Teaching Thursday: MOOCs and Collaborative Writing

March 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

There has been a ton of buzz lately about Udacity. Udacity is a company developed by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig  two other robicists, David Stavins and Mike Sokolsky. They offer Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) on various topics related to robotics and technology to literarily tens of thousands of students per course.  This company grew out of Thrun’s and another Stanford professor, Peter Novig’s, courses in Artificial Intelligence at Stanford which they opened to the world as MOOCs. Here’s an article in Wired about it and here’s an article in the New York Times.

As I have noted before, I find this ideas amazingly cool. I even proposed a similar program focusing on humanities classes here at the University of North Dakota. My theory was that classes in the humanities – particularly history – already have a strong following among students who find the topics and stories particularly appealing. After all, we all know the well-worn story about how a series of podcasts on Byzantium attracted worldwide attention. A few meetings with our technology folks convinced me that these courses could be opened to the world without undue strain on our technical resources. Finally, I knew there was a real interest and tradition of outreach on our campus that would eventually allow a program like this to expand. Unfortunately, as happens to so many ideas, my proposal never made it through the university administration.

One of the recurring concerns with MOOCs is that universities are loath to give students free credits for completing the courses. Students who commit the time and energy to the course, however, want some kind of recognition for their efforts. Recently, Udacity has begun to offer certificates of achievement for completing their courses.

As I worked on a proposal for a History 101 class to run in the UND’s new Scale-Up classroom (here and here), I began to wonder whether one approach to giving students a sense of accomplishment for a MOOC would be a collaborative writing project. If a History 101 course introduced students to the basics of historical methodology, grounded that in some basic writing skills, and provided a solid structure for collaborative writing, would it be possible for students to produce a custom textbook for the class? The book writing process would focus student efforts over the course of the semester and produce something of enduring value to the students in the course.

There are obvious issues to my plan ranging from potential copyright problems to course design and the technical aspects of shepherding students through the writing process. One consequence of the large size of most successful MOOCs is that the instructor tends to present content and provide far less day-to-day feedback to individual students. A course centered on something as methodologically complex as writing a textbook, would require a course design that encouraged students to collaborate in a critical way and provide one another with the kind of consistent feedback that would usually come from an individual faculty member.  With some trial and error, however, I am pretty convinced that it is possible to overcome this hurdle. After all, sites like Wikipedia have managed to self-police their content and provide a rather remarkable degree of consistency, accuracy, and perspective.

The value in collaborative writing is less in the final product and more in the process. Collaborative writing is a great method to expose students to the diversity of perspectives on the past and to encourage the construction of sound historical arguments. A well-managed MOOC that clearly communicated the core ideas of the historical method could serve as an exciting platform for the collective and collaborative production of knowledge.

Thinking about Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

March 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

I was pretty excited when I received word that the University of North Dakota’s Scale-Up classroom is almost ready and accepting applications for classes in the Spring of 2013. The Scale-Up classroom is designed to foster an “active learning” environment in courses that have large “lecture sized” (100+) enrollments. The students are generally seated around smaller tables in groups of 8 to 10 – almost cafeteria style – and typically have access to computers. The design of the room makes it easier to implement collaborative activities and to promote an “flipped lecture” type environment where students teach one another and remain engaged in problem centered learning.

To this end, I’ve begun to propose a rather unconventional history course ideally suited for the Scale-Up environment:

The large survey class has changed radically over the last 20 years. The traditional arrangement of the class positions the faculty member as the “sage on the stage” and the students in the audience in order to maximize the number of students exposed to the content in a controlled environment. This organization has gradually given way to more dynamic and interactive arrangements between student and teacher. While the much-maligned jargon of “active learning” has lost favor in recent times, there is no doubt that a greater degree of interaction between faculty and students has become increasingly normalized within pedagogical literature and day-to-day teaching practices of faculty.  At the same time, enrollment pressures, efficiency expectations, and old habits have continued to support the presence of large lecture style classes particularly at the introductory level. Occasional efforts to flip or invert the lecture have met with the typical difficulties: large classes, lecture bowl style seating, and limited space for students to meet, work, share, or write.

In recent years, the rapid expansion of digital technologies has offered ways to overcome the physical limits of the classroom.  Discussion boards, integrated social networking components, and the use of new and multi media delivery systems have expanded the educational environment beyond the physical confines of lecture hall, distended the concept of learning communities, and challenged the tension between groups and individual learners.

