Some 1,800 years ago, the Roman Empire thrived in lands along the Mediterranean and across huge swathes of what is now modern-day Europe. After centuries of prosperity, the once mighty Empire headed into decline. But it left a lasting footprint – an impression that Assistant Professor of Classics James Capreedy says can be better understood by using digital technology to map the ancient world.
In his course, “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” Capreedy has enhanced the learning experience thanks to funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that has supported the design of a digital mapping program. The software enables students to plot ancient locations on a modern map overlay using geospatial software (i.e. Google Maps API).
“Our main goal is to understand the nature of the so called ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire. In doing so, we’ll spend some time on geography and using digital maps to create another level of analysis,” Capreedy says. “This is a creative and collaborative project that allows students to explore questions about antiquity on their own.”
Funding from the Mellon Foundation for the digital mapping program was awarded through the Office of the Provost. Capreedy’s proposal was one of 11 digital pedagogy projects from across academic departments that aim to bridge the core liberal arts pedagogies of the Colleges with new technologies that enhance the student learning experience. The HWS Digital Learning Team helps to facilitate the projects.
Called the “Nearchus Project,” the current mapping program is an extension of a previous project that was awarded an innovation grant in winter 2013 from the Colleges’ Center for Teaching and Learning. That project, “Mapping Antiquity,” was implemented to enhance the learning experience and bolster the study of antiquity through a creative endeavor.
Capreedy says the existing digital mapping tool, which was upgraded by a programmer in recent months, aims to boost historical inquiry as students gain a richer contextualization of the course content, including historical readings and literature. It augments the understanding of the Roman Empire and its cultural, economic, political and religious influence leading up to the various changes it underwent around the fourth and fifth centuries CE.
“Using the geospatial software allows students in the course to learning difficult material in a more accessible way,” Capreedy says. “It can help lead to better analysis and discussion.”
Throughout the semester, students will participate in three assignments using the mapping tool, which is available as a mobile app and displayed on Canvas, the Colleges’ online learning management system.
Students conduct research and input information about ancient locations, including type of ancient community, distance to Rome, and images, among other data points. The students choose which locations to research based on a pool of specific places related to the coursework selected in advance by Capreedy.
Once the information is added to the map, students using the program click on locations to reveal a pop-up text box that provides a richer context of the place they’re viewing. Importantly, Capreedy says the interactive maps provide a glimpse of antiquity that isn’t readily available by only reading the texts.
“The maps are used as a teaching tool,” he says. “It’s one way to get students to see and research the ancient world. If they start with maps that offer a visualization of the material, they could be more apt to go back to the text. It’s making the information more accessible.”