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Design narrative Dave Martin (2014) Meet the Author: The French Revolution 1789-1802

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Dave Martin
28 March 2014

Design Narrative – Meet the Author: The French Revolution 1789-1802


This narrative describes a two week online course for A level students.


ContextThis was a two week exploration of two of the key debates in the French Revolution 

Which do you consider to be the more significant turning point - the Civil Constitution of the Clergy or the Flight to Varennes - in the events leading to the failure of constitutional monarchy in the period 1789-1792?

To what extent would you hold Robespierre responsible for the Terror?

The students would be from Historical Association member schools with small A level history groups who would benefit from wider discussion opportunities.

The teacher was the author of a recent A level textbook on the subject and an experienced online educator.



All participants would be able to independently access the course web site and its associated asynchronous forums from either their own device or from desktops in their college or school.

On the web site would be a range of activities and resources designed to enable students to individually consider the key question. These resources were audio files created specifically for the course by a historian, link to video content ( a BBC documentary via YouTube) and a range of written sources being extracts from the published writings of historians in books and periodicals.

The Moodle based asynchronous forum would allow students to discuss the questions with students from other schools.



The course had 34 students aged 17 or 18 drawn from three schools in England. The online activities were introduced to them by their teachers in normal lessons with a requirement to continue working throughout the two weeks at places and times of their own choosing. In additional classroom lessons varying work in relation to the online course was completed. This last was outside the control of the course leader whose work was wholly within the Moodle forums.



The teachers wanted their students to increase their knowledge and understanding of the French Revolution and to challenge them. As it was a free trial there was less imperative from the schools to get value for money or to put it another way to encourage their students to engage with the course materials and discussion.



The course placed students outside the comfort zone of their own peer group and classroom. Teachers reported some were very intimidated by this.

For schools the challenge was how to place this additional course within their existing structures.



Students visited the web site and read about the Week’s activities. These required some thinking and reading.

There was then an introductory task to define terms and to contribute to a discussion thread. This offered a low and easily accesible first step.

Further tasks prepared studnets to again contribute to a discussion thread, but this time on a more challenging question. There now followed a period where the online tutor challenged and prompted students to support and clarify their ideas and to foster discussion. Students had little experience of this form of collaborative learning on line.


The second week was a repeat of the first in terms of structure although the material considered was different. The course was then brought to an end.


Technology. One school used iPads and there was a compatibility issue with the discussion threads.

Students were at a low level of collaborative learning online skills and some were intimidated by the open nature of the course.


These were partially addressed by:

The teachers in school offering alternative technology and as far as the tasks were concerned the reassurance of having discussed it within their own school.

The tutor worked to create an open and welcoming online environment although the short time duration made this a challenging task. 


Everybody was engaged and interested, everybody enjoyed the practical elements, there were plenty of happy ‘Ah Ha’s’ as people got to grips with the practical work.


The course was a limited success. Most students accessed the course resources and some took part in discussions. A detailed evaluation is under way drawing upon some of the usage data, feedback from the participating teachers and reflection by the course designer/ tutor.


Data and References


Related literature

C. Coffin, S. North & D. Martin (2009), ‘Exchanging and countering points of view: a linguistic perspective on school students’ use of electronic conferencing’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Vol. 25, Issue 1 pp 85-98.



C. Coffin, S. North & D. Martin (2007) 'What's your claim? Developing pupils' historical argument skills using asynchronous text based computer conferencing', in Teaching History, Issue No 126, March 2007.


Martin, D. (2008) ‘What do you think? Using online forums to improve students’ historical knowledge and understanding’, in Teaching History, Issue 133, December 2008.

Extra content

Embedded Content


Paul McCullough
3:03pm 31 March 2014

I was thinking about the problem with trying to get students to engage in debate online.  I wondered what your thoughts would be in structuring the debate in a slightly rigged way?

1. Hold a vote at the beginning where students have to vote for a.The Constitutions b. The Flight or c. don't know. (moodle has this option)

2. Secretly allocate one school a position in the argument that they adopt in order to persuade the other schools

3. Hold a Vote again, and see what the changes are.

4. Inform everyone how the discussion was 'rigged'

5. Discuss how knowing the discussion was rigged might change your view point.

Dave Martin
8:00pm 31 March 2014

I actually followed point 2. For the first of the two debates students were allocated a position to argue from, either for or against one of the two offered turning points. This only partly worked as schools did not necessarily pass the instruction on. This is a clear issue where there is a step in between the course tutor and the participants. Next time I may institute the direct link via an institutional email address rather than my own.

Have tried voting in a previous debate with year 11 on the success or failure of the League of Nations. In that instance whilst the level of discussion was far higher the interest in the vote was low. But different contexts so comparions are of limited value I feel.

I personally don't like 'rigging' the debate but am quite happy with openly setting up opposing positions. I think voting does have possibilities. Interestingly in our group we seem to disagree without the need for any tutor activity - for example to current divide over Cloudworks itself - in crude terms good or bad.

Thanks for your suggestions. I will be running this course again next year with changes.

Paul McCullough
5:31pm 6 April 2014

As always, good points.  I am always trying to work out how to encourage participation in online learning events, and so thanks for the feedback here.  I agree that we have a very interesting tutor group and I feel that I have benefitted a great deal from everyones opinions and contributions.

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