Teaching in a Time of Pandemic: Distance Teaching Resources for Historians

Image by Yasmeen, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like a lot of history teachers around the world, I’ve found myself unexpectedly spending this past week planning ways to teach an online version of classes which ordinarily meet face-to-face. Although I use a lot of digital tools in the classroom, I’ve never taught a wholly online class before. Even at the best of times, this would be a disorienting and stressful shift—and these are not the best of times.


As I’ve reworked my syllabi and assignments these past few days, I’ve had to continually remind myself that this is a time to be resourceful rather than elaborate, to emphasize competencies rather than skills. Digital technologies are not necessarily designed with the needs of historians or teachers in mind, and still less with those of students (who, no matter what you might have read, are not “digital native” technology savants).

In selecting some online resources, and a narrow range of digital tools, to use over the next few weeks and months, I’ve tried to consistently ask myself how they will help me ground my rebooted courses in some basic historical skills: understanding change and continuity in the past, engaging in independent analysis of sources, and building self-reflective learning skills.

Digital Tools and Activity Ideas

There are so many online repositories of primary sources today—from huge catch-alls like Internet Archive, to meta search engines like Europeana, to individual libraries like the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica, to more field-specific sites—that finding historical materials for your students to work with remotely likely won’t be an issue. What might be trickier is figuring out ways for students to work with those sources, either individually or collaboratively.

Of course, you can have students work with online sources to create traditional research papers, but there are other ways to have them engage with primary sources. Students can transcribe archival materials through collaborative projects like the University of Iowa’s DIY History, the Library of Congress’s By the People, From the Page, or many others. Taking part in one of these projects gives students a sense of the fun and frustrations of working with actual historical sources. (Plus, if they’re anything like me, accomplishing something that can be useful to other people is very soothing in a time of uncertainty!)

Most colleges and universities today provide some form of online Learning Management System (LMS) like Canvas, Moodle, or Blackboard. Relying on the tools they offer, like discussion boards, is an absolutely valid way of making it through to the end of the semester. However, for those of you who chafe at the concept of “managing” learning, or who find that your students really dislike your college’s LMS, there are other simple tools out there that have a shallow learning curve and which work well on a wide array of devices.

The widely used Google Docs has commenting and chat functions that allow students to engage in collaborative note-taking or reading responses on primary or secondary sources, with instructors able to monitor and give feedback in real time. (Hypothes.is does the same kind of thing, just a little fancier.)

Padlet is a kind of multimedia bulletin board which lets students work together to compile notes or to brainstorm ideas. I’ve had success with it in intro-level classes, asking students to arrange pieces of evidence on a Padlet wall in a way that makes narrative sense to them but that also helps them make an argument, and in upper-level classes where students contribute and vote on the questions that will help to guide the day’s discussion.

Digital mapping is a great way of getting students to approach sources in new ways, with an emphasis on connections and spatial proximities. Google MyMaps has enough features to let students do some surprisingly sophisticated work with ease; here’s a short how-to guide I put together for a pedagogy workshop.

There are lots of other kinds of assignments you could deploy, like one of these helpful ideas from faculty at Bard College, or tools you can use, like the group communication tool, Slack. However, I’d advise against doing too much digging to see what’s out there. There’s no one perfect way of teaching online, especially when you’re trying to figure things out on a tight timeline. Find a thing that works for you and run with it—now’s a time to embrace “good enough.”

Pandemics in Historical Context

Historians have an important role to play in helping students understand big picture context, causation, and consequences right now. As I rework my own courses for the rest of the semester, I’m streamlining them to hone in on issues of public health and pandemics in historical context.

Faculty at Northwestern have spearheaded the compilation of the “Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus,a bibliographic listing of readings (fiction and non-fiction), music, and film designed to help us “think and teach about contagion, global health, and community in a time of social distancing and fear” with a focus on the “literary, historical, philosophical/religious, and cultural aspects of the current health crisis and its history.”

Other historians like Monica Green have compiled comprehensive sets of annotated bibliographies and syllabi concerning the history of disease and public health. You can also follow along in real time with the conversation many academics are having on Twitter under the hashtag #coronavirussyllabus.

Helping Students Learn Remotely

It’s important to remember that students may not have much previous experience with distance learning. Even in ideal circumstances, successful online learning requires self-motivation, focus, and access to an appropriate learning environment. Figuring out how to be successful at learning remotely at the same time that you’re minding younger siblings, battling with subpar internet access, or tending to a sick family member, is an even tougher ask. Patience, flexibility, and low-bandwidth technologies should be our watchwords as instructors. For all the talk of “academic continuity” going around right now, things are not going to be the same. They can’t be.

Consider sharing resources with students like this set of slides from faculty at Rice University that contains some useful tips for learning during moments of disruption. Build in lots of moments for conversation and self-reflection on what it means to be a historian during such a consequential moment. After all, connection with others—working together—is what will see us through.

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