Strategic Planning for Academic Technologies and Libraries

So I posted almost two months ago about the strategic planning process going on at my institution and the subcommittee (now called a “discussion group”) I was working with on Academic Technologies and Libraries. I wanted to post a link to what we came up with to recommend to the larger Strategic Planning Steering Committee. I’d appreciate any feedback that people had on what we came up with, especially since I’m on the Steering Committee and we’ll be taking this report (and 14 others) into account as we write the school’s strategic plan to present to our Board of Visitors in July.

Here’s the report, in MS Word form.

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?

Speaking of Honor

I was honored to be asked to present the faculty perspective on our school’s Honor Code at our annual Honor Convocation, a moment when all new students at the school are introduced to the Honor System and sign an Honor Pledge, committing themselves to that system.

I only had a week to prepare, so I turned to a number of colleagues and some fellow alums for ideas. Tim O’Donnell and Claudia Emerson were particularly helpful in shaping the direction of the speech.

Thanks to Anand Rao for recording and posting the video. If anyone’s interested, I could post the text of the talk as well.

In any case, I think it went well. It was a real honor to stand up on that stage and start off the academic year in that way and represent the faculty perspective to the entering students.

A Semester of Digital History — Formal Presentations

The formal presentation of my seminar’s Digital History projects will be part of the History Department’s end-of-the-semester symposium. All four groups will present on Friday, April 25, at 3 PM in Monroe Hall 202.

Those of you in the area, please come see them present. We don’t just want to present these projects to the class, but to the department, the university, and the alumni community.

[Over the weekend, I showed the projects to the Alumni Association Board of Directors and they were well received.]

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.)

Brief Update — End of Week 5

I’ve been kept from blogging here lately by managing various class details and two searches, among other things. Still, I wanted to post a brief update of what’s going on in the Digital History Seminar.

All four groups have submitted proposals (“contracts”) with their plans for the projects and how they will complete the project. [They did this via GoogleDocs that each group had used to write the contract.] These contracts included a description of the project, an annotated list of the digital tools they were planning on using, and a timetable for the completion of the major components of the project.

My observations, in brief, after reading these contracts:

  1. In most cases, the proposed projects are more ambitious than those I would have assigned had I been very precise about what I wanted. [I was intentionally broad in my initial descriptions of the projects.] Although one or two of the groups may have to ultimately scale back their goals a little bit, thinking creatively and ambitiously about these projects is exactly what I hoped for these students. They have done that.
  2. The tools they’ve chosen to use are mostly those that DTLT and I presented to them as part of their digital toolkit. [Omeka, GoogleDocs, SIMILE/Timeline, WordPress (via UMW Blogs WPMU), WindowsMovieMaker, scanning, etc. There are a few exceptions that were outside that list (e.g., Adobe Contribute for a site that’ll be part of the school’s official site), but that’s okay. The groups at least had a chance to think about which tools made the most sense, given what they wanted to do.
  3. The schedules were often very ambitious, and that was the most common comment I made to the groups. Still, in almost every case the group members wanted to forge ahead with their ambitious set of deadlines, hoping that it would keep them on track throughout the semester.

Each group received my comments and has until tonight to revise their contract for my approval. [They can still make changes, but they’ll need to have a good reason to do so after this point.] Next week we’ll continue our weekly discussions of a topic related to digital history (this week’s topics are Copyright and Wikipedia) and we’ll see the first groups present status reports to the class as a whole. Not only will these weekly reports force students to articulate where they are and what they’ve been doing, they will also provide a forum for students to share their problems and successes with their classmates.

Honestly, I can’t wait to see the products these groups produce. If anything, I’m more excited now that I’ve seen their proposed contracts. I was talking to a group of alums this weekend about the project and many of them expressed the wish that they were back in school again. [This kind of project is infectious. Be warned!]

The one thing that I’m slightly let down by has been the relatively light blogging of the process by many of the students. [Some have been quite good.] But, since that blogging is a major part of the way I can assess their work (and ultimately leads to part of their grades), I’m a little surprised. Still, that is a minor issue (and one that I’m working on) that I think does little to detract from projects that have the potential of being some of the best student work I’ve ever been a part of. [I don’t think I’m being overly hyperbolic here, but I’m not exactly unbiased either. Besides, I said this would be a brief post, and look at it now…. :-]

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.

Starting a New Semester and a New Class: Risk and Fear in 2008

This has been a busy school year for me (hence the long absence of this blog) and this semester is no different. Still, I wanted to talk about this semester a bit as it begins, if only to remind myself later what I hope to accomplish. [Maybe I’ll find time a little later for a recap of what worked and what didn’t in the blogging I used with two of my classes last semester.]

