Data, Blogging, and the Art of Digital Publication in Archaeology

Last week, I mentioned that I was invited to write something for our local literary journal on digital art, presumably, in the field of archaeology. I decided to take idea of art broadly and focus on some transformations in the world of archaeological presentation and data collection. More importantly, for me, is that I decided to try to write in a reflective and reflexive way about my experience as a blogger. This is very early draft of this effort. It’s due on November 15th, so I’ll have to try to get something more substantial and sustained together soon.

In 2007, I began a blog called the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World (available here in archival form). The goal of the blog was to publicize my research on Cyprus particularly the work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP). I wanted to think in public space and bring an interested public closer to the experience of archaeology. The daily blog seemed to be a great way to post regular dispatches from both my desk work and my field work. At first, I dutifully posted a few times a week, but before long, I was posting daily. My dispatches started as regular updates on our work at PKAP along side some cursory comments on my research and professional activities to a repository for fieldwork updates, conference paper and article drafts, research quandaries, essays on various topics, and increasingly common guest posts on topics ranging from archaeological publishing to 3D modeling and punk rock. Over this time, my blog developed from a few hundred views a week to over 100 per day and gained a degree of notoriety in my profession.

2007 were heady days for blogs. They still dominated the way in which individuals distributed content on the internet. Social media, like Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy, and hybrid services like Tumblr which streamlined the social sharing of content among its users was born the same year. Even the mighty YouTube was still relatively uncharted territory among content producers. Blogging was king among Web 2.0 pioneers and the ability to almost instantly modify the appearance and content of a website attracted a generation of intrepid academic content producers. (I discussed a good bit of the origins of blogging in general and in archaeology here.)

Of course, some remained concerned that an unfettered medium like blogging could undermine the professional standing of a young faculty member. At the same time, others began both to discuss blogging in academic publications and to embrace its potential as a publishing platform. My own efforts to understand the medium in which I was working were tentative and halting. A good bit of self-censorship was involved, and I only engaged other academic bloggers or scholarship in general in a superficial way. Once I was on staff at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a gentle reprimand about a slightly impious post further discouraged me from doing much more than providing a travelogue of my time in Greece and various notes about “goings on”.

By 2008, however, a growing confidence in the blog as a medium and perhaps a developing awareness of its potential emboldened my blogging efforts. I was committed to being more transparent in my presentation of our archaeological work. I announced our idea that we had discovered an Early Christian Basilica at the site of Vigla, published some short video productions, and posted more regularly from the field. The use of podcasts from the site, almost daily updates, and more regular photographs, brought our viewers closer to work and exposed them to the vagaries of real archaeological research. Our “Early Christian Basilica” ended up being a Hellenistic fortified settlement by the end of the summer and the blog had exposed a major interpretative mistake.

By 2012, attitudes toward blogging had changed and new approaches to the immediacy of the archaeological experience had emerged. We had begun to use Twitter in the field and to collect data from our trenches using iPads. With Twitter we encountered the immediacy of engaging our network of stakeholders, colleagues, and viewers. With the iPads at trench side, we began the fraught process of directly digital data collection. This opened the door to communicating with our archaeological community not through the interpretative lens of the blog or even the truncated expressions of Twitter. The opportunity to push trench-side results directly to a global audience creates a new way to communicate the immediacy of archaeological discovery to the world. There is no middle step of interpretative or peer-review and mistakes are visible on the edge of the trowel. Data becomes immediate and transparent.

Publishing data directly from the edge of the trench is probably still a ways off and a cultural change away. Archaeologists still follow the traditions of social science in their need for neat and tidy data. The hasty conclusions set out in blogs and the immediate, trench side, analysis present in new digital notebooks pushes the social aspects of archaeology from the meeting among staff members to a larger community. In this context, the archaeological process become transparent and ownership of the results moves from the intimate confines of the project to the universal domain of the web community.

From the opposite perspective, the limited and specialized academic community has begun to find ways to integrate traditional practices of peer review with the more dynamic space of Web 2.0 content and born digital data. The result is a hybrid space of engagement that recognizes the persistent value of peer review, but also lays bear the process and accommodates the dynamic potential digital content.

I have recently begun to experiment with using my blog to introduce and serialize a print publication. From October to December, I have featured a series of guest posts from scholars around the world on issues related to 3D imaging in archaeology. These posts will eventually form a small volume produced very soon after the last blog post appears. The advantage of this approach is that it can accommodate the rapid pace of change in the world of 3D imaging by immediately circulating the results of very recent work in this area. The ability to post comments or even Tweet responses to these contributions using a designated hashtag (#3DMedArch) exposes these articles to a kind of public peer review. A digital and print-on-demand publication after the last post appears will include any comments or Tweets that shed critical perspectives on the posts. A final publication forms a “publication of record” that conforms to traditional expectations, but the entire process was more transparent and dynamic.

