Open on the Edges and in the Middle

Kerstin (aka Ella T.) "Open Hexagon Twist Only"
Kerstin (aka Ella T.) “Open Hexagon Twist Only”

Yesterday Steve Greenlaw  ( @stevegreenla ) asked me  why a “typical faculty member” who teaches and pursues their own research might get involved in Open Education.  His question was a tad disingenuous, of course.  We know that the “typical” faculty member is as much a fiction as the typical student.  But his invitation to explain why I continue to explore and embrace various modalities of open learning is one I am happy to accept.

Over the last few years, as I’ve re-imagined the kind of intellectual work we do in our classrooms, I’ve seen how making incremental changes can first amplify and then transform the learning experience for students and faculty.  By embracing networking as both a metaphor and a practice for having students learn in conversation with openly accessible high value source materials as well as with me and with each other, I’ve been able to cultivate broader and more dynamic communities of learners and have discovered new opportunities to explore and grow as a teacher, a researcher and a practitioner of digital history and the digital humanities. It’s true, I did have plenty to do before I started down this road, but the extra time I spend learning how to use new tools ( is coming to my graduate pedagogy class this semester), building websites, upgrading a legacy OER, and engaging with my students’ work outside the regular class time, is time well spent. It comes back to me many times over in the form of higher quality engagement with lively minds, the gratitude of colleagues all over the country (for keeping a popular resource accessible ) and membership in richer, more diverse, and more robust intellectual communities.

Susan Albertine has offered us some timely reflections on how the Open Learning cMOOC  might advance the cause of “Mind Liberating Education,” — her wonderful characterization of the purpose of general education at all levels of higher ed in the twenty-first century.  The  Faculty Collaboratives are a national endeavor and teams in different states have adopted a range of strategies, but the Virginia group is the only one to place a web-based social learning project at the core of its program.  Susan hopes the Open Learning cMOOC will facilitate cross-pollination between the community of gen ed reformers and advocates for open education. I see that possibility as not just desirable, but natural and necessary for the ultimate success of the whole enterprise (empowering 21st-century students with the skills, knowledge, experiences they need to make their way and lead in a times of often mind-bending change and complexity).

I was on research leave working on a book about space dogs in the fall, and in the process of re-engaging my various teaching communities over the last few weeks have realized how inter-connected various practices and communities are, and how one open practice leads to another. This semester I am teaching two openly accessible networked courses — an upper-level Soviet History course, where students collectively source the majority of the content, and Contemporary Pedagogy, a course for graduate students developed by Shelli Fowler that invites future faculty to develop or refine their own teaching praxis grounded in inclusive and critical pedagogies. Inspiration for the networked version of the Soviet course came from a pilot project where students blogged and published their research projects on the web in an honors colloquium on Deep History and Domestication.  That experience brought me to Gardner Campbell’s New Media Seminar — first as a student, and then as the seminar facilitator.

So there’s been this nice synergy between networked learning / open ed and my expertise as a Russian historian with evolving interests in environmental history and animal studies from the beginning. That overlap proved crucial when I was asked to help salvage Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, a multi-media digital repository of primary materials with subtitles and translations developed by James von Geldern and Lewis Siegelbaum more than fifteen years ago. After hackers destroyed the site in January 2015, we worked to move it to an open source platform (WordPress), launching the new site that August. Last November the site had more than 9,000  30-day active users (with nearly 500,000 page views), which would suggest that a lot of students studying Soviet history use the archive in some fashion. This free to use, freely accessible resource exemplifies the goodness of open: Faculty rely on it to give students a multi-dimensional view of a society about which students know little and often presume much. To watch clips of popular Soviet movies or listen to songs — with expertly rendered subtitles — is to experience the power of openness and accessibility, and to gain insight into a culture and society that might be otherwise opaque to many.

There’s another unexpected, yet strangely natural, and very rewarding aspect of the open learning path that I want to note before signing off, namely the opportunities to develop as a teacher and as a student and to meet new people and engage with new communities of practice. After twenty years of university teaching, the opportunity to embrace the roll of learner again has been very invigorating.  The New Media Seminar served as my gateway drug, and I have also participated in previous cMOOCs. Realistically, helping facilitate the Open Learning cMOOC will keep me pretty busy this semester, but I hope I can at least dabble in a digital story-telling course on Networked Narratives  that Alan Levine and Mia Zamora are directing.

The semester promises to be full and rich, with lots of open. I hope when we get to the end of the Open Learning syllabus I will be (even more) open to new opportunities on the borders of the various domains I inhabit, that the middle, the core of my networked learning practices is more robust, and that our work has fulfilled Susan’s hopes for our faculty collaborative.

