David Patrick McKenzie

Historian working in academic, digital, and public forms

Category: Education

Skyping into Class

Today I used Skype for only the second time.

Instead of venturing to Fairfax for my History and New Media minor field readings class this afternoon, I Skyped in. This was partially out of convenience–it was nice to be in my apartment instead of on I-66 at 5:45–but mostly as an experiment. Because history education is a large part of the readings course, and videoconferencing is increasingly used in the classroom, Dr. Kelly Schrum, our professor, rightfully urged us to try it, if we could, at least once. I’m glad I did.

These are my thoughts, based purely on experience and not on educational theory. I’d be curious to hear what others think, both from their experience and from a pedagogical perspective.

Due to technical issues, I wound up experiencing videoconferencing into class in two ways: full video and, on my classmates’ end, audio-only.

Full Video

During the first half, my video connection worked. My classmates told me I was a giant head on the screen (I made a sign saying “Obey” to celebrate the occasion). With the way Dr. Schrum set up the webcam, meanwhile, I felt like I was sitting right there in the classroom.

This felt more natural than I was expecting, at least on my end. I could follow along the discussion extremely well. Two weird parts stood out for me:

Since the webcam was in one place and my head was displayed in another, whenever my classmates looked toward me, they looked toward the screen, although I was “gazing out” from the webcam. I had the same thing happen on my end–because the webcam on my MacBook Pro is on the top of the screen, I’m sure it seemed as if I was looking down. I also found myself more conscious of my expressive face–something that I normally don’t notice in-person in the classroom, but did notice more knowing my face was blown up on the screen. I also found that my hand gestures were more deliberate–for example, making sure that air-quotes were visible.

Second, and perhaps more important from a pedagogical perspective, I did feel more hard-pressed in participating in the discussion. In person, it’s easy to see that I’m wanting to say something. I felt myself needing to push a little bit more–even though it was at least easier with the video on, since others could see I was looking to say something.

When it came to the group activity that Nate and Lindsey created, I realized it would be easier for me to do it solo than have Dr. Schrum move the webcam over to one group, not to mention to have me on the speakers. So that part was not as conducive to Skype.

Audio Only, On One End

When the class took a five-minute break, I turned off the video on my end while I got out of my chair. When I came back and turned the video back on, I noticed that I was the last one back. After a couple of minutes, it looked like everyone was waiting for me; it was then that I realized that I wasn’t showing up to the class! I could see everyone but they couldn’t see me! In spite of Dr. Schrum’s and my best efforts, we couldn’t get me back on the screen.

So for the rest of the class, I was an audio-only participant, which provided a different experience. It was less disconcerting on my end because I could still see everyone, so still felt like I was in the room. I found myself less conscious of my facial expressions than I had been. But I also felt like it was harder for me to participate. I had to insert myself into the conversation more than I had with video and, as classmates can tell you, much more than in person.

I also noticed a slight technical glitch, which I found in the first part but particularly in the second: When I spoke, I couldn’t hear my classmates. It might have been that I was using a headset. But I did find that a bit distracting. There was a lag time of 1-2 seconds after I said something before the audio from the class came back. This was especially evident when I presented my thoughts from Megan’s great activity on audiences and presenting history online. So with those factors my participation felt less natural–but still more so than if I had been on audio-only, as happened due to technical glitches when both Megan and Nate Skyped in (I hope they will comment on their experiences below. Hint hint.).

Overall Thoughts

In the end I still prefer being in class. There is something to be said for being there in person. However, all things considered, Skyping in did not take away from my experience as a student nearly to the extent I thought that it would. I was able to participate almost as fully as I normally do, especially when I was on video. In part because of where Dr. Schrum put the camera, and I think in part because this is my third class in the same room, I felt the same level of comfort and like I was part of the class. I followed along the conversation well and, except for the aforementioned glitches, felt like I could take part. This was even true, albeit less so, for the second half.

So while I think Skype or other videoconferencing technology was not a substitute for being there in person, it did come close. As the technology and, hopefully, bandwidth improves, I can see videoconferencing being a vital tool for education to overcome factors that prevent people fro being there in person, whether minor factors like laziness about I-66 traffic or major ones like teaching students in another country.

I would be curious, however, to see how it would work in a class of more than seven people. Would it be as effective? How much adaptation would the teacher and students have to make? That I’d like to try next.

