Setting up and teaching a new module integrating print, film and web-based teaching materials

Author: Susan Currell


Setting up and teaching a new module integrating print, film and web-based teaching materials: the case of film culture and mass consumption.

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Table of contents

Methods, planning and preparation

I devised the module to examine the relationship between emergent consumer culture and the development of the modern film industry from 1890-1939. Emphasis was placed on the production and consumption of entertainment within social and historical contexts. Course materials, primary and secondary, were a combination of written texts, films and online multimedia materials collected together in a course web site (

The course aimed to provide an interdisciplinary examination of the development of the mass culture industry by placing popular cinematic narratives within a wider social framework and giving students the opportunity to study their consumption and production. It traced the development of American commercial entertainment in the early twentieth century, while at the same time introducing students to theoretical models of popular culture and modernity. Not only did the module aim to supplement student knowledge it aimed to provide an interesting and accessible way into detailed explorations of "new" material within the interdisciplinary framework. The films, texts and website materials combined to illustrate how the American culture industry negotiated with the emergence of mass leisure during a period of rapid modernisation. The course was divided thematically to examine how issues of race, gender and class emerged within the intersection of film culture with consumer culture. The course was structured by a series of seminars that were a mixture of lecture, seminar and weekly Internet workshop.

This combination of texts, films, web resources and mixed teaching style aimed to provide a dynamic 'constructivist' (note 1) approach to learning, where my role would be a combination of instructor (lecture), guide (seminar) and facilitator (Internet workshop). I wanted to impart a certain amount of new information but at the same time I wanted the students to increase their independent learning skills and attempt to construct their own knowledge with the primary resources made available to them. In this way I hoped to give them the chance to follow conceptual learning patterns, to undertake document and visual analysis, to undertake a 'virtual field trip' into the historical resources available, and to learn collaboratively by working in groups, while also connecting the theories from the formal assigned reading with their practical application. Case studies from the Virtual Resource Site for Teaching with Technology and from the Crossroads web site provided me with evidence that technology could usefully answer teaching and learning needs and styles in a multitude of ways (note 2). These case studies provided me with a framework for implementing teaching with technology.

As Bates has argued, it is necessary when planning a course to make the distinction between "technologies that extend or replicate the classroom model, and those that fundamentally change the instructional paradigm."(note 3) My combination of traditional techniques and new media would not fundamentally change the way I would teach but extend the classroom model. At the same time, this introduction of new media did create the need for some early changes in the form of assessment. Bracewell et al have identified certain trends in the networked higher education classroom which provide further evidence that the introduction of new technologies can link well with traditional learner centred educational goals, such as the emergence of a new mixed mode of learning incorporating face-to-face and on-line learning activities, interactive and flexible information, and increased social interaction and learner self-awareness (note 4).

Implementation and outcomes

Student Profile and Problems. The course was a B Level module - open to all students in humanities in year one and two. Consequently the group was very diverse: they came from a variety of disciplines (ranging from social science, film, history, theology, architecture, American studies) and three were on overseas exchange programmes for one semester. Among this group were also two mature students (one post-retirement) and a dyslexic student - who was not identified to me as dyslexic until the first essay was due. My teaching thereby needed to be very adaptable to the wide range of student specialisms as well as learner styles. While the group was interesting, engaged and interacted well - there were also problems and difficulties which arose early from the mix of disciplines and ability levels. It was difficult, for example, to know at what level to 'pitch' discussion (some had studied critical theory while others had no background in it). While different learner styles presented a challenge - the use of some computer based learning and analysis also enabled me to address these differing levels and to allow students to follow their own learning style.

Another problem arose because the module had been timetabled on three separate hours per week (tue,wed,thurs) which caused some initial timetabling clashes and problems of student attendance. Consequently a few students withdrew at the start and quite a few could not make all sessions in the week. Again, the course web page and the worksheets I developed meant that students were able to catch up on workshop based seminars in their own time. While timetabling has improved this year the flexibility of the internet environment has meant that students who miss classes can easily catch up or work at their own pace.


In seminars, American film and consumer culture was introduced in both general and specific terms: students were given background material concerning its historical and social origins, as well as detailed explorations of social and political issues arising out of this period of rapid modernisation. Students were also required to adopt an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine the cultural context and social history of the cinematic and commercial entertainment industries. The seminars enabled me to give brief lectures and overviews, thus satisfying the delivery of 'content', but at other times the students worked in small 'buzz' groups which enabled them to share information and discuss ideas further.


