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Published March 8, 2015 | History

Owning Our History With Podcasts and Cognitive Maps

I begin each semester by telling my students that history is not something to be learned by heart. Rather, it is a kind of material that we work with. The imagery I like to use is sculpting with clay. They laugh a bit at this, but the analogy helps them to understand that they need to play with the material, as well as to interpret and integrate it. This is how the subject matter becomes intellectually stimulating and, as a result, easier to learn.

New technologies help me to achieve this objective.

Podcasts and Portrayals

One of the ‘tech’ tools that I have been using for a couple of years is podcasting. My students produce these podcasts and submit them as assignments. The podcasts are in the form of a short radio program where students are asked to present a historical figure. For the Modern History course that I taught during the fall semester of 2014, I asked them to focus on a personality from the Roaring 20’s.

This may seem trivial as a way of integrating technology into the curriculum, but the students adore it. They all have laptops and know several ways of using them. I ask them to demonstrate all of their know-how in their projects. The final product is always interesting. The students add music, excerpts from archives and sometimes add ambient sound from the period to make the final result even more “authentic.” The essays that they would have otherwise submitted take on a completely different form. In addition to piquing their interest, the podcast lets students “play with the material.” Much like an essay, the students send me the final product by e-mail with a bibliography that attests to their research efforts.

Since I’m not much of a ‘geek,’ I had my doubts 2 or 3 years ago when I decided to integrate podcasts into my History of Western Civilization and Modern History courses.  I thought that it would require that I provide a lot of logistical and technical support. Not so. It’s very easy to integrate, and the majority of my students already adept with the software required to record and edit audio.

Concept Mapping, Dramatization and Imaginary Museums

Appropriating history can also be about dramatizing it and watching it play out on stage. Other than podcasts, I use a lot of concept mapping in my classes. It’s a great way to organize and represent knowledge, especially for review purposes when studying.

I recommend that my students use CmapTools. There are many other concept mapping tools, but CmapTools is still my favourite for now. It’s simple to use and to demonstrate to students. With CmapTools, they can create concept maps online, save in the format of their choice and print them to use as a study tool or “crib notes” for an exam. We are still in the realm of “modelling clay,” manipulating and appropriating the material.

CMAPTools tutorial

While concept maps are good tools for organizing knowledge, they can also be used for other types of activities. In the Modern History course (still referring to the fall 2014 semester), I asked my students to “defend” the economic crisis of 1929 in a mock trial. The Great Depression stood accused for all of the misery it caused. This imaginary and highly-satirical case required some pretty convincing arguments that were built piece by piece in concept maps by teams of students. It’s a great way to review the material! The trial took place in the “21st century class” at the CEGEP (a.k.a. the active learning classroom with interactive whiteboards), which was divided into 6 large tables that served as the 6 “lawyer’s offices.” The students were able to see the concept maps from the other teams, and to share, compare and validate their own summaries of the material. All this in a playful and engaged way, especially when a historical personality took the stand.

I don’t award grades for these exercises. They are formative. The active learning classroom also allows me to organize two other types of activities that the students enjoy:

  • A 7-stage rally on World War I in the form of a “mission” where students must browse the Internet in teams and answer questions related to various educational videos, archive documents and articles.
  • An imaginary museum presented using PowerPoint. In this activity, students choose 12 works that they feel represent the most important events in human history and explain their choices to the class. Here again is an ideal format for reviewing and summarize the material at the end of the semester!

History and Educational Technology

I have two preoccupations in history classes: Engage my students, and show them that history is everywhere (not just in textbooks and lectures).

Many of my students won’t be going into a history program at university, but the historical method can transform them into citizens with a critical mind, to engage in introspection and to think about the way that they think. That’s why I teach them that history is everywhere, even if they won’t be studying it later on. Historical references aren’t just in history books, they are in novels, comics, fictional movies, music, in the architecture of our neighbourhoods, newspapers, etc. When history is presented this way, or we use novel teaching strategies, students are interested. That’s where technology comes in: It allows students to see history in a different light, but also to play with it and appropriate the content.

That’s what I’m trying to do with podcasts and CmapTools!

For a Teacher, getting to know the ins-and-outs of all these new tools can be a real hurdle. That said, we can also count on our students, since they are very tech-savvy. Just think about smart phones. They all have one and know how to make them do amazing things. That’s going to be my next step: Integrating smart phones into my history courses.

About the Author

Martine Dumais teaches History at Cégep Limoilou and is an Adjunct professor at the Département des sciences historiques at the Université Laval. She also hosts the show Visions d'histoire, on Radio-Galilée.

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