Informal education, museums, and the Peace Corps

“Peace Corps and the Alamo. I never thought I’d hear that combination.”

That was the reaction of a professor several years ago when I mentioned where I had worked. In March, when I attended the Symposium on Informal Learning, sponsored by the American Association of Museums and The George Washington University Museum Education Program, I remembered that statement.

Listening to the speakers discuss informal education and learning (related but different concepts) reminded me how much my experience in El Salvador with the Peace Corps has overlapped with the career I’ve begun in the museum world. Yet to many, this overlap has seemed surprising. Perhaps this stems from seemingly (at least to my own eyes) little overlap in personnel. In my short time in the Peace Corps, I met no one who was planning a museum or public history career. Although I’ve heard of people in museums and public history who once served in Peace Corps, I haven’t yet met any in person (although I mutually tweet with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is in a library program).

Thus, I share my experiences here in hope of provoking dialogue and connections between museums and the Peace Corps, both of which are engaged in the common objective of creative education outside of a classroom setting and share a lot more in common than may meet the eye.

My initial encounter with informal education

Although I had worked as a history interpreter at the Alamo for several months prior to leaving for El Salvador, Peace Corps training was the first place that I encountered the term informal education.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Peace Corps strongly emphasizes that concept. Many volunteers–in my case, all of my training class besides a 56-year-old engineer–are either fresh out of college or a few years removed. We had spent most of our lives in the formal education system, yet were going to  work with people who often had little contact with their country’s formal educational system.

In my community, many adults had not gone past early elementary school. But lack of education does not mean lack of intelligence. During the next several months I interacted with some of the smartest people I’ve met in my life. Many people–whether Salvadoran campesinos (country folk, loosely translated) or gringos with multiple degrees–do not always learn best in formal settings. Informal education does not mean dumbing down; it simply means teaching with different, “informal,” methods.

So, to reach our audiences, we had to break the habits we had acquired from the formal education system. Gone were lectures. In El Salvador, we gave charlas (“chats,” as compared with “talks”), often at meetings of various community organizations.

Although I didn’t realize it until I returned to the Alamo after early-terminating from Peace Corps, I had also been engaging in informal education there. I have done the same in my museum internships and jobs since. After all, much of what a museum does is informal education, whether it be through lectures, tours, exhibitions, new media activities, and even publications.


Thus, based on my experiences of 10 months in the Peace Corps and now nearly 10 intermittent years in the museum/public history field, I offer some more specific commonalities, with anecdotes to illustrate the points. Since my M.A. is in Museum Studies, and I have not held a specific museum education job (although my jobs have involved some of the same functions), this is by no means a comprehensive list, just some examples that come to mind.


This is the most basic, and general, idea of informal education. The talking head, in both museum settings and the Peace Corps, is the kiss of death to learning. Informal education in both settings is interactive; at its most basic, a dialogue between educator and audience. In Peace Corps, we were rightfully admonished not to be up in front of a group just yakking away, but to engage the audience. This could be through any means, but the most important thing was having a dialogue–a charla.

Guided discovery

One form of interactive informal education that I’ve seen in both museums and Peace Corps is guided discovery–the idea that we guide our audiences to the learning objectives, rather than just telling them. In Peace Corps, volunteers are trained to fade into the background and guide their audiences.

For example, in my community, people complained about how long and scattered community council meetings could be–so much so that it was a disincentive to attendance (other volunteers reported the same). So I decided to try a charla on parliamentary procedure. It was a challenge; parliamentary procedure is not easy to teach in a classroom, much less an informal setting. So, based on what I had learned in training, I worked with that particular meeting’s attendees to draw up rules for how to conduct meetings more efficiently. I put up a piece of butcher paper and worked with the community members to create two lists: essentially, characteristics of good meetings and characteristics of bad meetings. I asked some leading questions. Even when I didn’t, people came up with great suggestions. In the end, we had a list that community members, not the gringo, had created.

Just the same, in museums we guide people to come to the conclusions we are trying to teach. During a tour, rather than telling people what is on a building, we have them look for themselves. Then, we guide them to deduce the building’s history from those clues. Thus, our audience members feel like they have come up with the solution for themselves, and are more likely to have that lesson sink in.

