On a quarterly basis, a member of the Baker's Dozen Discussion Group or another expert in the field of teaching with technology will have an article featured under Insights. This quarter's article is from Dr. Bryan Alexander, Associate Director of the Center for Educational Technology at Middlebury College, USA. His article, "The American Experience in Vietnam: Notes on the Design and Teaching of a Multi-campus, Interdisciplinary, Computer-mediated Course," is an in-depth look at multimedia technology used in preparing a course on literature, controversy, and culture.

Insights Feature Article
Dr. Bryan Alexander, Center for Educational Technology (CET), Middlebury College

The American Experience in Vietnam: Notes on the Design and Teaching of a Multi-campus, Interdisciplinary, Computer-mediated Course

During 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.

The 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.

The 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 the class.

We 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.

At 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.

As 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.

An 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.

Internet 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 for discussion.

The 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.

NetMeeting 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 of NetMeeting.

Centenary 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). 

Perhaps 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.

The 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 semester.

Assessing 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?).

At 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.

As 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.

*The 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. 

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