Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

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WordCamp Ed DC 2008

So, I’ve gratefully accepted an invitation to speak at WordCamp Ed DC 2008 on “Teaching Undergraduates with Blogs” at GMU’s Center for History and New Media on Saturday, November 22. If you’re in the area, come check it out. [Heck, it’s free!]

I’m planning on talking about my uses of WordPress (MU) blogs in various classes. So, WordPress as: CMS-alternative, research log, reading reaction journal, individual project site, “permanent” group project site, and potential e-portfolio. Then I’ll discuss how students have responded to the process, maybe show a few good examples of students taking it to the next level.

Any suggestions for my talk? Issues to raise? Points to ponder?

A Radical Idea for the Teaching Center

As is so often the case for me, this post began as a comment on someone else’s blog post (Steve at Pedablogy) and grew to a silly size, so here’s my expanded version:

I’ve been having this radical idea lately (and it’s one that may make no practical sense, given our institution’s resources and structure), but here it is. In the conversation that the UMW University Committee on Digital Initiatives had with the CIO of Rhodes College, we learned that they had combined the IT and Library departments into one group. One advantage of this for students and faculty was that if you had any questions/ideas/interest about a research/informational topic/project/idea you went to a single place, where you would be referred to the person or people who could best help you (reference librarian, programmer, ITS, or some combo). From a user perspective it helps avoid the paralyzing question about where you go and it avoids some of the “siloization” that seems to be such a problem for academia.

What if the UMW teaching center worked in a similar way? [Here I’m thinking of combining, DTLT, the Speaking and Writing Centers, maybe even academic tutoring.] What if you had any kind of question about teaching or learning and you just had a single source to go to? E.g., I want to brainstorm new assignments to engage my students more fully in a text. Go to the single entry point and you have access to a number of options, a number of experts in various aspects of teaching and learning. Maybe you can talk with someone from the speaking center and someone else from DTLT to create a project.

Imagine what it would be like to be able to have all of those resources in one place, easily accessible to faculty and students. Imagine what collaborations might emerge. Another benefit of having all those groups under one institutional roof would be that they would be able to talk to each other and bridge some of those silos of effort and innovation. [I’m not so naive to think the silos would disappear.] Another potential benefit might be streamlining of spaces and resources and administration.

Obvious Cons: It would take a special group of leaders to make this work. It would require combining some radically different departmental cultures. It might result in fewer people working to support faculty and students in these areas (the dark side of “streamlining”). It risks restricting the nimble, creative nature of at least one of those departments. With the wrong leader, it risks overemphasizing one method or approach over others. Perhaps it should just focus on pedagogy and leave student services where it is.

What am I missing here? [I’m sure a great deal.] And, if the plan itself is impractical, how could we take some of best aspects of it and implement them now, in 2 years, in 5 years?

Quick update on Digital History

The semester and several of my larger responsibilities are coming to a head at the same time, but I wanted to pass on a quick update on the Digital History Seminar. My sense with 4 weeks left in the semester is that although some of the project groups are beginning to reach a stopping place, that most of the groups are beginning to comprehend how much they still have left to do. This realization is causing some tensions in the groups, especially as some people look around and think that they are further along in their work than other members of their group. There is also the issue for some groups of trying to coordinate the various efforts and approaches of 4-5 different people. And I suspect there are some groups still trying to hammer out their vision for their project.

All of this is okay, all of this is expected, and only part of it has to do with the technological aspects of the class. I think these groups, though some may have some stressful moments ahead, will build on the significant work already accomplished to finish some impressive projects.

Responding to a Post about Teaching and Technology

One of our students, Joe McMahon, has posted a blog entry about the problems related to the (mis)use of technology by professors. [It’s amusingly titled, “You Can’t Make Me Drink the Kool-Aid: Part One.”]

I wrote one of the longest comments I’ve ever written and decided I spent enough time on it to repost it with slight modifications here.

I asked others for their opinions on this piece and now Gardner’s called me out on this as well, so here goes.