Physical motion, even games

Peace Corps training strongly emphasizes games; I was lucky to have a program director who had co-authored an entire book on games to use in water, health, and sanitation education. What I saw there, and have since seen in museums, convinced me that games are not just for children.

In my community, I watched a nongovernmental organization worker use a game from that book to great effect to teach about the importance of preventative health practices–not always well-known in rural El Salvador. She gave each participant a certain amount of “money.” Then she read out different scenarios for the next several days, reflecting decisions people could make about preventative health. Each participant either received more money (for a day’s work) or lost money (for expenses) for each day. For example, someone did not wash his/her hands before handling food and got amoebas (not a pleasant experience). The person lost a day’s work (in a country where sick leave is rare) and also had to buy medicine. Someone else who did practice preventative health, meanwhile, gained a day’s wage. In the end, the person who had taken the most responsibility for prevention had the most money.

Sure, she could have gotten up and just lectured on the importance of preventative health. But by showing it through this game, she drove the point home; the followup discussion clearly reflected that.

Just the same, in museums we frequently have people act out scenarios. There has recently been a great deal of discussion about gaming in learning–not just in museums, but broadly. Participants in that discussion should look to the Peace Corps for inspiration; Peace Corps has been using games to teach for decades.

Final thoughts

I hope this post might provoke dialogue between museums and the Peace Corps, two of the most established types of informal education institutions. In my brief experiences, I’ve seen a lot of connection between their methodologies. Museum educators would make great Peace Corps volunteers, and vice versa. Both have a lot to learn from each other. I hope that both will do so.

I hope that in the future, people won’t be so surprised when I say that I’ve served as a Peace Corps volunteer and made a career in museums.

Do you have experiences in informal education, whether in the Peace Corps, museums, or another setting? Please share those in the comments. I would love for people with more experience in both to compare notes.

Interactivity: Best Friend and Worst Foe

As the Clio Wired sequence draws to a close (except for those of us doing a minor field in digital history), and we move toward the sequence’s end product–a full digital history project–this week’s reading and web visit considered interactivity.

Ah yes, interactivity. The best friend and worst foe of exhibition developers, informal educators, and web developers alike. The hardest thing to accomplish in museum exhibitions, educational programs, and digital media–and one of the most pedagogically effective. How do we turn our audiences–whether in our physical spaces or in front of their screens of whatever size–from passive consumers of information to active and attentive learners?

In my past life as a content developer at an exhibit firm, how to make our exhibitions more interactive was the question with which the designers and I grappled most. When the firm’s design principal took his kids to a nature center we were contracted to redesign, he noticed they ran to the main interactive activity–a card catalog filled with specimens. Why? It gave them something to do. Even inelegant solutions like flip doors helped in many exhibitions. We often felt like we could do more–but what? Even flip doors–not to mention a pinball table explaining checks and balances–added greatly to the fabrication cost and complication.

The same conundra–cost, complication, and method–face developers and designers of digital media, as Joshua Brown’s 2004 article “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries” discusses. Nearly eight years later–even after the advent of mobile technology–his article remains relevant, as the technology of the so-called 3-D Web has seemingly advanced little (for that matter, I had to use my laptop to access Lost Museum since it is Flash-based), and public historians and informal educators are increasingly discussing ways to “gamify” history learning, not just in a digital setting but physically in museums and historic sites as well.

Brown, who worked on some of the earliest digital history projects, assesses the faults and successes of those projects, from the HyperCard-based Who Built America? to the Flash-based, highly graphical Lost Museum. In particular, he focuses on the successes and failures of the Lost Museum site, saying that the game context overly limited the freeform learning that could take place (Lindsey offers a well-done critique of his critique). To increase that learning, the developers added a searchable database of extra information–in other words, they used the 2-D Web to make up for the education that the 3-D Web could not provide.

Looking at Brown’s article and at the Lost Museum site made me think about what I could do on my Omeka-based site, a draft of which is due in a mere two weeks. How do I engage my visitor to learn more about the 1837 visit of Antonio López de Santa Anna and Juan Almonte to Washington, an admittedly esoteric, yet I think (hope) important, topic?

