Pandemic Pedagogy – your chance to contribute

History UK is looking to build on the Pandemic Pedagogy project by exploring the continuing impact of Covid-19 on teaching history in higher education. We are inviting short blog posts (300-500 words long) and/or podcasts/videos (c. 3-5 minutes long) that address how the pandemic has change or affected subject specific teaching practice in History and cognate disciplines.
Such contributions could include but is not limited to:
  • learning and teaching environments: the socially distanced classroom, online, hybrid and hy-flex
  • diversity and inclusivity
  • technology and software or high tech versus low tech
  • assessment methods
  • activities beyond the classroom (e.g. field trips)
  • student engagement
  • health and wellbeing – staff and students
  • student communities
  • collaborative learning
  • the ways in which students have perceived, understood, and responded to the changes and challenges
If you would like to contribute to the next phase of pandemic pedagogy, please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer.
We are hoping to begin to release the blog posts/podcasts/videos from mid-January 2021.

History UK student video competition – What’s it like to be a history student in this new digital world?

The move to online and blended learning has had a big impact on university staff and students alike. At the same time, COVID-19 and related restrictions have highlighted the important role the arts and humanities can have in times of crisis.

History UK invites video submissions from current undergraduates and taught postgraduate students that offer creative and imaginative insights into what it’s like to be a history student in this new digital world. You might reflect on the different ways you or other students have navigated the shift to online or blended learning, or you might want to explore the ways the pandemic and related restrictions have made you think differently about history and the relevance of your degree. Submissions can be made individually or as a team.

The entries will be used by History UK as part of its mission to support historians in higher education in the UK. Through its Pandemic Pedagogy project, History UK has gathered a lot of feedback from staff and provided them with guidance on online learning. We’re now keen to gather some student perspectives to complement these resources.

 

Deadline: Wednesday 28 October, 5pm.

 

Eligibility: undergraduate (i.e. BA) and taught postgraduate students (i.e. MA/MSc) of History currently registered at UK higher education providers.

 

Prizes:

1st: £250

2nd: £100

3rd: £50

 

Submission requirements: 

Submissions should be made by emailing historyuk2020@gmail.com by 5pm on Wednesday 28 October with a link to a downloadable version of your video file (e.g. Google Drive, Dropbox, MS OneDrive, WeTransfer).

  • The video should be in a YouTube acceptable format (.MOV .MPEG4, .MP4, .AVI).
  • It should be a maximum of 120 seconds long (excluding credits).
  • You must include credits citing all the materials used.
  • Music, sound effects, and stock footage should have a Creative Commons license attached (from CC-BY-NC-SA up to Public Domain) and be cited in the credits.
  • Audio quotes can be used but comply with the concept of fair dealingand fair use. This typically means editing down to the length of time needed to make the point clear (typically less than 20 seconds).
  • You must get written permission from all people in the video.
  • Along with your video submission, please provide your name(s), your course(s) of study, institution, and the contact details of a tutor who will be able to verify your identity.
  • Entrants will retain ownership over their entries. By submitting an entry, entrants grant History UK a non-exclusive, royalty-free, right and licence to display, publish, transmit, copy, edit, and use the entry in any media, to promote History UK or for educational purposes.

Download a pdf of this call here.

Some good reasons why History really matters

We’d like to thank Rachel Best and Leanne Smith, current and former students of History at the University of Sunderland, for contributing to this blog post, and Dr Sarah Hellawell (Sunderland) for encouraging them to share their experiences with History UK.


Unfortunately, several History programmes have closed down, including the announcement of the end of history-teaching at the University of Sunderland earlier this year, with recent stories about cuts to Humanities departments suggesting that more bad news may be just around the corner. However, as History UK’s response to the closure at Sunderland makes clear, History degrees – and humanities subjects more generally – remain highly relevant and valuable subjects for a wide variety of reasons, including:

  • The best potential employees in a modern dynamic economy are not, as all good employers know, those taught to perform a narrow and specific task, but confident, well-rounded, flexible, and, above all, thinking individuals.

  • History students gain a range of skills in information gathering, analysis, and communication that are relevant to almost all employment areas.

  • The best guarantor of employability, as a joint CBI-UUK report from 2009 argued, lies in developing precisely the ‘soft’, transferable, and person-centred skills which history degrees excel in providing.

