Understanding Lincoln, The Online Course

New online graduate course from Dickinson College and Gilder Lehrman Institute completes a second, successful run By Matthew Pinsker, course instructor


  1. (Summer 2014)  The most recent edition of "Understanding Lincoln," a unique open, online graduate course offered by the House Divided Project and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has ended with the following numbers to report.  Over two semesters (Fall 2013 and Summer 2014), the course has drawn 1,000 participants, including 150 tuition-paying graduate students and another 850 auditors.  Completion rates for the graduate students have been reasonably high, especially in 2014 (about 80 percent, pending a few extensions...), but they remain much lower, obviously for auditors --between 15 - 25 percent, depending on how you count things.  More important, however, (at least in my eyes), these seminar participants have now produced over 250 websites, videos, blog posts and other multi-media resources on Abraham Lincoln and his times that have been published at Lincoln's Writings, the new nationally recognized website built for (and developed by) the course participants.  That's the good news.  But the challenging news --and the real debate-- is to figure out how such an experiment in online learning can add to the goals of traditional educational institutions, such as Dickinson College, or committed teacher development organizations such as Gilder Lehrman.  In other words, everybody knows that online learning is part of the future, but the question is, which part?  I think "Understanding Lincoln" begins to offer some helpful answers to that question.
  2. First, some background on the course itself.  I am the course instructor.  You can find a copy of the 2014 syllabus at Lincoln's Writings.  At the House Divided Project, we have also created a series of short online essays that describe and summarize each of the 2014 sessions.  You can click on the syllabus below and can access those essays through these links:  Opening Night, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Field Trip.  These seven Storify essays might also be viewed as slideshows.  One of those examples is embedded just below the graphic link to the syllabus.
  3. Some of our sessions are also fully available via streaming video at our course Livestream channel. Anyone can watch an archived version of both opening and closing night, for example.  The closing session, on August 20, 2014 at Dickinson, was particularly notable because it featured presentations from three course participants whose final multi-media projects were deemed the best in the course.
  4. Understanding Lincoln 2014 - Course Kickoff - Live from Dickinson College - from Understanding Lincoln
  5. Understanding Lincoln - Final Night - Live from Dickinson College - from Understanding Lincoln
  6. These projects are worth examining carefully, because they represent an ideal of what might be accomplished in an online setting.  None of the "winners" in either 2013 or 2014 had ever before built their own websites.  None of them were Lincoln "experts" prior to taking the course.  And yet with some intensive training, lots of hard work, and plenty of their own talent, they were able to harness their teaching experience to create multi-media resources that seem to be pretty outstanding classroom tools to me and to our scholarly Board of Advisors (David W. Blight, Catherine Clinton, Eric Foner, Harold Holzer, James Oakes, and Anne Sarah Rubin), who helped review the finalists.  Here are direct links to all six of the winning projects from the previous two years.
  7. Building websites was a main goal of the course, but there were other types of multi-media assignments along the way --designed hopefully to help toward the construction of full web-based exhibits of some type or fashion.  The key working assignment in the course was the "close reading," a phrase borrowed from the new Common Core reading standards but adapted to the purposes of a history or social studies classroom.  Participants wrote close reading analyses of one of Lincoln's "most teachable" documents and then prepared video versions of those scripts. During our sessions, I argued for this overall framework for close readings:
    1.  Text
    2.  Context
    3.  Subtext
    In other words, I urged participants to embrace the idea that students should encounter historical texts (like Lincoln's Writings) first and directly, before teachers overwhelm them with context.  But context matters and needs to be an essential part of the equation.  To my mind, however, all close readers must ultimately aspire to understand subtext, or the hidden meanings of the choices that went into the construction of the text.  The way I put it to my students is that understanding what's left out is just as important as knowing what's there.  

    So in many ways, the most significant legacy of the "Understanding Lincoln" experience will be the dozens and dozens of close reading videos prepared for the course that can help demonstrate at least one critical way that historians "do" history.  You can find these videos scattered throughout the pages of Lincoln's Writings, but here is an album of my 25 videos for the featured documents at the site, as well as a handful of some of the other most notable student examples from the course (in order:  Annemarie Gray, Jesse O'Neill, and the first grade students of Mrs. Sarah Turpin.
  8. Gettysburg Address by First Graders
  9. This year, we also employed Storify as a platform for writing reflective essays about the opportunities and challenges of teaching historical material in the digital age.  I was especially impressed by the insights of numerous participants and created a series of new pages at Lincoln's Writings that featured their reflections.  These reflections came in connection with various K-12 teaching standards, such as the Common Core and Historical Thinking, an approach which is now being promoted most notably within the redesigned curriculum for Advanced Placement in US History.  You can view several of these essays through the links below.
  10. Ultimately, what I think these various "Understanding Lincoln" assignments help demonstrate is that the most important letter in the now-notorious phrase "MOOC" (massive open online courses) is "open."  What makes online learning not only potentially more convenient, but also essential for liberal arts institutions such as Dickinson College is its ability to open up the learning process and to share insights with wider audiences.  The most determined participants from "Understanding Lincoln" now have a platform to reach their peers that literally didn't exist just a few years ago.  What I tell them from the beginning of the course is that A is for author --it's not just a grade anymore.  I am no longer their primary audience.  They have a bigger, more open field to pursue and in seeking to make contact and to share insights across the online world, they are inspired (or perhaps sometimes scared) into doing their very best work.  Online learning must surely not replace the classroom and residential experience, but it can shake up that experience in a way that improves it, by reminding us to reach out  beyond our walls and campuses in order to help shape the wider world.