Talking About Machines and thinking about archaeology (and teaching)

One of the great things about travel is that I got a chance to read a couple of books. I finished up a fairly recent classic of modern anthropology Julian Orr’s Talking About Machines. Situated at the intersection of Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and Bruno Latour’s work on the agency of machines, Orr’s classic records the way in which Xerox technicians talk about their work, the machines they service, and their customers. In his field work, he followed a group of technicians to service calls, in the lunch breaks, and with their colleagues. The technicians detailed the both the routines that defined their workday but also the ways in which they adapted to the challenges of balky or difficult machines. The tension between repair procedures proscribed by corporate manuals and those preferred by the technicians is particularly interesting. The heart of the book is the idea that information between technicians is typically shared through informal stories rather than formal meetings, technical documents, or corporate training hierarchies.

Since its publication the book has influenced discussion of situated learning and, my new little obsession, communities of practice. Emphasizing the informal spaces and practices of learning that fed the formation of communities, Orr’s book shifted the emphasis from various well-defined structures to practice. This got me thinking in three directions.

1. Communities of Practice on Cyprus. In the paper I gave this week at the University of Texas, I rather meekly alluded to the idea that artifact assemblages and architecture might reflect communities of practice. This idea intersected with P. Horden and N. Purcell’s notion of the microregion, best developed in their substantial monograph, The Corrupting Sea. They argue that microregions are the basic spatial unit that defines social and economic interaction in the Mediterranean basin. The reason for this has to do with the high degree and intensity of regional variation across the Mediterranean and the concomitant interdependence of these microregions.

An approach that would challenge this structural understanding of Mediterranean social geography is on that sees networks of practice. Indeed, these networks could and likely did follow microregional lines as environmental conditions would clearly shape practice. On the other hand, networks of practice could easily follow the organization of craft or even social space of craft people. The difference, for example, between the distribution of certain kinds of churches on Cyprus and the distribution of certain kinds of ceramics suggests that the communities of practice constituting these two phenomena are quite different. The microregion is mediated by communities of practice that function along a range of different spatial connections that link together groups defined by shared skills, consumption patterns, and other social relationships.

2. Field Work. I was struck by how similar the stories used by Xerox technicians were to those that circulated among archaeologist. The genre of “war story” has clear parallels in both archaeology. War stories represented a way that technicians communicated solutions to particularly vexing problems, displayed technical prowess, and, ultimately, defined practice. Among archaeologists, war stories often serve established professional competence, to demonstrate the resolution of problems associated with the tricky social environment of encountered in excavations, and to communicate solutions to stratigraphic or documentation problems. While archaeologists maintain a robust body of technical literature (and technicians as a rule do not), war stories nevertheless make up a particularly significant aspect of archaeological discourse.

I can recall, for example, telling stories about a having to cut back massive amounts of scarp to protect excavators whose trench was deeper than initially expected, about having to arrange an apology to a very senior archaeologist who we offended during some of our work, and about the stratigraphic situation of some particularly significant finds. Most of these war stories are situated at the fringes of the kind of formal methodological debates suitable for publication, but do at least as much to establish professional credentials and to communicate social wisdom. Most importantly, however, are the war stories surrounding the use of digital technologies in the field and our methods for adapting technological tools for specialized use. Perhaps it is the disparate nature of archaeological publications describing and proscribing the use of digital tools in the field (or perhaps it the community in which I am a part) that leads to the prevalence of digital war stories. Whatever the reason, it certainly defies our expectations that the application of technologies will produce approaches to communicating in and about the field that rely more on practices embedded in craft than more industrialized modes of knowledge transfer.

3. Teaching. One of the things that remains baffling to me is how students organize themselves both inside and outside of class. My experience in the Scale-Up room has suggested that forced communities – at tables or in smaller pods – work to some extent, but these communities tend to be fragile and top-down.

What would be superior to these top down methods for creating communities of practice is to understand how students organize themselves and socialize outside of class. It seems to me that the most significant challenge in how we understand the Scale-Up room is how do we balance imposing classroom order against allowing students to express their own communities of practice. Among Xerox technicians, the lunch tables and the time before meetings are where communities of practice happen. The formal meetings and stylized manuals contribute very little to this discourse. 

