American Experience in Vietnam: Notes on the Design and Teaching
of a Multi-campus, Interdisciplinary, Computer-mediated Course
the fall of 1999, two
colleagues and I taught an unusual class, “The
American Experience in Vietnam.”
Neither the subject nor the approach of team-teaching
were new; instead what we developed was a pedagogy using a variety
of information technologies to organize one class simultaneously
across three campuses and disciplines. This hybrid class, a mix of distance learning and the traditional
classroom, brought out strengths from both modes to create a
powerful learning environment.
This article will sketch out the design and progress
of the course and then suggest some conclusions.
1999 Vietnam class was supported by a grant written by three
Centenary College professors (Steve Shelburne, George Newtown,
Jeff Hendricks) for the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS),
a liberal-arts consortium of fifteen campuses.
The ACS had obtained funds from a generous Mellon grant
in order to spark and help organize cross-campus, technologically-empowered
curricular development. Another such project would occur as the Medium
and Message class, taught in the spring of 2000 between two
Centenary and one Millsaps professors.
grant brought interested faculty together, in person, on Centenary’s
campus during the summer of 1998.
During a week of intense work, a group of three professors
(four initially, until John Copper (Rhodes) received a sabbatical
for the target term) grew to know one another, sharing their
interests in the topic of the Vietnam War.
At that time, and at a subsequent face-to-face meeting
in the summer of 1999, Ernie Bolt (history), Tom Lairson (political
science), and myself (literature) developed a strategy for conducting
decided to rely on a common, yet modular syllabus. For much of the semester students in all three
classes would read the same set of texts. After great effort, we created a chronological organization for
the syllabus, based on events and characteristics that would
allow the fullest realization of each of our disciplines.
Each student would read about the Tet Offensive (1968),
for example, in public policy analyses, a history of the war
from the Vietnamese side, and a novel excerpt by an American
soldier. We believed
that such prolonged attention across disciplinary boundaries
would immerse the students in a richer sense of the war than
would a unidisciplinary one.
We further limited this synthetic syllabus by allowing
each class an independent reading every fourth week.
For example, during the week following the American advisory
period, Richmond’s history class read an account of Ap Bac by
famed American advisor John Paul Vann; Rollins’ political science
read from a Vietnamese guerrilla’s autobiography (Le Ly Hayslip’s
When Heaven and Earth Changed Places); Centenary’s English
read Graham Greene’s eerily prescient novel, The Quiet American. The common syllabus would provide background for these modular weeks,
which would in turn shed the unique light of each discipline
on the general materials.
the same time, we decided to use the internet to anchor and
unite the three disparate classes.
A course Web site would contain the full syllabus, contact
information for each class and all students, a substantial resources
page, and links to individual class materials.
An email list would allow students and faculty to exchange
observations and announcements.
A WebBoard discussion forum was set up to house more
substantial discussions. Email, chat, and NetMeeting (Web-based videoconferencing)
information was made available to all students, allowing them
to meet any of the three professors for virtual office hours. The ACS, especially through its Southwestern-based
Technology Center, provided us with ample technological support.
the fall 1999 semester began, the class was materially and institutionally
in place. Each professor
had received their college or university’s policy approval for
the unusual class. We
managed to schedule the classes – across two time zones – so
as to allow some synchronous overlap; we could have joint, live
sessions of two classes at a time. ACS funds paid for faculty support, including
one course download in one case and a local IT assistant in
another. Each campus’ IT department was aware of the
class and its technical requirements.
Each class had access to computer classrooms. Film showings (the class required three movies) were arranged.
A full complement of students signed up for all three,
bringing the total of students to 45 for the first days of class.
initial assessment revealed students’ very mixed background
knowledge about Vietnam, largely gleaned from electives and
outside reading or viewing.
Initial class meetings in computer classrooms introduced
students to the internet features of the course.
Meetings in traditional classes turned from assessing
student background to perceptions of the war to the history
of Vietnam. All three
classes would in fact use traditional classrooms for many meetings
throughout the semester. Students
would use the technology during some class meetings in computer
labs, or on their own time outside of class.
communication soon built up a shared sense of a collective enterprise,
a meta-class, or a virtual community. The inter-class email list crackled with questions,
comments, and occasionally furious debate, largely among students
who had never been in the same room with each other. Students mailed each other off-list, while also sending private
questions to their professors.
Since each student had, as a minimum, email accounts,
access, and basic skills, the email list proved a useful site
class discussion board fulfilled its function as well.
Longer posts were the rule, with more substantial arguments
and more formal writing being the norm. However, the majority of student writing on
the WebBoard occurred during in-class writing sessions, rather
than outside of class. Email
seemed to be the preferred complement to this class’ discussion.
