Internet Approaches to Global History: Building Community and Creativity through Distance Learning
Michael G. Smith, Purdue University

The Department of History at Purdue University implemented two new distance learning courses during the 1998-1999 academic year. We offered two sections of a brand new Internet-based survey course for undergraduates, "Survey of Global History" (History 105), now an official part of the Core Curriculum of the School of Liberal Arts, and a requirement for Education majors specializing in Social Studies. We offered one section of a fully asynchronous distance-learning course for advanced undergraduate and graduate students (mostly aspiring or working Social Studies teachers), "Approaches to Global History" (History 590S). Both of these courses were posted on the World Wide Web using a special program, WebCT, for maximum accessibility to students.*

In each of these courses, our challenge has been to teach global history in a global way. Global history was the easy part. The basic course, an historical survey of the interaction between the diverse civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas since 1500, teaches students the comparisons and contrasts between world civilizations, as well as the major foundations of global integration and interdependence (for the environment, human health, economics, and geopolitics). Given such broad parameters, the classroom approach and textbook material are thematic, covering such topics as patterns of land and sea expansion; the migration of human disease and plant biology; empires in ascendance, decline, and crisis; and "globalization" in the present, to name a few. But how could we cover this material in a "global way," that is, by teaching comprehensive analysis and interpretation; by forging creative, interactive learning; and by developing open-minded and well-rounded students? Our solution is asynchronous electronic communication, dedicated to learner-centered education through individual and collaborative efforts. Students learn very personal lessons about their own place in a global society by sharing a variety of opinions with each other, by learning about local and global interdependence, and by experiencing cultural distance and difference -- all through the Internet.

"Survey of Global History" was offered to Purdue undergraduates for the first time during the 1998-1999 academic year and is now offered each semester on a regular basis. 80 students enrolled in the course for the fall semester of 1998; 120 students enrolled for the spring semester of 1999. They came from majors throughout the university, but most were either from the School of Education or the School of Business. The course was offered in "real time" on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. But it was centered on several new Internet learning technologies that helped students "learn from a distance," all with the crucial support of a Technology Assistant, who did most of the labor intensive work of preparing web-based images and texts. The syllabus was posted on the web, as many syllabi are these days; but with the added proviso that it would change over the course of the semester, as the interests and needs of the class demanded. Students learned an important lesson from the very start: they would help to "create" this course as the semester progressed. Lecture outlines were posted on the course web page each week, and three written lectures were posted over the course of the semester, all with the aim of helping students to master a large amount of reading material. Power Point slides of historical images and Quick Time digitalized movie clips were shown in each class session in order to tap into the wealth of images from the world's diverse civilizations.

Each week students in History 105 were asked to read and analyze a "Friday Discussion Page" on the Internet which incorporated digitalized visual images and primary-source readings of historical controversies. These web pages became, in essence, a primary-source class reader, tailored to the professor's own interests and to the specific content of the class lectures. Each week, alternating throughout the semester, half of the students were invited to attend a discussion of the "Friday Discussion Page" in class; half were asked to engage in an on-line discussion about the "Friday Discussion Page" on the Internet. The in-class discussion ensured that students made actual spoken contact with each other and with the professor. The on-line discussion allowed students the liberty of engaging in an "asynchronous" talk session, held all day on Friday. It enabled them to share in a discussion without the pressure and possible embarrassment of speaking out "in person." It gave them a discussion "in print," allowing them more time to think and re-think issues. But students always knew that the next week would bring the in-class discussion. In time, they were excited to finally meet "in person" classmates they had already met on the electronic discussion board; and in time many of the reserved or shy students did speak up in class, having already tested their strengths and weaknesses and built up their confidence on the electronic discussions. Thus the Internet became not a closed refuge for an elite few but a pathway to shared class debate.

One of the "Friday Discussion Pages" became the foundation for a major assignment in the course, a five-page typed essay on the "Sepoy Mutiny" in British India (1857). For this assignment, students used the Internet to complete a peer review exercise, editing and revising each others' essays on-line. Thus, within the community of the whole class existed not only the several main communities of the discussion groups but also the many one-on-one communities of peer editors. In these smaller communities, students elevated their written work to a formal, institutional medium - the Internet - and learned how to apply that medium to the difficult process of thinking, writing, revising, and writing again. Students also engaged in an on-line debate over the Internet, centered on the Sepoy Mutiny, with Russian students from the Yaroslavl State Teaching University (Yaroslavl, Russia). Here was yet another forum, another more "global" community of learners, to challenge students to develop their individual writing and speaking skills in public. We shared our debate positions with the Russians over a distance (using electronic mail) and with each other in the classroom. This "transatlantic" debate was one of the most exciting and productive aspects of the course: difficult and complicated to organize but wonderful in terms of how students made contact with each other and discussed historical issues as they never had imagined possible.

