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Third Age Students Explore and Map Early Modern Madrid through Remote-Teaching

David Alonso García
Complutense University of Madrid

The state of quarantine caused by the novel coronavirus has necessitated the adaptation of education to an eminently technological world.1 The pandemic is expected to accelerate the ongoing social, technological, economic, and governance transformation that is heralded for the university of the future.2 However, these changes are not a direct consequence of the pandemic. Even before the lockdown, online teaching was on the rise, as demonstrated by the increasing number of MOOC and SPOOC courses as well as distance-learning universities around the world. Technology makes curricula more flexible and customizable. As demographics of college students shift and as more lifelong learners enroll in university courses, this flexibility is especially important. Malcom Brown and his colleagues have argued that “Online education is increasingly seen as a scalable means to provide courses to an increasingly non-traditional student population.”3

University programs for the elderly are a growing educational trend in many countries because of the many advantages associated with the idea of active ageing. The lockdown has forced us to experiment with new educational formats focused on every generation, including third-age students. These targeted programs help people renew the knowledge acquired throughout life, maintain social and intellectual activity at advanced ages, and make it possible to take advantage of intergenerational contact as a source of enrichment between instructors and students. These formats are characterized by a greater use of technology and, perhaps most significantly, by a more active and participatory role for students. The structure of non-on-site teaching, which is adjusted accordingly to specific competences and soft skills of students, also requires important adjustments to course design, methodology, and evaluation.4

This past spring, many instructors received a crash course in online education with traditional and nontraditional students. While the pandemic lasts, online courses will become more common as face-to-face teaching also incorporates dual modality and hyflex teaching methods.5 This essay briefly describes an activity that explored virtually King Philip IV’s Madrid. Developed during the lockdown, this assignment involved seventeen students, between sixty-two and sixty-nine years of age, almost all of whom had previous university education and were accustomed to face-to-face classes taught without any advanced use of technology. In my experience, the most interesting part of the abrupt transition from classroom teaching to a virtual environment lies in the fact that it was done with older students.

This course, The Time of the Spaniards: Traces of a Global Presence, began on 13 February, but as a result of the state of emergency decreed by the Spanish government on 14 March, the university discontinued classes in a face-to-face format. Instructors had two weeks to adapt classes to a virtual environment and from 31 March classes resumed online. All students in the class were retirees who had computers at home, internet access, and some familiarity with our university’s learning management system. They did not, however, have prior experience with online learning. Of the seventeen students who started the course, eleven students continued participating in the online adaption of the course. Using Moodle 3.4, students had online access to presentations, readings, and other files. During the lockdown, the instructor increased student participation by posing classroom debates, assigning online tasks, and designing questions using the Mentimeter platform. Students accessed the core teaching resources using Blackboard’s learning management system called Collaborate, much as other schools use Canvas, Google Classroom, or Zoom.

Previous experiences show how open-access platforms and GIS can be used in online-learning environments.6 As class members came overwhelmingly from Madrid, and they maintained a remarkable interest in the city’s history, the city’s topography and resources that explored it played a central role in the re-envisioned course. For two weeks (six hours in total), the students studied and compared the urban space of Madrid during Philip IV’s reign (1621–65) with the current city. Each student then prepared an online presentation about one of the city’s emblematic spaces (see Table 1). Using PowerPoint slides to show their analysis, student presentations lasted between fifteen and twenty minutes. Once the student finished, the instructor offered comments and posed a debate about the site among the students.

Table 1: Madrid Sites Available for Student Investigation

      Alcázar of the Habsburgs (now, the Royal Palace)

Plaza Mayor

Convent of Las Descalzas Reales

Tower of the Lujanes/Plaza de la Villa

Palacio del Duque de Uceda

Monastery of La Encarnación

Bishop’s Chapel/Church of San Isidro

Monastery Los Jerónimos

Buen Retiro Palace

Major Street, Murder of the Count of Villamediana

Church of las Calatravas

This assignment depended on student access to both current and historical maps of Madrid. Instructors teaching courses on other regions can adapt this activity using local sites and resources.7 In order to improve the visualization and historical context of a particular space in the city’s built environment, the instructor used a georeferenced version of the Teixeira Map developed by the National Geographic Institute (see fig. 1).8 The instructor shared his desktop screen and navigated through the seventeenth-century city, expanding information on different locations and comparing it with points in the current cityscape using Google Maps.9 This option is available from the georeferenced Teixeira Map.

Teixeira map

Fig. 1. Georeferenced Teixeira’s Map

After all presentations, a virtual tour of Philip IV’s Madrid was designed by the instructor using the Teixeira georeferenced map. It covered the area near the Plaza Mayor and featured the various palaces, convents, and streets that existed during the king’s rule. This tour depended on viewers being able to magnify the Teixeira Map so that they could descend to street level. Moreover, it was possible to compare the previous city with the current Madrid with Google Maps analyzing the urban transformations, location changes, existing use of historical buildings by institutions, state of conservation of Madrid’s historical heritage, etc. To give an example, this georeferenced map allowed us to recreate the growth of the Puerta del Sol over time, with the current space constituting a much larger square than that existing in the time of Philip IV (see fig. 2).

Puerta de Sol

Fig. 2. Comparison of the current Puerta del Sol (above) with the georeferenced Teixeira map (below).

