Lab Day!

Over the last few years of developing a technique I’m happy with in discussion forums (see Discussion Goodness from 2009), I’ve also been experimenting with something similar in the classroom at San Elijo. I’ve done it for three semesters now, and I’m happy with it too.

                 Image by permission and copyrighted Lisa M Lane 2011

The idea is that every two weeks, we have “Lab Day”. On that day, everyone who has a laptop has to bring one (a smartphone is OK, just not as good for searching images), and Media Services brings me a batch of old clunker PCs without batteries for everyone else. There are cords all over the floor, and students arranged in small groups.

The task, during our 75 minute class, is to create a collection of three primary sources related to that week’s era, then develop athesis and present it to the class with the evidence. All work is posted on the class website.

Students search the web for primary sources related to, say, the French Revolution. They have to be sure that they really are primary sources (not a drawing of a guillotine from 1947), and the sources can be visual or textual (I usually prefer visual). They post them with citations and create a thesis for which their sources are evidence.

The class website (here’s the one from last spring)  is on a WordPress platform, and the students have basic accounts. During the semester, they work on the website in two ways: by posting their homework thesis every Monday (after reading the textbook chapter) and by creating these source collections on Lab Day. I use several plugins to make it easy for students to post the media they find (mostly plugins that create a toolbar for a comment, since they’re all posting as comments).   My student Nick asked me to add a “Like” button so they could rate each others’ theses, so I did that too.

Each group has their own space to work (these are Categories in WordPress), and they use comments so that all their sources appear on the same page.

At the beginning of the semester, each group just collects three sources, and talks about how they related to each other at the end of the period. Since it’s early, I often create topics for them (i.e. “find portrait paintings from the 18th century” for Group 1, and “find examples of residential architecture during the Enlightenment” for Group 2). But as the class progresses, we move from more factual discussions of sources into interpretations and theses. Near the end of the semester, they are able to analyze the sources to say something meaningful as a historical theme, with examples from many eras.

Near the end of the period, the group s present (I let them decide if they want a spokesperson or the whole group to come up — interestingly, about 80% of the time the entire group stands up front together).  We have a projector that shows the website on the front screen s they present. Again, after the first time (when things are very new and strange), six groups of students can manage all this during one class period.

What’s interesting is that, as with my online classes, the students have some freedom to select the sources they want, so the focus of the presentation often reflects the interest of group members. As we get into broader theses, some groups develop a “specialty area” (say, war propaganda or women’s fashions). I also notice that there are hardly any absences on Lab Day! Students from home log in with TinyChat to talk to their group and participate because they don’t want to miss it. This is even though Lab Day is not graded directly, but rather just counts as part of Contribution.

The benefits of the exercise are several. The main one is affective: students enjoy working in groups and finding things on the internet, and they like having a self-contained class session where everything is immediate. Another benefit is that they get comfortable presenting early on – sharing becomes second-nature instead of something scary. They also get practice with the central historical skills (also our Student Learning Outcomes) of identifying primary sources, developing a historical thesis, and using the evidence to support the thesis. And they do it an environment that is quickly seen as non-threatening (I evaluate sometimes, we have peer evaluations sometimes, and sometimes we just do what we do). I can also provide in-person help as I walk around, with the website, with finding sources, with identifying sources, with whatever.

The drawbacks? I can’t really think of any, except when the network goes down or the technology gets funky. Or when there aren’t enough devices. But, in an emergency, we can do something similar with images from our textbook, or from collections I can bring up on the screen. It’s just not as cool that way.