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Archaeology professor designs first online companion course for field work in Kenya

Hatchet File Photo by Katie Causey | Photo Editor
Hatchet File Photo by Katie Causey | Photo Editor

Before GW’s archaeology students visit Kenya, they’re going to have to see it on their computer screens.

A field archaeology course run by David Braun, an associate professor of archaeology, now features a four-week-long online course that prepares students to study early human origins for six weeks over the summer at the Koobi Fora Field School in northern Kenya’s Sibiloi National Park. The class marks the University’s first online companion course for a course held abroad.

With previous classes, Braun had previously typed up a 150-page manual with information on geology, ecology and evolution for students to read before heading off to Kenya. But that set the students back in learning once they got to Kenya because, “we knew that they didn’t get to read [the document],” he said.

“Some of them would refer to it while they’re in the field. Actual learning didn’t happen until we got to Kenya,” Braun said.

The online course, which launched this month, features videos from previous trips to Kenya and key information that the manual covered, but presents it in a way that’s more accessible for the students, Braun said. He said he expects to “start at a higher level as soon as we get to Kenya.”

The field school, which has been around since the early 1980s, received more than 180 applications this year but is taking only 25 students. He said he’s using the course as a way for students to pick up general concepts that they’ll need to understand before going out and digging in Africa.

Braun’s course is designed solely for his field course students, who are from countries like Ethiopia and South Africa as well as GW. The course isn’t open to the general public, but the decision to open it up rests on Braun, Paul Schiff Berman, the vice provost for online learning and academic innovation, said.

The online course is hosted alongside GW’s massive open online courses, like the Graduate School of Political Management’s course on business and politics, but it’s still not considered a MOOC, Berman said.

“For technical reasons we hosted it on the same platform as our MOOCs because, like MOOC participants, these students are not enrolled in the GW Banner system,” he said in an email.

Berman said University online course designers worked with Braun to bring the curriculum from the manual into the digital age.

Those designers “worked with Professor Braun and his colleagues on the instructional design, video, editing and animation work to build this course, and we performed the work necessary to make it available to his Koobi Fora Field School students worldwide,” Berman said.

Courses like University Writing incorporate some online aspects, where students complete assignments online instead of coming to class. The University started focusing on hybrid courses in 2011 in a project that the University’s cost-cutting task force expected would save the University $6 million.

“Many faculty members find that putting some part of their courses online is beneficial, either because they can devote more on-campus class time to hands-on projects and discussion or because, as in this case, the logistics of the course lend themselves to an online or hybrid approach,” Berman said.

Curt Bonk, a psychology and technology professor at Indiana University who has written several books on online learning, said the online course can hold students accountable for knowing the necessary material, especially if there are tests.

“There has to be some kind of incentive,” Bonk said. “So there has to be an exam on it or a discussion or a reflection.”

Bonk said the online companion course could excite students for the trip more than a pamphlet and Braun’s videos from earlier excursions are a good way to give current students a taste of what they’ll be experiencing.

He added that students will also better understand the material, which will cut down on having to reteach what the pre-course materials cover.

“You don’t want people walking blank,” Bonk said. “Going through the curriculum will give them that base knowledge. You can go deeper and talk about things knowing that people had that anchor.”

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