  • As well as supplying a pipeline of skilled, creative, and dynamic graduates, history contributes directly to the economy through the heritage sector. A recent report from Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum showed that for England alone Heritage provides a total GVA (gross value added) of £31 billion and over 464,000 jobs.

The contemporary significance of History has been underlined by the Black Lives Matter movement, while simultaneously being called into question by recent government rhetoric around ‘low value’ degrees, not to mention the outright hostility of some figures in the public eye to academic historians.

It is notable, however, that while professing to speak for students, many critiques of History (and Humanities more generally) at university don’t let students speak for themselves. There is no reference, for instance, to the discipline’s consistently high student satisfaction ratings. The student voice (or voices) purportedly so important to policymakers, is rarely heard.

We were therefore delighted to receive the following contributions from two students of History from the University of Sunderland, which we think give a real flavour of why History matters for them.

 

Rachel Best, 2nd Year History student, University of Sunderland

The years before I considered doing any sort of degree were years languishing in, what the present government calls, unskilled work.  It is far from that, however, but, to some, it may become unfulfilling when these types of jobs become the only option in which to earn a living.  I decided, then, to apply for the Politics and History BA Honours course at Sunderland University, as the choices of Politics and History graduates are many when the time comes to explore career options.  Additionally, this course allowed me to have an eye on my future, while exploring my passions in an academic setting. It revealed so many more avenues of interest than my mere hobby status in these subjects allowed.

At the beginning, I believed my personal focus would err towards a political weighting of the degree.  But, as my studies have progressed, I have found the History modules I chose to be of greater interest and inspiration.  I have met many people from the long eighteenth century I had never encountered before, who deepened my understanding of the “whys” and “hows” that frame our engagement with society and the state we live in now.  I have met people from Africa, the Americas, Russia, France, Germany, the former Dutch Republic and, of course, the United Kingdom, who have all contributed to, through critique or celebration (but mostly critique!), the social and political organization we see all around us today. It reveals how we are all connected.

Studying this course has opened an inner world that I barely knew existed before I embarked upon my advanced studies. I can write. I never knew that before. I can present evidence and analysis in support of concepts that I was hitherto ignorant of only two years before. I want to be better at this. I have tapped into the rich reserves of academic thought that present humanity at its most complex.  I want to know more! This course has given me a purpose. By engaging with the past, History has given me a future.

 

Leanne Smith, PhD Candidate at Newcastle University, BA and MA History graduate from the University of Sunderland

I had always regretted not going to university when I left school so after the birth of my son, I took the opportunity to fulfil this life-long dream. What I would study was never in question. Whether it was visiting museums, art galleries, watching a documentary (anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy a documentary), or simply reading a book I have always been fascinated by history. I completed an Access to Higher Education course at college. After attending an open day and an amazing taster session I applied to the University of Sunderland. The course was exactly what I was looking for and as my son was still young, so it was important that I stay local.

As a mature student, I was nervous about attending university. I had never written an essay and had taken my last exam in 1996 but I graduated with a first- class honours degree in 2017. I immediately enrolled onto the new Master’s degree course in Historical Research, also at the University of Sunderland, to pursue my interest in intellectual history. It was during my MA that I started to think about the possibility of applying for a PhD. Because of my circumstances as a single parent I knew that without funding it would be too much of a challenge. With the support of the lecturers at both Sunderland and Newcastle University I put forward and application for funding through the Northern Bridge Consortium. I am now over half-way through the first year as a fully-funded PhD student at Newcastle University.

Studying history has not only expanded my knowledge of the past and allowed me to develop a long list of ‘transferable’ skills but more importantly it has also shown me why knowing our past is important. I had previously, and rather naively, accepted without question what had been written. The history I had known was stories of progress and glorification. Studying history has taught me to challenge the existing historical narratives. To question what I have read and heard. To challenge my own preconceived ideas. For me personally it has provided me with a new way of not only looking at the past but also seeing and understanding the world around me.

Not just ‘Hello, we love you’: Interview with Chris A. Williams

While we were researching the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, one of the people who offered really useful advice was Chris A. Williams, who is Senior Lecturer in History at the Open University. More recently, Chris kindly agreed to an interview with project lead Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway), so a wider group of colleagues could hear a bit more about his experiences with digital pedagogy.

image of Chris Williams


Kate Cooper (KC): Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. Before we get started, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your time at the Open University?