Virginia Faculty Collaborative cMOOC Countdown

Teaching Open Source Practices version 4.0
Teaching Open Source Practices version 4.0

I’ve been working with a great group of higher ed folks affiliated with the AAC&U Faculty Collaboratives project for the last several months. The collaboratives are state-level efforts to enlist faculty in the far-reaching and essential challenges of re-imagining role of liberal education at this time of transformation across the higher education landscape.

In January we will be facilitating a cMOOC addressing all aspects of “Open Education,” a category that includes open educational resources (OER), open pedagogical practices, open access, participatory cultures and literacies, networked learning, etc. These topics will structure weekly readings, viewings, etc., as well as the reflections and networked learning that the course participants will offer each other.

For an overview of goals and planned activities, see A week-by-week listing of topics, readings, etc., is developing at

More information about the course and reflections on what we hope to accomplish will be coming in the new year. In the meantime, if you are interested or implicated in liberal learning — especially in Virginia — and would like to take part in a meaningful exploration of the potential for open education to contour the landscape of learning in the twenty-first century, it’s never to early to join the cMOOC here:

Digital Humanities for Slavic Studies – Part 1

A recently organized group of digital humanities practitioners in the field of Slavic Studies made a big splash at the annual meeting of the Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies earlier this month. In addition to a half-day THAT Camp the group sponsored a series of themed panels on the regular convention program. I participated in two of those, one focusing on Platforms for Digital Scholarship, and one on the impact of digital humanities work in the classroom.

See below for a reprise of my comments on the first session about the rewards of re-launching and the challenges of maintaining Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

We also heard from Yelena Kalinsky, Managing Editor for H-Net Reviews who discussed the use of Drupal as a CMS for the H-net Commons; Emil Kerenji, from the U. S. Holocaust Museum, who introduced a richly annotated digital archive of Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust; Ruth Lorenz, who maintains Луч света, a marvelous site of news-related video clips to teach listening comprehension and social-cultural literacy to Russian language students; Joan Neuberger founder of Not Even Past, the exemplary public history site with affiliated podcasts and blogs she founded at the University of Texas, Austin in 2008; and Svetlana Rukhelman, who spoke about digital archiving projects at Harvard using Omeka.

I am implicated in various digital humanities projects but will talk today about Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. As many of you know, Seventeen Moments is a legacy digital humanities project. It was conceived by James von Geldern and Lewis Siegelbaum in the late nineties (the heyday of Netscape Navigator and KOI8 fonts) – at the same time the Library of Congress launched the bi-lingual multi-media site, Meeting of the Frontiers, and it first went live in 2002. The NEH supported the site’s initial development – sending Lewis and Jim to Russia to acquire materials, especially the film, photographs and audio files from the Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk and funding the design for the original site. Over the years Lewis’ and Jim’s host institutions, Michigan State University and Macalester College, provided funds for updates. Kristen Edwards collected content from the Hoover Institution and coordinated a major upgrade to the site in 2008. This was the site that was hacked in January 2015, just as a new version of the site was nearing completion. And this is where I got involved. (Why I got involved is a story for another time.)

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For the first several months of January work proceeded on two fronts: 1) we tried to finish up and secure a new version of the site that had been paid for but not finished before the hack of the old version; and 2) we made plans to move the site to an open source CMS that could be updated, secured and modified more easily.

To our great regret, No. 1 proved impossible, so by the spring we shifted attention exclusively to No. 2.

The new WordPress installation has been live since August of 2015.

Following our panel organizer’s guidance, my comments are framed around three issues:

  • Why we chose WordPress / MATRIX
  • How well things working (or not), with advice for someone starting their own project
  • How we think about digital humanities resources like 17 Moments and the kinds hybrid / multivalent spaces they shape.

The concerns that informed our design decisions – why we ended up at MATRIX with a WP install.

Obviously we really wanted to save the “new” site that seemed agonizingly close to being ready for prime time. But there were two problems: The first was solvable – de-bugging glitches such as getting the subtitles to display on the audio files. But the second was not. The “new” site used CakePhp (an outdated variant of the scripting language, Php – b. 1995), and was all custom work. Some of the coding was good, but a lot of it was messy – different solutions to the same problem – caveats left in all caps (i.e. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE!). And it was vulnerable to the same kind of MySQL injection attacks that had brought down the old site. The vulnerability was compounded by what should have been a wonderful feature – namely a tiered access system, which would allow different levels of users to suggest and submit new content. (So someone with malicious intent could get access to the database by creating an account.)

Four very accomplished computer science students worked on these problems as their senior project, but couldn’t solve the security issue.