Major projects this semester:

  1. Host a conference (the Virginia Forum in April).
  2. Be part of a campus discussion about the role of digitization and digital initiatives.
  3. Integrate wiki-based weekly pre-discussions into my US History Survey and Women’s history as I’ve done in previous semesters.
  4. Teach a new digital history seminar.
  5. Other work items include a couple of faculty searches, covering some classes for a colleague, serving on four other committees, writing a conference paper and trying to get my book through the later hoops of publishing.

The wiki-based discussions worked really well last fall and last spring and I look forward to using those again. [I introduced the concept of posting comments about the primary sources readings to a group wiki to my survey class which started today and one student asked, with some measure of disbelief, “Has that actually worked before?” When I told him that this was the third semester and the fourth class I’d used this technique with (and that the previous ones had been very successful), he seemed surprised.] Still, at least some in the class were intrigued (and a couple had already posted just a few hours later).

The digital history class is my biggest new project and the point that I’m most interested in laying out here. A little background first: I have wanted to teach a history and new media class since I started adjuncting in 1999. For a variety of reasons (tenure not the least of them) I haven’t managed to get to it. I decided last year that I would teach the class this semester, as a 400-level history department seminar. I began talking to our excellent colleagues in DTLT almost a year ago and we began meetings last fall that started to lay the groundwork for this class. The class as I imagine it won’t easily happen without their help.

So what is the class and what are my goals for it? Well, here’s the course description:

This seminar will focus on the process of creating digital history. The course readings, workshops, and discussions expose students to the philosophy and practice of the emerging field of History and New Media. The course will be centered on the creation of four digital history projects, all of which are related to making local resources available online. These projects include the creation of an online presence for the James Monroe Papers, the construction of a site expanding on the state historical markers in the Fredericksburg area, the expansion of digital work previously done on James Farmer’s presence on campus, and the building of a digital exhibit for UMW’s Centennial.

The roster is made up of mostly seniors, but also juniors and a sophomore or two. I’ve already surveyed their digital interests, comfort level, and self-reported digital skills (maybe more on that later). We’ve already chosen which projects each student will work on over the course of the semester. Almost every student has already created a blog on UMWBlogs and a del.icio.us account of their own. And we haven’t met yet.

Check out the syllabus and the course site for more on the schedule and the rough outlines I’ve laid out for each group project here. [I should say that I’ve been inspired in the formation of this class by the work and graduate teaching of digital historians Dan Cohen and Bill Turkel, neither of whom I’ve met, but whose work I’ve been able to follow in a particularly New Media way. Equally important has been the work and encouragement of someone I have met (at Faculty Academy last year), namely Barbara Ganley, whose words, blogging, and teaching continue to influence the pedagogical choices I make.]

I’m incredibly excited to teach a class I’ve wanted to teach in some form for my entire professional teaching career. But I’m also nervous. Nervous because I want the students to be able to choose some of the path the course takes. Nervous because I don’t know quite where that means we’ll end up. Nervous to ask many different people (from DTLT, from other faculty departments, from other parts of the institution) to work with me and these students on something that might not look very polished in the end. Nervous because I’m asking a lot of people to trust me that this will be worth it. None of that anxiety is stopping me from doing this class. Excitement overwhelms anxiety this evening before the first class. I hope that it will continue to do so throughout the semester.

I hope that the students in this class will read this (I know one of them will soon, but hopefully the others will find it too). I know some of them are nervous as well. Good. I know that some of them don’t feel like they know what they’re doing. Good. I know that the class as a whole, and as groups, and as individuals, will struggle at times this semester to figure out what it is that their projects and this class is about. Good. I don’t mean that I want them to flounder without purpose. I will be there (with the support of some of the best educators I know) to support them and help them find their own way.

But that’s just it. I want them to find their own way. I could (and have) assigned digital projects where everything that students did was scripted for them. [And many of them have turned out really well.]

But I don’t want that this time. Or, I should say, I want more than that this time. I have given the students broad outlines of digital projects as starting places with some basic structures, and what I see as key components, but I’m not going to dictate what they should do. I’ve arranged with Martha, Jerry, Andy, Patrick, and Jim to provide students with a digital toolkit, an array of possible tools with which to approach those projects, but I’m not going to tell them which tools they have to use. I’ve arranged to have expert faculty come and talk to a few of the groups about their projects, but those faculty aren’t going to determine the students’ projects either.

Those people who still follow this blog after its long absence, I hope you’ll check out the course blog, the syllabus, the students’ blogs narrating their work, and the projects as they begin to emerge. I, and the students, will benefit from your comments and suggestions.