Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Challenges of Ongoing Course Development

Reconstruction of the Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus.  Source:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/11638975/Massive-triumphal-marble-arch-built-by-Romans-to-honour-Emperor-Titus-discovered.html
As is my early morning ritual, I was browsing my Twitter feed while trying to wake up the other day.  I paused on an interesting post: the remains of a second Arch of Titus had been excavated in the eastern end of the Circus Maximus.  This is pretty big news.  We knew this arch existed and even had a copy of its dedicatory inscription, but to actually find large pieces of it is kind of exciting.  In my field of classics, we don't often find the remains of famous monuments.  Intrigued, I read the news articles and, over the next days, several blog posts about the find and its significance.
Remains of the Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus.  Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/11638975/Massive-triumphal-marble-arch-built-by-Romans-to-honour-Emperor-Titus-discovered.html

Remains of the Circus Maximus

Finding these blocks of marble doesn't actually change anything for ancient historians.  The arch's existence was documented in medieval sources, which also preserved its dedication to Titus.  We know that it remained standing until the 12th century, when the Circus Maximus was converted to agricultural use and inhabited.  The arch was used to provide support for an aqueduct that provided water to the fields in the Circus Maximus.  It was assumed that, around this time, the arch was plundered for building materials.  Once the arch is reconstructed, we will have a better sense of its fate.  We will be able to see how much of it remained intact until it was buried; and, possibly, the archaeological context will provide additional information.

One of the great things about an online class is the ease with which they can be updated and modified.  If I had produced a printed textbook, there would be nothing to do except keep a list of updates for a second edition.  With the Online Rome class, I can make revisions in minutes.  The discovery of this second Arch of Titus is exactly the sort of thing that I will add to my version of the course.  Confession: although I am a very good classicist and ancient historian, I don't know everything.  I didn't actually know that Titus had two arches constructed in his honor by his brother and successor, Domitian.  More to the point, the current version of Online Rome perpetuates the traditional "textbook" narrative: the Arch of Titus at the start of the Roman Forum, near the Flavian Amphitheater, is a triumphal arch that commemorates Titus's victory over the Jews and Judea.

In reading the articles and blog posts about the newly discovered Arch of Titus in the Circus Maximus, I realized that this traditional narrative is wrong in some important ways.  The best source for understanding how the two Arches of Titus related is the detailed discussion on The History Blog.  A couple of important details: first, it is this Arch of Titus at the entrance of the ancient Circus Maximus (an arena where chariot races were held) that was, in fact, the triumphal arch for Titus's victory over the Jews.  It was dedicated to Titus by the Roman Senate soon after Titus's untimely death.  The dedication makes clear that the arch was erected in honor of Titus's military victory over the Jews and his sack of Jerusalem.  This is the arch's dedicatory inscription:

Senatus populusque Romanus imp(eratori) Tito Ceasari divi Vespasiani f(ilio) Vespasiani Augusto pontif(ici) max(imo), trib(unicia) pot(estate) x, imp(eratori) XVII, [c]o(n)s(uli) VIII, p(atri) p(atriae), principi suo, quod praeceptis patri(is) consiliisq(ue) et auspiciis gentem Iudaeorum domuit et urbem Hierusolymam, omnibus ante se ducibus regibus gentibus aut frustra petitam aut omnino intem(p)tatam, delevit.

The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the Emperor Titus [snip many titles], because by his father’s counsel and good auspices, he conquered the people of Judaea and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, which all of the generals, kings, and peoples before him had either failed to do or even to attempt.

 The Arch of Titus at the start of the Via Appia in the Roman Forum, by contrast, is not a standard triumphal arch despite the allusions to Titus's victory over the Jews in some of the relief panels.  As The History Blog post observes, "The central panel in the single arch’s soffit relief depicts Titus being carried to the heavens by an eagle. The inscription also emphasizes the recently deceased emperor’s divinity: “SENATUS/ POPULUSQUE ROMANUS/ DIVO TITO DIVI VESPASIANI F(ilio)/ VESPASIANO AUGUSTO” (The Senate and People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasian Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian)." 

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumphal_arch
This second Arch of Titus was erected in 82 by Domitian and, like the first arch, was dedicated to the memory of the deified Titus by the Roman Senate.  Note the much less elaborate inscription in the second arch, the omission of Titus's many titles and offices.  This second arch is clearly not a standard victory arch but rather, a kind of celebratory arch that, as much as anything, celebrates the divinity of Vespasian and Titus; and helps to legitimate Domitian's status as their successor.  But how, exactly, are we to understand the meaning and occasion of this second, surviving Arch of Titus?  How would a Roman living during Domitian's rule have understood these two arches?  How would their relationship have been conceptualized?