At the end of the two weeks of intensive study on Madrid, the class completed a survey using Google Forms about the efficacy of the Madrid mapping assignment. The survey included the following questions:

  1. 1. Highlight what you liked best about the activity.
  2. 2. Highlight what you liked least about the activity.
  3. 3. Describe something you learned.
  4. 4. Describe what you would improve about this type of activity.

Overall student answers showed a positive response to this assignment. In the first question asking students to reflect on the most positive part of the activity, they employed terms associated with “investigating,” “inquiring,” and “learning,” thus demonstrating the relevance of activities that enhance the active role of students, regardless of their age. In answering the second question, 40 percent of the students indicated complete satisfaction with the activity and only 18 percent of students highlighted limitations in the use of technology or their ability to follow the online activity because of internet connectivity. As for the third question, all answers indicated that the assignment designed to discover Philip IV’s Madrid helped to improve knowledge about the town. Students thoroughly enjoyed comparing the modern cityscape they physically experience in their daily lives with the spaces inhabited by their urban predecessors in 1656. Finally, the last question asking for suggestions to strengthen the activity highlighted a desire by several students to make on-site visits to the areas studied as a complement to the virtual visit.

The pandemic has highlighted the available tools and programs that allow investigation from afar and virtual tours of culturally important sites worldwide. Many cities and states have museums with extensive open-access resources for students to draw on. Students can assemble photographs, maps, newspapers and other texts and images to prepare site-specific dossiers using free blog sites like Wix or WordPress, or mapping-friendly StoryMaps. Sharing their research with classmates, friends, and family also helps students mitigate separation anxiety and showcase their skills. Students who want to experience sites more intimately can take virtual tours, allowing them to investigate construction, décor, life-experience, and adapt these tours for their own presentations.10 The Google Arts & Culture platform has made many museum and historical site resources easier to access than ever. Instructors who want to add some spice to small tasks can gamify them using simple scavenger hunt apps like GooseChase, that allow students to work in teams texting or via a teleconferencing app to complete missions.

The Complutense University program for third-age students has been in existence for nearly twenty years. It has experienced a significant boom in matriculation, with a current enrolment of nearly 3,000 learners. Third-age students represent a viable education market and they were not deterred in the learning process by the COVID-19 pandemic. I was most surprised by the fact that after lockdown, I lost no students once we made the transition to online instruction and students specifically noted their appreciation for educational activities that kept them focused on positive outcomes during the pandemic. Students valued the presentations on Philip IV’s Madrid because in comparing seventeenth-century Madrid to its current permutation, students had the opportunity to bring in their own personal experiences in interacting with the cityscape. This allowed for human connection among class participants feeling socially isolated and worried about the contagiousness of the novel coronavirus. These third-age students specifically appreciated getting to know Madrid as it was during the reign of Philip IV as it forged a link between present and the past, between themselves and city-dwellers inhabiting those same spaces centuries prior. Students also found themselves motivated to learn by each other’s work with the georeferenced Teixeira Map. As one student pointed out on the assessment questionnaire, “the stories and historical events have inspired in me a desire to know much more about our city.” My experience in teaching third-age students about early modern Madrid shows that older students are also ready to make the learning transition to a university fully adapted for the 4.0 revolution.

David Alonso García is Chair of the Masters in Teacher Training and Instructor of “University for Third Age” at The University Complutense (Spain). His current research focuses on innovation ecosystems in education and the humanities as well as new methods for teaching history. In 2017 he received an honorable mention from Red Iberoamericana de Pedagogía (REDIPE) for his work as Vice-Dean of Innovation and New Technologies in promoting cooperative methods in education.

1 This essay is supported by the Spanish Research Project: “Las ciudades de la corona de Castilla: Dinámicas y proyección de los Sistemas Urbanos entre 1300 y 1600,” HAR2017–82983-P. The author would like to thank Sean Perrone and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on earlier drafts.

2 Malcolm Brown et al., “2020 Educause Horizon Report: Teaching and Learning Edition,” EDUCAUSE.

3 Brown et al., “2020 Educause Horizon Report,” 11.

4 A. W. (Tony) Bates, Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning (Vancouver, BC: Tony Bates, 2015).

5 David Alonso García, “Building Ecosystems of Innovation in Humanities and Education,” The International Journal of the Humanities: Annual Review 17, no.1 (2020): 1–13.

6 Roger L. Martinez-Davila et al., “Deciphering Secrets of Medieval Cathedrals: Crowdsourced Manuscripts Transcriptions and Modern Digital Editions,” Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies 43, no. 1 (2018): article 2; and Jennifer Mara DeSilva, “Mapping the Transformation of Information into Knowledge in Early Modern Florence: Using the DECIMA Project to Assess Historical Thinking Skills,” Teaching History: A Journal of Methods 45, no.1 (2020): 2–30.

7 For Madrid see Memoria de Madrid; for London see The National Archives; for early American maps (1587–1782) see “Mapping Colonial America,” at Colonial Williamsburg.

8Cervantes y el Madrid del siglo XVII,” Instituto Geográfico Nacional. For more on this map, see Luis Miguel Aparici, El plano de Teixeira, 350 años después (Madrid: Ayuntamiento de Madrid, 2007).

9 Google has developed a variety of free classroom-ready tools related to mapping, GIS, and virtual reality. For a brief overview aimed at the beginner instructor, see Neil Jarrett, “Engaging Students through Google Maps,” Edutopia, 28 July 2016.

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