Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Cambridge University's New Virtual Classroom

by Derry Nairn

Cambridge University's History Department have funked up their website with some nice new graphics and lots of clever interactive features.

The main feature is the Virtual Classroom. This is aimed at secondary teachers and students, who can explore the study of history at university level.

There are sections dealing with primary and secondary sources, and accompanying exercises for students to tackle. There are also areas dealing with suggested reading and online resources. Largely text-based, the information is is wide-ranging and detailed.

The website also includes profiles of some of the students currently studying history at Cambridge, their backgrounds,and why they made their decision. There are examples of how people have used their history degrees to pursue careers in the fields of journalism, law and teaching.

Another novel feature is the addition of sample video lectures by Cambridge dons. For a site whose goal is to interest students in history, however, the chosen lectures are not exactly thrilling. Its not the subject matter that is the problem. Rather, a single camera angle produces dull lighting and no view of the digital blackboard which the lecturers refer to.

More sophisticated software does exist for this type of thing. At London City University, for example, selected sessions are broadcast live. The viewers can comment and ask questions in real time. The lecturer's monitor can be seen as an extra panel on the screen and, later, the recorded video and compiled comments can be searched by students who missed the lecture.

The content seems to have been conceived primarily with teachers in mind, looking for reliable and accessible course material for their students. In this, it succeeds. The exercises are solid in standard and exacting in detail. However, Cambridge History Facility might like to consider enlivening some of the promotional material aimed at students in their next site iteration.

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