It is interesting to observe that Titus's official triumphal arch was erected at the entrance of the Circus Maximus, a public space for entertainment.  This choice seems especially meaningful when we remember that it was the Flavians who constructed the massive Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum), not too distant from the Circus Maximus.  In fact, Domitian would make significant renovations to the massive Amphitheater and held elaborate games to re-inaugurate it.  So why erect a second arch to his deceased brother on the edge of the Roman Forum?  Suddenly, the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, a monument that seemed to have a straightforward story to tell, becomes complicated.  Suddenly, the traditional treatment of the extant Arch of Titus as a victory arch is not so easy to defend. 

In this instance, a historian more versed than I am about Flavian archaeology might have discussed the two arches in the first place.  Nobody knows everything, however, and the brilliance of the digital medium is the ease of revision.  It forgives ignorance and allows easy correction.  At the same time, important questions are raised by an online course that never come up when an instructor is teaching from a printed textbook: who is responsible for keeping an online course updated, especially if the original designer is no longer involved in the project?  Is it the responsibility of the course coordinator?  Should someone be brought in to provide updates and revisions to the content every year or two?

In my field of Classics, the number of necessary updates is likely to be fairly small compared to something like Contemporary US Government.  Still, the original course cannot be left unrevised for years.  There are new discoveries as well as new theories of old evidence every year.  One of the reasons it is so important to have a content expert continuously involved with the running of the course is precisely that someone needs to stay aware of these new findings in the field (and be able to understand the significance of the new findings). 

People frequently compare online courses to textbooks.  In some ways, they do function like enhanced textbooks.  They nevertheless differ from textbooks in some important ways, most especially in the fact that they are organic and can be modified.  In addition, at least in my Online Rome course, there is no "textbook author" voice that is distinct from the voice of the instructor.  From the perspective of the student, there is only the voice of the instructor; and the instructor can modify the modules as they wish, to reflect their own expertise and interests (within reason).  An online course is a kind of living creature.  It is never "finished"; it can be and should be constantly updated, added to, subtracted from.

I don't know if this will happen, but it is my hope that, even after the course has been handed off to the Classics Department to run, that the course coordinator as well as the instructors will continue to work on the content, adding something here and taking away something there.  Perhaps they might have a new idea for a game.  Although the course I handed over is complete, polished, and ready to go, I hope that future instructors will recognize that one of the benefits of the digital medium is the ability to make modifications and corrections. 

I imagine coming back to the class in a decade to find that Online Rome has continued to evolve over that time to adapt to the needs of students; incorporate new content (new discoveries or theories of existing evidence but also, e.g., videos, animations, virtual reality experiences, and games); and incorporate new learning tools as they become available.  It is important that everyone involved with the course recognize the opportunity they have to put their own mark on the course; but also, the responsibility to ensure that it is regularly and systematically updated.  With every passing month, it seems, there is more and more content available, some of it very good.

For instance, I just noticed that the MAV, a museum which creates virtual reality experiences from archaeological remains, has just posted a reconstruction of the baths at Herculaneum.  The MAV page on Facebook is a great resource for these virtual reconstructions (they also have reconstructed the Villa of the Papyri), especially because it is nearly impossible for students to imagine what ancient bath complexes looked like from the scant remains that we can show them.  These reconstructions allow them to imagine the scale and magnificence of the original public buildings.  Keeping track of new digital content and deciding what to integrate into the course will be an essential role of the course coordinator (or someone).  Without revisions, additions, and modifications, Online Rome will indeed function more like a textbook--a stable object that slowly becomes outdated in a range of ways.


  1. Yes yes yes yes, a hundred times yes! Plus, there is all the content that can and should be added / updated as a result of interactions with students, finding out what they are excited about, confused about, and so on. Meanwhile, thanks for all the news here. It makes me want to take a trip to Rome just to be in the presence of all those STONES. :-)

  2. Jen,

    I've been working on open source software to help individuals create courses independently of a university. CyberCourse - aka Cyco - supports learning science ideas, like frequent formative feedback, deep learning through patterns and big ideas, and much else. It also makes content easy to change. That was a design goal from the beginning.

    If you're interested, it's at https://cybercour.se. It's a work-in-progress, though I use it for live courses. An example is at https://programming.cybercour.se


  3. Right, Laura--a major advantage of the digital is the ability to modify on the fly. So, for instance, every semester I teach f2f, certain topics generate more interest than others. It's important to find ways to highlight those (usually by cutting back on something else). Or to re-emphasize at later points topics that are still confusing. These are all possible to do in a "built" class so long as everyone understands that "built" is not the equivalent of stable, immutable artifact. Teaching really is a very intricate dance; and the digital allows us so much more flexibility than does a printed textbook. At the same time, it requires an instructor who has the skill to leverage the advantages of proffered by the digital. It's interesting: as I wrote about aspects of the online class, I find myself coming back over and over to the same thing--everything ultimately comes down to the skill and expertise of the instructors. Just like in a f2f class.

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