This post by Andrea Davis originally appeared on The American Historical Association’s Perspectives On History.
Learning Management Systems (LMSs) have become ubiquitous in higher education. In online and traditional courses, instructors regularly use LMSs to post syllabi, house readings, facilitate student engagement, and provide feedback and grades. As these practices have become routine, digital pedagogues Sean Michael Morris and George Veletsianos remind us to interrogate the values and objectives of the university LMS. Rather than have us adopt its logic without question, they urge us to make critical decisions about our course platforms. I did exactly that in my undergraduate methods course, Practice of History, by repurposing Zotero as a course platform to help students achieve specific learning outcomes.
Practice of History is a required course for history majors at Arkansas State University, designed to prepare students for upper-level courses. As it stands in the curriculum, the course’s main objectives are to teach students how to find, evaluate, and cite sources, and how to use primary and secondary source evidence to construct interpretations that engage with historiographical conversations. These learning goals—combined with my commitment to preparing students for our predominantlypost-print world—led me to Zotero, a free and open-source research and bibliographic management system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Although marketed as “easy-to-use,” Zotero can be challenging for students. Without an understanding of how the different system applications and plugins work together, it can be difficult to figure out how and where to complete discrete tasks. Navigating Zotero is not the only challenge. Conceptually, it can be difficult to get students to buy in to the program if they have not yet developed a thorough understanding of the research process.
I alleviated these challenges by repurposing Zotero as a course platform. The course was divided into three modules: “Approaches to Historical Writing,” where students had low-stakes opportunities to familiarize themselves with Zotero’s online application while reviewing foundational historical skills; “Developing a Research Paper,” where students learned additional facets of the program while completing individual research papers; and “Communicating Research to a Public Audience,” where students built upon the digital skills that they had developed throughout the course to create interactive Medium postsbased on their research.