A historian on teaching and technology

Recently I was interviewed by the University of Gothenburg staff magazine, GU-Journalen. They sought a historian’s perspective on how digitisation, understood very broadly, will affect teaching and learning in higher education. The only sensible response I could give to that question, of course, was that a) it really depends and b) no one actually knows. But in the course of elaborating on those basic themes, I also had the chance to comment on some of the recent debates about teaching and technology in relation to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), traditional distance-based education, Active Learning Spaces, and so on.

For those who may be interested, the conversation has now been published in both the original Swedish (web page at Issuu / PDF, 5 Mb) and an English translation (web page at Issue / PDF, 600 Kb). I should point out (again) that I talk here not as a specialist on educational research, but rather as a historian with an interest in digital humanities who has followed (and sometimes engaged in) “ed tech” debates, especially those about MOOCs a few years ago; some blog posts, mostly in Swedish but also some in English, on that topic can be found here. Even though I am always a little uncomfortable at seeing statements I made verbally and “in haste,” as it were, presented as text on a page, on the whole I think the interview reflects accurately not only what I said but also what I think about these interesting and very complicated issues.

A global history of Linnaean science (II)

Some two years ago, Hanna Hodacs and I co-sponsored a workshop called “A Global History of Linnaean Science” at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, where we were hosted by the Director of the Academy’s Center for History of Science, Karl Grandin. It was a small event, with eight presentations and a total of 22 participants, but we thought it a great success and decided we should try to publish the papers as a collected volume. One of the participants that day, Stéphane Van Damme, agreed to edit the collection together with us, and we began to plan for a second workshop more focused on discussing draft chapters than oral presentations.

Nature's EmpireAfter a long time of preparation we finally reconvened last week, on 14 November, for an intense day of discussions at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Stéphane is now a Professor of History of Science at the Institute, which graciously provided all the local arrangements and facilities as well as lodging for those who attended. Karl Grandin and the Swedish Academy of Sciences once again generously supported us, this time by helping with the cost of travel for some of the participants flying in from various countries in Europe and elsewhere. The full title of this second workshop was “Nature’s Empire: A Global History of Linnaean Science in the Long Eighteenth Century” and the programme including a list of contributors can be downloaded here (PDF, 643 Kb).

It turned out to be an extraordinarily productive day of rich, stimulating discussions about many aspects of Linnaean natural history and, more broadly, the early modern global history of science in which Linnaean ideas, practices, objects and people played an important role. It is not possible here to even try to summarize these discussions, especially as they were often linked – in one way or the other – to specific aspects of the pre-circulated papers that we had all read. However, the statement of aims in the programme gives a good general idea of the issues and questions covered in the course of the day:

This conference addresses a topic at the forefront of many discussions today, the global circulation of knowledge. Few eighteenth century figures can have contributed as much to the globalisation of natural history knowledge as the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). The publication of Species Plantarum in 1753, Linnaeus’s global flora where he launched his new scientific nomenclature to an international audience, is often referred to as year zero in the history of modern botany. Published at a time that saw an escalation of contacts between different parts of the world, Linnaeus’s work promoted global communication and exploration of the species of the planet.

The argument of this conference is that in order to understand this process we need to move beyond the individual intellectual contributions of Linnaeus to focus on processes that involved circulation and modification of knowledge. This […] includes discussions on early modern information storing technologies and the use of landscapes for pinning names to nature and establishing orders and systems. It also focuses on the creation of collective and individual identities through reading and corresponding, and the role of journeys, in and between landscapes, shaping knowledge gathering and the lives of knowledge gatherers.

[The] conference aims also to offer a historiographical perspective on this process, including a discussion of pre-Linnaean natural history, and the legacy of Linnaean natural history in modern scholarship. Linnaeus’s interest in natural history was largely aimed at exploring resources at home in Sweden, or enriching domestic flora and fauna with exotic plants and animals. His taxonomy and nomenclature were of course to have more far ranging impacts than that, and as such [the book in preparation] will also offer a way of thinking of the connections between local and global and knowledge and power, and thereby contributing to current debates about the relationship between science and European expansion.

