Digital Humanities Abstracts

“Just-in-Time-Teaching in the Humanities: Lessons Learned from the Web Cahier”
Mark Wolff Hartwick College

The advent of the Internet has introduced a number of communication technologies to higher education that have had a significant impact on the ways students and teachers interact. By now most students use email to communicate with their professors on a regular basis, and it is common for professors to use online discussion boards and chat software to reach out to their students beyond the classroom. Even though these technologies create more opportunities for contact between students and instructors, they tend to promote uneven interaction outside the classroom: some students will take advantage of the media, often dominating the discussion, while other students will feel reluctant to participate or will allow other students to carry the discussion. Many educational software companies such as Blackboard offer integrated packages with assessment tools for class surveys and online tests. As someone who has experimented with these tools in my courses in language, literature, and culture, I have searched for a way to interact individually with each student, addressing his or her particular strengths and weaknesses with content while at the same time assessing the entire class to identify those areas where they understand the material and where more guidance on my part is required. The dissatisfaction with existing courseware prompted me to write my own web-based program, the Web Cahier. In this paper I will explain the pedagogical philosophy of the Web Cahier and report on student feedback during the first year of its implementation at Hartwick College. (I will explain the design of the Web Cahier and make it available to other scholars as open source software in a separate poster session.) The pedagogy which informs the design of the Web Cahier is inspired by Just-in-Time-Teaching, or JiTT, a teaching strategy developed by Gregor M. Novak at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Evelyn T. Patterson at the United States Air Force Academy for introductory physics classes. JiTT makes use of web technologies to present warm-up activities that students complete online shortly before coming to class. Once the deadline for completing the warm-up has passed, the instructor reviews student answers to focus on the areas where they need help. Novak and Patterson explain that “"[t]hese answers are used as talking points for the instructor later that morning, while the issue is still fresh in the students' minds. By doing this, the instructor "individualizes" the lecture. Students in the classroom recognize their own wording, both correct and incorrect, and thus become engaged as part of the feedback loop. It is quite common for the classroom discussion to continue via email between the instructor and particular students. Paradoxically, technology used this way encourages a more personal and intimate bond between instructors and students. It is clear from course evaluations that students feel part of a team working on a common project."” By surveying student performance before meeting them in the classroom, the instructor has an idea of how well each student is learning and can prepare a targeted lesson plan for the entire class. It is the balance between individual attention and group dynamics that makes JiTT a promising component to electronic pedagogy, particularly in the Humanities where students must learn how to engage texts and ask their own questions. Through my use of the Web Cahier I have adapted JiTT to courses I teach in French language, literature, and culture at Hartwick College. The Web Cahier leverages the ease of accessibility offered by computer networks and holds each student accountable for completing assignments. In my language courses, students watch digitized audio and video clips on their laptops as they complete their homework online. In my literature and culture courses, I give students warm-up questions to guide their thinking as they make their way through assigned readings. In all the courses where I use the Web Cahier, every student must complete an assignment one or two hours before class. He or she can work incrementally on the assignment, entering text into a web form, saving it, and returning to edit what they have typed as often as they wish before the assignment deadline. After a deadline has passed, students are unable to modify what they have done but they can review their work and read instructor comments. When I evaluate a student's work in the Web Cahier, I can give specific feedback for each question. As a result, I come to class with a lesson plan adapted to the specific needs of the students who I know have already engaged the material. Preliminary evaluations from students indicate that the Web Cahier has helped improve their learning by encouraging timely completion of assignments which are assessed before they meet with their instructor. Students feel they have a greater stake in what goes on in the classroom because they know that the instructor will use their work on the Web cahier to address their interests and difficulties. Students, however, feel isolated when working with the Web Cahier: they prefer the interaction that email, discussion boards, and chat rooms afford. Some complain they are overworked in completing assignments, and they resent the automatically enforced deadline which often causes them to feel anxious about their work. As for the instructor, the amount of labor required to prepare a lesson increases geometrically with every question posed to students. The instructor may also feel overwhelmed in reviewing student work within a narrow timeframe before class. The precision the Web Cahier offers in assessing individual performance comes at the cost of a more directive and labor-intensive pedagogy. In the paper I will present more definitive results from surveys of students and other faculty who have used the Web Cahier. At this time it seems evident that the Web Cahier can only provide one way to interact with students outside the classroom. While it is important to guide and assess how students are learning in a humanities course, there must be opportunities for discovery and free play beyond the control of the instructor.