Chris A. Williams (CW): I’m a historian of policing, government, and bureaucracy. I did a PhD at Sheffield on police and crime in the nineteenth century, and I’ve worked at the OU for 20 years, initially as a research fellow for what became the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice, and eventually switching over to teaching. I’ve always been interested in digital pedagogy. I got my feet under the table as a teacher while I was still a postgrad at Sheffield contributing to an undergraduate module on using computers to study history as part of the part time degree there, and this became the niche that allowed me to eventually make myself indispensable at the OU, which was how I landed a permanent appointment.

At the OU I’ve played various roles that put me in contact with the OU’s wider systems. I’ve been Director of Teaching for History and run a number of our modules and programmes, which involves working with the OU’s publishing and VLE arm. I’ve also acted as Media Fellow for Arts and Humanities, a role which involves serving as the liaison for Arts and Humanities with the OpenLearn unit (the part of the OU that prepares free-to-air teaching) and also liaising with the BBC.

KC: What you do at the Open University is probably the Rolls Royce of digital pedagogy. What are the key aspects that make your approach distinctive?

CW: We run a really specific system at the OU which involves massive scaling – this carries huge up-front costs that other kinds of university would find impossible. Some really rough ballpark figures (though it varies between faculties): for one week’s module content, the OU might invest 8 weeks’ work by a subject specialist & another 8 weeks’ work by admin, rights, and technically skilled people – which makes 16 weeks of staff time if you add it all up. The process of setting up a new module takes three years, and with that ratio of investment we then expect the module to support hundreds of students per year over a number of years. We place a massive emphasis on the production values of our materials and on comprehensive quality assurance and cross-checking; some of this – especially the production values – probably wouldn’t make sense for institutions working at a smaller scale or on a tighter turn-around.

KC: Are there lessons you’ve learned that can be borrowed by universities that have fewer resource to invest?

CW: One of the philosophies of the OU that I think will resonate with colleagues in other kinds of departments is the fundamental sense of care for our students, and the concern to keep their experience at the centre of what we do. Perhaps more than most, we find ourselves working with students who are facing a huge variety of situations, so finding a way to make it work for each of them is both challenging and exciting.

What I’ve always tried to do is to think through the worst-case scenario; to start with the student who is trying to complete an assignment on a phone because they don’t have a laptop or internet at home, or a student coping with a challenging family situation or disability, and make things work for someone in that situation. Once you’ve done that, the systems you’ve put into place can only benefit the other students whose circumstances are more straightforward. Keep an image in your mind of your most vulnerable student at a moment of maximum crisis: that’s the person you are teaching to.

It’s a philosophy that can have some very practical consequences. For example, when you’re addressing students, you want to be thinking about what they might be dealing with when they are communicating with you. When you are in the classroom and you can see how everyone is reacting to what you’re saying, you can be sensitive to their responses, but in a remote relationship you’re engaging with students who might be receiving an email right in the middle of a family crisis – in those situations work can be something to hang onto but whether that’s true or not you certainly don’t want an unfortunately phrased email or bit of feedback to be a source of distress.  So in framing an email or any other communication, you try to stop and think about that. We want to be sure that we are respecting people – that we’re addressing them in a way that is clear and constructive, without provoking any  unnecessary sense of distress, confusion, or discouragement. When you can’t see students’ faces as they’re listening, you have to anticipate their possible reactions in a different way.

KC: What thoughts can you share about induction and community-building?

CW: Thinking from a student perspective, consider the invisible work that happens in all the informal moments in a campus environment, when students make connections with each other and compare notes. Support networks get generated spontaneously, by students standing in a queue together or grabbing coffee after class. Little collectives that we don’t understand tend to sprout up, and they are partly social but they are also a crucial mechanism for delivering support. Sometimes students support each other on an emotional level, and they also support one another on a navigational level.

At the emotional level, students working remotely need a similar chance to make human connections. Whatsapp groups with peers can be useful – this could be in a tutor group or perhaps a module seminar group. Mentoring schemes can be invaluable – connecting year 1s to year 2s for example. Try to establish small, stable tutorial groups. Icebreaker activities are important, but they can be intrusive when students are working from home, so the timing and framing has to be thought out carefully.