Producing a book is often a protracted affair and much work clearly remains; while the workshop resolved some issues and enhanced our understanding of others, it also raised new questions that need to be answered before we are done. Still, I think we all felt that this one, long day of conversations about the global history of Linnaean science brought us quite a bit closer to our goal. The next step, for authors and editors alike, is as expected as it is familiar to all of us: Revise and resubmit. And that, of course, has always been what both scholarship and science is all about.

Data, information, visualization

Dana Solomon gave a presentation, now posted online, at MLA 2013 about “the deployment of information visualization as a method of textual analysis in the digital humanities”. It is worth reading in its entirety, but as a non-specialist I found two distinctions – one conceptual, one historical – to be especially instructive:

Data is typically not useful without some kind of supplementary, grafted-on action: processing, mining, analysis, visualization, etc., while information can take the form of processed data, and is therefore more readily useful. Data is always a noun, while information walks the ontological line between noun and verb, or object and process. Data visualizations can be beautiful and powerful visual objects, but the term itself is less dynamic than its more processual partner and, further, is fraught with its own embedded epistemological debate about what it means for something to be “given.” My personal preference is to use “information visualization” because the term offers a more fruitful starting point for a discussion of methodology and practice. [– – –]

If the first wave of large-scale database projects in the digital humanities is exemplified by the practices of digitizing texts, constructing archives, and determining best practices for digital preservation, then the practice of information visualization is emblematic of the second wave of projects devoted to mining this new data.

Bridging the gap

I couldn’t agree more with Sharon M. Leon:

But, the fact of the matter is that to be responsible guides to their students, mid-career historians desperately need opportunities for training in information managements and digital tools. The faculty who are teaching the current crop of PhD students are woefully unprepared to assist their students in surveying and analyzing the vast field of source material that they have access to at this point. Well-trained in the skills necessary to closely read and corroborate sources as they build answers to historical questions, these historians would benefit from knowing more about how text-mining, visualization, and geospatial tools offer ways to see new things a larger aggregate of sources.

And most important of all, Leon points out that you have to meet these “mid-career avoiders” at least halfway or you will lose them:

But, really, we need something more concrete: a several week summer workshop for digital history novices who want to build a baseline of skills and learn how to learn new ones in a discipline-specific context. (The Digital Humanities Summer Institutes don’t fit the bill here; they’re just too advanced for this crowd.)

Avoider or not, I would be the first to sign up.

To unbundle the university

Ethan Gach, responding to Aaron Bady’s critique of the piece by Clay Shirky that I quoted a month ago, discusses exactly what part of higher education will (or should) be unbundled by the coming of MOOCs and other forms of online learning:

The original point of the university was the efficiency of large classes and large faculties all housed in the same location. That efficiency can now be gained in other ways. Especially if you already have the tools to do most of the learning on your own, which large lectures more or less require anyway. […]

What putting lectures online does do is allow them to be revised, stored, and retrieved whenever need be. This is the point of textbooks, and while I would be the first to recognize the limits of most of them, they are extremely effective as repositories for standardized information and references. […]

Of course, to simply recommend then that all large lectures be turned into online courses skips an important question, which is whether they should be turned into small seminars instead. And this is the real alternative to online lectures (since, unlike Bady, I do think the physical lecture is a dead medium).

While not agreeing with every aspect of Gach’s reasoning – of which the above is only one small example – I think his contribution to the debate is very much worth reading.

Expanding the audience

Clay Shirky drills down into the question of what MOOCs are and what they are not:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

If he is right, the big question is: For how many current and potential students will MOOCs be “good enough” to justify not attending a traditional college?

Becoming a digital humanist

Unlike Rachel Herrmann I cannot pinpoint the day when I decided to become a historian. It was a choice that emerged only gradually and from the simplest, most unoriginal of motives: a lifelong fascination with the past and how it relates to the present. If you always go around thinking about the world in terms of continuity and change over time, aspiring to pursue a life in academic history seems like a logical step. So I did, and (some twenty years later) here I am.

