For most of the last decade, history professor Ron Morris has mentored hundreds of students in immersive learning classes that have blended education and technology.
Those efforts are helping young Hoosiers better understand their history. Morris and his students have visited various sites along the Underground Railroad for an educational video game, traveled to Vincennes to create a documentary about a Revolutionary War battle and worked with elementary school youngsters to develop an app that serves as a kind of a digital social studies book.
The 52-year-old Morris says he draws some inspiration from his days as a young, cash-strapped social studies teacher in the mid-1980s.
“When I started teaching in an elementary school, I had about $60 to buy classroom resources for an entire year,” he said. “We had to be very creative in order for my students to create class presentations three decades ago. We would have them draw their projects and then take a photo that we used for a slideshow. Then, we taped their presentations on a tape recorder and ran it with the slideshow. That was fairly modern back in the mid-’80s.
“When I got to Ball State and we had our immersive learning projects start, I realized this was a great way to give back to social studies teachers across the state. My students began creating educational tools like videos, documentaries and books, and making them available for free to those elementary school teachers scrambling for anything they could get their hands on.”
Morris recalls his first immersive learning project was labeled by fellow faculty as too ambitious for students to complete in a semester.
Morris and his students researched, designed and built a museum exhibit and produced a corresponding DVD, “Intersections: Traces and Trails of Wayne County,” that revealed the relationship among historic events such as the Quaker migration, the Underground Railroad, the National Road and the Whitewater Canal.
The project launched the exhibit at the Wayne County Historical Museum and traveled to schools and other museums in Indiana and the Midwest.
“For that first project for the Virginia B. Ball Center, we used my house in Centerville as a base of operations in Wayne County,” Morris said. “It was a historic home that had been owned by a member of the Whig Party, and Henry Clay had once been a visitor.
“I knew it would be a tremendous amount of work and very challenging, but that is what I want my students to face when they do these projects. When I first got here, I was worried about my students getting jobs after graduation, but these projects allow them to acquire the skills the workforce is demanding.”
Learning from successes and setbacks
Ashton Hampton, a telecommunications major set to graduate in July, said he was in Morris’ immersive learning classes in spring 2015 when students created a walking tour app for Indiana state parks.
“The next four months were a whirlwind of chaos. I did my very best to kick off the project without a hitch, but I have since learned that nothing worth doing is ever easy.”
To create that multifaceted app, students visited 20 parks, documented 10 historic sites with photographs, GPS coordinates and maps, wrote descriptions and cited their sources, made audio recordings and manually entered all of the information into an online database.
“I certainly experienced my fair share of setbacks throughout the process. After working on this project, however, my entire mindset has changed. I now look forward to every success as well as every failure in my projects and productions because I know that, regardless of the outcome, I will emerge better than when I began.”
As a result of his efforts, Hampton was hired as a webmaster and chief photographer of an overnight camp in Connecticut for summer 2015.
The next chapter
Morris will continue working on immersive learning projects, but other faculty in the College of Sciences and Humanities can tap into his vast experience as a Presidential Entrepreneurial Learning Fellow.
“I now get to meet more people across my college, helping them with their projects. I’ll be helping new faculty learn how to do an immersive learning or entrepreneurial type of format as well as steer them in the ins and outs of grant proposals.”
But Morris says he has no plans to stop creating new technological applications that can be used by social studies teachers across the Midwest.
“I love the idea that we serve all the people in Indiana,” he said. “We help them in the classroom by providing materials for students and assist nonprofits or government agencies by developing various items. I think that is the reason I couldn’t be anywhere else but Ball State. I can’t imagine another university giving me the platform to help so many people. I don’t think I will ever retire. Why would I stop doing this? It is so much fun and fulfilling.”