Best history class ever? Award-winning prof hates essays, loves video games

Prof. Shawn Graham won the Desire2Learn Innovation Award for Teaching and Learning on April 23. The award, sponsored by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and Desire2Learn, recognizes innovative teaching and learning approaches in post-secondary education. (Photo provided by the Educational Development Centre)

Shawn Graham isn’t your ordinary history professor. Not by a long shot.

Essays? He hates them. Video games? Part of his curriculum.

“I often joke with my students that I don’t want to read any more essays,” says Graham, who specializes in game-based learning approaches. “I want them making different things.”

This unique teaching approach is part of the reason why Graham just won the Desire2Learn Innovation Award for Teaching and Learning on April 23. The award, sponsored by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and Desire2Learn, recognizes innovative teaching and learning approaches in post-secondary education.

“I try to just lob things up for the students to see where they’ll go,” says Graham, adding that it forces students to push the boundaries of their abilities while actually putting their research into a form that the average person can understand and appreciate.

For one assignment, he challenged students to come up with an idea for a video game to demonstrate the different ways digital media can be used to communicate history. One group actually created a working video game prototype based on an actual group of Allied medics during the First World War.

“The students explored the moral choices that medics sometimes had to make, and so their game really illustrated the way games can foster historical empathy,” he says.

That’s the kind of research that is not only fun to make but people will also scramble to consume, says Graham. It was also an interesting experiment because video games are considered “the font of all evil in our society” and are considered “really not important,” he says.

“Games are (actually) some of the most profound ways we learn.”

One of the ways people don’t often learn? Essays, says Graham.

The problem is, in a lot of cases, students simply write for their professors, says Graham: research for an audience of one. When even the professor’s eyes glaze over after a tepid introduction or hackneyed arguments, they’re “actually writing for an audience of zero,” he says with a laugh.

He’d rather have them writing for as many people as possible.

It’s a concept he’s also applied to his own work: when he isn’t doing research in the field of Roman Archeology, Graham maintains a blog of his more recreational noodlings.

“I think it’s important that academics think out loud, think in public,” he says.

The average person doesn’t read research papers or academic journals. When they want to learn something, they turn to Google. He hopes his blog can draw in some of the readers that missed his last research paper on parsimonious models or presentation on data mining.

“We have to go to where the people are,” he says.

One of his more playful blog posts imagines an app that could turn history into sounds, when you’re passing through an area with a lot of history.

The goal of the app would be to “make people stop and be aware of where they are in a way they don’t normally.”

“We have a very limited historical imagination,” says Graham. “(We need) to make the ghosts apparent again.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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