The increasing reliance upon ‘online teaching’ has caused contention among some students who feel they are not getting enough for their money, with such little contact hours and an emphasis on self-study. The launch of Blackboard 9 has enabled the creation of the History Student Portal (HSP), a set of pages that give all History undergraduates a single space which direct you to all the resources you will need, in a less confusing and more contained way. The creation of the HSP is designed to give students in this field an improved learning experience throughout their degree and is part of a broader programme of reforms, but is it auto didacticism taken too far?

Compared to many other courses taught at degree level, History has remarkably fewer ‘contact hours’ a week. This consists mainly of lectures and tutorials, except in Level 3, as the already limited amount of contact time is replaced by ‘workshops’ where a topic is raised and discussed by the group as a whole, usually lasting 3 hours long at a time. There has been quite a divided response to that from level three History students, as many find it hard to concentrate for such long periods and some argue a longer seminar often means their notes are less organised and lack the formal structure that you get in a lecture. There are students who prefer this way of more active group discussion, arguing that it re-enforces the importance of weekly reading to understand and partake in such debates. Becki Guy-Ragan, a Second year Medieval Studies student says: ‘I prefer seminars to get a range of different opinions on the weekly readings, and to learn from my peers, but I would rather have more contact hours’. Other students argue another fault of the current ‘online teaching’ system that there are not enough career orientated aspects of the degree, such as opportunities for a placement year to increase graduate recruitment prospects.

One of the main reasons why ‘online teaching’ is encouraged for History Undergraduates at Manchester is because of the amazing range of resources that are available online, not just on the HSP, but also on many other sites that hardly any students are aware of.

In a recent Long Essay lecture for History students in levels 2 and 3, conducted by Dr. Stephen Mossman, not a single student put their hand up to say they knew there was a John Rylands History webpage, which is put there specifically for students’ use, with numerous online databases and helpful links to library resources. There have also been changes made to the availability of online reading in the history department, making all compulsory reading for the course available online. This enables every student with the opportunity with the basic readings, as theres no longer the chance you couldn’t get access to the book that you need. Pippa Standard, a second year History student says: ‘I really enjoy my course here because it involves a lot of independent learning so it’s completely different to school…having everything online makes things so much easier to access and means you can do
your work anywhere which is useful’.

Evidently there are differences in opinions amongst students about the benefits and the pitfalls of the increased use of the internet in History degree programmes, but the opinion seems to be that students are more disgruntled with the actual hours of contact than with the content of the course, and the ‘online teaching’ would be seen in a much more positive light if it was teamed with a few more extra hours of ‘face-time’ with lecturers, and no, I don’t mean the face-time app for the iPod.

If this is the case, whose fault is it that resources aren’t being taken full use of? Dr. Stephen Mossman sheds some further light on the matter, explaining the reasons why there are a small amount of contact hours in History degree programmes, and why we should be making the most of what we’re paying for. ‘When you come to Manchester, your fees aren’t just paying for ‘contact hours’ with a world authority in the specialist field (though that’s a distinct benefit)…The library spends millions of pounds of your money annually on securing access to the largest collection of electronic journals and databases of any UK University…but they are significantly under-used. Our students need to take the initiative to explore what the library resources have to offer – after all, you have paid for them!