Global Learning: "A History of the World" and "History Dialogues"

For the better part of a decade, the Global History Lab (GHL) has offered an online, open-access course, "A History of the World," that invites learners to study the history of the world, together. The course is innovative for both its pedagogical approach and its humanitarian one: the GHL’s many partner institutions enroll and support refugee and migrant students who are too often excluded from higher education. This course not only expands the educational opportunities available to refugee learners, but also understands their voices and narratives as part of global history. The GHL’s global classroom is thus not only a learning medium, but also learning material, and has sparked new projects, conversations, and ideas about what it means to teach, learn, and create global history.

In 2019, we piloted a second course, “History Dialogues” (HD). Offered in collaboration with our partners to students enrolled at those institutions, HD builds upon the work of “A History of the World” to provide learners with training in historical research methods so that they can contribute to the creation of knowledge about our global past.

Pedagogical Innovation

A refugee learner enrolled in the Lab’s online history course, viewing one of the recorded lecturesUnlike most online—and even traditional—history courses, in which students learn parallel to each other, A History of the World’s emphasis on collaboration, conversation, and connection places interaction at the heart of the classroom, both digital and physical. A network of partner institutions offers the course concurrently, meaning students participate in local classrooms embedded in the larger global whole. This blended model, wherein students use an online platform to watch lectures and interact with distant peers, and meet with local colleagues for in-person discussions and assignments, increases the time students are able to spend working with and learning from each other.

Every week, students work in teams to analyze primary sources, creating presentations of their work that are uploaded to a shared classroom gallery. Here, learners can view and comment on each other’s work before reporting their findings back to their own teams. This interactive model blends deep and critical engagement with primary sources with breadth gleaned from reviewing other students’ work, while at the same time sparking conversations within and across the many different physical classrooms that make up the GHL network.

Online lectures, meanwhile, free up valuable class time for dynamic town halls. Working in small groups, students create “narrative maps” of key moments, individuals, and concepts in global history, situating them in global context before presenting their work to the wider class (and sometimes, time zones and class schedules permitting, to students at partner institutions, as well). Students’ voices are thus foregrounded in the classroom, and learners develop their facilities for collaboration and presentation, in addition to skills in historical interpretation, analysis, and synthesis.

Princeton undergraduates working on narrative maps.

Global Learning in a Global Classroom

Refugee learners in Uganda.The use of digital technologies allows for collaboration across oceans, borders, and time zones. By partnering with institutions of higher education in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, the GHL welcomes the world into the classroom. As students work with their local peers to create presentations for the class gallery, they rely on their counterparts around the world to teach them about other topics and sources. Interdependence is built into the class structure, and students are encouraged to see their peers, near and far, as contributors to the class’s growing reservoir of shared knowledge. The many perspectives that students bring to the classroom, and the narratives they study and create with each other, both enrich learners’ experience in the class and suggest possibilities for global histories that are more polyphonic, dialogic, and decentered.

Humanitarian History

Refugee learners in Camp Kakuma, Kenya, working together on a case study.From its inception, the GHL has been committed to including refugee and migrant learners, a commitment that has profoundly shaped "A History of the World" over the years. It is the first—and only—course to include refugee and non-refugee learners in the same global classroom. Beyond simple inclusion, the collaborative, interactive nature of the course builds connections among learners.

The GHL is unique not only for its class makeup, but also for its content: while many of the courses and educational programs available to refugee learners stress narrowly technical or vocational subjects, history, and the humanities and social sciences more broadly, receive short shrift. Yet history, and historical narratives, are central to how we understand the world and make sense of the strangers that inhabit it. Moreover, the work of historical inquiry, from analyzing primary sources, to creating narratives with other members of a team, to presenting findings in written and oral form, develops and hones a myriad of transferrable skills. "A History of the World" thus challenges the prioritization of vocational training in emergency higher education contexts, making an entwined case for the importance of historical understanding and insight in our fractured world, and for the broad utility of the historian’s toolkit.

Continuing the Conversation: History Dialogues

Refugee learners in Camp Kakuma, Kenya, conducting mock oral history interviews in preparation for their independent research projects.

In 2019, the GHL launched the pilot for a second blended course: History Dialogues (HD), currently open to students enrolled at GHL partner institutions. Realizing that the diversity of experience in the GHL classroom was not always reflected in the authors, texts, and sources used to teach global history, HD seeks to expand the range of voices involved in the researching and writing global history. Employing the same networked, blended model used in "A History of the World", HD trains students in oral history methods and project design. Students, collaborating with each other and with local instructors, develop research questions and plans to answer them before carrying out independent research projects. At the end of the course, they share their findings with the class, creating opportunities for students to see and explore connections, parallels, and intersections between their diverse projects. Furthering the GHL’s commitment to including the excluded, HD supports the research and creation of historical narratives by refugee students whose experiences, not to mention authorial voices, have long been marginalized.

History Dialogue students in Kenya, Rwanda, Yemen, and Syria participating in the global virtual classroom.

Current Partner Institutions (Spring 2020)

  • Sciences Po (Paris, France)
  • Panteion University (Athens, Greece)
  • Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (Kiryandongo, Uganda)
  • Kepler (Kigali, Rwanda)
  • University of Potsdam (Potsdam, Germany)
  • American University in Iraq, Sulaimani (Sulaimania, Iraq)

The Global History Lab team at Sciences Po, Paris.  The Global History Lab team at Panteion University, Athens.