Our second course, "Approaches to Global History" (History 590S, fully asynchronous), was offered to advanced undergraduate and graduate students during the spring semester of 1999 (and will be offered again in the spring of 2001). Three undergraduate students and six graduate students enrolled in the course at Purdue University, and seven graduate students (teachers) enrolled in the course through the Continuing Education Office here at Purdue. Of these class members, ten were either aspiring or current teachers in secondary schools (from sixth through twelfth grades) from a wide variety of cities in the Midwest (Lafayette, Evansville, and Vincennes, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Toledo and Columbus, Ohio). The course was especially designed for these latter Social Studies teachers, a relatively untapped market of learners, bounded as they are by the time and space constraints of their very busy workplaces, the schools. They are often expected to teach global history, as mandated by state and federal curriculums, but were rarely able to enroll in the appropriate course during their own university days because "global history" is of such recent vintage. This course gave these teachers the luxury of becoming students once again - at a distance.

This fully asynchronous distance-learning course was one of the most challenging and satisfying courses that we have ever taught. The challenge was in inspiring the distance learners to join the on-line discussions once a week and to share their impressions and ideas about the course readings with each other. We did not, after all, meet in a traditional classroom together, and joined the discussions at different points throughout the week. Students worked from a common textbook, a host of web-based readings, as well as several major monographs on global history, covering such topics as biological diversity, European hegemony, frontier interaction, and imperial technologies. (In this latter regard, we thought it important that students be able to spend some time away from their computer screens, propped up on the couch with a good book.) The satisfaction came from working closely with secondary school teachers who really did not need inspiration because they were already highly motivated to learn more about global history from the course readings and from the needs of their own students. Students in History 590S rose to the challenge. Their weekly discussions, archived on the official course web page, are testimony to their hard work and intelligent analysis of the readings. Student projects, encompassing lectures on-line, case studies on-line, and interactive web pages (archived on the web page for the course), further testify to their success. All of this taught us an important lesson: distance learning works best when it joins professional-minded, adult learners who take a course not so much to earn credit as to continue their education and fulfill an already existing motivation to learn. Their shared interests - when bonded together over electronic communication - became a powerful learning community and a forum in which to share creative lesson plans (our rule was that everything we posted was available for other participants to use in their own classrooms).

What did the students themselves think of these courses? The official Purdue University "Cafeteria Course Appraisal System" (based on a scale from 1.0, the lowest or least favorable score, to 5.0, the highest or most favorable score) found that students ranked the two History 105 courses with median scores of 4.1 and 4.1 respectively, mostly a reflection of the professor's teaching style. They also ranked the new learning technologies favorably, with a 4.8. Students ranked the History 590 course with a median score of 4.5, again mostly a reflection of the professor. They also ranked the new learning technologies favorably with a 4.7. In each case, the professor ranked lower than "the machine." We took this as a good sign, that for all of the professor's possible personal or professional failings, the auxiliary technologies of the courses were nonetheless helping the students to band together and teach themselves.

What were some of the problems and challenges associated with these courses? In History 105, the discussions on-line became unwieldy at times, both the professor and the teaching assistant finding it difficult to manage and grade up to fifty and more on-line assignments every week. Many students consistently underestimated the importance of these on-line discussions, writing short or informal answers (as was their habit when using e-mail). Some simply refused, time and time again, to engage in an electronic discussion with their classmates, thinking it enough to simply post an average answer. This phenomenon approximated a kind of egocentric learning, students content simply to post a decent answer (in preparation for the midterm examination), unwilling to fully interact with fellow classmates and to strive for the higher grade. Students also tended to take fewer and weaker notes in class, preparing with less vigor for the exams, because lecture outlines and written lectures were already provided for them on-line (a practice we have discontinued).

In History 590, our initial challenge was to find students for the course, especially secondary-school teachers in the state of Indiana and neighboring states who were willing to fit this demanding course into their busy schedules. Professor Lynn Nelson, director of the Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship here on campus, and a specialist in Social Studies education, was an essential partner in our endeavor by providing mailing lists of Social Studies educators throughout the Midwest, as well as by helping to advertise the course and provide constructive criticism in its design and implementation. Still, out of several thousand letters, and many e-mail appeals, only a small handful of teachers responded to our call. The other major problem centered on web technologies. One of the benefits of the course was to help teachers learn how to use the Internet effectively and how to create web pages for their own lesson plans. But the programs offered by WebCT, which we were all supposed to share, proved too difficult and time-consuming for everyone to learn. So in the end we all happily and more efficiently learned the Internet technologies centered at our own schools and workplaces and then simply shared our materials and links over the World Wide Web.

To sum up, in "Survey of Global History," we exploited auxiliary Internet-based technologies to help teach collaborative and creative learning. In "Approaches to Global History" we used a fully-asynchronous distance-learning course to tap into a new market of learners - Social Studies teachers - already well attuned to collaborative and creative learning in their own classrooms. The Internet proved quite efficient and flexible in these regards. In both of these courses, moreover, technology proved to be a convenient and crucial foundation for the teaching of global history. It was easy to integrate into the courses because we first designed and taught them with Internet technologies in mind. It was an essential tool in the courses because technology linked us all together in new and interesting ways, across distances large and small. It was a medium which we came to master through the course of the semester itself, just as we were studying how modern people have exploited new technologies, for good and ill, to make the society and culture we all inhabit today. By the time we reached the final chapter of the textbook and its obligatory discussion of Internet technology and our "global" world, we had already discovered that we had made some global history of our own.