As we’ve frequently discussed, a Web visitor, like a physical visitor to an exhibition or historic site, will not have the same tolerance for passive consumption as, say, a book reader sitting in his or her easy chair on a weekend afternoon. So how do I hook them and get them to learn not just about that trip, but what it reveals about perceptions of Mexicans in the United States a decade before the two countries fought a major war?

How to make this site more interactive–particularly within both the limits of the technology and, more relevantly, the limits of my own technological expertise–is daunting, to put it mildly. I’m having flashbacks to my exhibit firm days. Thus far, my solutions are limited. Is it enough to allow users to click through different levels of information–is that enough interactivity? I’m not so sure.

As Brown asked of the Lost Museum site, for mine, how do I “allow users to intervene in that narrative, to create their own pedagogical pathways and intellectual connections?” Since my site chronicles a journey, my thus far main–and far from original–idea is to allow the user to follow along the journey by including an interactive map. The user can click on different locations on the map to learn more about Santa Anna’s and Almonte’s stops in that place.

I also plan to include space for comments. The site will be structured in a nonlinear way, allowing users to access the images and text in which they are most interested. In some of this, I will take inspiration from 239 Days in America, which chronicles the visit to the United States of a man named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 (and which I have eagerly followed on Twitter)–perhaps at the end of this year I will even tweet day-by-day accounts of Santa Anna and Almonte’s journey 176 years later (I missed the boat–no pun intended–on the 175th).

I would, however, like to move beyond these baby steps. It is far beyond my technical capability (not to mention budget!) to do anything with the 3-D web (whatever is coming of that), so no following the journey in one’s own virtual steamboat or carriage, but I do wonder what else I can do. Quizzes? Polls? How can I transform my passive consumer of information into an active learner? And how much do I need to? That remains to be seen, and suggestions are most welcome!


This week I commented on Richard’s and Celeste’s posts.

Making information accessible

As we’ve discussed throughout the semester, design is not just about making things pretty, but also functional–to go back to my former classmate’s telling, the crossroads of art and engineering. This week’s web visits focused more on the functionality part, specifically making websites accessible to people with disabilities, and the reading (Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations) on making information and arguments accessible in visual form.

As I’ve worked on my website and blog, I haven’t been as cognizant of accessibility for people with disabilities as I should have. Dr. Petrik has alluded to methods that she uses on her own sites for screen readers. Although I could have just plucked her code, I had not yet done so. I also sometimes have put in alt-text for my images, and admittedly barely so. After using WebAim’s Screen Reader Simulation, I’m going back and making sure that my pages are more accessible, particularly to visually impaired people. If you haven’t used it, I strongly recommend you do so.

Maggie makes the point that, at its base, the Internet is a fundamentally text-based medium–even when it comes to images. This makes it more accessible, and shows that the main thing is conveying information. Now I see another reason for Steve Jobs to take on on his seemingly now-successful crusade to destroy Flash: it does not help to convey information for those unable to see it, because it obscures text from screen readers.

This does not mean, of course, that images do not have their place.  This is where Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations comes into play. Sometimes a visual simply makes an argument better–as long as it is done correctly. Lindsey’s post has a great synopsis of some of the book’s more salient points.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are.

Map of Washington, 1846. Map shows the squares and streets of the city, but not where the actual buildings are--perhaps giving the impression of much more urban development than in actuality.

How a visualization is done, of course, makes a difference in what information it conveys. To complement Tufte’s brilliant examples, I’d like to add early maps of Washington. Often we see the original L’Enfant-Ellicott plan of streets. Later maps of Washington show the same, such as the 1846 map that I show here. But then consider the Boschke map, produced just before the Civil War (and confiscated upon war’s outbreak because of its possible value to the Confederacy). The mapmaker meticulously detailed each building in the city, not just the streets and squares as most previous maps did. This map shows just how undeveloped the planned area of the city of Washington was, seven decades after L’Enfant, Ellicott, and Banneker laid it out. The streets were there, but many blocks were undeveloped. One would not gain that impression from the 1846 map.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.

Boschke map of Washington, 1857, showing where the buildings are. A close look reveals most development concentrated around the Capitol, White House, and 7th Street--but most of the L'Enfant-Ellicott plan remained undeveloped.


Along the lines of accessibility: not only are some arguments more accessible via images and visualizations, but some people learn better via images. I, for one, tend more to remember seeing a picture of something than a written or auditory explanation. The graphics in this book are absolutely stunning, and demonstrate–not just tell–how images can be used to convey meaning. By working in new media, we now have greater abilities to communicate with more than words. Our visualizations can reach all the more people.