Despite the expansion of the digital frontiers and a continuously renewed commitment to “active learning” and “flipped lectures”, traditional textbooks persist as the main way in which students encounter “content”. Traditional textbooks are generally linear, unappealing, and expensive obstacles that many faculty feel as compelled to work around as to justify to their students. Remarkably the history textbook of the 21st century is structurally similar to the textbook of the mid-20th century, even if the content has changed to suit new academic fashions and tastes.

My proposed use of the Scale-Up classroom is to create a History 101: Western Civilization course where the students write their own textbook. This takes its inspiration from recent discussions of inverting the lecture, conceptual literature projects that compose journals or edited books in a fixed span of time,  collaborative spirit behind projects like Wikipedia, and the socially disruptive “DIY” practices associated with the edu-punk movement.

The course itself will be based upon my experiences teaching with both flipped lecture style History 101 class and teaching a similar course online. My flipped lecture classroom met once a week at night and featured 6 break out style groups who would meet weekly prepare responses to discussion questions based on primary sources. In an online version of the class these discussion questions became part of an online discussion board where the students responded both to prepared questions and their fellow student’s posts. Both techniques created an environment where students learned from one another rather than from a set lecture. The groups were generally big enough that better students and responses drove out the worse, and better students tended to model the quality for those less clear on the expectations of the class. At the same time, I have experimented extensively with wikis that allow students to produce collaborative, synthetic collections of weekly notes. I have also gained experience with using Twitter in the class to create social networks for the students that allowed them to forge a sense of community and to communicate in a transparent and immediate way.

 

The main goal of the Scale-Up History 101 Course will be to produce a synthetic History 101 textbook. The class will break into 15, 10 person groups, each responsible for a 5000 word chapter in the textbook. Using online resources, collaborative digital and classroom work spaces, and a restructured history lecture which focuses on methods, key interpretative themes, and techniques for writing history, students will be asked to invert the traditional educational process where students go from learning history from a faculty member, a textbook, and other economically and politically repressive arrangement to producing a textbook in a space where the tools and material of history are available in a far more democratized way than traditional introductory history lectures.

The advantage of the Scale-up classroom is that it will foster an integrated, simultaneous, realtime physical and digital environment that will allow multiple individuals to develop resources collaboratively. Wiki style text interfaces (even if managed through an off-the-shelf product like Google Docs) allow multiple students to edit a single document simultaneously and allow the faculty to track total contributions to a document.

At the same time, students will also have access in a group format to various resources on the web ranging from Google Earth to content sources like Wikipedia, digital primary source texts, digital open access textbooks, and new and multimedia resources.

I have a ways to go yet on this proposal and because of tricky time commitments over the summer, it seems unlikely that I’ll be in the first cohort to use the Scale-Up classroom. It is still really exciting to be part of the process of re-imagining learning space on campus.

 

Fritz at 50 Poster at the Scholarly Forum

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

As the final project for my digital history practicum, I’ve been asking the students in the class to prepare a poster for the University of North Dakota’s Graduate School’s Scholarly Forum. The Forum is the largest annual research meeting on campus and it gives us a chance to show off the class’s hard work from the previous semester.

Fritz at 50 posterSM

Here is a bigger version of the poster as a jpg or as a pdf:

Special credit goes to Daniel Sauerwein, one of our Ph.D. students, who took the lead on preparing the poster and dabbled in the arcane by working with Adobe Illustrator.

And special credit also goes to my lovely wife who makes the Scholarly Forum possible every year. The poster session was probably the most dynamic research event held on campus!

 

Digital Humanities and Professional Advancement

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

This afternoon I’m getting together with some of my colleagues from the arts, social sciences, and humanities to discuss the place of digital humanities in professional advancement both on campus and in our disciplines more broadly. The meeting will occur under the auspices of the Working Group in Digital and New Media and be the first attempt to use the standing of our group on campus to address pressing concerns facing scholars working in digital and new media. The goal is to identify key issues that impact all of our positions on campus and to produce a white paper for administrators, the university senate, and colleagues over the winter months.  We hope to pay particular attention to potential limitation in existing tenure, retention, and promotion policies that could discourage or inhibit the advancement of scholars active in the digital humanities. Since our group includes members from across campus our focus will naturally be broad.

Assembling a sensible list of concerns facing scholars who work primary in the digital realm is difficult. The issues range from the very basic – like very limited understanding of the differences between digital and print projects – to the more complex: inconsistent infrastructural support, uncertain attitudes toward collaboration, and the lack of established metrics to evaluate scholars who work heavily in the digital realm.  We do not have a plan or a list of priorities for the meeting (in part, the goal of the meeting is to establish a list of priorities as we move forward), but I’ll offer my own list of things that should be on the agenda.