As our university has articulated “gathering” as one of the priorities of the Exceptional UND initiative, it would be particularly useful to understand how they have conceived of student gathering and the formation of communities. My most cynical perspective on student behavior sees their communities of practice oriented  around spaces of resistance. For example, our department has a lounge space for students, but, in general, students prefer to sit in the hallway and carve out space for work and study in ad hoc ways. I know, however, that there is more to student behavior than simply defying authority just as Xerox technicians did more than simply delay the start of regular meetings with the war stories. 

More on Rhythm Planet: A Crowd-Funded, Student-Developed Video Game

As I noted yesterday, my talented colleague Joel Jonientz, from the University of North Dakota’s Department of Art and Design, is crowd-funding his student-developed video game on Kickstarter. Before you read any further, go check it out here (and that means clicking on the link)


Yesterday, I mused how using Kickstarter to fund a student project brings a new dimension to how technologies like crowd-funding is expanding how we might understand student engagement in their academic programs. Seeking crowd-funding for a project breaks down the barriers between what happens in the classroom and the larger community of interested onlookers in a way similar to how MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have expanded the audience for parts of the academic curriculum. 

Today, in the second part of my interview with Joel, we talk more about the potential overlap between Kickstarters and MOOCs, discuss video games as art, and reflect on how a video game about mining might be particularly relevant on a state enjoying an oil boom.


Karlatron walk  colored

Bill Caraher: I’m interested in process and some of the most exciting Kickstarters invite their investors to be part of the process even to the extent of influencing the final product. Will investors get to see how this project takes place?

Joel Jonientz: We have created several reward levels that would allow supporters to influence the game. We have a level that allows for designing characters and one that asks investors to envision their own level design. If the project is successfully funded we plan to create a web space where our backers can view the project’s process and help with the beta testing prior to release.


BC: Why is a professor of Art and Design the lead on this project? Is this a typical situation?

JJ: Many of the students involved had been interested in gaming, but had not wanted a computer science degree so had begun taking animation classes. UND does not have a formal game design program. There are a large number of students who are interested in gaming as a career path and at the time I suppose I looked like the most willing candidate to teach the class. I am not sure if this is a typical situation. I was asked by a group of students if I would help them make a game and I said yes. There have been days when I have regretted that answer, but not many.

Karl and Karl Jr

BC: Has your position as a professor of art and design brought particular artistic influences to the game? What are they?

JJ: I would say that film, has probably had more of an influence than art on the gaming world. Many of the gaming titles being produced today are beautiful, absorbing near cinematic experiences. Artists have begun to play with elements of the gaming world, and commercial animation has certainly influenced the look of games, but the fine arts have not yet begun to influence gaming in my opinion.


BC: To my mind, the game has a cool vintage video game feel to it. Can you talk about how the aesthetic, music, and game play came together? You mention in the Kickstarter page Looney Toons of the 1950s, but are there other influences? The entire game seems nostalgic for what we experienced in our youth in the 1970s and 1980s, but this is a good bit before most of ours students were born. How can we understand this nostalgic aesthetic?

JJ: Early on in the game’s development, I realized that the students in the art group were not really ready to lead the process. This was a painful realization for me because up until that point I had envisioned my role in the project as mostly one of coordination. After we were forced abandoned several visual concepts the art students had developed (I believe the phrase “this art sucks” was used during one team meeting). I stepped in and acted as visual lead. All of the visual style seems nostalgic and of “our youth in the 1970s and 1980s,” primarily because I drove visual aesthetic in that direction. This is not to say that the students were not capable of creating the assets. They just needed to learn how to direct their skills. So the process became that I would design and create a key level for each zone that they would then dissect and use to inform the creation of the levels they were assigned. Once the visuals had been established, I believe the other groups were influenced by the retro look until it had overwhelmed the game design process.

Karljumpingovermountain color

BC: I’m a bit obsessed (like many here in North Dakota) with the Bakken Oil Boom. I kept imagining that the theme of mining would resonate with recent activities in North Dakota?

JJ: The majority of the students who have worked on the game are native to North Dakota and the recent oil boom may well have influenced them. In the early days of game development, I put a sole constraint on the game’s theme and that was that the finished project needed to playable in front of my Grandmother at Thanksgiving Dinner. So, there was to be no theft or murder and no gunplay of any kind. This meant that the game had to be rated G. This as much as anything pushed the game towards mining and beat the clock type puzzles. Of course my Grandma is dead, but they didn’t know that at the time.

BC: Ok, one more question. I can’t help feeling like this Kickstarter project has the potential to intersect with recent interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes). While only a small group of students will be working on this project, a larger team of investors will be behind it and in their own way participating in the team’s success. Does doing this project give you any ideas about how you might organize classes in the future?

