it should not.

Why not plan in the blog?

Because a blog is sequential. Yes, I can go back and edit an existing post, but its fundamental nature is to be a sequence of statements. A wiki, otoh, is intended to be edited, revised. If you need or want to look at the revision history, you can, but what's front and center is always the latest version: your polished gem, your best take.

A blog is a river that flows. A wiki is a painting. Or perhaps a communal voice.

Big Conclusion
All of which led me to the Big Conclusion: use the wiki for documents; use the blog for commentary.

"Ooh boy, Skip, what profound insight," the audience sighed sarcastically.

Well, it was news to me. And it trouble the waters of the Blogosphere with this profound insight because I think it may have implications for how I use the two in class. One for the article on the Eucharist (for example), and the other for commentary about the article. The one, to put it another way, for the conclusions of the group, stated as a single voice; and the other to let each student comment along the way to that conclusion, to have a social presence (as I think Roger said), and even to allow room for minority reports.

So, until I arrive at a contrary conclusion, I intend to use these two Google tools in the same way. The wiki for my formal documents (a syllabus, a rubric, etc.) and the blog to chronicle the struggle to produce them.

Monday, March 31, 2008

First Entry: what this blog isn't

It's not just about medieval history. My area of interest is around 1100 to 1700, which doesn't fit neatly into a single name. Plus, because I teach Western Civ, there are going to be some other topics here as well.

It's not just about history, either. It's also about pedagogy, about the discipline of history generally, about the use of the Web in teaching history {whether or not you're a general}, and about using blogs in particular. There will be no particular order to all this. The blog is best suited to digitizing consciousness {I have ten digits}; a website is for bringing pattern and order from the stream. I have only just now decided this.

I have only just today signed, and had counter-signed, a document, which must be further counter-countersigned and yet counter-counter-countersigned, that states that I am officially in some sort of Blog Project. This news would be more exciting if I knew what the devil that meant. Alas, I do believe I'm supposed to Figure It Out.

In the name of Figgerin' therefore I offer up this:

Fall 2008 I'm going to keep doing this. One may pass it off as research, if one is so inclined. But it's really more the case that I can't figure a way to inflict blogs on my poor freshmen in Hist101, so I've decided to spare them. May they lead long and happy lives.

Spring 2008, though, the sword falls. I teach the Reformation. And, hey, wouldn't it be just ever so nifty if the students blogged from the point of view of the various churches? Here a Mennonite blog, there a Lutheran, a Calvinist, a Socinian, maybe an Antitrinitarian, certainly a Catholic. Room for all, I should think. Playing with dynamite, sez you? All o' that, sez I, and more. It wouldn't be as much fun if it weren't dangerous.

I may go further. Why inflict doctrine and dogma upon them? Remove the essays from the site (hope they don't know about the Wayback Machine) and let each group construct its ideology from research. Maybe make 'em use a wiki. That'd be wikid.

At least that's the working theory until a new brainstorm comes along and washes away the tender sprouts.