Digital Course Design and Real World Limits

By Mounira Keghida

I started teaching courses in the history of Early Modern Europe at City Tech in the semester before my Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Originally a community college, The New York City College of Technology (also known as City Tech) has become a four-year institution and is surrounded by a rising tech district in Downtown Brooklyn. Neighbors include several start-up companies and the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Among the CUNY colleges, City Tech has a distinctly urban feel, like Hunter College, and lacks the relaxed campus atmosphere enjoyed by students at Brooklyn College, Queens College, or City College. My classrooms are filled with young people pursuing associates’ and bachelors’ degrees, almost all from the surrounding neighborhoods. About 61% of the student body reported annual household incomes lower than $30,000, according to the 2016 CUNY Student Experience Survey.

As a historian, my research field is in European colonialism and imperialism, so I always approach my courses from a global perspective. Another course-design priority, always important at a public university, is to keep costs down for the students. For my first course in Early Modern European history at City Tech, I assigned The Human Journey, a subscription Ebook that had been in the library’s collection for years. Three weeks into the semester, the students told me the Ebook had been taken offline for reasons that were unclear. As a remedy, the librarians could only suggest I leave my own print copy at the Reference Desk, where students could access it no more than two hours at a time. As I was told, they would use their phones to photograph the assigned readings. Most students were unable to afford the $40 print book, although some bought used copies. Of course, this first pitfall could have been avoided had I designed the course making use of Open Educational Resources (OER), which are unrestrained by corporate ownership or copyright limitations.

The OER workshops offered to us as part of the Open Pedagogy Fellowship would have helped me with other problems I faced that semester. It has changed how I will approach course design from now on. A major highlight for me during the OER Boot Camp at The Graduate Center was in the fourth-day session lead by Jean Amaral, BMCC librarian and early adopter of OER technology. A firm believer that OER should not only address issues of cost, Jean inspired us with new visions for teaching interactively. She pointed to an exemplary realization of this teaching philosophy by our CUNY colleague, Hollis Glaser. For those who wish to make the learning experience for their students completely interactive, Amaral recommended the professional development courses and instructions available at WikiEdu. Among content resources, I share her enthusiasm for Kanopy, a free streaming service with thousands of documentaries, classic films, and academic lectures available to us through The New York Public Library.

All this points to a growing trend, to liberate course content from the classic textbook. By the second month of my first semester, a survey revealed that my students preferred to rely on my own slideshows, class discussions, primary resources (such as maps, paintings, documents and architectural photos), and the short art videos I used to introduce new historical periods. Most accessed these resources exclusively via their cell phones.

To introduce the early Renaissance republics and the rise of an urban European society, I sent a video discussion between two art historians of the fresco panels painted in the mid-14th century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which still decorate the former city hall of Siena today. This and dozens of other  discussions of historically important artworks are made available free of charge by Khan Academy (our workshop taught us always to be aware of the terms of use). The video prepared my students to discuss concepts such as the walled city and the rights of citizens. In class, when we turned to the image of a walled Siena, which is featured prominently in the fresco, many showed trouble understanding that it was not a punishment but a relative privilege to reside within the city walls.

“Allegory of good Government” by LORENZETTI, Ambrogio is in the Public Domain, CC0

I explained that this tradition lives on in the ceremony of honoring someone with the “keys to the city.” Within seconds, some students had used their phones to find that hip-hop star Usher had been awarded the key to the city of New Orleans. Cell phones, the Internet and an online video allowed us to bridge 14th century Siena with the present-day realities of these young New Yorkers. In time, I plan to incorporate phones more often into classroom discussions. Via their phones, students instinctively look to the Web to answer questions. But in teaching these citizens of the click society (to coin a phrase), should we be designing our syllabi and course materials for access primarily by cell phone? To be truthful, I would prefer other alternatives. It is a question whether other options are adequately available, given the general conditions prevailing nowadays at institutions like City Tech.

Sugar, the industrial revolution and 19th century anti-imperialism are the research concerns of Mounira Keghida, doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in History at The Graduate Center. Born in Paris and raised in Algeria until the age of seven, she became a lifetime resident of Brooklyn, and a lifetime student at CUNY. She holds a B.A. in History from City College, and masters degrees in Art History from City College and in French history from Hunter College. She has taught for many years at Lander College for Women, City College,  and most recently, City Tech – and will never surrender her abiding faith and passion for public education.