Opening the door to life beyond textbooks
To really honour the spirit of Leith Davis’s approach, this article would need to be a handwritten letter or broadside ballad.
Davis is a professor in the Department of English. In Fall 2017, she taught a graduate seminar using a database of eighteenth-century media, Eighteenth-Century Media Online, in place of a textbook.
The database—created by Davis and her research assistant, Brian Shannon, and made possible by an SFU Open Educational Resources (OER) Grant—features open-access digitized artifacts connected to the themes of Davis’s course. Davis explains that the database allowed her students to access a much broader range of content.
“What I teach is non-traditional media from the eighteenth century, such as ballads and letters, that build a rich sense of what the mediascape was like at that time. I was frustrated by not finding the richness of those media in textbooks. And what was there lacked the depth of context that I feel is integral to the perspective I was trying to convey. For example, a poem might be presented in its final form, without any acknowledgement that the poem was originally part of a letter that was written with a quill. All of that is part of understanding what life was like back then.”
A genuine research experience
The open-access database also allowed students to engage with the content in a more empowering and meaningful way.
“In one assignment, students found and uploaded their own original artifact and then compared it to one of the database artifacts. There was an incredible amount of student ownership in the assignment because they had found and analyzed the articles. This is what research is about—not reading someone else’s papers and interpretations, but finding something and making connections that haven’t been made before.”
Her observations were echoed by Shannon.
“Coming across a handwritten letter that hasn’t been examined before was really exciting. There was this spark of discovery that I found really inspiring … It’s nice to not be tied to how the textbook has decided things should be read and understood.”
Working in the open
Davis cautions that although students were motivated by taking on the role of knowledge creator, the idea of sharing that knowledge publicly was new—and in some cases uncomfortable—for them.
“There were some issues about privacy that I hadn’t considered at the time. Students had pride in what they created and I think enjoyed seeing their work publicly available, but there was also hesitation from them about whether others might take advantage of their work—cutting and pasting it and claiming it as their own.”
Ultimately, Davis notes, one of the biggest challenges for students working with the database as opposed to a textbook was that it opened the door to multiple and varied perspectives. But for her, that’s the point.
“The view into the eighteenth-century media environment that the database provides was a lot messier than the view provided in a textbook, but it’s also a lot more truthful to what it was like to live in that time.”
Davis is continuing to expand the database with the help of a second OER Grant and plans to use it in an undergraduate course in Fall 2019. She is also creating video tutorials to help students navigate the interface and is exploring ways to share the database with colleagues.