Active Learning and History Education

In September I talked about the online records management course I’m currently taking.  As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement.  One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session.  The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants. 

The idea of fostering active discussion is great.  But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat.  Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics.  Thus far I’ve attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more.  Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions.  Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn’t unique to online delivery — poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online.  It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.

Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all ‘the facts.’ Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.  

So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I’m not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions.   Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches.  Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom.  I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof’s office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub. 

Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants.  Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process.  With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key.   Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.

What have been some of your best education experiences?  Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently? 

Photo credit: My Silent Side

Continuing Education: Online Learning and Records Management

Kayla Jonas Galvin over at Adventures in Heritage recently wrote a great post about attending school while working full time.  Her post highlights a few tips which she has used to help her juggle education and work.  Kayla’s post got me thinking about how I am going to approach a continuing education course that I just started.

This fall I am taking the online Records Management Fundamental’s (RMF) course through the iSchool Institute.  I’ve been looking into continuing education options for awhile now and decided on this course for a number of reasons, including: the course is completely online and can be tailored to fit my schedule, it is seven weeks which is long enough to have depth without becoming too demanding, and records management has a lot of practical applications both inside and outside the heritage field.

I don’t live close to a University/College that offers courses in my field, making an online course ideal.  However, prior to signing up for this course I had a bit of trepidation about the course format, mostly inspired by correspondence class flashbacks.  During my undergrad years I took two courses on women’s history via correspondence.  I remember doing well in the classes and liking the content, but I also remember how horribly devoid of collaboration and communication those classes were. Learning through reading can have benefits, but I really wanted an interactive approach to continuing education.

The iSchool Institute uses Blackboard for its online courses.  Though Blackboard definitely has challenges and faults, it does allow for an online collaborative space.  The RMF class assignments include participation in online chats, discussion boards, and a project where students work with partners.  Students learn not only from written materials but from each other.  I think this is a particular benefit of taking a continuing education class that is made up of individuals from a wide range of professional backgrounds.  Everyone brings something different to the discussion and can provide different insight into common problems.

As for my approach to taking the class, I’m trying to set aside specific times early in the week to tackle readings and assignments.  Weekly assignments are due on Sundays each week, but I really don’t want to be spending my Friday evening or Saturday working on the material.  I also believe that like in a classroom setting, you get out what you put into an online course.  Active participation is crucial to a good course experience, be it in a seminar setting or in an online environment.  

Compatible or Incompatible? Public History and the PhD

It has been three years since I completed my MA in public history.  Since graduating I have been involved in a number of interesting and professionally rewarding projects.  I’ve continued to learn new skills in each volunteer or paid position I’ve undertaken.  I also really enjoy my current position working with Residential School archives.

Despite all of this, I often debate about continuing my education – my thoughts have been as ranging as: returning to school for an ALA accredited MLIS program, a PhD, certificate style courses sponsored by organizations such as the Society for American Archivists, or informal continuing education programs.

Alexandra M. Lord’s recent article, Writing For History Buffs highlights some of the difficulties I have conceptualizing how a PhD would fit into my public history goals. To some extent practical skills and experience tend to hold more weight in the public history field than a PhD.  Granted, it depends on the position and in some larger organizations a PhD is mandatory for top level curators and archivists. 

Despite at times feeling out of place amongst other public historians, Lord maintains she doesn’t regret obtaining her PhD and feels as though it has helped her career and promotions as a public historian.  In contrast, I was told a couple of years ago by an Assistant Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) that she would never go back for her PhD as it just wasn’t worth it.  Her MA in public history contributed to her holding second highest position in her division  but the only way to get a Curator position at the CMC was to have a PhD.  This particular Assistant Curator maintained that the possibility of a position opening up at the right time, in whatever niche you decide to get a PhD in, is so small that the gamble just didn’t seem worth it. I’m not sure who is right in this instance, or if there is even a right option.  Levels of education in the public history field vary greatly; as do personal situations.

In addition to the end value of a PhD, I’ve also struggled with the format of traditional history PhDs in Canada. Currently, the only way of pursuing a PhD in public history in Canada is to take a traditional history PhD program and select public history as one of your areas of concentration.  So despite being interested in public history you would still be following the traditional PhD model – course work, comprehensive exams and writing a doctoral thesis. 

Writing a doctoral thesis can be a great learning experience and is the standard milestone in academia. But is writing a very academic style work the best way to frame higher education for public historians? Would researching a curating a major exhibit, developing and implementing a records management system, or some other form of practical hands on work be more useful?   One of the most useful portions of my MA in public history was the hands on projects we completed and the internship component.  This hands on experience is virtually non existence in most history PhD programs.  History PhD programs continue to focus on preparing students for work in academia, even as positions in that realm becoming increasing limited.

Some public historians do end up working in academia.  However, a large number of public historians work in varying jobs outside of the ivory tower; in museums, archives, government, private corporations, parks, and countless other institutions.  Higher education programs need to consider how they can help prepare public historians for this variety of alternative roles.

What are your thoughts on PhDs in the public history field? If you have a PhD and work as a public historian how has your education impacted your career and outlook?