JJ: There have been several projects in the animation community that utilize a large collective of artists to create a film or television segments. Bill Plympton’s “Guard Dog Global Jam,” comes to mind, but none that have tapped into the MOOC movement. Crowd funding as a model for creative development is in itself a fascinating phenomenon. One of the outcomes of the project for me personally is that I am trying to write about the experience as it is happening in posts on my website. The whole Kickstarter movement is so new that it is hard to find much that has been written about it beyond what the site itself has put out. So I am pursuing that in the process.

I have now organized and taught three separate gaming courses each more focused than the one that came before it, but I think that if I ever endeavor to do this again I would throw out everything I know about how I think a game should be created and let the students drive the engine until they need guidance. That was my first experience in game creation and to this point it still continues to be the best.

Now, go and give a $20 to Joel’s sweet, sweet video game and get stickers. 


Some thoughts on MOOCs

I recently received an email forwarded by a friend from a local legislator asking us generally about how we saw MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) fitting into the future plans of the University of North Dakota. It was a pretty generic question asking if we imagined MOOCs to be the future of university education and what we’d need to get UND involved.

This got me thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to post some of my thoughts on MOOCs.

1. MOOCs are like the most advanced ocean liner. Right now, many MOOCs are just massive online lecture courses with some interactive components added on. They primarily disseminate information, typically in conjunction with a textbook and some online exercises. The size of the classes alone make the interaction between the faculty member and individual students difficult and this interaction is typically replaced with collaborative learning among the students themselves. While it is impressive that these classes with thousands of students can create productive learning environment, the course itself typically relies on the “sage on the stage” both to market the course and to communicate the information to the students. This is the lecture course at its most refined and modern form. It has little to do with the “flipped classrooms” and other student-centered approaches that have become increasingly common in debates about the future of university education. That’s why I see them as the most advanced ocean liners: the most refined model of an out dated mode of transport.

2. MOOCs may replace the textbook. One of the most interesting effects of a MOOC is whether they can replace textbooks. Traditionally, textbooks, like MOOCs, provide students with basic content and some basic skills. Just as we wouldn’t tell students to master a textbook and then award them credit – no matter how sophisticated a textbook is – a MOOC should not replace actual classroom instruction. The MOOC involves virtually no contact hours with actual faculty, but they do provide access to content in a dynamic way.

Textbooks are expensive and generally speaking boring. MOOCs, in comparison, are open and free and compete in an crowded market for attention. As a result, they tend of be exciting and interesting and designed to capture the attention of busy students and draw them in.

3. MOOCs do not come cheap. On the side of production, it’s clear that MOOCs require significant investments in not only content but also production. The best MOOCs have high production values, exciting graphics, and dynamic content. They have the support of graduate assistants, production crews, and – sometimes – colleagues in departments. The design phase involves significant technical expertise. 

Having created a large online course, I can also attest to massive amount of time necessary to craft content so it works well in an online environment. Creating exercises that intrigue students and draw them to interact with their peer and to delve more deeply into course material is not a simple task nor one easily streamlined. Significant upfront investment will be necessary to encourage faculty to create MOOCs.

Finally, MOOCs will require some infrastructure support. As high profile MOOC failures have shown, there needs to be technical support for the both the faculty member conducting the class and the students enrolled. I regularly receive 10-20 emails a week on technical and academic issues from students in a 120-150 person class. As class size increases to over 100, we should expect the number of emails to increase proportionately. This could put a tremendous strain on faculty time and the technical staff of a university without proper support.   

As result of the investments necessary to conduct a MOOC, major universities will continue to have a monopoly on their production, and I suspect that the most cash-strapped schools will remain consumers of MOOC content.

4. Reviewing the MOOC. I’m interested to see whether the academic community come to review MOOCs as they might a new textbook or monograph. Unlike a traditional classroom course that is open only to paying enrolled students, a MOOC is open to anyone who takes the time to enroll. Can we imagine MOOCs to be the foundation for the kind of dynamic digital scholarship that so many academics think is imminent? After all, MOOCs can be as focuses as the audience will endure, interactive, dynamic, public, and open. All these things are key elements in how many folks see the future of academic publishing.

5. The New Model MOOC. One of the key aspects of the MOOC revolution is determining was to make them sustainable. When I was toying with the idea of a introducing a MOOC program here at UND, I thought that the MOOC provided a remarkable platform for targeted advertising. Collaborating with business that would provide products either directly relevant to the class (like textbooks or related books) or of interest to people taking the course (like the history channel supporting a MOOC on a historical topic) might work for MOOCs with thousands of students. As far as I can understand, no MOOC platform has introduced targeted advertising, but I have no idea why not. While MOOCs will not draw the millions of viewers watching even the worst rated television broadcast, one might think that focus of the average MOOC participant would more than make up for that with higher than average click through rates. 

