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Is the Future of History Digital? : Online Resources

Written by Mario Draper.

Were someone to walk into any room of historians and mention the word ‘technology’, they would undoubtedly illicit a reaction. Contrary to popular opinion, it may not always be that of fear-induced negativity, but rather an increasing acceptance of how digital media can enhance what academics already do. Teaching and research are the bread and butter of the academic profession and both are becoming increasingly entwined with the world of online dissemination. One need look no further than the importance attached to pubic engagement elements of research; much of it achieved through the streaming of events, the writing of blog posts, the recording of TV shows and podcasts, never mind the casual posts, rants, and streams of consciousness so prevalent on social media.

Yet, the digitisation of teaching has yet to be as comprehensively embraced. Perhaps this is due to the sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated fear that placing lectures, seminars, lessons plans, and resources online will either devalue established methods or, worse still, make the already besieged role of the academic at universities all but redundant. This is a rather pessimistic (some might say realistic) view of things to come. However, there is also a positive and unbelievably important side to improving the capacity of engaging with people through digital media. This is no more evident than when examining the results of the School of History’s first step into the world of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Developed in partnership with The National Army Museum (NAM) and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the broad-ranging course ‘From Waterloo to the Rhine: The British Experience of Warfare’ launched in January 2020. It took what the School of History at the University of Kent has to offer to global audience – a first step towards acknowledging that academics have a responsibility (and ability) to diversify and disseminate teaching as broadly as their research.

As a free-to-access course (with a non-obligatory £42 upgrade and certificate available from platform-host Future Learn), the aim was to deliver an introductory overview of key themes associated with the modern-day study of armies and societies. Chronologically, this was broken down into four topic weeks: 1) The Napoleonic Wars, 2) The Empire in the 19th Century, 3) The First World War, and 4) The Second World War. Given the strengths of the School of History in the study of 19th and 20th century military, cultural, social, and imperial history, such breadth allowed for sixteen permanent members of staff to get involved in delivering their expertise through mini-lecture recordings. These were supplemented with a series of short articles, quizzes, source analyses, and peer-reviewed assessments, to offer learners the most rounded experience possible. However, what makes MOOCs so interesting is their reliance on peer-learning through message boards. Here, learners share information, opinions, and stories related to the content of the course. These message boards are monitored by academic and postgraduate Course Mentors, who interact with learners by filling in the gaps and posing new questions to generate further discussion – thus closing the pedagogical loop. Although not as in-depth as a BA degree, learners have been overwhelmingly positive about the quality of the online material, offering them a starting point and inspiration to pursue their own independent research.

In many ways, this is what academics strive for when teaching their own undergraduate and postgraduate students. History is, in many ways, set up for independent learning with educators there to facilitate that process and provide the necessary skills to excel. Yet, what is evident from the MOOC’s statistics is that this same approach is having a similarly positive effect on a completely different demographic.

In its two iterations to date (the first started late January, the second started early April) some 3,209 people from 88 different countries and territories around the world have enrolled, engaged, and e-learned through this online course. Although around two-thirds of participants were registered as being from the UK, the diversity of: 325 other European; 239 North American; 167 Asian; 125 Oceanians; 53 Africans; and 33 South Americans, attests to the power of digital history to reach a truly global audience. Similarly, the sample of age ranges suggests that the School of History’s online course is being delivered to a much older audience. Rather than the typical 18-21 undergraduate student one would expect to find on campus, the majority of online learners participating on ‘From Waterloo to the Rhine’ – some 70.3% – are above the age of 56. This can be explained by a number of factors including, but not limited to: family connections; spare time; and the discovery of lifelong learning. This patchwork of participants brings a colour and vibrancy to the discussion boards – not to mention an incredible array of expertise that may not otherwise have found an outlet.

If the role of academics is to share knowledge, deepen understanding, and to help others interpret the world around them, then surely the more people who can be accessed the better.  The academy has already taken huge steps towards ensuring this is standard practice with research but not so much, as yet, with regards to teaching. However, what the School of History’s first public foray into delivering history digitally has shown, is that it is possible to engage a much broader audience than would otherwise be possible through traditional means. Although established delivery methods are absolutely essential to the value and depth of BA degrees, the discipline cannot lose sight that there are those out there without the means to access history at university. Should this mean they are completely cut off from it? No. If they cannot come to us for reasons of distance, finance, or simply put because of ‘life’, then it is up to us to take what we do to them. The University of Kent’s MOOC, ‘From Waterloo to the Rhine’ is but one way this can be, and is being, done.

Mario Draper is Lecturer in Modern British and European History at the University of Kent. He undertook his BA and Ph.D. at the University of Kent, and his MSt. at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. He is author of The Belgian Army and Society from Independence to the Great War (Palgrave, 2018). His current research project focusses on transnational officer networks in the nineteenth century.

Image Credit: Laptop or Book by Dejan Krsmanovic/Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0.

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