WebBoard’s chat function was used to complement the board’s
more formal style.
proved to be nearly useless, unfortunately. Although Microsoft’s application enabled decent
videoconferencing (combined with chat and file sharing) within
a campus LAN, firewalls soon degraded signals between campuses. Students and faculty soon discontinued use
students relied extensively on writing through Web pages to
express their thoughts. All
Centenary students have a guaranteed Web server space, along
with access to FTP software and several HTML code editors.
Based on weekly journal assignments, each student published
at least one page; as the semester continued, and student interest
in topics advanced in tandem with their technical confidence,
the pages grew more ambitious, using images, frames, and hypertext
structures to build what became in effect short essays.
Although this Web writing did not directly create discussions,
it indirectly enhanced the class in two ways.
First, I was able to bring these HTML comments to the
noncomputerized class, adding (and citing) these observations
and arguments out loud to the verbal discussions. Students appreciated this addition to their
classroom voice, and grew somewhat more expressive. Second, students on all three campuses were able to read these pages,
given the well-known class student page, as well as the capabilities
of students to cite and hyperlink to these Web journals in other
venues (email, WebBoard).
the strongest communicative action the entire class undertook
was the counterfactual simulation exercise. In brief, the students divided into inter-campus teams to simulate
the American decision to escalate the conflict into a major
war (1964-5); the objective was for students to understand the
contours of available choices and policy, in order to better
understand the war’s transformation.
The ten teams each represented a significant actor in
this complex political situation, from American cabinet members
to the North Vietnamese command. Each team had members from all three campuses,
so a measure of virtual collaboration was essential. All teams based their work on Web documents,
ranging from internal memos in the Johnson administration to
Soviet position statements.
The simulation was counterfactual, in that students were
able to envision alternative paths for each actor, given a solid
awareness of their position, background, and goals.
simulation worked in practice by requiring one daily action
by each team, mediated through a Web site, and mapping on to
historical time. The
simulation Web site included a communication page, which is
a simple FormMail CGI script-powered form. This gives student teams a choice of actions:
a formal communication to another (and accessible) team; a backchannel
communication; a media conference or leak; a physical action
(troop movements, ceasing bombing, and so forth).
After each team consulted using whatever technology best
suited them (most used email, but also chat and even the telephone),
they would fill out this communication form, whose results were
emailed to the professors. At the end of each calendar day, we – the professors
in charge of the class – gathered these messages together, then
distilled them into the next morning’s issue of The ACS Herald
Tribune, even during one memorable night when a hurricane
knocked Rollins’ campus off the internet.
Students read there of news leaks, sudden military movements,
and diplomatic openings, then met again to plot their responses.
Each day of real time corresponded to approximately one-two
months of historical time. By the end of the exercise, the ACS Vietnam
class has crystallized into intense clarity, laced together
by a series of associations, and not a few cases of rueful admiration. The class had become a virtual community of
learning. Students found
themselves caught up in the historical moment, and demanded
a continuation of the simulation.*
They brought this intensity of experience, combined with
the ability to internalize, then critically represent and think
through a variety of historical materials, to the rest of the
this unusual constellation of learning was important, and took
several forms. First,
we devised a series of ungraded term definition quizzes. Taking the form of FormMail-powered Webpages,
these exercises were available to all three campuses, and asked
questions from each discipline, such as historical figures,
literary strategies, military tactics, etc.
Administered every several weeks, each of these assessments
included terms from throughout the semester up until that point,
including both earlier and more recent information.
This enabled us to develop a sense of student retention,
as well as initial comprehension. Second, the simulation served as an assessment
tool. Since each team’s
communication FormMail was stored and retrievable by the professors,
we were able to perceive which groups were learning the material
at what level of success. Third,
individual classes offered local assessments.
Richmond’s history class gave a final exam, while Centenary’s
had weekly journal entries as well as an exam (one of whose
questions was: how did the simulation echo the historical record,
and how did it differ?).
the end of the fall 1999 semester, all three classes naturally
used locally-determined student evaluations, while each also
added their own. The
results were generally enthusiastic, with students expressing
their approval of this hybrid form. Many of the English majors described the experience
as having shifted their literary approach to a historically
grounded one from then on.
Political science and history majors reported an increased
understanding of literary writing.
the professors of record, we were generally pleased and excited
by the results. We found
our students moving with assurance and competence across disciplinary
lines. We saw the technology largely enhancing and
adding to student discussion, both in an immediate way of creating
an additional discussion space, as well as in an overdetermining
way in the creation of a virtual community of learning.
The simulation exercise especially mobilized group cohesion
and student energy, taking advantage of Web technologies to
create a new, rather than replacement, experience in the class.
We developed a series of best practices based on the
fifteen weeks of often-daily work with students and each other.
Lastly, we found the hybrid model – distance learning
and the traditional classroom – to offer a great deal of opportunity
in the college environment.
results of the counterfactual simulation? The team representing President Johnson argued
the rest of the cabinet players into a more rapid escalation
that historically occurred.
As a result, the Soviet, Chinese, Vietcong, and North
Vietnamese players drifted towards an alignment more tightly
linked than historically transpired.