I am not convinced that MOOCs will revolutionize university level teaching, but they open up intriguing possibilities for how students and a broader audience engages academic and scholarly content. Best understood as a complement to the university classroom, the expenses and potential revenue streams stimulated by MOOCs should give universities space to innovate alongside their core mission. 

Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale Up Classroom (Part IV)

Last night was my second “real” class in the Scale-Up classroom. I am certainly still in the learning stage in the Scale-Up environment, but felt more at ease this class than I did last week. I have come to have a better sense for how long it’ll take pods (groups of three students) and tables (groups of nine students) to complete an assignment. I also was slightly more ambitious with my assignments asking the pods and tables to accomplish slightly different, if interrelated tasks.

As readers of this blog know, I am working to do more than just “flip the classroom“. I am working to “flip the textbook” by getting my students to produce a Western Civilization textbook over the course a semester. 

Last week, I assigned to each table a chapter for the textbook that the class is writing and got them taking the first steps in thinking about how they might approach the challenge of marshaling information. We discussed the difference between primary and secondary sources and I asked each pod to compile a list of primary sources relevant to their chapter with basic information on authorship, location, date, and genre. In the second half of class, I asked the tables to compile a list of the best primary sources and to explain how provide evidence for events, people, and institutions that they might include in their chapter and the major themes that we introduced last week to the course. Finally, at the end of class, I asked each student to evaluate the list of sources that their table prepared and to identify the most and least useful source for understanding their period.

This exercise encountered some predictable and some novel issues:

1. Directions and Definitions. In a class of 150+ students, it is not necessarily remarkable that some do not pay attention to the directions or definitions provided at the start of class. The Scale-Up room, however, provides some additional challenges. First, bad understandings and good understanding seem to battle on a more equal playing field. As a result, some groups that were unclear concerning the difference between primary and secondary sources got into a rut and wasted time collecting useless information. The idea that students who understood the difference between primary and secondary sources would influence students who struggled with the distinction did not seem to result in a room that understood the distinction, but a patchwork of students who understood and those who did not.

2. Time. I am still struggling with what to do when some groups finish early and some take longer. In some ways, this is an inevitable product of asking students to perform different tasks. Since each group has a different topic and each period and topic presents a unique set of challenges, each group could reasonably take a different length of time to finish their work.

3. Revising. The first in class, group writing assignments were well considered, but rather poorly executed. Part of the promise of the Scale-Up room is that it creates an environment better suited to active collaboration than the passive reception of knowledge. So some of the work that we might expect a student to do at home, happens in the classroom. This provides a great opportunity to observe the learning process, but a bustling classroom of 150 students is not necessarily the best environment for careful writing. So we tweaked the system a bit to allow for tables to revise their writing up until the weekend, while still requiring them to turn in their work at the end of the class time.

4. Logistics. My class has some moving parts to it. The most vexing at present in the requirement that each student get a different textbook. Since there was no way to arrange for this before the first day of class (this is a 100 level history course), the students signed up for textbooks on the first day and I urged them to order them as soon as possible. Predictably, two weeks later, about half the class has the book and the other half seem flummoxed. The issue (as always) is that flummoxed half who did not sort out how to get a textbook in two weeks is also the least adept at finding ways around this issue. Because so few students have textbooks and some groups had a disproportionate number of students without textbooks, the results were uneven.

5. Difficulty and Ability. One the most remarkable things to observe is how the difficulty of the chapter failed to correlate with the performance of the group. Some tables had chapters for which primary sources were quite scarce, disparate, or difficult. For example, one table is working on a chapter on the Aegean Bronze Age and the only textual primary sources are Linear B tablets. This group was great. They found transcribed Linear B tablets on the internets and began to analyze them and consider their value as historical sources. Another group worked on a chapter on Archaic and Classical Greece, a relatively well-documented period, and they struggled to find sources.

For those of you who are keeping track at home, I lectured for about 25 minutes last night (night including basic housekeeping tasks) over the course of a 2 hours class.

I am chronicling my success and failures adapting a History 101: Western Civilization course to the Scale-Up Classroom at the University of North Dakota each Wednesday here.

Some Random Thoughts on the Future of the University

Writing on the future of the university has long been a cottage industry. Predicting disruptive changes and revolutions to conservative institutions and industries requires little in the way of penetrating insight. A few friends asked what I thought about Nathan Harden’s recent article in the American Interest, and it being a holiday weekend, I decided to take some time to respond a length.