Internet workshops were planned to equip students with the necessary skills to make additional contextual research, finding primary source material which contributed to their final essays. Worksheets were handed out with questions that would encourage connections to ba made between the visual materials and the seminar reading for that week. (see sample worksheet). In the computer workshops students worked in groups and individually and co-operated well together, where the more competent would, on occasion, guide the lesser experienced. I was able to use this time to address the individual needs of the the less confident and experienced students. Kolb's theory of experiential learning was clearly visible in the way that students' interacted with the course web site materials (note 5). Firstly they had concrete experience (CE) of a medium (for example, watching an early film online - see early motion picture workshop in appendix 6) then they were given time to reflect (RO) on this new experience - answering questions about what it was they were looking at. Questions were then asked of them which enabled them to conceptualise and theorise (AC) what they had seen - for example, what did it mean? - and these three processes fed back into the next search or enquiry enabling them to search for further materials which enhanced their understanding (AE). As each student could pace their own learning experience I found that different types of learners spent different amounts of time on certain stages of the cycle. I felt that the flexibility inherent in the workshop process enabled the students to develop according to their learning style. The American Picture Palace Workshop also enhanced other skills - where students, working in pairs, gave a presentation to the rest of the group where they explained and illustrated with visual aids, one aspect of the site they had been looking at. The workshops thus addressed the need to develop critical and interpretive strategies, confidence in speaking, collaborative learning as well as enhancing computer-based primary source research skills for essay writing.


I quickly realised that the Internet element of the course needed to be made more a central part of the assessment, or students would have no vested interest in developing the skills needed. One of my first steps was to change the mode of assessment to reflect the increased use of the Internet that the course required. I wanted the students not only to examine but to critique the Internet resources they were finding and make reflective judgments of their sources. Many were new to evaluating visual resources as well as Internet resources and the final results were thereby tempered by this lack of experience and confidence. Nevertheless, the critical evaluations demonstrated that the students had indeed begun to evaluate the kind of primary source materials that the required reading discussed. In this way they not only read about early motion pictures but experienced a 'simulation' of the early viewing experience. This experiential learning compounded understanding of the reading and led to interesting discussions about the development of early mass culture around the turn of the century. Students brought their own primary experience of what they had found on their 'virtual' field trip. One example of this is the student who took a 'trip' to the 1902 Exposition and described what she had 'seen' in her critical evaluation. Other examples were students who found films that were described in the course reading and were able to watch them and make their own analysis (Uncle Josh at the Theater/ What Happened in the Tunnel - from the Edison Collection). Others discussed films that appeared unusual to them and used their knowledge from the reading to explain this strangeness. To many of the students this 'experiential learning' was the most exciting and dynamic element of the module.

While some of the students did excellent evaluations, many of them appeared resistant to writing in a new format and opted for a traditional essay style of writing. Many also resisted developing their own essay questions and opted for the sample ones that I suggested as guides - I want to encourage more independent learning this year. This is partly a problem of modularity - where students are opting for the safest route. This year I will improve my critical evaluation guidelines and support for this part of the module, along with some examples of the best papers from this year, so that they will have a better idea of what will achieve a higher mark.

A final examined essay seemed an appropriate form of assessment that would illustrate the students' understanding of the primary materials as well as their ability to consider diverse themes and issues in an interdisciplinary context; they also illustrated independent research skills acquired through Internet workshops. The students were given printed versions of the marking scheme and it was also available on the course website so that they could be sure of the way they were being assessed. Yet for both assessed pieces of writing the quality of writing seemed quite poor to me. This may be because I am used to marking literature/history essays and some of these students are from non-literary backgrounds. I therefore gave more credit for originality and research and have marked less harshly for essay writing errors. To combat this problem, the problem of attendance, and the problem of plagiarism I have changed the mode of assessment for this year to one critical analysis, one essay and a presentation.

One of my goals for the course was to eventually allow students to put their 'essays' on the website (under 'projects'). Theories of hypertext have shown that control over information can shift from author to reader - allowing the learner to become 'active' in the creation of their learning environment. At the same time, by constructing hypertext themselves the students could become aware of their role and responsibility in the construction of information and knowledge (note 6). Thus, as a reflective exercise I feel that this element of the course is pedagogically important. It was unfortunate that we didn't have time to put up student projects for the website. On their request I ran a web-page writing workshop for the students (none of whom had any experience doing this) which they really enjoyed - pedagogically it was important for them to see how information is 'constructed' on the Internet. Unfortunately, there was little time available for them to practice this and turn their essays into multimedia html pages. I would like, in the future, to enable students to submit a web-based essay for final assessment but the skills, time available and mode of assessment already printed militated against this. I also don't think that this type of assessment would have been fair for the group of students in the group as some had no access to the computer outside of the University and others lacked confidence using technology. If I changed the form of assessment to include a web-based essay I would need to ensure that entry requirements were in place to ensure only those with the necessary skills were on the course. It would have been a shame to exclude any of the students on the basis of their lack of IT skills as I feel they all gained skills and knowledge from accessing and utilising the web resources. It is probably best, therefore, to keep the module assessment fairly simple.

