The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

Electronic Medievalia

Distance Learning and the

Teaching of Early Medieval History

By Jeffrey Wetherhill

Eastern Oregon University & University of Wales, Lampeter


Consider the following scenario. I am typing this on a laptop from my home near London. Throughout the day, I have been working on three writing projects. One is for my Director at Eastern Oregon University (USA) - where I teach two Celtic/Medieval distance learning courses. A second is for my PhD Supervisor at the University of Wales (UK) - where I am a postgraduate student. The third is for my Team Leader at the internet-based Distance Learning Course Finder (Germany) - where I develop content for the website. When people ask me what I do, they often shake their heads in curiosity when they discover that I teach courses, study at a university, and write/edit for a website that all have their offices a longggg way from where I live (approx. 5000, 275, and 900 miles respectively). Today, I was able to complete all three in my pyjamas!

While each of those areas is a world to itself, I want to give special attention to my teaching experience at Eastern Oregon University. This is my second term as an Adjunct Faculty with the Division of Distance Education. I currently teach two History courses entitled: Medieval Ireland: Land of Saints & Scholars (5-12th Centuries) and The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church. Though I am a US citizen (born in Ohio), I have lived in Ireland and England for nearly twelve years. This gives me the privileged opportunity to teach my US-based students while frequently being able to see, smell, taste, touch, and feel the Medieval antiquities that we often explore in our courses.

In designing my syllabi, I had to give special attention to the course components - Description, Objectives, Learning Outcomes, Texts, Assignments, Grading, Calendar, etc. But in this case, those components had to be shaped and fashioned by the reality that my students are a continent away, using the telephone to discuss issues & problems is not a financially viable option, and we are completely dependent upon technology to keep our classes going. Taking those variables into account, I have highlighted three areas below where I have faced issues/questions along the way and how I have tried to resolve them:


1. Communication. Is everything on the course website - Syllabus, Study Guides, and Assignments - absolutely clear? Without me being able to pick up the phone or meet face-to-face with my students, will they know what to read, explore, respond to, send - and when?

My response: I regularly update the course websites with announcements and discussion items. Also, I try and send the class an email every couple of days giving them information, probing them with questions, and reminding them of assignment due dates. Students regularly send me emails with queries or insights about their studies. I try to deal with each student's email within 24 hours to keep them motivated and learning.


2. Pedagogy. What is the best format for teaching in a distance learning environment? Do I keep sending them endless pages of my thoughts and musings on the topics (i.e. lecture materials) – or – Do I try and create a guided environment for learning that causes them to explore, think, and reflect? Can I, or better yet, should I, do both?

My response: In addition to the teaching information I have placed on the website – study guides for each Module (filled with readings, questions, web resources, additional materials, and assignments) and discussion questions for interaction - I have tried to creatively put the classes together so that my students are active participants in the teaching/learning process. I post this Announcement on our course websites at the beginning of each class. It acts as an educational manifesto as we study and learn together:

"Hello Class! Because this is a web-based course, perhaps your first such experience, I thought I would share a couple of brief thoughts regarding the course design and my view of the teaching & learning process. Hopefully this will help you know where I am coming from and how to get the most out of the course. I view my role as a teacher more like that of a ‘tour guide’ than a ‘sit and listen’ lecturer (which I don't think is necessarily good education anyway). The course is designed to help you explore, interact, think, reflect, and pursue the topics rather than have me spoon feed you mindless facts & information. There are no lengthy discourses tucked away in some corner of the website. Rather, I have tried to guide you along with texts, readings, study questions, web research, and assignments to help you ‘see the sites and admire the views’ so that you are intellectually challenged and stimulated to keep on exploring.


I view your role as a student as someone eager to ‘soak up’ as much of the tour as possible. While I have designed the ‘itinerary’ of the course to cover Ireland's past from the 5-12th centuries, the enjoyment will come through your eagerness to study the materials, interact with the websites, and give careful thought to the questions that surface along the tour. Thus, I am assuming throughout that you are keen to learn all you can and will pursue it with me. I have tried to give you plenty of resources to help you learn as much as you can about early Medieval Ireland.

I fully appreciate that we are separated by a huge pond called the ‘Atlantic’ between us. I genuinely would love the opportunity to meet with you face to face. I suppose this course will truly highlight the ‘distance’ in distance education. That said, this can be an incredible experience for all of us if we work hard at communicating. If there is anything, anything at all, that is not clear or needs explanation or that I can help with – please send me an email. No question is too silly to ask. I will do my best to check my emails regularly and respond as quickly as I can. In the meantime while you wait, keep on touring – there really is so much to see! Please grab a ‘window seat’ as we explore the world of Medieval Ireland. I hope you enjoy the tour!"


3. Technology. How do I get my Syllabus from my word processor onto a website so we can all view and download it any time of day? What is the best format for sending assignments?

My Response: Eastern Oregon University was a huge help in this area by providing the teaching ‘environment’ for our class. They gave me a tutorial on how to use Blackboard – a company that specialises in creating tools and resources for teaching online. I didn't need to know any complex technical jargon, but by typing the right information in the correct boxes on my screen, I was able to load the information onto our course website. The tutorial took me through step-by-step in how to create all the components needed for my classes. Also, to overcome the fact that students use different types of computers (PCs & Macs), software, and word processing programmes, I have them send me all of their assignments in the body of an email. I ask them to compose it first in their word processing programme then cut-n-paste it into an email. That format has worked very smoothly as it allows me to grade and respond by sending a reply to each student.

While there are many other issues I have faced in my teaching experience with Eastern Oregon University (i.e. how to give an online exam, how to create study materials, etc), I want to affirm this single point: teaching early Medieval history in a web-based environment can be a rich and rewarding experience. First, so many important texts and resources are now available online (check the links section of the Heroic Age). Second, there are plenty of tools to help get course information from your head to your word processor and then onto a website. Finally, teaching early Medieval history often attracts students who are highly motivated and eager to learn; making for a great teaching and learning environment.

Allow me to finish with this encouraging email I received from one of my students:

"I was just thinking yesterday that this is probably one of the best internet classes I have taken with regards to design, function and accountability. Many of the internet classes have been overwhelming with the amount of materials and internet activity … it could also be that I am working hard in this class because I am so fascinated with the subject - it's not work, it's a pleasure - Even now I am thinking about how this study fits in with the making of the St Patrick legend … I think I'm hooked on Celtic studies. Love your class."

That comment, from the other side of the world, reminded me of the privilege of being a Distance Educator teaching students about early Medieval History.

Jeffrey Wetherill
Adjunct Faculty, Eastern Oregon University
Sessional Lecturer, Birkbeck College, University of London
PhD Student, University of Wales


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Copyright © Jeffrey Wetherhill, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved