Day 32: Resurrecting History

16 11 2009

In my course we spend a day discussing US business history; I do this because a lot of events today make no sense unless you understand the context in which they arose. For example, labor unions frequently seem like an incredibly pointless thing to our students (we live in the Southwest where labor unions are almost non-existent) until we talk about the early twentieth century, when business owners could use and abuse workers without consequence (and most of them did).

Like many folks, I am still angry at my high school history teachers for taking a potentially rich and interesting topic and reducing it to a meanningless exercise in memorizing dates. In the later years of my life I have come to enjoy history, so I am intent on making our short study of business history interesting and relevant. So, for the first time this semester, we used the iPhones for actual in-class research.

I put my students in teams, and each was assigned a major event from US business history. They had 15 minutes to research their event, including its specifics and its relevance. Finally, each group received two minutes to present their findings, including two relevant pictures (shown via the document camera), to the class. After each group finished I gave a 10 second summary while the next group prepared, and before you knew it we had finished our tour of business history.

How was this different from a typical class? For starters, nobody was a passive observer, since each group had to research a topic. Also, the pressure of presenting, regardless of how short the assignment, provided incentive to get the information right–the students knew that their ability to answer test questions over this material depended entirely on their ability to find relevant information. Finally, with a new speaker appearing every three minutes, it was difficult for listeners to nod off.

As straight-forward as this activity was, I believe this is the direction we should be heading. Today we used connected learning devices in the classroom the same way our students use them outside the classroom every day: to gather and refine information. The ability to move (even just virtually) outside the walls of our academic halls is among the most powerful forces we can bring to bear in the classroom. As students come to us more and more connected, we must take steps to connect our classes as well, otherwise we risk becoming obsolete. And take it from a business professor with a love of business history: the marketplace absolutely loves to replace obsolete providers  ; )

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