Harden’s article predicts that online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other digital open access education initiatives at the university level will be a disruptive and transformative approach to higher education.  He argues that these innovations lead by schools like Harvard and MIT have appeared at a crucial moment when universities have become expensive, financially vulnerable, top heavy with administrators, and enduring widespread critique for deviating from their traditional missions of producing good citizens, an educated workforce, and ethical society.

For Harden, the involvement of elite university’s in producing MOOCs and other open access initiatives leverages the best of American higher education, and, as good currency drives out bad, these offerings should either elevate offerings by their more modest brethren (small and midsize state universities and liberal arts colleges), drive them out of the higher education business, or force them to become a local tutor for elite offerings. For an industry that long prided itself on low student-teacher ratios, responsive instruction, and a wide range of campus services (from organized sports to libraries and dinning halls), the critiques offered introduces a new kind of Jeremiad where innovation disrupts the deeply flawed university system as we know it.

Harden seems to see the difficult financial conditions of many schools as indicative of the flawed model of American higher education. I have my doubts. First, some of the financial issues experienced by private universities comes not from pricing themselves out of the game, but because their endowments suffered during the global economic down turn. Next, state universities have suffered because funding priorities have changed. Dating to before the recent recession, state colleges and universities have received less and less money from the state governments while at the same time being restricted in how they can raise money to make up the funding gap (e.g. states often limit tuition increases, require the admission of instate students at a discounted price, and even restrict the amount and kinds of fees charged to students). Neither of these issues are directly related to the performance of the university system except that our society as a whole has become increasingly skeptical of our institution’s ability to contribute to the production of a economically and socially dynamic society. In other words, funding for higher education and the performance of higher education are separate issues and the lack of funding does not mean that the approach or performance of our universities is flawed.

(As an aside, the average amount of student loan debt – $23,000 per student – seems quite reasonable in that it is far less than, say, the average price of a car ($30,000 in 2012) and unlike a car one’s education tends to appreciate over time rather than lose value…)   

But to return to the disruptive potential of MOOCs and other open course initiatives, I’ll offer three observations: 

1. Trends. The dream of several massive online courses servicing massive numbers of students is an appealing one for anyone who sees the issues with U.S. higher education as our institutions have never adjusted to the rapid increase in the number of students who started going to college in the middle of the 20th century. As a result, we continue to use methods developed to teach a small number of economic and social elites to teach the masses. Massive online courses provide an antidote to this failure to adapt.

The problem is, of course, that similar efforts to scale higher education have not worked. Massive courses at massive universities drove down the cost of higher education by supplementing the ranks of the faculty members with legions of eager graduate students who mediated between the sage on the stage and the students. Over the last two decades, both students and faculty have rebelled against this model for teaching. Calls to “invert the lecture” and to create a more dynamic, interactive classroom have tended to feature more intensive faculty involvement rather than a more distant, highly mediated source of erudite authority. While online teaching can provide this kind of hands-on mentoring, it is difficult to image being able to do it on such a scale as the current MOOCs without significantly increasing the degree of faculty involvement or the number of faculty members involved. In short, MOOCs run counter to a century long trend in American higher education that calls for smaller class, more faculty involvement in teaching, and more hands-on, personalized instruction.  

2. Technologies of Scale. MOOC type classes will begin to lose some of their economies of scale if they come to provide a significant source of for credit instruction. I regularly teach an online class of 100 students and received 4-5 student questions about the technologies involved in this course per week. This is rather low-tech class and a relatively static interface. If I were teaching this class to 1000 students I might expect 40-50 questions a week and I see no reason why this trend wouldn’t continue as the course size increased. With MOOCs enrolling over 50,000 students one can imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of student related issues per week. While this is not an insurmountable problem, it will require an investment in course infrastructure to keep pace with not only the massive numbers of students enrolled, but the increased pressure of evaluating and managing the students in class. Economies of scale and new technologies might make MOOCs sustainable at a cost relatively lower than traditional university education, but I cannot imagine that they will continue to be free.   

We should remember that the current first generation of MOOCs do not seek to engage students in the same way or to the same extent as a classroom based course. The metrics for evaluating student performance remain crude in comparison with a typical university classroom, the active contact hours between faculty member and individual student are vanishingly small, and student expectations remain modest (or at least in keeping with the price of the courses!).  MOOC style course that have yet to introduce robust methods to manage elevated student expectations, increased contact hours, and more subtle standards of performance. These will cost money. 

