People ask me: so what do you do? And I tell them: I teach history. And they nod, like they know what that means.
Today I published an assignment for my World History 1 students about ancient Rome: it uses two historical GIS websites, one of which is still using Flash, and requires special instructions so that students know how to adjust their browser settings.
To create this assignment I used a deprecated software called Clarify to capture screenshots and write Markdown code for what will ultimately be a web file (html). Clarify is great because it creates simple, step-by-step instructions and then creates (exports) files that can used in several different formats. Unfortunately, Clarify is no longer supported and the new upgrade to Apple’s operating system would break the program. So, I need to keep up on what Apple is doing in software development so that I don’t lose access to programs that produce good teaching documents.
In the assignment, I start with what I want the students to learn, or learning outcomes to the teacher world. There’s a rich literature on writing good learning outcomes, but the short version is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want your students to learn, the students won’t learn it. Even though learning outcomes don’t reveal any profound technical or disciplinary content expertise, evidenced-based outcomes require a deep understanding of multiple knowledge-bases (history, GIS, web-publishing, & the scholarship of teaching and learning) to write them well.
After I’ve built the learning outcomes, I work through the steps students need to navigate websites and answer historical questions. At the end of this process I export the document to a type of code, called markdown. In the markdown format, I add alternate text descriptions to the images in file to ensure accessibility and then publish the file through a program (Marked 2) that applies a custom style (called a Cascading Style Sheet or CSS) to all my web pages. The CSS I created is ADA compliant. After publishing the file, I notice it is 10 MB, which is a huge web page. I know that download speed is an issue for students, so I go back to my original file and compress the images with another program, Squash. Now that I have a 3 MB file, I upload that to the course website (which I built because the website my college gives me is terrible) and then link the assignment page to the syllabus. Oh, and all my materials are open education resources, so anyone can adopt them for their own courses. I post the original files of my materials to a web repository so that other instructors don’t have to cut and paste from the web.
And none of that has to do with my knowledge of the past, which is what everyone thinks is why I am paid a salary. Now, there are less technical ways to do the above. I could use Word, but other ways I tried tended to compromise on accessibility, speed, academic rigor, extensibility, or clarity of instructions. That said, I know there’s always room for improving assignments.
Still, when people (especially politicians writing education bills) imagine they know how history should be taught, I nod and thank them for their time. Perhaps I should direct them to this post.