I teach one of the History Department’s core courses in historical method, HIST2809: The Historian’s Craft. This class has a large enrolment of typically 100 students. Instead of surveying the many different ways historians write history and do historical research, I focus instead on cultivating a deeper understanding of the reflexive nature of historical work, so that when students encounter a new possible method or approach they do so with a critical understanding of not just what the approach offers, but also how it delineates what it possible to say or uncover. I emphasize that historical work is not done in a vacuum, but is done within a community of practice.
To support this teaching, I created a WordPress powered website that I extended with the Buddypress plugin. Buddypress allows for the customized creation of a social network platform – a HIST2809 Facebook, if you will. Then, I ‘gamified’ this space by creating ‘achievements’ that students could work towards, with their progress being visible to other members of the classroom. This approach was written about by Nick Ward in This Week in FASS:
‘[Graham’s aim was to show] that being an historian is about being part of a community, that there is joy and surprise and discipline in being an historian, and that most of all, one has to want to do these things – to that end, the achievements system was entirely voluntary (but with a healthy dose of competition).’
In this gamified approach, the students started at zero and tried to collect as many points as possible. All participants would get a small bonus to their participation grade, proportional to the number of points they’d collected. Some of the game challenges included transcribing lines of ancient papyrus, learning the rhetorics embedded in computer code, completing tutorials on logical fallacies, learning some Latin, and participating in online crowdsourcing history projects (including HeritageCrowd.org, Graham’s own experiment in crowdsourcing local cultural heritage knowledge).”
As a result of including participation in the running of some of my own research projects into the achievements system, some of my students became involved in community digital history projects. One student is now a lead author on the writing of a regimental history for one of Ottawa’s military units. Another student became a co-author with me on a case study of the project to crowd-source local history (which is in preparation for submission to a journal).
An ancillary use of technology in this class is my virtual excavation project in the Carleton Virtual Campus. This excavation is designed to make ‘real’ the metaphors of archaeology. Through interaction with this virtual excavation – where it is safe to make mistakes – students get the chance to explore how archaeological knowledge is created. This excavation is still in a prototype phase, and so it hasn’t been fully incorporated into this course yet. It represents another facet though of how the careful use of game-based elements can enhance one’s teaching and learning in class (Arya, Hartwick, Graham, and Nowlan, 2012).
A game-based approach also involves elements of playfulness. In their tutorial groups, I have students create elaborate historical forgeries. What is the one piece of evidence that would solve a historical mystery? What would that ‘smoking gun’ look like? In creating convincing forgeries, students have to work through the intricacies of evidence, of how historians use/abuse evidence, and how historians think about evidence.
I turned one session of the course into an ‘unconference’, where the students suggested themes they’d like to talk about. We had eight sessions (running in two concurrent time slots) that were simultaneously live-tweeted, which brought the outside world of digital historians into the class. I curated those tweets in a ‘Storify’ webpage, which I then used the next week to introduce key concepts in digital and public history. http://storify.com/electricarchaeo/the-classroom-unconference-in-hist2809
(I also presented my approach to gamification to my colleagues at an EDC brown-bag lunch. As a side note, I used ‘Prezi’, a piece of online presentation software that uses as its dominant metaphor the idea of ‘zooming’ into data. This is in stark contrast to Powerpoint, whose dominant metaphor is the 35 mm slide. I use both pieces of software in my classes to highlight the ways the media we use structure the stories we are able to tell. There is no ‘right’ way to interact with digital 1s and 0s. In a way, we are all disabled in this regard.)