Because we were dealing with php and MySQL we leaned towards WordPress and Drupal for the CMS. These are both open source platforms with robust user and development communities. WordPress, which gained popularity mainly as a blogging platform runs more than twenty-five percent of the web as of November, 2016. While Drupal has more bells and whistles, and more flexibility in terms of customization, it is not super user friendly. WordPress, on the other hand is “easy” – especially at the entry level (all of my undergrads use it). It has thousands of (mostly free) plug-ins that make it a decent CMS rather than just blogging software. It also has thousands of templates that provide a terrific assortment of design options. And although it also has security vulnerabilities, the basic script and the plug-ins are constantly updated with an eye toward security.

As part of saving Seventeen Moments and taking it to the next level, we wanted the site to benefit more directly from the attentions and expertise of its huge user / fan base. We want to expand the site — to develop new modules, add new resources – both embedded in the site and as related links next to the various topics. In my early (wildest) dreams, I imagined that (properly supervised) students could help curate these materials once an administrator (Lewis, Jim or I) had approved them. I am a big believer in the empowering potential of digital literacy and proficiency with web authoring tools. So while Drupal would have made sense in terms of its sophistication, WordPress won out as the people’s platform.

And because we had very little in the way of budget, we were grateful that MATRIX, who had hosted the original site, gave us the friends and family discount for hosting the new site and developing it.

So, how well is it working and what advice do we have for those starting out?

If use is a measure of success we are in fantastic shape.
We’re at nearly 500,000 page views for and over 70,000 visitors for 2016 More than half of the traffic comes from repeat visitors. Most sessions involve 4.72 different pages (which does not count additional clicks on videos or images). As of mid November there are more than 9,000 30 day active users – These would be current students, which is pretty cool.

30-Day Users of 17 Moments of Soviet History as of November 14, 2016
30-Day Users of 17 Moments in Soviet History as of November 14, 2016

The site draws traffic from all over the world: mainly the US, Great Britain, Australia and Canada, but with healthy representation from Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union, and just about everywhere except Central and West Africa.

Most people find the site via search engine (Jim was delighted when we regained our #1 Google Ranking), but many come via curated lists (Exeter, Nottingham, BU, Rochester) and Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, wikipedia, etc.)

So, folks definitely missed the site during the nine months it was down. We’ve also received lots of positive feedback about the look and feel of the new interface, which is responsive. Many students do look at stuff on their phones, even though most of the access is still via laptop / desktop).

And the work that remains to be done?

People do miss the music box, and that brings me to some of the challenges we’d like to overcome in the near to medium future.

We could not find an off the shelf plug-in that could replicate the music box, and will have to wait until we find the support to have one made for us. It shouldn’t be expensive or hard, but given the size of the site and how many plug-ins are currently on it (we know it loads slowly sometimes), this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

We hope to have more success with regular updates and improvements going forward. Ease of updating (and the benefits of that for security) were key factors in choosing an open source, easy to use, CMS in the first place.

So you have a great project you want to develop…. (advice to people starting out):

1) try to inform yourself and your team about what you don’t know or can’t have and the implications of that – because what you don’t know can hurt your site, and you can’t assume that the folks who are trying to fix things are that much more expert than you are.

2) Cherish your blessings as a late adopter.

3) Think about your project as having an indefinite digital future – it isn’t just about building / launching, but about maintaining, updating, and growing.

Finally: How do we think about digital humanities resources like 17 Moments and the kinds hybrid / multivalent spaces they shape?

I’ve been struck by the accidental and dialogic evolution (over fifteen odd years) of what the site is and what it does. For many, Seventeen Moments began as and still is a valued pedagogical resource – an Open Educational Resource before its time. But it is also much more, and here I think the balance between the site’s accessibility and its high value content have been key.

Having it on the open web does make the site vulnerable at some level, but it also makes engaging global audiences possible. During March of 2014 for example, Lewis Siegelbaum’s subject essay and the related module, “Gift of Crimea”, had more than 50,000 visitors. And now, when just about anything is at your fingertips, I take some comfort in knowing that lots of fingertips find Seventeen Moments instead of whatever fake news might be filtered forward surface instead.

Going forward, I hope we can strengthen the site’s presence by expanding it (along the lines outlined above), getting the Creative Commons license attached to all of the relevant items, and doing more with social media. Our Facebook page and Twitter are linked, but have been neglected because the admins are busy with their day jobs. We have commissioned some more modules, especially for the postwar period and would like to set up a “sandbox” site where people could submit new material for potential inclusion in the existing modules or ones that might be developed down the road.

It also seems that how we identify sites like seventeen moments and what we expect of them is starting to shift.

First there’s the relationship between a site like ours, that was developed as an “online primary source repository” in English, primarily for students (or their profs.) and more scholarly sources like Vadim Staklo’s Russian Perspectives on Islam, which uses OMEKA (also free and open source, but better geared toward library, museum and archival collections).

But both of these sites, and many other digital humanities resources, are also public history venues – sites where history is made, presented and consumed. To audiences outside the traditional classroom, the distinctions between an OMEKA site, with the rigor of Dublin Core metadata and something like Seventeen Moments are not that significant, and both have the potential to engage more users in more complex ways than their pre-digital predecessors.

