In early spring 2020, historian Kalani Craig was teaching a class about the Black Death, the deadly bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 1300s.
Suddenly, that medieval history got very contemporary. The COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the United States, and Craig’s students had to leave the Indiana University Bloomington campus and move their education online.
Fortunately, Craig, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of History at IU Bloomington and self-described digital history “nerd,” had a software tool at the ready to support and enhance her students’ remote learning.
Called Net.Create, the tool is a networking program that helps visualize key historical events, relationships, and connections. It allows many students to work together to create a collaborative network of “nodes” (historical actors such as individuals and institutions) and connect them using lines, or “edges.” As Craig puts it, “nodes are the nouns in a sentence, edges are the verbs.”
“Typically, history teaching and learning is a barrage of names, dates, and faces that students memorize,” Craig said. “But we want students to focus on significance. We want them to really engage with the historical events.”
Craig is also co-director of IU Bloomington’s Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities. Over the last several years, she has developed Net.Create as a way to improve history learning along with her collaborators Joshua Danish and Cindy Hmelo-Silver, both professors in the IU Bloomington School of Education, Ann McCranie, associate director of Indiana University Network Institute, and Ben Loh, director and co-founder of the education technology company Inquirium LLC.
Using Net.Create, students can get actively involved in generating nodes and edges from an historical text, which in turn helps them to grasp the variety of connections between people, places, and events, according to Craig. Network visualization helps students see that history is not linear, but rather a complex web of relationships.
During her Spring 2020 Black Death class, the network tool provided a real platform for fostering students' relationships, both with the course of history and, surprisingly, with one another.
"We were expecting the platform to be effective for teaching history topics," Craig said. "What we were not expecting is the connections it created between the students themselves. It turns out that knowing someone was on other end of the software working with them made students feel like they were in classroom."
"After the class," Craig continued, "we got lots of comments that said, 'I felt like I was contributing to something bigger.' So this impersonal computer program gave them the feeling of connection."
Craig and her collaborators published an article about the spring 2020 Black Death class called "Increasing students' social engagement during COVID-19 with Net.Create: collaborative social network analysis to map historical pandemics during a pandemic" in an issue of the online journal Information and Learning Science.
In Fall 2020, Craig is again teaching the Black Death course online – given its "hot topic" related to pandemics, the course has an enrollment of 150.
Craig will be using the Net.Create tool from the first day of class to encourage students to form connections. "We want to train them in how to talk about each other's work in constructive ways," she said.
Eventually, the Net.Create collaborators hope to make the tool more accessible and available to all humanities researchers. They also hope to take the tool into environments outside of academia, such as social justice work.
"We want to show people who may not see themselves as tech-savvy that they can use this tool," Craig said. "Who knows where using this as a tool for engagement will lead?"
Development of the Net.Create tool has been supported by a Faculty Research Support Program grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington and a grant from the National Science Foundation's Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research program.