Speaking Code

  • June 1, 2016

Kevin Kaatz is having technical difficulties.

He’s staring down the barrel of two-dozen sets of eyes, 240 fingers poised at laptops and several raised eyebrows.

Kaatz is trying, unsuccessfully, to show his Cal State East Bay students how to build the website that is their final project. But due to a fickle Wi-Fi connection, the progress bar on the computer screen has stopped in its tracks a quarter of the way to its destination.

The minutes tick by. Someone coughs. Students check their phones.   

Kaatz tries once more.

This time, the bar lurches across the screen and the page updates. The assistant professor of history clears his throat and continues.

The whole episode is an unwelcome delay, but these are the moments, however unrelated to the study of ancient religion, that are proving valuable to students. 

Because the truth is, it’s uncertain when those taking Kaatz’s course will need to know why fourth-century Arians and Catholics couldn’t get along (though the use of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” breakup anthem to drive the point home is catchy).

But knowing how to create websites, blogs, interactive videos, produce recordings, publish digital content — and work through the inevitable technical difficulty — isn’t going out of style anytime soon.

“I get at least one email every semester asking, ‘Can’t you just give us a lecture?’”

To be clear, though, the professor’s first passion is history.

“Sewers aren’t new. Roads aren’t new. Tall buildings aren’t new. I try to help the students unpack that almost everything we do is affected by what people did 3,000 years ago,” says Kaatz, who also teaches ancient civilization. “The most important thing is having them apply it to today … they have to be able to answer, ‘How does this affect me?’”

So, in 2011, when he heard about the availability of grants for “bottleneck” (impacted) courses through the CSU Chancellor’s Office, he — along with Department of History Chair Linda Ivey and Lecturer Nancy Park — began doing the necessary research to apply. Though the history classes turned out not to qualify by virtue of enrollment numbers, what the professors did find was an abysmal failure rate for online courses (up to 20 percent in some cases) that won them the money for course redesign.

Kaatz used his opportunity to go digital — both virtually and in real time.

“When I first got in there, it was a shock how much of the work was online,” says Crystal Maciel, a transfer student from Los Medanos City College who took Kaatz’s in-person ancient religion course. “The first day of class was stressful. I’m just used to writing papers. I was like, ‘OK — hold on, how am I supposed to do this? I don’t know how to do any of this stuff!’”

“I think students expect when they take a history course to just listen to a lecture, write a paper, and take an exam,” Kaatz says. “I get at least one email every semester asking, ‘Can’t you just give us a lecture?’”

The answer is no.

Through an online curation tool called, Kaatz finds free web applications that give students “skin in the technology game” (no coding involved) after they choose a topic of interest to focus on. “They all have phones, they all have computers, they’re all watching YouTube videos … but I would estimate 90 percent of them have never made a website. In my class, they’re not just consuming all this (media) — they’re creating it.”

Maciel, who is a math major and wants to teach, admits to being a regular at Kaatz’s desk after class, and to plying other students with questions about her own technical difficulties. “I had never made a website, never (written) blogs, never made a video, especially (not) an interactive one,” Maciel says. “With the way that technology is going, these are skill sets everyone is going to need. I could see myself using this (in a teaching career) for notes, to create review videos online, or for a personal website to look for jobs.”

And the class format only seems to drive the history lessons deeper. Although Maciel’s older brother, father and grandfather all went to college, she’s the first woman in her family to do so, and she chose to concentrate her website, blogs, videos, etc. on women in early Christianity.

“You only hear about Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus … but if you look, you find all these women,” she exclaims. “And after the fourth century, it just gets so much harder (to study women) because people stopped writing about them. And all these images that I chose to feature on my website are only just what someone thinks these women might look like, because we really don’t know.”

It’s the kind of enthusiasm that has slashed failure rates in Kaatz’s online classes by more than half — to just eight percent. And, as he prepares to go after phase II of the grant funding, the professor says he wants to incorporate even more tools that cross-pollinate the lessons of the past with skills of the future, such as having students use the engineering video game Minecraft to rebuild ancient cities.

In the meantime, there is no greater measure of success for Kaatz than seeing his students’ projects take off online — and inspire them to keep learning about the ancient world. “In one case I had an older student who said to me, ‘I don’t understand electronics,’” Kaatz recalls. “And I just said, ‘Relax. Follow the instructions. This is something that you can do, and that lots of people are doing. I went back six months after the class — and this is a student who wanted to drop, and he ended up doing just fine — and he was still adding new material to his website, all on his own. That made me really happy.”