I would say that blogging (or wiki-ing, or any assignment, technology-based or otherwise) needs to be created with a purpose. I suspect that all of my colleagues have a goal (or often multiple goals) in mind when they create an assignment. What do I hope to accomplish? What form should it take? What sources do I expect students to engage with? How creative/analytical/exploratory/argumentative do I want students to be? How much freedom should they have to shape their own assignments? The list goes on and on.

For me the question about the use of technology is integral to every assignment I create. [Of course writing your papers on lined note pads is using technology. But Joe is raising the point that for some of these assignments the technology is transparent and well known, allowing students to focus on the content (their argument, their research, their style) without having to spend time figuring out to create a new page, while for others the time spent (in and out of class) figuring the tech out distracts from the focus on content.] I get that. As a result, it’s a conscious choice (one of many that I make when creating an assignment and a class) when I ask students to learn a new technology in order to complete my course. [And frankly I try to always make my thinking on the goals of assignments transparent to students (regardless of the tech involved), although not always at the beginning of the class — sometimes having them struggle a bit on their own is part of the intended process.]

Where I think I really have an issue with the post’s argument is with the notion that students are losing out on content by spending time learning a new technology. First of all, every course I create leaves out much, much, much more “content” than I can possibly cover in a single semester. So, each class is a series of choices I have to make about what gets left out. Are students disadvantaged by the material I leave out of my US History Survey on the battles of Revolution so that I can focus on the popular culture of the time? Maybe, but since I can’t cover everything then I have to focus on the areas that I think are most important in creating a general student experience of learning about the past.

I’ll give you another example with even more of a parallel: I could probably cover those Revolutionary battles if I didn’t spend a third of class time engaged in class discussions of primary sources about the Revolution (and other topics), but instead lectured every class period. Lecturing is an incredibly efficient way to dispense content, though fairly problematic in terms of learning content and even worse if you want to build more skills than just passive note-taking and oral processing. I choose to leave out historical content in order to encourage a set of academic skills that I think are useful beyond the classroom (reading primary documents, understanding context, placing yourself in the past, contributing orally to an ongoing discussion, connecting the words of people in the past to the modern perspectives).

For me the use of (newer) technology fits this category as well. Yes, I’m asking students to do something new, or to push themselves, or to think about doing something in a different way, and yes, that potentially takes away from their time to read (or learn) about those darn battles, but that’s a choice I’ve made as the creator of the course. That choice is based in my desire to balance the skills and content portions of my class (that’s an over-stated dichotomy here) to provide the best possible experience for the students going forward, not just in that course, but hopefully in others as well.

[I haven’t discussed engaging students directly here. I would simply echo Gardner’s perspective on this in his comments on the post, adding only that by being as transparent as possible about my thinking with my students that I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful as engaging a sizable percentage of them over the years.]

Joe has followed up his first post with a series of suggestions for professors thinking about using technology in the classroom, many of which I agree with. He’s also suggested a Faculty Academy session with students and faculty brainstorming about ways to increase student engagement related to technology. Sounds like a good idea.

What is Learning (and What Are We Teaching)?

This question comes from Shannon over at Loaded Learning. Her recent blog post asks “What Is A Student’s Job?” Steve at Pedablogy has decided to ask his first-year advising students to respond to Shannon’s post. I’ll be very interested to see if they take him up on it and what they have to say.

Shannon’s question about the “students’ job” rightly raises questions of students’ responsibility for their own education. I was struck, however, by the implications for college professors (heck, for the mission of higher ed itself) in the challenges raised by Shannon’s post.

What is college preparing student’s for? Is it to be academics? Skilled people for the work force? Contributing members of society?

For the most part it feels like college is training us to be academics, but I don’t think the college is really aiming for that, or should be aiming for that. Of course some people will go on to be educators and work in a highly specialized area of their major, but most likely the vast majority won’t. I will also say that besides content there are goals and themes that carry through college, being able to critical think, speak well, write well, etc. But at times college can really seem like k-12 redux where the content is just more in depth and the papers about the content are longer.