As a historian, then, I must admit to having a deep and not entirely rational attachment to the traditional practices and material aspects of our craft. Yes, I confess: there is nothing like the dusty smell of aging books that have not been opened for decades, or the touch of fragile sheets of paper covered with centuries-old handwriting. The mundane details of organizing archival trips, the tedium of combing through library card catalogues where no shortcuts are to be had – it is all part of a somewhat old-fashioned mode of scholarly life that means the world to me.

There can be no doubt, however, that this way of life is quickly becoming obsolete in many respects. Sometimes I cannot help wishing that I could just go on as if nothing had happened – everything would be so much easier then, right? – but that is not really an option at this point. The reason is simple: academia, along with the rest of society, is about to be transformed by the digital revolution in ways we are only beginning to imagine. In one way or another, as teachers, scholars and citizens we all have to face the changes brought about by digital technology and social media.

It was this realization that made me begin to explore the field of digital humanities almost one year ago. On the one hand it was obvious that I could not continue along the same old tracks, on the other I felt a certain skepticism about some of the claims being made on behalf of all that is New, Digital and Social. The best way to deal with that ambivalence was to get at least a basic grasp of what is going on and where things seem to be heading. So, for the last ten months or so I have been trying, in my spare time, to follow some of the more visible DH figures on Twitter, read their blogs and collect information about useful tools and resources.

I have not really had the time to explore specific techniques or services in depth, like a proper, practicing “digital humanist” (however that is defined) would; I have just tried to understand the major features of the DH landscape and what the main points of debate are. I have blogged and tweeted about it, but as someone pointed out the other week that alone does not make you a digital humanist. It was only a few months ago, and even then hesitantly, that I updated my profiles on Twitter and App.net from “interested in” to “exploring digital humanities”.

By now I think I have a reasonably good general idea of the main issues, but no actual hands-on DH experience – unless you count the blogging and tweeting, of course. In one sense I do not even want to become a card-carrying digital humanist at all, since that label is strongly associated with certain beliefs and ideas that I do not fully subscribe to. (That is a whole other discussion that shall have to wait for another time.) But my direction is clear and over the next year or two this topic will be all the more relevant to me. On the one hand I am in the early stages of a research project where I will try to apply some of my recent DH insights, and on the other I have been asked to lead a development effort at my department to better integrate some of the new digital and social tools into our teaching practices.

About a week ago I passed another milestone on this road to wherever I am heading, when one day I went from “exploring” to “practicing” digital humanities in my everyday work – if on a very modest scale. In the morning of that day, sitting on the tram going to work, for the first time ever I published a blog post from my mobile phone. Part of the afternoon I then spent by reading up on Zotero and watching the entire collection of screencasts about how it works, in preparation for actually using it in my research. For mankind those may have been very small steps, but for me they were great leaps on my way to becoming something akin to a digital humanist.

Don’t just do it

Lincoln Mullen, writing for ProfHacker, offers useful advice on how (and why) you can make some things in life more difficult and complicated. This one hit close to home for me:

I’ve decided to wait 24 hours before agreeing to do anything that is more than routine. Usually, if you ask me to do something, and I’ll say yes right away and regret it later. So now I wait a day before thinking about it, so that I actually can think about it.

I will try to remember that next time.

MOOCs: A reader’s digest

Over the summer there has been intense discussion in higher education circles about MOOCs, massive(ly) open online courses offered by prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. By now I have realized I will never get around to writing the extensive and thoroughly argued piece on the subject that I have been thinking about. Instead, for what it’s worth I have tried to summarize below some of the main points I am taking away from the discussion in a sort of “reader’s digest”.

The number of contributions to this debate is somewhat overwhelming so I can only link to a fraction of them here, but some of the pieces I found most interesting were those by Audrey Watters (1, 2), Timothy Burke and Dominik Lukeš. There was also a good round-up of posts on MOOCs in Digital Humanities Now that featured, among others, a four-part series by Mills Kelly of Edwired (1, 2, 3, 4) that anyone interested in the subject should read. (I linked to parts of this series in a brief post here on 19 July.)

Based on the above (and more), this is my bullet-point(ish) summary:

1. Everyone is really excited about MOOCs and their promise of transforming higher education by harnessing the potential of digital technology.

