A COPLACDigital reflection by Jessica Wallace

When I began the COPLACDigital journey, I was the person who got confused about which remote controlled what piece of equipment, and my research and teaching areas in colonial America seemed far removed from technology. I’m glad I took on the challenge, as the project’s lessons, skills, and pedagogical approaches have shaped my teaching not just during the COPLACDigital course but in classes I’ve taught on my own campus.

As faculty in a history department, my students are used to research papers. Our majors take an historical methods class their sophomore or junior year and write a senior thesis to fulfill their graduation requirements. I taught these courses on either side of my COPLACDigital semester, so mentoring students through a sizable research project was forefront in my teaching. During those semesters, I heard a lot of student feedback about how much they disliked long research papers. Students felt there was a disconnect between assignments they completed for their major and the jobs they anticipated pursuing after graduation. While few of our students complete graduate degrees in history, many pursue public history and teaching, and they wanted more assignments that better matched those interests. The COPLACDigital experience offered an alternative path of turning high-quality research into an outward facing final product, one that was arguably harder than writing a research paper but that gave students experience with teamwork and technological skills while taking real ownership over their work. It also gave me the confidence to try pulling off a similar project in a more traditional class setting.  

In Fall 2018, I taught a class on the Salem Witch Trials that incorporated much of what I learned from COPLACDigital. The biggest change was introducing more content and course readings. Students read four different historians’ interpretations of the trials, introducing them to a range of historiography and ideas for research projects. Each book discussion was led by a group of students, which gave them much-needed practice in group work early in the semester, before the main project took off.

Screenshot of a Salem Witch Trial website review
Screenshot of a biography on the Salem Witch Trials website

The bulk of the course was modeled after COPLACDigital. Students kept weekly blogs that allowed them to get comfortable creating digital content and practicing skills like embedding images and using new programs like Timeline JS from Knightlab. Their writing assignments served as stepping stones for their larger research project. They reviewed websites on the Salem Witch Trials, critically evaluating the contributions, strengths and weaknesses of each site.

They wrote a biography of a key participant in the Salem Witch Trials and linked to at least three primary documents highlighting that person’s involvement.

Screenshot of the homepage of Dr. Wallace's Salem Witch Trials websiteOnce graded, I posted these assignments to our project website homepage

Each of these assignments helped students practice critical thinking and writing skills, as any history paper would, but they also helped them think through issues of audience in less high-stakes ways.

After asking each student to submit three topics they would be interested in researching further, I grouped the class into research teams of 2-3 students based on shared interests. The course was cross-listed as history and women’s studies, which attracted a wide range of majors, including history, literature, middle grades education, political science, liberal studies, and psychology. Each group submitted a project proposal, outline, annotated bibliography, and rough draft before the final website. The idea of a group grade presented a major problem to many students, who expressed concern that a group member’s performance could negatively affect their grade. I had students clearly state in their outlines (the second preliminary assignment) each group member’s responsibilities so that I could assign individual grades based on how well they had accomplished their assigned tasks. This helped students focus on the project instead of what a group member was doing “wrong.”   

We met once a week for 3 hours, which meant we could use a large block of time each week to work on our websites. Setting aside class time gave students opportunities to coordinate and plan their work, and it also gave me weekly check-ins with each group. I included written tutorials on basic WordPress functions and did demos in class, asking students to follow along on their own computers. We created the individual blogs and group project websites together in class, allowing me to walk groups through the process of choosing themes and setting up a menu in person. This saved students unnecessary headaches and enabled them to leave class feeling less intimidated about the process of turning their research into a website.

One of the biggest takeaways from adapting COPLACDigital in my own course was that money helps! 

Screenshot of the list of student projects on Dr. Wallace's Salem Witch Trials website

Our non-existent budget meant that we used the free version of wordpress.com, which required some compromises—like scrapping a timeline of the trials because of limited embedding capabilities. For future semesters, I’m looking into different options to overcome this obstacle. Another takeaway was that the potential problems that arise in a range of research papers will also arise in a range of websites. Some students will use unacceptable sources no matter how many times the instructor steers them to better resources. Other students will turn in work that’s clearly half-baked and unedited. I dealt with this by assigning as many individual (instead of just group) grades as possible and not posting work that fell short of the requirements to our project website.

I had taught most of the students before and was very proud of their work on the websites. Their topics covered history, psychology, gender, religion, fictional portrayals and enabled them to creatively think about presenting their research beyond just their professor and classmates.

I was equally proud of how much the students learned from the process. While there were “growing pains” and a lot of tweaks as we went along, student feedback and final reflections were overwhelmingly positive, as they learned useful skills (the basics of WordPress and content creation) and approached the public website project very seriously. I’m excited about implementing this project again in my upper division courses and look forward to building our digital history program overall.

Headshot of Dr. Jessica Wallace

Jessica Wallace is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia College. She taught "Conflict in America: Case Studies in Peace-Making" for COPLACDigital in the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2019.