Teaching About Africa in the 21st Century:
Using H-Africa in a Virtual Course

Robert G. White, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair Department of Government and Politics
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521
Tel. (707) 826-3911, 826-4494
FAX: (707) 826-4496
E-Mail: rgw2@axe.humboldt.edu

Presented at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the
African Studies Association
Panel: H-AFRICA & the Classroom
Session IV-N2, Sunday, 11 am - 1 pm
24 November 1996

Rapid developments in the use of electronic technology in the classroom at the end of the 20th century herald a fundamental shift in our approach to teaching about Africa in the 21st century. The California State University system, like many others in North America, is focusing both money and attention on the use of electronic technology in the classroom. A major motivation for this is that it is seen as a way to cope with the impending "tidal wave" of new students demanding access to higher education in the early part of the 21st century. Intrigued by the rhetoric, and in need of both money and attention, I decided to see if I could catch this wave for my own course on Africa. So with much enthusiasm but little knowledge of computers or the internet, I set out to design a "virtual" course on Africa, one that would meet only in cyberspace. It would thus be available to anyone, any time, any place. How was it constructed? What was it like? Was it worth doing?

The central feature of the course was a virtual office or home page for the course. I spent a lot of time on this, and in retrospect, I really wonder if it was worth it. I wanted a picture of a real office, with a map of Africa on the wall, some African art work, a computer, newspapers, etc. The computer screen, if you click on it, is a link to the H-AFRICA home page. The newspaper on the desk is a link to Africa On Line. The map on the wall is a link to maps at the University of Pennsylvania. I asked students to read and follow the news from Africa on a regular basis, and many of them did. I also occasionally forwarded to them articles that were especially pertinent from the Western press that came to me from other sources.

Since I wanted to incorporate H-AFRICA as a central feature of the course all students were required to subscribe to it. I thought this was essential because it was here that they could be introduced to the on-going dialogue about Africa among Africanists from many disciplines around the world, and also have direct access to the many links on the H-AFRICA home page. One of the early assignments, after sending me an e-mail, and after subscribing to H-AFRICA, was to access from the H-AFRICA home page and print "A Brief Citation Guide for Internet Sources in History and the Humanities" (Version 2.1) by Mel Page. This is excellent and was as useful to me as to the students, since we were all encountering this new medium at about the same time.

The on going discussions on the list about a particular topic (threads as they are called) were incorporated into the course as appropriate, although not as fully or as effectively as I had planned, for reasons I will make clear in a moment. One particularly interesting thread was a discussion of European and North American images of Africa as revealed in fiction and film. This was interesting and appropriate because I usually start my traditional course with a discussion of the images of Africa we carry around in our heads, and that serve as "filters" for new information we receive. This serves the two fold purpose of getting prejudices out in the open at the beginning of the course, and of introducing the notion of Euro and Afro-centric approaches in the the study of Africa. In using these threads the instructor must maintain some flexibility since threads appear more or less spontaneously, and not all of them fit easily into the course outline. Moreover, some of these discussions are fairly esoteric and likely to be of interest mainly to scholars in the field, and not even to all of them. Nevertheless, some might spark the interest of one or two students, so enough flexibility should be permitted to allow those whose interest is piqued to pursue this as part of their course work. This gives the course a particularly student centered orientation by empowering the students to use the internet to pursue their interest beyond what the instructor specifically wants them to know.

The first assignment was to send me an e-mail message introducing themselves and saying something about their interest in Africa. I then forwarded these introductions to everyone in the class, a very easy task using an e-mail list. After this, most of the assignments took the form of web quests. A good source on information on web quests is the Web Quest Page. The introductory web quests included ones to familiarize students with a few of the best and most easily accessible web sites on Africa. Some of these are linked to the H-AFRICA home page, so students did not have to search for them. These sites, and there are many of them, contain vast amounts of information, including links to other sites. In the first web quest students were required to spend an hour or so at each of two or three sites, browsing to see what is available, and comparing the sites. They were asked to compare them in terms of the kind, quality and quantity of information they have. Do they have searchable data bases? What links do they have to other sources? Which one did they like best? Why? To organize this assignment, I asked the students to use a separate sheet of paper for each site. At the top of the paper, they were to put the URL address and the name of the site. On the rest of the page they recorded their notes about what the site contained and their evaluation of it. The purpose of this task was to provide students with a critical attitude and the skills to evaluate any web site, something they will increasingly need to know.

A second introductory web quest involved becoming familiar with African map resources. I sent them to the University of Pennsylvania site, to the country specific links, and asked them to print a map of a particular country and a general map of Africa. Each student had a different country. They were then asked to note a number of geographical features (rivers, mountains, deserts, etc.), what countries border it, etc. They are asked to post these maps where they will see them everyday, above their desk, on the refrigerator door, the bathroom mirror, etc. I had hoped that this would take the place of the map in the lecture room (which I often forget to turn over when I give a map quiz). Over the years, I have found that students come to their first class on Africa with an appalling ignorance of African geography. Frequent references to the large map in the lecture hall during lectures and discussions, coupled with frequent map quizzes, helps to fill this gap in their knowledge. I do not think this web quest assignment fully, or perhaps even adequately, replaced the traditional approach, and I am not sure what to do about that. A colleague recently suggested to me that it should be possible, and not too difficult, to construct an on line map quiz, since all the questions are yes or no, and then students could take it when they wanted but at least every week. But what if they took it with a map in front of them? After all, they will not be in the lecture hall, but in the computer lab or at home. Let it be an open book quiz, since the point is to force them to study and become familiar with the map, not to memorize it.

