History · Reflection · Teaching

Teaching history on Zoom: Is it possible to give students a genuine “university experience” online?

In 2020 and 2021 Dr Brad Underhill and I taught two history classes to undergraduate students at Deakin University. In this article, we reflected on the particular challenges of teaching via Zoom and how to engage with students that barely dial in.

Dr Brad Underhill: Recently successfully completed my PhD, New  Deal on the ground in Papua New Guinea, which, due to Covid,  was primarily researched and written online.  

Deborah Lee-Talbot: I completed my Bachelor of Arts, at Deakin  University online, 2009-2017. The Honours degree I undertook the following year saw me attend classes on-campus for the first time. Due to Covid lockdowns, my work and PhD research moved wholly online.  

Teaching in 2020-2021: 

During 2020 and 2021 we taught History to undergraduate students at Deakin University. The units we taught together were  AIH240 Interpreting the Past and AIH238 Australia in the World Wars.  

These were particularly challenging years in the education sector as Victorian residents spent a significant proportion of their lives negotiating travel restrictions. Many of our students had spent the final years of high school and/or the first two years of university working from their bedrooms. The implications were wide-ranging.  From the practical, such as an inability to speak with us directly during classes, accessing ‘Language and Learning’ resources in person, borrowing in person from the university library, or perhaps, those important serendipitous moments of discovery that happen while talking with other students during class.  

Coordinating seminar content, main points, and tutorial content were significant elements of our working together. These were important to address as we found that students suffered from  Zoom fatigue and we wanted to ensure our messaging was consistent. You may be surprised to know how many students listen to lectures and attend tutorials from bed. A tell-tale sign was not turning the screen on – we made a bit of a joke of it as lockdown continued, recognising the uniqueness of the situation.  Students were also challenged by their inability to access large screens on which to view lectures or power points for seminars,  having to dial in from their phones. They also lacked opportunities to engage with other students in a relaxed manner. We wanted to ensure the most important information was being presented. 

We determined aspects of the unit that prompted the most engagement with students, beyond readings and the lecture,  were memes, music and newspaper articles. In other words, pop culture. All materials were available freely online, could be adapted to smartphone viewing and could be shared easily with students.  

We found creating music playlists that were historically inspired or politically on point was a great method to start conversations with students, especially when readings that week were particularly academic in tone and structure. For instance, in the week we discussed the conventions of Oral History in AIH240 we used an excerpt from the Sublime song, April 29, 1992, about the LA riots of the 1990s. The song was produced in the period immediately after the riots. We discussed the interesting point that when the band was recording the song, they got the date wrong, but released it anyway. Thereby offering an opportunity to ask students why people adapt facts from the past. We also used this as an inroad to discuss issues of memory with material that wasn’t purely academic. For some students, it was a more comfortable way to enter the conversation.  

An oddly inspirational week came when Education Minister Alan Tudge spoke in opposition to revisionist histories in the classroom. We asked ourselves how we could bring this controversial debate into the virtual classroom? In order to elicit interest and prompt conversation in the seminars, we included political cartoons, memes and social media content on the issue in the lecture. We also entered an in-depth discussion between ourselves in the lecture, just to demonstrate what was at stake. In other words, pop culture. Tudge’s arguments about the national history curriculum were a means to discuss with students the ethics of history and what it meant to be a historian. Did that mean to contest the Australian Government? Did this Australian politician understand what it was to be a historian? The latter question was a good means to have students evaluate what they had learned in previous weeks, and start articulating what kind of historian – global, social, gender, feminist, military, and so on –  they would like to be.  

Overall we found that using items that were trending online, or available through everyday apps, such as Spotify or Apple Music, was a good means of taking otherwise abstract concepts, such as contemporary history, and applying them to an Australian context.  Utilising online resources that were contemporary but echo historical concepts was an effective gateway to discussing difficult histories with students in a productive, and informed manner. It provided them with the means to articulate what Australian values were, how these changed, and why it was important to consider such changes as a historian.  

Deborah Lee-Talbot and Dr Brad Underhill

A version of this article was published in the Professional Historians Association (Victoria and Tasmania) newsletter, Pharos, 1 April 2022.