1. Institutional Support. The greatest problem facing digital humanities (and I include digital history and archaeology in this group) is the lack of institutional support. On the one hand, with any new approach to organizing and producing knowledge, a lag between institutional adaptation and the development of the field is to be expected. On the other hand, the humanities have traditionally received only modest funding for research. This has become particularly problematic for digital humanists since much of their work relies upon (relatively) expensive technologies (hardware and software), access to specialists, and resources for developing new collections of research material. In the hard and applied sciences, start up grants would help to defray these costs and these are often funded from “indirect costs” produced from grants awarded to more established scholars. There are fewer resources for such start up funds in the digital humanities (although they are not entirely absent), in part, because there are very few indirect costs produced from traditional humanities research. In order to generate a pool of funds to support digital humanities start-up costs, the institution must make the initial investment. And for the institution to make this investment, they must see the potential for a return.

The primary problem with the lack of start up funding in the digital humanities is that it delays the production of scholarship by new faculty or faculty new to the digital humanities. As a result, new faculty in the digital humanities must spend time securing resources and building infrastructure for their own research and this delays the ability of faculty to be competitive for external grants, for example, and to produce material for their own internal advancement.

To have a successful group of scholars in the digital humanities, a greater investment in sustaining infrastructure and in early career support for faculty with digital research needs.

2. Collaboration. Synergy is one of the newest watchwords at the University of North Dakota. From what I can gather, it refers to collaboration on campus that produces more energy than it expends. Fortunately, the digital humanities has long relied upon dynamic synergies to meld traditional concerns of scholars in literature, history, and archaeology with digital technology. This combination has then produced new approaches to long-standing problems and opened up new venues for scholarly and creative inquiry. Collaboration, however, has not always squared with traditional scholarly approaches in the humanities. Co-authored research, grants, and co-directed projects often stand at odds with traditions of solitary scholarly work, and this has challenged departments as they seek to evaluate new collaborative ventures in the humanities.

As scholars engaged in collaborative synergies, we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues as to the nature and challenges of collaborative scholarship in the humanities. In doing this, we have the opportunity to create new paradigms of collaboration that are less dependent upon this generated in the hard and applied sciences. In particular, we can advocate approaches that downplay the key role of a single “primary investigator” and demonstrate how scholars can contribute to projects in ways that deserve equal credit.  Moreover, we can advocate for policies on campus that both reward and facilitate collaboration in scholarship and teaching across departments, programs, and colleges, as well as on the national and international level.

3. Publishing Problems. Perhaps the most practical issue facing scholars in the digital humanities is the impact of digital scholarship on traditional modes of publishing. In a simplest sense,digital humanists regularly produce scholarly and creative works (video, databases, electronic texts, et c.) that are incompatible with or fall outside the traditional limits of print scholarship. More importantly, perhaps, they are often asked to develop their own means of dissemination, review, and preservation of these scholarly work (and at institutions that lack a substantial digital infrastructure the problems of dissemination and preservation of digital work are particularly acute).

More importantly for individual scholars, the criteria for evaluating digital scholarship and creative work remains in the state of flux. Digital, peer-review journals are now sufficiently well regarded outlets for born digital and new and multimedia publications. Unfortunately these kinds of publications are only suitable for a tiny fraction of the output from digital scholars who increasingly work in media and genres that do not necessarily have a tradition of peer review or do not measure their impact through traditional methods of citation tracking.

As with all emerging academic areas, scholars in the digital arts and humanities have a responsibility to educate their colleagues and institutions about the challenge they face and the opportunities that their work provides. Producing a ‘white paper’ from the Working Group in Digital and New Media will be a local step toward making the University of North Dakota a better home for scholars in these exciting new fields.

Planned Obsolescence

November 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

This weekend, I read over Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU 2011).  The book does pretty much what the title says. It explores the impact of technology on academic publishing and the role it plays in transforming academic discourse (and, potentially, university life). The book provides a nice overview of recent innovations in the area of peer review (including open peer review), challenges to the idea of authorship and texts, as well as some considerations of preservation in the digital age. A more speculative chapter considers the future of university presses in light of the changes outlines in the first four chapters. While the book does not necessarily say anything novel for people who are familiar with the basic structure of the debates on digital publishing and academic, the book is clear about the interdependence between professional standards and the health, vitality, and relevance of academic publishing.

