First from Giza, now from home, Brown Egyptologist dives into innovation in online teaching

Victoria Almansa-Villatoro, a Ph.D. student in Egyptology, worked with learning designers at Brown to create an interactive online course about the pyramids, kings and societies of the third millennium B.C.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — By the time the COVID-19 pandemic moved teaching and learning at Brown entirely online for the spring semester’s end, remote instruction had already become Victoria Almansa-Villatoro’s new normal.

The Ph.D. student in Egyptology spent many months designing and assembling a digital undergraduate course for the Spring 2020 semester titled “The Pyramids in Context: Archaeology of Life and Religion of Death in Old Kingdom Egypt.”

Vicky Almansa-Villatoro in front of a pyramid in Giza, Egypt
Almansa-Villatoro spent part of the spring semester excavating and interpreting ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

Now three months into teaching the course, Almansa-Villatoro said she has learned lessons that could prove helpful to fellow graduate students, faculty members and instructors who began remote teaching for the first time in March, when the spread of COVID-19 prompted Brown to transition to remote instruction.

“I have learned a lot from this experience,” Almansa-Villatoro said. “I think it is important to admit that online and in-class teaching are not the same, and thus things that worked in a classroom might not be equally effective on a computer.”

Initially, Almansa-Villatoro said, she was motivated to design an online course because it would allow her to fulfill her teaching requirements while also completing fieldwork six time zones away in Giza, where she excavates and interprets ancient Egyptian inscriptions. But as she delved further into course design and planning, she began to realize that online instruction was more than just a way to achieve that initial goal: It was also, she said, a way to share her research findings in real time, kick-start meaningful discussions and use interactive tools to creatively connect the past and the present.

Almansa-Villatoro spent a single day recording several 5- to 8-minute lecture videos for the course, including this introduction.

Almansa-Villatoro began prepping for the course on her own in May 2019, gathering readings and digital resources. She planned to provide a general overview of the Old Kingdom, the period of time in ancient Egypt that saw the construction of the iconic pyramids in Giza, spanning from about 2686 to 2181 B.C. She envisioned exploring how and why the pyramids were built, what everyday life was like in the surrounding towns and what misconceptions abound in Americans’ understandings of this time and culture.

In the fall, after securing support from her department and the College, Almansa-Villatoro was matched with Christine Baumgarthuber, Ash Adam and Kris Nolte, learning designers from Brown’s Digital Learning and Design team. Under Baumgarthuber’s guidance, Almansa-Villatoro said, she was invited to rethink all she thought she had known about online teaching.

“I had taught an online course before, at another university — the videos were lectures that were an hour and 30 minutes long, just like the classroom experience,” she said. “But at Brown, they prefer the videos to be shorter, so that the focus is on the students engaging in their own learning process with readings, assignments and discussions.”

Almansa-Villatoro spent a single day recording several 5- to 8-minute lecture videos in Studio 225, a new multimedia studio in Brown’s space in Providence’s new Innovation Center on Dyer Street. Then, she worked with Baumgarthuber, Adam and others to add photos and videos that helped drive home the key takeaways of her lessons, many of which came from her previous fieldwork in Giza. Nolte and others assisted her in creating an interactive map of the pyramids and an interactive timeline of the Old Kingdom.

"The diversity of subject matter allowed us to incorporate unique and engaging online activities into the course,” Baumgarthuber said. “Thanks to the online format, students got the chance to create podcasts, conduct virtual excavations and share their work with one another.”

Almansa-Villatoro paired each week’s video with relevant reading assignments and top-notch digital resources that helped bring the Old Kingdom to life for the students — including informative documentaries and an online Giza Project led by Harvard University researchers, which takes visitors on 3D tours around and inside the famous pyramids and Sphinx.

Every week, Almansa-Villatoro posts two discussion topics — one giving students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge of the material, the other providing a venue for open-ended discussion, creative thinking and in-depth conversation. Another assignment called on students to record a radio news-style segment about recent archaeological finds from the Old Kingdom; the students responded with thoughtful pieces on the 2018 unearthing of an untouched 4,400-year-old tomb in Saqqara and the 2019 discovery of the beautifully painted tomb of Khuwy.

Almansa-Villatoro said she found that the online format and the more flexible schedule stimulate livelier discussions than she’d seen in her in-person classes.

“I found asynchronous activities to be more appreciated by students, even discussions,” she said. “It gave them flexibility to answer prompts following their own schedule and timeline and more time to research. For some students who might not feel comfortable voicing their opinions in front of a class, a graded online discussion is a better venue for them to express their creativity and reasoning.” 

“ There are... ways to design your class that take advantage of all the benefits of the remote setting: the flexibility it gives students, the creativity it can inspire.” ”

Victoria Almansa-Villatoro

One of her students, senior anthropology concentrator Becca Berube, agrees. Berube said that before she took the course, she had “this idea that online courses are very independent and somewhat isolated” — but “I was wrong on both accounts. I think that Vicky does an impressive job of keeping the class connected…I feel like I’ve gotten to know some of the classmates through discussions even though we’ve never met face to face.”

Berube, a North Providence native who is set to begin classes at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School in the fall, said she had always been fascinated with ancient Egypt and signed up for the class to “appease the little kid in me.” She said every week with Almansa-Villatoro is a new adventure, and she’s never sure what to expect next: She has written creative essays, has considered different modern-day opinions on the influence of the Old Kingdom and looks forward to an upcoming virtual field trip and Zoom discussion.

“Vicky does a really good job of integrating a variety of activities and technologies into the course while encouraging us to think from a number of different perspectives,” Berube said, “which prevent the course from getting boring or feeling repetitive.”

Almansa-Villatoro said her students have been especially appreciative of the course’s flexible schedule after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Brown to close residence halls in mid-March. The students, now dispersed across U.S. time zones, have the freedom to watch Almansa-Villatoro’s videos and respond to discussion questions at whatever time is most convenient for them — and Almansa-Villatoro, now back in the U.S. after the spread of novel coronavirus cut her time in Egypt short, is able to respond to their questions and comments more quickly.

She said she hopes her remote teaching experience can help inspire faculty and graduate instructors to rethink course design and open their minds to the possibilities of online instruction, even after the global public health crisis passes.

“I don’t think all instructors at Brown know they have access to people who can help them design online classes,” Almansa-Villatoro said. “Online teaching can take the form of a Zoom lecture and discussion, but it doesn’t have to. There are other ways to design your class that take advantage of all the benefits of the remote setting: the flexibility it gives students, the creativity it can inspire.”