At a practical or navigational level, you’re looking for them to have a chance to ask the little questions that might pose an obstacle to their free and full engagement with the learning process. ‘I’m stuck – whom should I contact? Where do we go to find out about that? How do we use the library?’ Students are engaged in a process of self-triage all the time – ‘am I doing the right thing? Is this problem big enough to justify asking for help?’ – so we need to find ways to make it as easy as possible for them to ask. Navigating in a university involves all sorts of tacit knowledge that everyone thinks each other already know. When educators say ‘the library’ for example, what do we mean – the URL or the building? – these are things we shouldn’t take for granted, and we need to find routes to help students to discover them. (By the way, a library is also a collection of people – and librarians become even more important than usual in a digital environment.)

This kind of support can also unlock the learning process. A lot of students come into the process in a state of nervous anxiety, that comes from an assumption that ‘this class is going to be “stupid me” plus 199 geniuses.’ So, part of the emotional navigation is taking time to loudly reassure them in front of their peers that there are no stupid questions. If they put their head above the parapet and ask a question, they are actually helping other people who were wondering the same thing.

KC: What about setting out frames and scaffolding? How should things like module handbooks look in a digital environment?

CW: The first thing you have to be aware of is that from the moment students are registered on the system they will have a tsunami of guidance coming at them from a variety of different sources, and it can be overwhelming. Often it is difficult to figure out which sources of information are going to answer which questions. It can sound like a cliché to talk about bringing the student experience to the centre, but it’s actually really helpful to think through the multiple sources of input and guidance that they are having to handle at any given time. A simple thing you can do is to keep as much uniformity of format as possible, so they can focus on the content. It’s really important to have information accessible, so it’s good to have as many questions as possible anticipated ahead of time in the programme handbook or the module handbook. There needs to be a legible spine of ‘what to do next’ that is laid out right from the beginning. At the same time, students will always miss key bits of information for whatever reason, or they’ll be looking for it under different headings, so you’ve got to find strategies of productive duplication – ways of calling things to their attention or letting them know how to loop back and find it, and it possible, a clear ‘helpline’ contact attached to it.

A clear-eyed view of practicalities is really helpful. It’s important to make sure everyone has found the reading, for example. With virtual learning environments such as Moodle or Blackboard, the ability for educators to access a student’s view of the system is really important – what are they seeing and does it make sense?  Thinking about introduction or induction videos, they shouldn’t be just ‘Hello, we love you’ – what’s often urgently needed at the beginning of a programme or module is how-tos for accessing the various systems. ‘Here, I’m sharing my screen, watch how I click through to this resource (or whatever) so you can do it too.’ If you can make that personal and engaging, they’ll find it easier to use.

Something else to be careful about is tools overload. Don’t start with 8 different on-line tools in week 0 – better to drip-feed them in, ideally not all at once. So try not to introduce some of your skills or platforms until week 3 or 4 or 5. Ideally you should be thinking this out at a department level, making sure that they only have to cope with one new system each week. So if in week 2 we are sending them all to the library and in week 3 they are all learning how to use a platform that everyone in their year level is having to use, then the individual modules can negotiate who gets to introduce what in weeks 4 and 5.

Similarly, it’s useful if there is some consistency of the tools (or palette of tools) used across the department. Try to keep tools as few and/or simple as possible; be careful about overwhelming students. With all of this, the teaching director might have to do a bit of orchestrating, to find out what people are trying to do in their different modules and to see if the creative chaos can be pruned so multiple ways of skinning the same cat don’t become distracting for the student who is studying with more than one instructor.

As academics, we cherish the idea of spontaneity and diversity, but this is a case where at a department level, uniformity and consistency are your friend. So, for example, you can generate a single orientating video for all modules of a certain type (e.g. special subjects): ‘These are the special subjects and this is what you’ll need to be doing in the library (and why); each of the special subjects will ask you to do x, y, and z’, et cetera. This creates a situation where students in one module can put their heads together with friends who are in a different module; they can compare notes and begin to get a clearer sense of what’s at stake.

KC: Do you have advice about infrastructure?

CW: One of the things that worries me is how are the parent institutions planning for tech support in the classroom, for helplines and on-line accessibility support. Digital learning actually requires quite a lot of staff time to get it right.