3. Continuity. Finally, it is important to stress that much of what students encounter in MOOC style education is radically different from what they encounter in secondary education. While taking nothing away from the flexibility of the student mind, the change from a highly structured school environment to an à la carte system provided by MOOCs seems to be the kind of radical departure from how we teach students to learn. If we believe that our current teaching and learning methods are broken or unsustainable, then it is going to take more than just changing how we deliver information or construct knowledge on the university level.

Lest people see this post as the rantings of a luddite, I should point out that I proposed a series of MOOC style courses at the University of North Dakota over 2 years ago. It made its way though the university bureaucracy before dying in Deans’ Council. Since that time, I have thought about the potential of MOOCs and what they can offer to higher education. My general feeling at present is that MOOCs present very little threat to the typical university curriculum. They do, however, offer a significant threat to textbook publishers. Assigning a free MOOC as part of an established class (as universities are already doing) provides a more dynamic, personal, and inexpensive interface for the delivery of content than the traditional textbook.

Collaborative Writing in a Scale-Up Classroom

One of my main goals for this summer is to prepare my spring 2013 (!!) History 101: Western Civilization I class. I am teaching it in the University of North Dakota’s new Scale-up classroom. This is a large classroom (150+ seats) arranged to facilitate students engaged in group work rather than “passively” (whatever that really means) absorbing a lecture. Students are arranged around a series of 9 person tables each with three computers. These computers, in turn, link to a bewildering array of monitors that allow each group of 3 students to instantly display their work to entire class or just one section of the class.

These rooms were initially designed around teaching sciences (or more broadly STEM discipline), but I have been given the opportunity to teach a humanities class in this room. Last spring I posted a copy of my proposed class here. This summer, I am attempting to work on some of the niggling details:

1. Collaborative Writing Software. I am looking for some software that will facilitate some serious collaborative writing. Ideally, it will allow me not only to track contributions from each collaborator, but also have some version control and allow for the neat and easy output into a more standard format (let’s say pfd of .docx). I’d also like the interface to be as user-friendly as possible and, of course, it needs to be web-based and scalable to allow collaborations of groups of at least 9.

We use Blackboard as our LMS here at UND, and, while it has discussion boards, wikis, blogs and other basic collaborative functions, I am not sure that any of these are robust or well-articulated enough to serve as the center piece for an entire class. So any suggestions for collaborative writing software would be greatly appreciated.

2. Enticing Students to Collaborate. When I was a college student, I hated group work, hated collaboration, and probably spent a good bit of time hating my fellow students. (Yeah, I was fun kid). It was only toward the end of my graduate school career that I began to understand the value of collaboration and its potential to produce more than the sum of its parts. These days, most of my scholarly output is collaborative. I want to bring the excitement of collaborative work to my students and prove to them the dreadful experiences associated with most “group work” are not intrinsic to collaboration, but issues of execution.

So my goal over the next week is to create a series of exercises in the beginning of the semester that seduce the students into appreciating the creative potential of collaborative work.  As the class focuses on how pre-industrial societies in the West responded to challenges and limitations imposed by their physical environment, I am very tempted to start the class with the classic desert island scenario. In this scenario you ask each student to come up with 5 rules to govern a society of shipwreck survivors on a deserted island. Then, I will ask them to merge their list of 5 with two other students. Then with the other students at the their table. And finally, we will come up with a definitive list of 5 basic rules agreed upon by the entire class. This exercise would then lead to a discussion of Hammurabi’s early law code and thoughts on how pre-industrial societies adapted to various social and natural limits.

3. Grading Collaborative Work. Part of the dread associated with collaborative work is the fear that someone else will bring you down. In the so-called “private sector”, successful collaborative work is grounded in mutual respect, shared priorities, and, of course, trust. These are commodities that do not develop over night or under the watchfully insistent gaze of the teacher, but through sustained interaction, commonly agreed upon goals, and the willingness to compromise individual achievement for the success of the group. This works against the prevailing, individualistic attitudes toward grades. What I need to figure out is a system where individual grades and group grades are balanced out.

So, as I work through these things over the next few weeks, I’ll report back.

Some Photos from the Working Group in Digital and New Media Showcase

When I started this blog several years ago, I regularly included more news-like updates about my day to day academic life (whether here in North Dakotaland or in Athens, Greece). At some point, the blog drifted more toward being a research journal. In the end, I don’t have a tremens personal or ideological commitment to one form of blogging or the others.

So, I’ll offer some photographs from last Tuesday’s Working Group in Digital and New Media event at the Firehall Theatre in Grand Forks.  The presentations were lively and the food was amazing (and generously provided by the Cyprus Research Fund).

The photos are by Ryan Stander.