After these introductory assignments, which took longer than I anticipated, I moved to more advanced web quests. One of these was on the crisis in the Great Lakes Region. Using links from the H-AFRICA home page, and postings to the H-AFRICA list from various scholars and journalists, students got current news and background information. They compared the news from different sources including the United Nations Relief Web, major Non-Governmental Organizations like Interaction, etc. They also got important background information from the African Policy Information Center and the Association of Concerned African Scholars. Students were asked a number of questions such as, What is the historical background of this region? Who were the colonial powers, and what was the nature of their rule? What was the independence struggle like here? What post-independence developments have a bearing on the current crisis? What is and has been the role of outside powers?

An interesting extension of this assignment, which did not occur to me until later, would have been to ask the students to propose ways to solve the crisis. They could have worked collaboratively, since they should be able to work together in groups, communicating by e-mail. They might have been asked questions like, What would be the key elements in such a proposed solution? Who would be likely to support and oppose it? Why? I mention this because the technique of posing problems for students to solve has often proved an effective way to involve them as active learners, especially if the problem is real and not made up. Working collaboratively also has many benefits including stimulating motivation, learning to share information, learning to cooperate with others in intellectual endeavors, and establishing personal relationships based on their study of Africa. Other web quest assignments included Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Western Sahara, etc.

The final assignment was to construct a home page focusing on their special interest in Africa. I was quite surprised by the high quality and broad variety of topics. One focused on Africa and the Diaspora, another, by a soil science major, focused on the soils of Africa, another on Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's trip to Africa. All of them contained graphics, text, and links I had never seen before.

Given the huge amount of work involved in preparing and teaching the course, it is appropriate to ask if it was worth doing? I did not have a formal evaluation, pre and post test, etc., to determine how much students learned about Africa in this course compared to the traditional lecture/discussion course, but I can make some observations based on conversations with students and my nearly three decades of teaching experience.

The answer, I think, is yes, it was definitely worth doing, but not for the same reasons that so many high-level university administrators in the California State University system and elsewhere in North America think so, a point I will return to in a moment. I think it is clear that many students are quite keen on using electronic technology, and they are showing up in our classes in increasing numbers and with increasingly sophisticated computer skills. While there were some students with little or no knowledge of e-mail or the internet, there were several who knew much more than I did. In fact, I often turned to them for help myself, and they frequently helped other students in the class. If we are to "slice" into the minds of our students where they are, and move them forward toward where we think they should be, then I believe it behooves us to incorporate more of this technology into our courses. The striking advantage for us to have almost instant access to the vast and growing amount of information on the web cannot be denied. So, yes, it is definitely worth doing because it can greatly enhance our teaching and learning about Africa.

Another reason why it is worth doing, is that, although I did not think students learned as much content about Africa as in a traditional course, they learned other skills like how to send e-mail, how to do research on the internet, how to build a home page, etc., skills that they considered extremely important. I was amazed by the number and strength of students' comments about how valuable the technology component of the course was for them. In retrospect, I think I considerably underestimated that, and I hope to take it more fully into account the next time I teach the course.

Finally, doing a completely web based course means that it can be available to distance learning students, if they have access to the internet. These may be students whose work schedules or family responsibilities present a conflict with the fixed time traditional classes are offered, or they may be students who cannot get to the physical campus because of weather, distance, disability, etc. This notion of distance learning probably deserves further discussion. It is particularly important for a rural campus like Humboldt State University, isolated as it is on the foggy, rainy and windswept north coast of California, with a huge geographical service area, and I think it has important and possibly similar applications for many parts of North America and for many parts of Africa. Moreover, if we move from the introductory level course to more advanced and specialized courses, the pool of interested and prepared students may be too broadly distributed geographically for the courses to be offered in the traditional manner. Those interested in this might look at James J. O'Donnell, who has an interesting and relevant discussion.

There is one reason, however, why it is not worth doing. There is a limit to how many students a professor can have in an on line course, and that limit I now strongly believe, is lower than for a traditional lecture course. On colleague I spoke with who recently taught an introductory course in accounting on line, told me he had forty students and even with a student assistant and computer graded examinations, he nearly killed himself. He was not sure he would do it again because it was so much more work than his traditional lecture course. And he was not taking into account the additional preparation time required for course development. Perhaps these are the comments of any instructor operating in a new medium, and after a few semesters, they will disappear, but I do not think so. The main point here is that although on line classes may be richer and more interesting for students and professors, and more accessible for some students especially as distance learning courses, they are not likely to produce the kind of large scale productivity gains that many in higher education administration seem to believe they will. I think some of these administrators have been nipping from a bottle of Silicon Snake Oil, when they should have been reading the book (Clifford Stoll, *Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway*, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1995).

Robert G. White
Department of Government and Politics
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521 USA