These issues are not new, but they resonate for me at this particular time. I’ve been working on making students’ work more transparent to others (in and out of the academy) and more (explicitly) relevant to them post-college.* And a new longitudinal study suggests that so-called “career-oriented majors” find their post-college footing more quickly than so-called “academic majors”. Now, I’m sensitive to the notion that this focus on post-college work can easily get away from much of what is great about learning and teaching in higher education. But there are real pressures facing the academy in clarifying our relevance (and justifying our high expense) to the larger world. At a minimum, I think it’s worth reexamining our goals for particular classes and for the larger collegiate experience.

I’d be interested in hearing people comment on the issue of what you see your classes and our college education as doing, here or on their own blogs. [I don’t want to interfere with student comments on Shannon’s blog post, because I think that part of the conversation is even more important to get going.]

* [Full Disclosure: Shannon’s post says nice things about one of those efforts, my Digital History Seminar.]

UPDATE: Might as well add this post from Inside Higher Ed for one take on what’s wrong with Liberal Arts Colleges and we need to do to change to the conversation. (I should say that the post has some intriguing ideas, though I add it only as further additions to the larger discussion.)

Week 2 — Still Chaotic

This week the digital history seminar addressed information architecture and web site design, the open-source presentation software Omeka, and looked at other examples of digital history projects. [With the help of DTLT’s programming, semantic web touting, open-source and server guru, Patrick, of course.] Finally they split into their groups to continue brainstorming about their projects.

I suspect the notion of information architecture is still a bit overwhelming as they are just beginning to narrow down the possible choices for their projects. Figuring out how to lay out their data in a structured way is difficult to comprehend if what that data might be is still not clear. I think they really liked Omeka, though they’ve been running into some problems figuring out how to use it. [I’ve mostly told them to just play with it on their own in the test install Patrick set up, something they’ve had mixed success with.]

For two groups (the James Farmer project and the James Monroe Papers project) the process of deciding on the scope, nature, and form of their project is both enriched and complicated as they are working directly with interested faculty members who have expertise in their area. These two faculty members came to meet with those groups on Thursday and began the process of working with them. Getting to know each other, getting a sense for what each can bring to the process, and getting a feel for various expectations were all part of the process of that meeting.

I’m still very excited about the class and I continue to enjoy going in each day. I’m a little concerned that content is still secondary in the students’ minds as they struggle with the various tools and skills they’re being shown. I’m going to need to continue to remind them (and me) that the digital tools and skills are just different ways of presenting what they want to say.

“Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”

I gave my digital history class a “pep talk” at the end of last week to address the concerns some of them had about feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about exactly what I wanted them to do this semester.

I explained that I wanted them to be uncertain, that I wanted them to be shaken out of their normal writing and researching experience, that it was in those conditions that they were most likely to learn. However, I explained that I wanted them to not be so overwhelmed that they felt like they couldn’t do anything. I told them I wanted them to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.” It sounded funny after I said it (no faculty quote t-shirts, please) but it’s a good summary of the environment I hope to create in this class. [Though comfortable is the ultimate goal.]

It came up again today in class as the students looked blankly when they were asked if they had any questions. So I asked, “uncomfortable or paralyzed?” They laughed and we moved forward.

I’m still concerned that some people are closer to paralyzed than uncomfortable, but I think they’re willing to ask questions when they’re stuck.

Web Filtering and the Schools

Fair warning: This is a rant about the inability to access certain social tools in certain K-12 school systems. [For another rant on a similar subject see this rejection of over-the-top web-related fears in education.]

I’ve presented and talked with a number of different K-12 teachers from a number of different school districts in my roles as a history professor and as a relative of numerous such teachers.