TheCrowdThe assembled masses

AlbertsasMCProf. Crystal Alberts served as an able M.C.

WorleyOne of Prof. Paul Worley’s characters from the Yucatan where he works with Prof. Joel Jonientz to produce Maya language animated films.

TravisProf. Travis Dessel, the newest Working Group member, discusses the use of volunteer computing to document Wildlife@home.

ChampionGraduate Student Jim Champion presents his marvelous melting sculptures

PaschWittgrafProf. Tim Pasch and Prof. Mike Wittgraf make digital music together

The event saw over 50 people come out to see the fantastic digital and new media works of my colleagues, and we considered that a great crowd for the first effort to showcase the efforts of the Working Group in front of the wider university and local community.


Steve Jobs

The amazing thing about Steve Jobs’ passing is how many people seem to care. In my memory, there are only a handful of billionaire corporate leaders who could generate this response.


The main reason, I suppose, is that his company’s products created an explicit link between his genius and our bodies.  In the past, creative types have infused rather impersonal tools with their spirit, e.g. Hemmingway’s typewriters or Churchill’s fountain pen.  Apple inverted that process, by selling a totemic product. The Macintosh computer was an extension of its creator, Steve Jobs. In other words, people who purchased a Mac (above almost any Apple product) sought to capture a tiny bit of Jobs’ creativity. As a vessel for Jobs’ demanding and innovative approach to technology, the Macintosh became the totem of  the self-styled “creative class”.

Three Things about Blackboard

I am not a “Blackboard Hater”, but I have to admit to being baffled by Blackboard, our Learning Management System, a good bit of the time. On the one hand, the University of North Dakota has (apparently) a fair Blackboard complete suite of Blackboard services, applications, and plug-ins, and Blackboard does seem able to do an almost bewildering number of teaching related things.

On the other hand, Blackboard seems to lack some of the simple functionality that most of us have come to expect from software these days. I’ll be the first to admit that well-designed software has made me soft. I’ve come to expect almost infinite flexibility from even the least expense web-based application and I have become increasingly reluctant to adjust my workflow to accommodate limitations imposed by the tools that I rely on to accomplish my daily tasks.  And, since I teach online, managing my History 101: Western Civilization class, which has seemingly innumerable moving parts and sometimes close to 100 students is a daily responsibility. So, any friction that I encounter in setting up and running this class can easily multiply.

Over the past week, I have encountered three little issues with Blackboard that have produced a significant amount of friction in my set up and management of my class.

1. Copying Group Discussions. Each semester I break my History 101 class into a groups of 30-40 students to make it easier for them to participate in an online discussion board. Mostly my discussion board questions or prompts ask them to write short (200-300 word) essays on a particular historical questions and draw together the primary source readings, my lectures, and secondary source readings.  While most content copies easily from one semester to the next, these discussion board prompts do not. As as a result, I have to re-enter the discussion board prompts for each of the 15 discussion forums for two or three groups each semester.

This is time consuming and, more than that, annoying. I am sure there is a technical reason why this doesn’t work, but from the end user perspective, this doesn’t seem a particular unusual or strange request.

2. Copying Quiz Instruction. A similar area of friction involves managing my 15 weekly quizzes. Each quiz has the same format and the same instructions, but there is no way to batch change the instructions on the quizzes. So when I changed my quiz format slightly this fall, I had to change the settings on 15 separate quizzes. Not only is there a good chance that I messed this up in some way (e.g. forgot to change the settings or instructions on a quiz), but this also took me the better part of an hour to accomplish. While an hour is not a huge amount of time in the greater scheme of a semester, it is still amazing to me that this simple functionality is absent in Blackboard. I have to think that batch editing quizzes would qualify as typical faculty behavior.

3. Preventing Students from Creating Discussion Board Forums. I discovered this semester that students could create their own Forums in group discussion boards.  From what I can tell, a Forum in Blackboard-speak, is group of threads centered around a particular topic. Oddly enough, it is possible to prevent students from creating new discussion threads within those Forums, but not to prevent them from creating the Forums themselves. This is baffling. Maybe the strange character of the Forum (is it a thread or what?) allowed it be overlooked by Blackboard developers? Because students can create Forums on their own, the first couple weeks of the semester involves me asking them not to do that and, instead, focusing their energies of responding to the prompts that I have provided rather than creating unique and typically unrelated threads.

While none of these issues are major, they consistently add friction to my experience with Blackboard and online teaching. None of these issues seem particularly idiosyncratic to my style of teaching or evaluation and none of them – from the end user experience – seem particularly tied to security, design, or software logic issues.  In short, there is no reason why these things should not be fixed and work, except that the software has design problems.