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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.

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.

Open Resources, Annotated Bibliographies, and the Age of Revolution

by Param Ajmera

As a student and teacher of revolutionary literature and history, I believe that time is always ripe to talk to about the potential, performance, and process of structural change. What have social and political revolutions looked like over time? How do they manifest? When do they end? Questions along these lines are of deep concern to me, so I strive to incorporate them into all aspects of my academic work. When it comes to my teaching, the proliferation of open resources, and especially the many digital archives now available, has given me an opportunity to stage encounters with revolutionary moments for my students. These encounters strive to cultivate a critical consciousness, while also serving the overarching learning goals of our first-year composition course.

One such encounter happened last week, when my class learned how to write an annotated bibliography about the Haitian, French, and American revolutions. During a visit to the library, during which my students learned the language of Boolean searches and became familiar with using digital repositories and databases, I planned a class session where we would explore relevant materials in openly accessible archives, such as the Digital Public Library of America, Hathi Trust, EuropeanaDigital Library of the CaribbeanNYPL Digital Collections, and Umbra Search.

Image credit: Europeana

I began class by recapping some of the major points from our library visit, to put everybody in the mental space of thinking about sources and searching. I then divided my class into three groups composed of seven or eight students each. Group 1 was assigned the American Revolution, Group 2 – the French Revolution, and Group 3 – the Haitian Revolution. Each group was provided a Google doc worksheet that included links to digital archival collections, and three guiding questions: What were some of the causes of the revolution that they were assigned, what was one prominent event that happened during this revolution, and what was one text / artistic work that emerged from this revolution. I then asked my students to use these digital archives and collectively compose an annotated bibliography of sources that addressed these questions. I tasked each group to pick a leader who would discuss their findings briefly towards the end of class.

Key to the success of this class were the sizeable collections that these digital resources made available, and the willingness of my students to enthusiastically participate in the endeavor. Within seconds, the groups were finding dozens of items of interest, and thanks to their collaborative attitude, were able to sift through this material strategically and quickly. Not only were my students astounded by the diverse array of materials that they encountered – from pamphlets and newspapers to images of statues and maps of regions – but they were also amazed (and sometimes confounded) by the similar-yet-different ways in which these repositories organized their collections and displayed objects. As we moved through the exercise, I observed how the students grasped the crucial necessity of thinking about different search keywords, how they collectively learned  advanced search functions, and practiced critical thinking, in making meaning of a centuries-old text.

The process of searching for, evaluating, and organizing materials is among the learning goals of my class: and I know that our class exercise was a success because it directly addressed this goal. That we also talked about Toussaint Louverture, Marie Antionette, and Alexander Hamilton along the way only made this journey all the more gratifying. Having gone through the exercise, I learned that among the advantages of open materials is that they present students with the opportunity to encounter a smorgasbord of genres of writing, languages, and aesthetic forms. This creates an environment where students begin to see history as a dynamic and contested field, where multiple stories and interpretations vie for legitimacy. What goes out the window is the static, dry, and deterministic understanding of history that students previously found in their high-school textbooks.

In other words, the use of open materials can make the content of our courses more interesting and appealing to our students, because it challenges them to use their wits and arrive at their own conclusions.


Param Ajmera is a PhD student studying Early American Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an Adjunct Professor at Brooklyn College. Ajmera’s research interests are in transatlantic literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black studies, colonial / postcolonial studies, and digital humanities.

Open Pedagogy at the Graduate Center Library

In Winter 2019, the Graduate Center Library accepted 14 applicants for the Open Pedagogy Fellowship. The primary component of the Fellowship was an Open Educational Resources (OER) Bootcamp, structured as an intensive learning experience, with invited speakers and presentations by library faculty.

Participants entered the program with varying levels of experience in open resources, and were encouraged to think broadly about potential ways to interweave the conceptual framework of “open” into their teaching materials and pedagogy. On this site, you will find a continuation of that work, and updates by the participating Fellows.