I’ve increasingly been annoyed by the trend among many school districts to block access from their networks to more and more websites. Now, let’s be clear. I understand that there is a great deal of material out there that we’d rather our students did not look at. But the process of filtering and blocking is done is such an awkward, blunt manner that the process of teaching is being impacted. [This is not to mention my problem with the notion that blocking access makes these things go away; we should instead be teaching students to engage the Internet in responsible ways.]

Let me give you some examples.

  • del.icio.us and ma.gnolia.com — social bookmarking sites — I tried to demonstrate del.icio.us to a group of teachers recently, only to find that it was blocked, for reasons no one could explain. — How exactly are these a threat to individuals? Seriously, can somebody explain this one to me?
  • Basic Searches — I was on a K-12 school network and trying to find a citation for a friend to a scholarly article on Civil War prisons. I remembered the title, “Houses of Horror,” but was stymied by the keyword filter placed by the school system on the Google Search I ran. Now, I was able to find a workaround to locate the citation, but finding things online are difficult enough without such restrictions.
  • YouTube — YouTube is blocked by many school systems, and perhaps I can understand why. However, there are many useful videos on there for history (and other) teachers. Why can’t teachers access such materials, even if students can’t? Why block an incredibly useful resource for teachers? [I know there are walled garden version of these: TeacherTube, unitedstreaming, etc. But none of these are YouTube, the largest and most important of the video sites.]

The two biggest problems I have with the filtering are:

1) It ignores the reality that most students will figure out a way around such filtering. Or even if not, they’ll find this stuff outside of school, and likely outside of the guidance of the people who are trained to teach students how to process information in a responsible way. At the least, guided time online outside of walled Internet gardens better prepares students to be better Net citizens. How are students to learn information literacy if they get only a filtered version in the place where they are supposed to be learning critical thinking, source evaluation and knowledge creation?

2 ) It shows a remarkable lack of trust for teachers themselves. Blocking teachers’ access suggests that although they are trusted with teaching 20-40 students at any given time, they are not capable of figuring out which sites are appropriate and which are not. The filtering systems used are too often blunt objects which make it harder for teachers to do their jobs well. [I’ve talked to teachers who’ve never been on YouTube, never heard of del.icio.us, never tried any one of a number of tools central to Web 2.0, and the main reason is that they don’t have access to them in the classrooms and schools where they spend so many hours each day.]

I acknowledge that K-12 school systems face real problems in protecting children and young adults from the worst that is online. I understand much of the effort that they’ve made in this area, and comprehend that there are very real financial and technical constraints. However, in order for school districts to prepare their students for the digital world in which so often live, filtering systems have to become more targeted, and until they are, teachers need to be able to bypass those systems to gain access to some sites that are wrongly blocked.

Am I off the mark here? Am I missing something? Are there other obvious sites/tools being blocked I haven’t listed here? Let me know.

Preparing for teaching in the Fall, Or the Manuscript that Ate My Summer

This is a post that I wrote in late July, but never had the chance to finish. As I have a spare moment now that the manuscript is in, but the class papers haven’t yet arrived, I’ll post it and a series of other thoughts I’ve been meaning to get out….

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately as I contemplate the time remaining this summer and the things I’d planned to do during the so-called summer break. The manuscript due to my editor in early September is taking longer than I thought and so many of the other goals this summer have fallen to secondary or tertiary status. This includes delving in as much detail as I’d like into responding to recent posts by Shannon, Steve, Mike, and Gardner. Most depressing to me is that I’d love to spend lots more time on my fall classes this summer, especially my new First-Year Seminar. Then came Barbara’s beautiful post (Midsummer Preparations for Fall) on what she does in the summer to create new fall classes to make feel even more behind….

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve already spent a lot of time on the fall classes, including the new one, and I’ll have it ready on time. [I think the students are really going to like it.] But I’d like to have been able to spend a good month really getting them just right (or at least closer to where I’d like them to be). But balancing my scholarship, my instructional technology interests, and my teaching has been difficult, especially as I attempt to keep all that in balance with the time spent with my wonderful family….