The enthusiasm of the students for the Internet resources and early film grew rapidly and I felt a genuine sense of excitement and discovery as students linked the conventional reading with the resources and archives they searched on the Internet. I was encouraged by their response to the course web page and would like to develop this part of the course more. The enthusiasm for web-based resources also had a downside, however, in the poor citation of web resources and some plagiarism. I discussed this issue at from the start of the first seminar and made the students examine the sources on plagiarism and citation format (under the 'links' page). Some of the students, however, had obviously not recognised the importance of proper and full citation of material. This is an issue that I'm hoping to solve by my changes in assessment and could also address in a short (non-assessed) quiz.

Conclusions and reflection

I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this course and using new teaching methods.The response from students was very positive. Yet I am still not entirely happy with the assessment of this course and I feel that this is because of mixing traditional humanities methods (essay writing) with new media - while students are happier with the "safe" route, I feel that new types of assessment need to be developed. For example, I have begun to think about further assessment methods complementary to the aims of the course, perhaps to develop online assessment pages, class tests, self-awareness and feedback forms. One thing that I think is essential before beginning a course like this, is a review of student skills and IT accessibility prior to undertaking a course like this on a large scale (but adds to the course administration time)(questionnaires like those given out by Huitt and Monetti at Valdosta State University (note 7)).

The future

There is a risk factor involved in introducing new or unusual methods and materials and there are still huge gaps in knowledge about the impact of new media and the results of teaching with them. Only by putting these techniques into practice will we find out what works and what doesn't. Research, however, by a number of pioneering groups is helping us to get a clearer image of the future of new media pedagogies, notably the Visible Knowledges Project in the USA (note 8). I found that the students were enthusiastic about using new media to research 'old' media and that this element of the course could receive more emphasis. I would be very interested in expanding and developing this course, as well as allowing some of the materials and techniques to feed into larger, more conventional, core courses in American studies. I remain sceptical that large group teaching (i.e over 50) can be successful using this method as students need much individual attention and feedback. It is not effective as a cost-cutting teaching technique - all the students needed extensive access to computers and numbers for the course were thus limited. Setting up a course and running it in this way is very labour intensive and requires much tutor input and training - however, the materials could be put to use for large groups with certain changes (online tests, multiple choice, feedback forms, group e-seminars) and some concern over the loss of quality teaching in return. Extra-preparation time for this type of teaching should also be factored in for issues that arise outside of the usual perimeters of teaching - for example, the need to continually update web authoring skills and to keep them in line with software upgrades and changes and new accessibility legislation. The all-encompassing term 'e-learning' doesn't differentiate effectively the many different types of teaching with technology that this can include - all with very differing procedures, effects, aims and outcomes. More research into the pedagogy and outcomes of this type of teaching in humanities is needed before extensive implementation of e-learning techniques.

Appendix A: Sample early motion picture worksheet


To examine and analyse the history and context of early visual culture using the Library of Congress collection of early motion pictures. To relate course reading on early visual entertainment (Nasaw) to our own visual critical practices.

Work in pairs.

  1. Go to the course website (
  2. From the film links page click on the link to "Inventing Entertainment" or the Library of Congress collection finder - go to the America at Work- America at Leisure collection of motion pictures.
  3. Find and watch at least five early motion pictures (before 1910) and then answer the following questions about 2 selected films:
  • Describe the films. What is happening? What is it about? Who is in it?
  • In what context may the film have been viewed?
  • Describe the early film audience who may have seen this film. Who were the films made for? Why was the subject matter of interest?
  • How were films like these distributed and sold?
  • How were films like this displayed?
  • What problems did filmakers encounter at this time?
  • Who may have opposed the early motion picture and why?
  • If there is time remaining, search the library of congress site for early motion picture articles, reviews, film posters or trade catalogues. What do these articles tell you about early visual entertainment?
  • Self reflection: What did you gain from this exercise? Has watching the films altered how you perceive early entertainment? What interested you about the films you selected?

Appendix B: Sample early advertising worksheet


To examine and analyse the history and context of early consumer culture using a variety of advertising archive websites. To relate this week's reading on consumer culture as a system of signs to the evidence found in a variety of databases. To become aware of the critical practices involved in using primary source data.To search for possible sources for the contextual analysis assessment.

