My undergraduate seminars tend to suffer from a contradiction born of my own ambivalence. I want to cover a lot of content and develop the synergy that emerges from a semester-long conversation, but I also want to provide students an opportunity to explore a specific topic in depth and hone their research and writing skills. Too often, this tension between reading and research manifests as unsatisfying term papers that don’t reflect students’ sophisticated thinking during discussions. With the help of an innovative online learning platform, I finally got the balance right in the third iteration of “The Conquest of Nature,” a 400-level History seminar that also serves as an International Studies capstone course.

 “The Conquest of Nature” explores the history of imperial and international development projects in the twentieth century. I run it like a graduate seminar; there is a heavy reading load (but getting lighter every year!), and classes are dedicated to discussing secondary texts and analyzing primary sources. The syllabus is packed. Following a three-week introduction, units investigate specific water control, agriculture, and global health projects. Students appreciate the deep dive into interdisciplinary scholarship at the end of their undergraduate experience.

For the fall 2018 class, I redefined an inevitably rushed independent research paper as a pedagogical case study. The assignment asked students to synthesize scholarship on a well-known development project into a story that represented key lessons from the course. Rather than a typical conclusion, the case study culminated in the identification of an intrinsic dilemma or fundamental question. This subtle tweak shifted students’ roles from underqualified experts passing judgment to curious educators clarifying complexity. By the end of the assignment, they understood the stakes of framing a historical problem correctly.

The key to the assignment’s success, however, had less to do with this nuanced redefinition of objectives than with a change in presentation format. Ironically, given the course’s profound skepticism regarding technical fixes to social problems, the key was technology. We used the Gala platform designed and hosted by Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC). Modeled on business and law school pedagogy, MSC publishes a digital collection of cases in which students explore a dilemma facing a key decision-maker charged with promoting sustainable development. MSC provides grants for small teams of undergraduate students to partner with professors to produce carefully researched, professional quality cases. In contrast, my students worked individually for just six weeks while keeping up with a full reading load. MSC, in other words, expects the major payoff to be in the classroom deployment of cases, whereas I expected learning to occur through the production of cases.

Fortunately, the Gala platform is so intuitive and well-designed that it enabled students to construct slick, easily navigable multimedia webpages without worrying about the technology. I have had some success using commercial website templates for student projects in other classes, but they can encourage frustratingly superficial cut-and-paste jobs that resemble bad Wikipedia entries. With Gala, the pedagogical philosophy is built into the platform. The multimedia components are visually integrated so as to enhance, not replace, the written narrative. At the center of each case is a story. Not only do the projects end up looking publishable, but students add their final products to a gallery of polished undergraduate-generated cases that set a high standard.

The software is simple but impressive. An “edgenotes” feature automatically embeds maps, images, videos, and documents into the text. Edgenotes provide a visual preview without disrupting narrative flow. Similarly unobtrusive citations link directly to online publications with a single click. Most importantly, the template provides a multi-level structure of pages and sections that helps students’ organize their case narratives into logical units. This standardized yet flexible structure improves analysis and readability.

The software doesn’t provide all the pedagogical structure necessary for a successful project, of course. I simply adapted the scaffolding tasks I typically assign for a research paper to the case study. In this instance that meant a proposal and annotated bibliography, a stakeholders analysis and “engaged learning activity,” and a peer-reviewed rough draft. The scaffolding was only effective, however, because this particular class had a critical mass of intellectually ambitious, hard-working, and supportive students. They pushed each other to produce work they all could be proud of. Indeed, despite my limited ambitions, apparently a couple of the cases have already been deployed in classrooms at other universities.

Examples of student work:

United Fruit Company’s Struggles with Sustainability

Indigenous Rights and Resource Development along the Northern Sea Route

Perrin Selcer is an associate professor in History and director of the Science, Technology and Society Program.