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Beyond the Blackboard

Chris Francese is working with Alice Ettling ’12 and other students to bring ancient Latin texts into the 21st century through the Dickinson College Commentaries.

Chris Francese is working with Alice Ettling ’12 and other students to bring ancient Latin texts into the 21st century through the Dickinson College Commentaries.

By Matt Getty

When you think of teaching a more than 2,000-year-old Latin account of the Gallic War, you probably picture a dusty leather-bound book, maybe a blackboard scrawled with half-erased conjugations. But what about Google Earth animations in HTML5? Or how about wiki content-management systems and Steve Jobs-inspired debates about the user experience? Such concepts might not mesh with those age-old images of the classics, but thanks to a campuswide culture of innovation at Dickinson, the age-old is embracing the cutting edge.

“There are huge advantages to using digital tools to teach subjects that have traditionally been covered almost exclusively on paper,” says Professor of Classical Studies Chris Francese, who has collaborated with students to create wikis on several fundamental Latin works and most recently launched the Dickinson College Commentaries, an online model for peer-reviewed textual commentary that puts a Web 2.0 spin on antiquity.

Digital Scholia

Written in the mid-50s B.C., Julius Caesar’s Gallic War, like other foundational Latin works, has always featured additional notes. Before the printing press, handwritten pages were littered with scholia, marginal remarks offering grammatical or cultural context. The advent of bound books introduced indexes, footnotes, vocabulary lists and appendices filled with relevant maps and illustrations. Today, the Web offers endless possibilities.

“Now you have infinitely huge margins, so there’s no limit to what you can include,” says Francese. “In a book, you have to flip to the back to see a vocabulary list or a map. With electronic media, you can put all of it in front of the reader at once.”

Francese debuted this new brand of online commentary this spring. While reading Caesar’s account of the migration of the Helvetians on the left side of the screen, scholars now can see simultaneously—on the right side—relevant notes, vocabulary lists and multimedia content like Google Earth animations highlighting regions referenced in the text.

“Caesar’s descriptions would have made perfect sense to a Roman, but we don’t have the same context,” says Alice Ettling ’12, a classical-studies major who worked on the Google Earth animations and vocabulary lists for the project. “When he describes a certain tribe as being ‘toward the septentriones,’ which means they’re in the direction of a certain constellation, no one today would know that means they’re in the northern part of Gaul, but the animations help you see that.”

Already accepting submissions for future peer-reviewed commentaries, Francese’s site is just the latest sign that technology plays as big a role in the humanities and social sciences as it does in the Rector Science Complex’s most advanced labs. Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History Matt Pinsker’s students have recently crafted augmented-reality walking tours for the House Divided project. Blogs and wikis prompting out-of-class student interaction abound in courses ranging from art history to sociology. Dickinson’s renowned Mosaic classes teach students video-editing and podcasting skills as they wrestle with the politics of climate change in Africa or Mexican migration. Even video games have found their way into courses on globalization, diplomacy and imperialism.

Learning by Playing

In Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Shalom Staub’s Conflict and Conflict Resolution Studies course, students get hands-on experience brokering peace in the Middle East through an advanced computer simulation that’s sold as a game. Staub requires his students to play PeaceMaker at the start of the semester and again after seven weeks of being steeped in conflict studies.

Developed by a former Israeli army captain and Carnegie Mellon researchers, the complex strategy game puts players in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister after a terrorist attack or the Palestinian president shortly after an Israeli incursion into the Occupied Territories. Players must then navigate international pressures and the competing demands of their constituents—some who support the peace process and some who oppose it—toward a two-state solution.

“They see firsthand how economics, infrastructure building and education play a part in the process,” says Staub, who then assigns students an essay on how their understanding of conflict theory shaped their strategy. “The game provides them with this rich, interactive environment to test what they’re learning. They get immediate feedback about how certain conflict-resolution strategies work. That’s really valuable.”

Similarly, this fall students in Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies Ed Webb’s seminar on empires studied imperial history through a version of Civilization IV, a computer game in which players engineer societies from single cities to vast empires. Trevor Cohen ’12, an international-studies major who’d played the game for years, couldn’t wait to get started.

“I thought it was awesome,” he says, flashing a wide grin. “I looked at the syllabus and saw that 10 percent of my grade would be based on this thing that I thought I’d wasted my life on.”

But in the classroom Civilization IV was no waste of time. As students played a modification of the game designed by Language Program Administrator Todd Bryant, they confronted the cultural challenges late-15th-century conquistadors faced in the New World. Then they connected their virtual experiences with course content through class discussions and essays.

“Having that interactive experience with history definitely allows you to understand it better,” says Cohen.

Dan Gagliano ’12, a history major who also took the class, agrees, comparing the game to a lab experience. “In a science class you can put a chemical in a test tube and see what happens,” he says. “This brings that dimension to history. Here you can try to convert Incas to Christianity and see what happens.”

According to Bryant, who’s published and presented research on educational gaming, that see-what-happens quality is exactly what makes computer games so teachable. “Used properly, computer games can give the learning experience a practical and more dynamic dimension,” he says. “Civilization is not just about military strategy, technology or economics. It’s about balancing all these things together. You really get to see how all these layers interact, and that’s something you can’t get from a book.”

