Deepening Students’ Learning Experiences in the Humanities

By Kristi DePaul

History is by no means a sleepy subject; indeed, as the saying goes, those who are unaware of it are thereby doomed to repeat it.

In modern-day China, one finds a culture in which people are perhaps hyper-aware of their national history; in fact, debating events that transpired centuries ago is something of a national pastime.

Dr. Joanna Waley-Cohen, noted Chinese historian and Provost of NYU-Shanghai, agrees. “Whether or not people choose to recognize the impact of these legacies, they tend to arouse tremendous passions,” explains Waley-Cohen.

She would know. Although much of her demanding leadership role requires her to be outside of the classroom, Waley-Cohen continues to teach at least one undergraduate course in Chinese history per semester. “I love teaching. It keeps me in touch with the true mission of the university and with the students themselves.”

Embracing a Different Kind of Edtech

As an educator, she admits that she is hesitant to adopt new technologies. In addition to the university’s LMS, she has embraced just one other form of edtech: ForClass. After a referral from a colleague, Waley-Cohen decided to give the platform a try—and, in her words, mastered it quite quickly. “It’s designed very intuitively, from the perspective of a professor,” she said.

“One of the things I most appreciate about ForClass are the qualitative ways to see how different people interpret evidence; more specifically, how the same set of information produces various conclusions and responses among my students.”

Waley-Cohen also noted that, aside from effective classroom management, it allows professors to further develop online rapport with their students. “My students generally like it and have said it’s helpful. ForClass offers them a chance to think and reflect, with questions prompting them throughout the reading.”

Waley-Cohen notes that the technology has effectively flipped the classroom by anchoring a debate prior to the beginning of a class. When drawing upon the visual word cloud of student responses, she can easily identify which students to ask regarding opinions on either side. “When I call on students, I know they’ll be well prepared and that they are getting something out of the experience.”

Teaching within an Intercultural Context

Roughly half of Waley-Cohen’s students are Chinese, while the remainder come from the US and other countries around the world. Whatever their preparation, they often have strong views but their approach is different; Chinese students follow classroom debates closely but are sometime reticent to speak without being called on, while Americans and other foreigners are more willing to venture their opinion.

Waley-Cohen appreciates how ForClass has made her class preparation more strategic. “It offered me the chance to focus my attention for a particular lesson, organizing the structure in advance.”

For example, Waley-Cohen recalls one in-class debate involving a guest speaker. He had covered an old story about a 15th century Chinese naval admiral, whose seven fleets sailed to east coast of Africa. The official Chinese version of the treasure fleets portrays this as a journey of exploration and friendship. But the evidence shows that that these fleets were actually heavily armed and had other goals, including securing the trade routes and enforcing cooperation; as the speaker put it, ‘the guns weren’t for decoration’.

The discussion was both challenging for those who had learned the official version in high school and enlightening for those who hadn’t; ForClass made for more effective preparation for professor and students alike as well as a much richer in-class learning experience.

Relentless Service, Receptiveness to Customer Ideas

Waley-Cohen also notes that almost-instantaneous technical help from the ForClass support team removed any anxieties she might have had initially. Questions were quickly resolved, and it was that support as much as the tool itself that quickly won her over.

“Right away, I felt confident that this would be a useful tool for future classes, with a team behind it that I could trust. This was demonstrated very concretely when I had a student who submitted some insightful feedback. She had asked if it might be possible to add an open-ended question to the platform so that students would have an opportunity to bring up any questions or unexplored topics each week.”

ForClass responded by quickly adding the suggested feature. Waley-Cohen now knows that at the conclusion of one of her history courses, no stone remains unturned.

Dr. Joanna Waley Cohen serves as Provost and Julius Silver Professor of History at NYU-Shanghai.