For synchronous teaching, it’s good to have two people in play – the tutor and a demonstrator. For example, Zoom teaching is very tiring, and lots of tech issues arise – if there is no one to sort them the class has to be disrupted while the tutor tries to figure it out.

For students, they need to know that there is a number they can call. A departmental or School helpline better than university-level – both because the help staff have a better chance of checking in with the instructor if necessary and also because the students will feel less anxious about asking for help. Minimizing the number of points of contact for students is important – they get overwhelmed having to decide who the ‘right’ person to contact is.

TAs can help here – while some institutions seem to be cutting back on TAs at the moment, a far better solution is to re-brand these assistants as learning mentors. At the OU our students work primarily with a single tutor, so that person can take this role, but in systems where students are studying multiple modules it’s probably better to split this role off.  The tutor contacts them regularly to ask whether they are having any difficulties, and acts as a first port of call for any academic problems that do arise. In order to get students to not feel inhibited about asking for help they actually need to gain the student’s trust. The kind of pro-active support we’re talking about is more time-consuming than the normal role of a personal tutor, but having a single point of contact helps to cut through the fog in a lot of cases.

KC: Creating a sense of presence is one of the biggest challenges for colleagues whose experience lies with trying to generate electricity in a real-life group. What can we be doing to make students feel more connected with us and with each other?

CW: One of the most important things is to recognise that low-bandwidth solutions are sometimes really powerful. In the OU, teaching is largely asynchronous, and this allows us to build up a conversation that unfolds across the week.  Part of the reason for this is that we tend to be careful about bandwidth & time-hungriness – we see time and bandwidth as finite resources and only use strategies that eat up these resources when it’s genuinely necessary. This means trying to keep to lowest common denominator in terms of digital complication and minimizing the use of tools that have a higher chance of causing problems – for example a student losing the chance to participate in a ‘live’ online discussion because of a vomiting toddler or a shaky broadband connection.

There are various low-bandwidth ways you can create a feeling of being ‘in touch’ in a digital setting. One of the tools we use quite a bit in the OU is polls: for synchronous sessions, this is particularly helpful for finding out whether the students are ‘getting’ something or not. Another is asynchronous online discussions. Generally speaking, for the OU focusing on writing and feedback is the key interactive technique, whether this is in major written assignments or smaller contributions such as posts to online forums.

KC: Now we’re coming what seems to be the holy grail of digital teaching. Do you have advice about what makes for a successful online discussion?

CW: Setting up online forums and setting up reading with exploratory tasks or writing prompts (with narrative framing for these activities) is all done in advance of the beginning of a module and takes quite a bit of work.

Online discussions can be great for drawing out the students who wouldn’t otherwise participate, but there are some ways it can go badly wrong, and a few tricks that can help you to get it right. One of the most important problems to solve is the over-confident person who pops up first with lengthy pontifications. This can intimidate the other people in the class or cluster.  How do you make sure that the quiet ones don’t come away thinking ‘Oh my god, I could never come up with that’ or ‘I’d better be quiet; I’m not that clever’? So you have to destabilise the pecking order before it begins to form.

KC: OK, now this really IS the holy grail – how do you manage things so the dominant voices don’t actually get a chance to dominate?

CW: So you want to think about filtering processes that will steer how the conversation will go. You can filter in terms of timing, in terms of word lengths or type or post, and you can filter in terms of content – the number of sources or type of source (article, primary source, etc) you’re asking the students to engage with.

We have to say, ‘right, here are the cards we as educators can play at different stages in the module.’ If we’re trying to make students give the task their best energy, we can play the card of making posting mandatory or awarding it some points toward summative assessment, or making sure that there is interesting feedback from the tutor, or from a peer, or both. There are different costs associated with those options, in terms of different amounts of time that tutors will need in order to manage the process.

If we’re trying to head off the dominant voices problem, we can play the ‘vicious word limit’ card. So, discussion could take place via students posting paragraphs of a defined length – 100 or 150 words – in response to prompts, rather than via free-form interaction. This keeps the space free of long-windedness but it can also fit with the idea that clarity, precision, and brevity are writing skills that we’re assessing for. A longer piece may less well-argued than something shorter that has been carefully crafted, so you can encourage students to spend time on tightening and revising – often this results in pieces that are both more useful and less intimidating to other students.