2. “Everyone”, that is, except those who actually have any knowledge or experience of using digital technology to improve the quality of higher education. For instance, it is striking how virtually every leading digital humanist you have ever heard of is sceptical or critical of MOOCs as currently conceived (and marketed).

3. This is so significant that it deserves to be reiterated in a bullet-point all its own: Those voicing these concerns are not the educators who never understood the value of digital/social in the first place and who think universities and colleges should just carry on as they always have. (Well, they are also critical but that is another story.) Rather, some of the loudest critics are the very people who have worked for years or even decades to “harness the potential of digital technology” in education because they think it is sorely needed.

4. According to these critics (and I agree), the main reason to be skeptical of MOOCs in their present form is that they are simply not transformative at all. In most cases they consist of little else than a series of video lectures delivered to massive student audiences. No matter how good these lectures are, they provide little to no opportunity of meaningful teacher-student interaction. In other words they may constitute a very efficient method of content delivery, but communication is not what they are about.

5. This is a problem since it is the potential of digital technology to increase communication and interaction that is transformative, not its potential of distributing goods more efficiently or economically. What conventional (as in non-MOOC) education needs is not less interactivity but more, and the current model of massive online courses does not provide that. If anything they go in the opposite direction.

6. Those most fervently arguing for the blessings of the MOOC model are politicians, administrators and technology companies. The two former groups hope to save money while the latter hopes to make (a lot of) it if this model is widely adopted. All of them are probably sincere in their belief that MOOCs actually improve the quality of education, but “quality” is then defined in terms of economically and technologically efficient content delivery, not of learning as a complex and distributed process that requires human interaction in order to be effective.

7. Put differently, those who enthusiastically portray MOOCs as the future of higher education tend to focus narrowly on technology as such rather than on its social ramifications in an educational context. Again, it is here that we find the truly transformative opportunities, as digital tools and social media dependent on them can be used to alleviate and overcome (rather than compound) the flaws in traditional educational models. It is this social aspect that those who have long advocated “digital” or “online” learning are basing much of their work on, and this is the reason they are sceptical or critical of MOOCs.

8. All this being said, unlike many digital humanists I believe there is still an important place in future education for conventional lectures as well as textbooks (although in both cases in digitally evolved forms). While it is true that digital/social tools liberate us from the need to depend on these linear, one-way and static forms of presenting and organizing content, the very diversity and heterogeneity of all the new materials available online will underscore the need for some kind of common frame of reference on which to base more interactive and exploratory learning processes.

9. The reason for this is that learning takes place by relating new data to existing cognitive patterns. The main value of both textbooks and traditional lectures consists in providing such basic structures, not in conveying individual pieces of content. This does not mean, of course, that we should passively rely on those structures in teaching and learning, but rather use them as a starting point for discussions and critical analyses of how knowledge is produced, organized and disseminated.

10. Finally, then, this suggests the role I think that MOOCs do have to play in higher education of today and tomorrow. They can serve as providers of a common core of (high quality) lectures and other mass-distributed content around which more dynamic – on- and offline – learning activities can be built, led by teachers that students can interact with on an individual basis. In such a model we are harnessing the potential of digital technology as well as the opportunities opened up by its social consequences.

Predicting usefulness

Robert McMillan of Wired has interviewed Robert Taylor, formerly of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later Xerox PARC, regarding the recent discussion about the early history of the internet:

“The origins of the internet include work both sponsored by the government and Xerox PARC, so you can’t say that the internet was invented by either one alone,” [Taylor] says.

So would the internet have been invented without the government? “That’s a tough question,” he says. “Private industry does not like to start brand new directions in technology. Private industry is conservative by nature. So the ARPAnet probably could not have been built by private industry. It was deemed to be a crazy idea at the time.”

In other words: What is a mere curiosity (or “crazy idea”) today may turn out to be a very useful innovation tomorrow, but there is no way of telling in advance.

This is why publicly funded research should be allowed to be experimental and free-ranging, not driven by short-term commercial pressures. An obvious and very simple truth that politicians everywhere seem unable to accept, as they shut down funding to research not deemed to be “useful” or “profitable” enough. The internet has turned out to be quite useful, don’t you think?