In general, Fitzpatrick views scholarly publishing as divided between producers and consumers, and this is clearly the case. Consumers represent the libraries, academic departments (hiring promotion, and tenure committees), and other scholars. Producers are the various scholars who rely upon academic work to promote their ideas and, ultimately, their careers. Of course, producer and consumer can switch positions throughout their careers as producers of academic works typically serve to evaluate the academic work of their peers. At the same time, in this model, the decisions (and perhaps even the responsibilities) to accommodate the transformations in the publishing world appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of the various consumers of academic texts.  The reality is, of course, that some of the willingness to recognize the value of digital texts of various kinds – whether they are blogs, electronic journals (or books), or other more dynamic and interactive kinds of texts – has to come from scholars who are producing scholarly works as well. In other words, scholars have to recognize in a critical way the value of digital texts for their own work.

To explore this idea a bit more deeply, I decided to look at Fitzpatrick’s bibliography and reflect on how much of her book drew upon digital texts of various kinds.  My study was pretty unscientific, but I tried to be consistent.  I created a spreadsheet of the 350+ publications cited in her bibliography. Then, I separated works in her bibliography that were “primary sources” such as an “About” page for a web service, reports from publishers, or a general address for a blog. These represented about 18% of her bibliography.  From the group of “secondary sources” (ranging from traditional books and articles, to blog posts, digital articles, ebooks, or even comments on blog posts), I also culled out “popular” sources – like articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Time, or the New York Times that mostly served as primary sources but also contributed to her arguments in various ways.  These were almost entirely digital in form.

So here are the digits from the academic works:

53% were cited in paper form, and 51% of these were books and 49% were articles.

47% of her academic citations were in digital form. 4.5% were digital books of various forms, 35.7% were articles published digitally, 38.4% were blog posts, and 21.4% were comments on blog posts or on manuscripts in CommentPress.

The average age of a paper citation was 12.2 years old; the average age of a digital citation was 4.5 years.

The point of this little statistical exercise was to suggest that even scholars agnostic toward digital publishing will like come to accept the new forms and media as quality academic works come to engage and rely on digital publications. The producers of both traditional works and digital works are consumers of digital works as well.

Working Group in Digital and New Media Annual Report

November 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

People who read this blog know that I have a super abundance of ideas. In fact, I have a category for ideas (it’s my idea box).

My idea for offering massive open online courses here at the University of North Dakota did not come to pass.

My scheme for a “teaching sabbatical” where faculty are released from other responsibilities to just focus on teaching vanished into the ether.

My plan for block-by-block local history may be stillborn. There is no new media portal for archaeologists (yet).

Archaeology of North Dakota man-camps is simmering (and the grant writing is underway), so it still has some life to it.

Sometimes, everyone once-in-a-while, an idea that I helped to cultivate does come to fruition.  This past week saw the publication of our Working Group in Digital and New Media 2011 Annual Report. The report documents the project undertaken by a group of faculty here at UND in conjunction with the Working Group in Digital and New Media. This is the second fully functioning year of the Working Group’s existence. The Working Group received an initial infusion of cash based on a White Paper submitted to the University President in response to a call for new collaborative ideas on campus. Since that time, the Working Group has receive no additional funding from the University, but has continued to provide space for and to foster innovation and collaboration in the digital realm.  So check out the report below. I prepared the text (based on small reports from the various contributing faculty) and Joel Jonientz prepared the design:

For the 2010 annual report go here.

Some Comments on Writing History in the Digital Age

October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

I’ve really enjoyed cruising through the Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki open peer-review volume called Writing History in the Digital Age which is slated to be published by University of Michigan Press’s new Digital Humanities Series in their digitalculturebooks imprint.  I commented on many of the contributions and mined them all for references and ideas.  I’d encourage anyone interested or invested in the future of history in the digital age to check out the volume and to contribute to its open peer review.  Since I have read all the articles in the volume and have been thinking a bit about history in the digital era myself lately, I thought I might offer some overarching comments on the volume (as is my wont).

1. Coherence. One of the first things I noticed about the book is the wide range of contributions. These range from two recent Ph.D.s discussing how they used email to keep themselves motivated and sane while writing their dissertations to discussions on databases, GIS, visualization, and even non-linear digital editing.  Articles on the use of Wikipedia and Social media in the classroom stand alongside more theoretical or research oriented papers.  While such scope is commendable (and must reflect the “big tent” approach to digital humanities, in general), it caused me to wonder about the limits of a specific sub-field called “digital history”  and how we plan to organize and reflect on the intersection of digital tools and history as the discipline becomes invested in digital technologies. For example, there were no articles celebrating the contribution of the so-called “personal computer” or “word processor” in the volume. These basic technologies clearly fell outside of what the authors and editors regarded as the discourse of digital history (although one can argue that these technologies had as big an impact on our field as Wikipedia or Facebook).