One of the most effective strategies is timing the visibility of the comments. You could get people to all post at the same time via a short time window posting contributions, so the self-appointed dominant voices are less likely to get in first. But it’s equally effective and probably fairer to have a longer window for posting, but only make the comments visible all at the same time. In an ideal world, this would also allow you to group the comments in a preferred sequence before making them visible, but that involves a time commitment that may be unrealistic. (From the point of view of the tutor, it’s worth taking a step back and asking ‘what processing tasks have I set for myself?’, so if possible you want to get things set up ahead of time in a way that requires as little fiddling as possible once the ball is rolling forward.)

KC: What are your thoughts about online lectures?

CW: The main thing to remember is punctuation of sessions – breaking things up is good. One of the benefits of not giving the lecture in a physical room at a certain hour is that you can break it up. (This is also one of many reasons that taping lectures ahead of time is better than trying to give them ‘live’ over Zoom.)

Try 3 segments of 10 or 15 minutes instead of one 50-minute lecture – or even shorter segments – in any case, more than 20 minutes is a definite no-no. Perhaps sandwich the short video segments with sign-posting from the tutor: ‘now, read the handout’ or ‘now, read so-and-so’s article.’ The OU places a lot of emphasis on teaching material with in-text questions and exercises, and getting your video content to synch well with this written scaffolding can be really effective, although it takes a lot of work stitching it all together. One thing the OU has tended to do is ask students to watch short bits of video several times, but bearing in mind a different question or issue each time, and make notes on that.

KC: Is there anything we’ve missed?

CW: One of the things you have to think about more carefully with digital pedagogy is the balance between skills and subject knowledge in your key learning outcomes. Skills are harder to teach online, and the mentoring is more critical. On the other hand, task-based modules might find the transition to a digital format easier than info-dump modules (I’m thinking here of outline modules where one of the key learning outcomes is acquiring familiarity with a defined landscape of historical events). If they get it right, the task-based modules offer a greater opportunity to take advantage of the possibilities of the digital environment, especially where encouraging students to project-manage their own learning is concerned.

And one last thing: try to block out time at department level, possibly in week 4, for stock-taking and review – having colleagues meet to discuss the problems they are having and how to fix them. There are going to be teething problems with any new system, and with colleagues coming together and comparing notes you will not only avoid a multiplication of effort, but it also gives a chance to share best practice, which can have a knock-on effect of creating a more coherent environment for the students, which is of course what it’s all about.


This interview has been edited for clarity.

You can check out Chris’s OU staff webpage here: http://www.open.ac.uk/people/caw322 – he tweets @Chris_A_W

Kate Cooper tweets as @kateantiquity – here’s her webpage at RHUL. 

Pandemic Pedagogy: Teaching History Online Through Material Culture

In the next in our series of #PandemicPedagogy posts, Leonie Hannan (Queen’s University Belfast @leoniehannan) and Sarah Longair (University of Lincoln, @sclongair) – authors of History through Material Culture (Manchester University Press, 2017) – discuss the challenges of teaching History through material culture online.


In March of this year, from one day to the next, universities across the world dropped long-established patterns of teaching and learning to meet the strange circumstances of a global pandemic. Historians of all stripes worked fast to find new ways of sharing and discussing topics, literatures and primary sources with their students. The rapid transfer to online learning, presented numerous technological and pedagogical challenges, none more so than for those of us teaching history through material culture. Whilst the global crisis offered an opportunity to radically re-think the way we teach, it also delivered caring responsibilities, home-schooling and serious illness to many academics – making normal working life impossible and squashing the space and time required for our best work. However, as the immediacy of lockdown eases and we move into a much-changed teaching environment in the longer term, making the time for reflection and ensuring that we are able to test new methods, with the possibility of failure, is more crucial than ever.

The most significant difficulty posed by our new circumstances is the distance that is placed between ourselves and our primary sources. Despite the transformation of digital resources in recent decades, many historians both need and want to work with manuscripts, artefacts and buildings in person, in the flesh.  As historians of material culture, we have regularly extolled the virtues of handling objects – a process we believe can unlock their meanings and change our interpretations of a past almost exclusively understood through text. Of course, we cannot always have objects in the classroom when we teach, and we often rely on museum websites and other sources to explore this subject with our students. Nonetheless, transferring object-led history into an online learning environment was yet another way in which we had to adapt rapidly. We had to try to engage our students in understanding the significance of the material world at a time when so many aspects of our lives became virtual. Here, we will reflect on some examples of online learning through material culture and some of the opportunities and challenges encountered.