No Airfare, No Problem

Bryant’s innovative impact on teaching hasn’t been limited to video games. He also has helped Dickinson’s language departments harness technology to provide students regular conversations with native speakers—without having to pay for airfare. Offering free international video-phone calls, Skype has long been a boon to language students. Scheduling speaking time with people in a dozen different time zones, however, can make that boon a bit tough to manage.

Enter The Mixxer, a Web application Bryant created that allows language learners around the world to schedule Skype sessions that fit their schedules. Having grown to include more than 70,000 participants, The Mixxer enables Dickinson’s faculty to provide students the kind of experience that was once impossible in the classroom.

“When you talk with your classmates and your professors, you get used to how they speak,” explains Sondey Olaseun ’14, who skyped with Japanese students, business people and grandmothers for 50 minutes every other Friday in his intermediate Japanese class this fall. “But with Skype, you get to hear different voices at different speeds. It really helps with your listening and your comprehension.”

Olaseun, who continued to use The Mixxer and Skype to hone his Japanese skills during winter break, sees the experience as the perfect preparation for the Dickinson in Japan program, which he’ll embark on next fall. Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and Literature Alex Bates agrees.

“It used to be study abroad was the first chance to have those experiences,” says Bates. “But now, starting with their first semester, we can help students move toward those moments when they’re thrust into a situation and have to find a way to communicate in a foreign language.”

Where There’s a Willoughby, There’s a Way

This creative use of technology from classical studies to foreign languages has been no accident. Instructional & Media Services (IMS), which provides a technology liaison for each of the college’s professors, has played a big role. In addition to providing support by request, the office hosts the annual Willoughby Institute for Teaching with Technology, which for the last four years has helped even the least technically inclined professors swap their lecterns for blogs, wikis and other new-media tools.

“I was a Luddite,” says Ashton Nichols, Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and professor of English language and literature, who participated in the Willoughby program in 2008. “My attitude was—all I need is a book and a round table. Bring me a group of students, and I’m ready to go.”

After a week of hands-on tutorials, however, Nichols worked closely with IMS throughout his full year as a Willoughby Fellow to teach a paperless course on Henry David Thoreau. His class blog sparked discussions on how the author influenced American nature writing. A wiki linked Walden with contemporary news on industrial fisheries’ impact on the Galapagos Islands. For their final project, students produced “e-archives” on American nature writers, combining conventional literature essays with online image galleries and YouTube videos.

“My Willoughby experience created a much more dynamic environment in the class,” says Nichols, who continues to use elements from the course in his teaching. “Students became much more engaged. Their relationship to the class and to me became much more interactive and dynamic.”

Since its first year, more than 35 faculty members have taken part in the Willoughby program, which is funded by the Edwin Eliott Willoughby Memorial Fund of the Dickinson College Library. As a result, the latest teaching tools have spread well beyond the classrooms of the college’s technophiles.

“There are a lot of professors out there who are going to find this stuff on their own,” says Staub. “But the Willoughby program has opened this up to so many faculty members who would never have found their way to these resources. We get the support to try this stuff out, maybe get it wrong and then refine it until we get it right. … We’re not that different from students. We have to feel like we’re not going to fall on our faces if we try something new, and Willoughby creates that environment.”

Less Can Be More

One important lesson Willoughby Fellows learn is that when it comes to using the latest gadgets and electronic media in the classroom, what you leave out can be just as important as what you bring in. Take those limitless possibilities that the Web opened for the Dickinson College Commentaries. As Francese and his students considered what to include, the infinite margins yawned before them as both opportunities and challenges.

“The temptation is just to put everything in there because you can,” Francese explains. “But you have to resist the urge to add all the bells and whistles just for their own sake. If you put everything in there, it’s overwhelming. It’s not helpful to the reader. We took our cue from Steve Jobs. You have to keep the user experience in mind at every moment and ask yourself, what would be useful here? What would a reader really want to know right now?”

Despite being advocates for innovative teaching, IMS staff members also help faculty decide when not to use technology. “It should never be about technology just for the sake of technology,” says Patricia Pehlman, director of IMS.

Even if all this teaching technology highlights rather than distracts from course content, some might wonder whether the trend of trading paper for digital media threatens what has so long been the core of literature, history and language classes—words and the ability to use them effectively. After all, if students are increasingly turning in multimedia projects, downloading syllabi striped with YouTube links, and encountering history and politics through video games, are they still getting the grounding they need in effective writing and textual analysis?

According to Nichols, the answer is a firm yes. “People have been predicting that the rise of technology would signal the end of the written word for decades, but it’s just not going to happen,” says the reformed Luddite. “If anything, language has become even more important. Look at the Internet. That’s a language-driven medium.”

So even years from now, whether the students sitting at that round table to tackle the Gallic Wars or Walden are clutching dusty leather-bound books or sleek, shimmering devices that make the iPad look antiquated, the discussion, the debate and the learning will still be rooted in words. “Whether you’re creating a Web page, a video or a podcast, you still need to put together sentences and paragraphs,” says Nichols. “Language is at the core of all human communication, so language will always be at the core of teaching.”

Published April 3, 2012