Michael Aldous
Queen's University Belfast

Hitching (and tweeting) across business history

The discussion about the use of simulations and games in my last interview gave me further impetus to explore ways to think about reshaping the classroom experience, in particular considering the use of technology. 

Chinmay Tumbe

In this interview I talked with Chinmay Tumbe, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, about his use of online technologies to extend the reach of the classroom and build capacity to engage with his students. To start the conversation we discussed the classes he teaches. 

What and who do you teach?

I teach two history-related courses. A 2nd year MBA elective titled “Hitchhikers Guide to Business and Economies across Five Centuries” [syllabus] attempts to provide an overview of key elements of global economic and business history since 1500. It is split into four modules titled Global Revolutions, People, Firms, and Economies. The evaluation weightages are 42% (yes, Douglas Adams-Hitchhikers!) for assignment, 42% for group project and 16% for class participation. This course is now offered in two different semesters and is taken by 150 students or one third of the graduating batch. It also includes exchange students from other continents, which makes for interesting cross-cultural classroom discussions. I also take a PhD level course titled “Business History” [syllabus] which focuses on the evolution of firms and business practices, with relatively more coverage on India. This is a core course for all second-year doctoral students numbering around twenty at our institute.

What role does technology play in the modules?

At the MBA level, there is lot of enthusiasm for group project sessions and considerably less when the sessions revolve around a set of readings. The emphasis is more on group work and presentations on topics chosen by the students on selected themes. Interactive interventions such as a history timeline card game, played twice or thrice in the course, with the objective of conveying key events and broad chronologies is popular. The game takes about five minutes to play in groups of 3-5 and is played at the end of the class. Other hands-on exercises such as marking countries, firms or empires on printed global map sheets help to visualise and engage the students with the topics. This creates a wide range of materials over the course of the module.

To showcase all this material, and provide a freely accessible online memory of classroom activities both the courses are linked to a Twitter handle – HITCH@BizEconHist. This tweets on aspects of business and economic history, questions raised in the classroom, presentation slides used by the instructor or the presenting group, photographs of the presenting group, and a cover image summarizing the student’s assignment. It contributes towards a democratic open-access pedagogy. Students (or anyone) need not have a Twitter account to follow the tweets, and anyone can engage with the class and its content through this platform.

An example is presented in a snapshot of the Twitter page below. One post shows the students of a group presentation comparing five merchants in history. The previous post on Belgium and UK refers to a question raised in class, which is usually kept open-ended on the website to maintain a repository of questions raised in the classroom. Particular hashtags help link the post with particular batches or themes. For instance, the hashtag #hitch16 was appended to all posts for the class taken in 2016.

hitching.jpg

At the PhD level, the orientation is academic with emphasis on critical readings. However, one nice way to compliment the readings have been Skype sessions with leading historians around the world. They are arranged towards the end of the class so that students can engage directly with the author of their assigned readings. Recently we have had sessions with Tirthankar Roy at the London School of Economics and Youssef Cassis at EUI, Florence. The use of this simple technology has allowed our students to engage with global experts thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, the India-US time difference constrains the engagement with academics in the US (unless they want to Skype at 2 AM!).

How do your students respond to the technology? 

At the MBA level, about a quarter of the class actively engage with the Twitter handle by retweeting or liking posts. Some of them share interesting historical information that they come across, with the Twitter handle. In the PhD course, students have volunteered to record the questions raised in class and post it online. The course does not make it mandatory for anyone to use Twitter and in no way penalises students for not using technology. Engagement via Twitter does not end when the course ends; students of the first graduating batch now continue to engage with the Twitter handle from their corporate desks! The most heartening response I have received till date has been a request to repeat the course in another semester for students who missed out due to enrolment caps.

I particularly like the use of some very simple technology that allows the students to engage with the tutor, each other and participants beyond the classroom effectively. Having used lots of technology to teach blended learning modules (particularly Blackboard and adobe connect to achieve these sharing and communication functions) I have always thought that getting these types of platforms into the learning environment was an expensive affair, and difficult for those teaching at universities without heavy online technology investments. However, this demonstration by Chinmay has really encouraged me to think about using much more accessible platforms (particularly those widely used by the students themselves) to provide these functions.  Do check out HITCH@BizEconHist to see it all in action.