  1. Go to the course website (
  2. From the consumer links page click on a link to "The Emergence of Advertising" web site.
  3. Take five minutes to examine what type of advertisements are contained in the website.
  • What is the purpose of the website?
  • Define a topic that you are interested in and search the archive for examples of this. Find at least five examples to choose from. Select only advertisements between the dates of 1890-1940
  • Describe two of the advertisements you find.
  • In what context may the advertisement have been displayed
  • Who is addressed by the advertisement, who is the supposed audience?
  • Who is the presumed 'voice' of the advertisement (i.e what is its rhetoric)
  • What are the wider implications of the advertisement, how does it fit in to the wider system of mass culture at the time?
  • Find another site you are interested in (i.e World's Fairs, How the Other Half Lives) and find a related piece of evidence to support your ideas.
  • Self reflection: What did you gain from this exercise? Has seeing the advertisements altered how you perceive early advertising? What interested you about the adverts you selected? (write comments on the back if you need more room).


1.For a definition of this and further information about 'constructivist' learning and the Internet see: Brent Wilson and may Lowrey "Constructivist Learning on the Web"in Liz Burge (ed.) Learning Technologies: Reflective and Stratigic Thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001. Available at:

2. See the Virtual Resource Site for Teaching with Technology at:

3. Bates, quoted in Bracewell et al, The Emerging Contribution of Online Resources and Tools to Classroom Learning and Teaching, (Dec 1998) available at

4. Bracewell et al, The Emerging Contribution of Online Resources and Tools to Classroom Learning and Teaching, (Dec 1998) available at

5. For further information and images of Kolb's model of the Learning Cycle see: Kolb's theory has also been critiqued: see, for example, comments from "Experiential learning articles and critiques of Kolb's theory"website:

6. See, for example, Randy Bass's article "Engines of Enquiry: Teaching, Technology and Learner Centered Approaches to Culture and History", in Engines of Enquiry, available online at

7. William G. Huitt and David Monetti, "An Exploratory Analysis of Education Students' Preparation and Interest in Taking an Online Course", paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Georgia Educational Research Association, Clayton College and State University, October 2000. Available online at: See appendix 12 for an example of this questionnaire.

8.see: Visible Knowledges Project at:
"The Visible Knowledge Project is a five-year, four million dollar project aimed at improving the quality of college and university teaching through a focus on both student learning and faculty development in technology-enhanced environments. With more than 50 faculties on 25 campuses engaged in the scholarship of teaching, the Visible Knowledge Project is among the most significant research projects in the country on technology and learning, and the largest in the humanities, social sciences, and interdisciplinary culture fields...The Visible Knowledge Project places questions about the integration of technology within a broad context of faculty inquiry into student learning and innovative practice. Too commonly the approach in higher education to technology and teaching separate discussions of technology from pedagogy, isolates pedagogy from disciplinary practices and methods, and overall, fails to approach innovation as a matter of ongoing intellectual and practical inquiry. In such conditions, technology integration likely will proceed along the path of least resistance, stressing productivity and efficiency over quality and learning, with only isolated pockets of innovation. Unique in its approach, size, and scope, the Visible Knowledge Project promises to have a significant impact on current national conversations about learning, technology, and the scholarship of teaching."


"Adult Learning Theory"

"Applying Learning Theories to Online Instructional Design"

Bass,R. "Engines of Enquiry: Teaching, Technology and Learner Centered Approaches to Culture and History", in Engines of Enquiry

Bracewell et al, The Emerging Contribution of Online Resources and Tools to Classroom Learning and Teaching, (Dec 1998)

"Center for Teaching Excellence - Best Practices in Higher Education"

Cove, P., & A. Love (1996). Enhancing Student Learning: Intellectual, Social and Emotional Integration. Washington DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Dearing Report (1997).

"Education / learning styles"

"Experiential learning articles and critiques of Kolb's theory"

Huitt, W. G. and D. Monetti, "An Exploratory Analysis of Education Students' Preparation and Interest in Taking an Online Course", paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Georgia Educational Research Association, Clayton College and State University, October 2000.

"Instructional Design and Theories Models"

"Instructional Theory and Design Resources"

"The Kolb Learning Cycle"

Kosakowski, J. (1998). The Benefits of Information Technology. Syracuse: NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Available at

"Online Pedagogy: Theories & Best Practices"

Pickert, S. (1992). Preparing for a Golbal Community. Achieving and International Perspective in Higher Education. Washington DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Available at

"Teaching/Learning Activities: What do you want to use technology for?"

"Virtual Resource Site for Teaching with Technology"

"Visible Knowledges Project"

Wilson, B. and M. Lowrey "Constructivist Learning on the Web"in Liz Burge (ed.) Learning Technologies: Reflective and Stratigic Thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001.