In a Level 3 (3rd year undergraduate) module that Sarah teaches on ‘Objects of Empire: Material Worlds of British Colonialism’, there was an established seminar model of students researching and presenting objects they had located on a particular theme and this structure transferred well to the online environment. As has been noted by others elsewhere, the online seminar rooms and chat functions often brought students who had been quieter in the classroom into more active participation. After a group of three students had presented their objects, the group were then shown the three objects together on a single slide and asked to consider connections between them. This strategy worked effectively as they drew out both visual and ideological links as well as bringing the whole class into the discussion. In preparation for another class, the Talis Elevate  annotation tool was used which enables students to add comments and questions to sources, including text and images. After uploading the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting, students were invited to analyse the figures, events and language to which the artists were referring.

Image of the Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate

Image: The Singh Twins EnTWINed painting in Talis Elevate (Sarah Longair)

This painting drew on numerous topics we had studied in the module as well as contemporary figures, so students had to undertake close observation of the image as well as conducting research to unpick all the numerous messages of the painting. They could then drop pins on the point they wished to comment upon and so alongside the image we had a series of discussion points for our seminar. In terms of planning, this tool is ideal for asynchronous activities and provides a student discussion space which can then inform seminar themes. It also enhances students’ skills of observation and annotation of images. This painting was chosen because it is particularly rich in detail which, with a class of 22 students adding comments, is critical.

Another Lincoln module where we had to adapt our teaching and assessment quickly was the Level 2 (2nd year UG) module ‘Material Histories: Objects, Display and Analysis’ which took place in our Conservation labs and used teaching collection objects for seminars and assessments. The second assessment preparation took place just after lockdown started and, as a close object description, had to be rethought. Here, my colleague Jim Cheshire, decided that we could reconfigure the assessment by asking students to study objects on the Sketchfab database. These 3D models allowed students to zoom in closely and move objects around, allowing them to analyse materials, production techniques as well as form and decoration.

Image of Sketchfab interface

Image: Sketchfab interface (Sarah Longair)

Sketchfab also provides the opportunity to study construction as well as damage on fragile objects. We selected a long list of objects from which students had to choose – they needed to be objects with some historical context and ideally from museums where students could follow up with further research on the museum website. The results of these assessments were very encouraging. We saw how students applied the knowledge they had acquired about different materials into these studies, for example studying a Roman lamp and using evidence from its form and marks upon it to establish how it had been shaped, fired and decorated. Others were able to use visual evidence of how a wooden cabinet had been made and how the grain of the wood had been used to aid the production process but also as decoration. There are also scanned interiors of historic houses on Sketchfab which could be used effectively for considering material culture in space.

Material things have qualities which can be hard to convey online – weight and scale in particular. These are issues that we are used to dealing with in classrooms where we cannot easily access original objects. These issues are not new – we just need to keep our students aware of the advantages and limitations of studying objects via images and 3D models. While the online environment might encourage a shying away from material things, there are no reasons why objects cannot be used just as easily as texts as primary sources – the tools may differ slightly, but the skills students learn remain the same. And these skills are as important as ever.

As the recent public outcry over police brutality, racism and the continuing commemoration of slave owners as civic statues reminds us, history is political and the material world is at the centre. Amidst the urgent and growing demands to de-colonise our universities and our curricula, to face the legacies of Empire and to repatriate the multitude of artefacts, specimens and human remains that were looted in that era, historians of material culture must step up. By examining the non-textual expressions of human experience, material culture historians have established a tradition of studying the subjects rather than the arbiters of power, bringing diverse voices into our study of the past. Helping students learn the skills of analysing objects, their provenance and their contexts has never been more important. As we find ourselves trapped within domestic settings, we can use our altered relationships with familiar spaces and possessions to guide students to think afresh about the material world and its many meanings and manifestations. From a pedagogical point of view, disjuncture can be intellectually generative, but the challenge of creating communities of learning in virtual space is something that will take time. In this moment of close-focus and long-range re-imagining, material culture history surely has an important role to play.


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