Edited volumes always have ragged edges where the definitions and ideas of the contributors fail to line up precisely across the entire book or clash with those of the editors. This is part of the charm of the edited volume; it captures a snapshot of a particular topic in the minds of a group of scholars (as opposed to the carefully composed portrait that is a monograph). At the same time, recent discussions on the definition of the digital humanities might feature more prominently in a volume like this. Is there really enough theoretical, methodological, and topical coherence between all the papers here to justify their appearance in the same book?

2. Institutions. One of the more interesting aspect of the volume was the subtle but (almost) ubiquitous mention of institutional support for the various initiative detailed. In some cases, the support came from powerful national organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities. In other cases, on campus labs or centers like Arts eResearch at the University of Sydney or MATRIX at Michigan State, provided the infrastructure necessary for a project’s development. Some initiatives were far more modest in scope and extended only slightly beyond the classroom’s walls or an immediate community. Few of the articles in this volume, however, problematized their work in terms of a formal research question framed in response to a pre-existing body of scholarship. (Few began with the ubiquitous phrases: “Scholars have argued…”)

It appears, then, that the impetus for working in digital history derives as much from institutional pressures (and opportunities) as traditional appeals to the scholarly conversation.  While this is hardly surprising for a recent development in the discipline, it may foreshadow an interesting shift in the structure of humanities scholarship. The pressure to collaborate and innovate is pushing scholars in the humanities away from well-trod arguments and to the brink of a kind of rupture in the discourse (in a Foucauldian sense). The external pressure and resources deployed by on campus and national institutions have insisted that historians (and other scholars in the humanities) shift their arguments from the small-picture debates that have long shaped these disciplines, to big picture, transdisciplinary, collaborative thinking. This is manifest in (some, but not all of) the scholarship that these projects produced: Writing History in the Digital Age recognizes a different audience and a different set of discursive rules than writing traditional history.

3. Methods and Techniques. Traditional historical practice has been short on method. The so-called historical method is, in fact, a set of practices cobbled together from various other fields and epistemological systems. With the rise in digital history, however, a new interest in methods and practices has come to the fore and a number of the articles in Writing History in the Digital Age reflect this development. Digital historians are more willing to experiment with methods grounded in geography, the social sciences, media studies, and, even, computer programing and game studies.

At the same time, this methodological growth requires critical attention to new techniques. Archaeology for example, has developed a robust methodological discourse over the past 40 years as the disciple embraced a “methodological turn” that sought to critically examine the tools, practices, and assumptions that shaped archaeological knowledge. The essays in this volume, in contrast, showed very little in the way of genuine methodology.  Of course, some of the essays with a pedagogical bent, showed an awareness of and willingness to contribute to recent pedagogical developments, but few of the more research oriented pieces considered explicitly and critically the methodological assumptions of their use of digital tools.

The absence of methodology extends to some extent to the techniques (for lack of a better word) used to generate the kind of digital analysis that their contributions celebrate. While software, programing and markup languages, and hardware appeared regularly in the pages, we were rarely invited to look behind the curtain to see how these aspects of digital history influenced the ways in which history could be written. (The notable exceptions to this were the several essays that discussed Wikipedia, but even these essays focused on the social, rather than technological aspects of this forum. For example, several of the essays mention the automated “bots” that crawl Wikipedia and can change entries systematically, but few essays explain how these bots work and why historian-trained bots couldn’t do the same things.) My feeling is that the next step in the study of digital history will involve a much more critical approach to the methods and tools used by digital historians to produce new knowledge.

4. The Future. One of the most significant gaps in this small book were essays with an eye toward the future. Writing the future is always a risky game, especially for historians who are so accustomed to “looking backward“.   At the same time, part of the writing digital history game is positioning history in a place not only to take advantage of digital tools created by other people, but also to shape how new technologies develop. I would have loved to hear how folks invested in digital history, as the contributors to this book clearly are, see the future of technology impacting our work as historians.

Developments like the massive growth of computing power available to mobile devices, enhanced and augmented reality, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), an endless stream of cloud services, the chaining notion of curation and the personal web, and the rapid mutation of social media communities, all offer new venues for presenting history, but also new spaces and tools for the analysis and interpretation of past events.

Writing History in the Digital Age represents a moment in time in the discipline’s embrace of digital tools.  At once it is possible to see ragged edge of the profession’s handling of digital media to communicate and interpret the past, as well as its growing confidence in embracing (if not fully engaging) new technologies.

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