So, then, we have a juxtaposition here in this week’s readings. The Web allows us to communicate using not just text but also images, movies, sound files, etc. But at the same time, it makes our content more accessible to audiences that rely on the text. So, then, what to do?

In the public history world, we design exhibitions and educational programs around different learning styles and different physical abilities. I remember many times walking a space with my exhibit designer former boss and measuring out accessibility requirements, and discussing different learning styles with educators. Just the same, in the digital world we must design to be accessible not just to people with physical impairments but different learning styles. So we must incorporate both greater explanatory text and explanatory images into our sites. The images are there for those who can see them; good descriptions help convey textually the messages we are trying to convey with the images.

Is this hard? You bet. In public history, it is. But it is also necessary. It is in digital history, too. Thanks to this week’s assignments, I’m going to make a point to be more conscious of making my work and its arguments accessible–in all the many shades of that word–to various audiences.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress.

Map in the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center, blown up from a .jp2 file from the Library of Congress. Wound up crystal-clear.

What a Tool: As part of our blog posts this week, we’ve been asked to mention a digital tool that we find useful for historians. Because I have a hard time making decisions sometimes, I’m suggesting two:

  • Instapaper: This app, for iPhone, iPad, and for web browsers, is wonderful for saving things that you want to read, but for which you don’t have time at that moment. I use it most often to save articles off of Twitter, particularly ones that I see during my commute. It’s also nice to have for said commute, or for time at the gym. In fact, last semester I read most of my articles in that way.
  • Library of Congress Map Collections: The Library of Congress has one of the world’s most amazing map collections, and has digitized a bunch of it. Not only is it digitized, but with super-high-resolution, .jp2 files. Meaning: When I worked for the exhibition design firm, I downloaded a .jp2 version of a late 18th century map of Virginia (sadly I forget which, so I don’t have a link to it here), made some tinkers (Photoshop did not at the time read .jp2, something that has since been corrected), and blew it up to a 8.5 foot tall wall mural at the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Center in far southwest Virginia. Amazingly, the map at that size is crystal-clear. I’ve also taken a neighborhood view from an 1884 birds-eye of Washington–I was able to get such detail because of the quality of the scan. And I previously wrote about how the serendipitous discovery of an 1819 map of Mexico and the southern United States led me to a person to include in my dissertation (alas, someone else has already written an article on him. Harumph.) Not only are these maps great for display, however; they also are wonderful primary sources. Something indispensable in any historian’s toolkit.

Tucson: Overreaction as protest?

The last few days, my Twitter stream has lit up with justified outrage about the banning of ethnic studies–and related books–in Arizona’s classrooms. What has especially made news is the Tucson Unified School District’s seizure of the banned books.

Opponents of ethnic studies in Arizona’s schools claim that such curricula “divide [students] by race and teach its group about its own background only,” as the state’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction put it. Yes, teaching ethnic history does have the chance of instilling chauvinism and triumphalism. But so does teaching national history. So does teaching “great white men” history. So does teaching religious history. So does teaching, really, any kind of history.

But ethnic history, and any kind of history of a group or individual, also allows one to see the bigger story through the lens of that particular group or individual. It brings to light past–and present–injustices and triumphs. It instills a sense of history in many students–helping students of that ethnicity understand from whence they came, and helping students of other ethnicities understand from whence their peers came.

Since Tucson originated the Mexican-American studies program that led to the state’s ban, I couldn’t help but wonder–is Tucson’s overreaction a form of protest by the district against the state? Rather than inconspicuously removing books during off-hours, the district removed them in plain sight of students–interestingly, around the time of a holiday celebrating a slain civil rights leader, a holiday that Arizona refused to celebrate for many years.

This is pure speculation on my part. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps, as this Public Radio International story says, the district is mainly worried about losing funding from the state if it doesn’t comply with the vaguely-worded ban. But it does seem something here is up, more than meets the eye. If the district is indeed trying to make a stand by demonstrating to all the fallacy of the state’s law, good for it. If that’s not the case, well, at least the district’s actions have called attention to this significant issue. Hopefully some good will come out of this.