Second, are the historical underpinnings of the site: Seventeen Moments is rooted in the Digital Humanities as well as Digital History. Digital Humanities started with text encoding projects in the 90s (Women Writer’s Project), and became widespread as a term when the NEH launched the Digital Humanities Initiative in 2006 – several years after Seventeen Moments first went live. Digital History of course emerged from the quantitative approaches of the 60s and 70s, but was (like everything else) transformed by the multi-media, interactive potential of online digital environments. Ed Ayers conceived the Valley of the Shadow project in the early nineties; Roy Rosenzwieg founded the Center for History and New Media at GMU in 1994. (Joan Neuberger launched Not Even Past in 2010.)

And these histories point to one of the big challenges for developing best practices with digital humanities resources going forward, namely, how do we secure their future?

Like campus construction or the nation’s highways, finding funding for new projects and buildings is much easier than securing the resources to maintain and renovate them. At a time when print collections are shrinking, and more and more library resources vanish behind paywalls in the cloud, securing and maintaining spaces for open access digital humanities resources seems especially imperative and challenging. Seventeen Moments proves that “if you build it, they will come,” and we know that they will also stay, and even return after a major disaster. My hope is that we start designing and building our digital humanities resources with their future in mind, so they don’t just get stuck on a server somewhere waiting for the end to come.

The Student-Centered Lecture

fdkomite, Lectures

A couple of years ago, when I began thinking about the courses I teach as places where content is created and curated rather than transmitted and tested, lecturing was one of the teaching modalities I most wanted to jettison. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy lecturing, it just seemed that so little of it “stuck” — and what did stick often sounded parroted or parodied when it came drifting back up through the prose of a midterm essay. My lectures articulated my explanation and interpretation of historical developments I’d spent twenty years studying and thinking about. Did I think they were good? Yes. Did students get a lot out of them? I liked to think so. Did what they learned from them stay with them past the midterm? Doubtful. Was there a better way? Probably.

So when I embraced networked learning as the main modality for my courses, it seemed that lecturing  might not be compatible with the kinds of active learning and knowledge production I wanted to support and facilitate. I’d been so impressed with what students could do when they were given the opportunity to explore and pursue a topic that interested them in depth and in conversation with their peers. Subjecting those often disparate and always unique presentations to the constraints of my own interpretive arc  — no matter how elegant and “good” I thought it was (it was mine after all), just did not feel right.

But finding an alternative has taken a while. I’ve found that students embrace the responsibility of having more control over what they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Putting them in conversation with each other and engaging with the substance of their work and the questions their work raises elevates the quality of what we create together as a class and what they leave the class with as individuals. We spend much of our F2F time discussing student work, identifying and analyzing source material, and debating the merits of particular interpretive models and historical debates. For assessments I ask them to show me what they’ve learned, reflect on their learning process, and suggest how their work addresses the broader issues of the course.

But to make it all work we still need some lecture to provide context and draw connections between the students’ work on particular topics. I’ve tried various things, including giving short (15-20″) overviews of the main themes we will work on in the coming week and thematic presentations that connect discussions from different parts of the course. But the one that seems to work best uses the students’ work as its foundation.

The outline for a student-centered lecture on the transition from the upheaval and violence of the Russian Civil War to the economic and social transformations of the 1920s might look something like this:

I. Civil War / War Communism (1918-21)
A. Militarization of Labor:
B. Party Membership:
C. Kronstadt Rebellion:
II. The New Economic Policy (1921-28)– Capitalism as a road to socialism?
(several good posts on this topic)
A. Lenin’s Pragmatic Approach with the West
B. Entrepreneurs and the Re-emergence of Capitalism
III. Soviet Youth: Promise and Peril
A. Young, Wild, and Communist
B. The Invisible Children

The URL’s are all posts written by students over the previous weekend. I make this outline available to the class on a Google Doc, and give a brief (2-3 minute) explanation of what we’ll be talking about and why I selected these posts and topics as references. (This semester there are 25-40 posts submitted every week.) Then I lead a guided discussion anchored by this outline, and elaborated with the perspectives of the individual authors and the collective expertise in the room. Everyone can read or review the posts, and the authors have the opportunity to talk about their work in some detail and ask questions raised by their research. Students can take notes individually or add to the outline as we go along. I still have an interpretive arc in mind, but we support and develop it together. Because it uses student-generated work as the jumping off points for the presentation and explanation, the connections between what students “know” individually and the big picture (both the macro-level view, and my perspective as the “expert”) are made explicit. I believe this helps construct an analytical framework and understanding of a particular period or topic that has a longer half-life than the traditional lecture did.

This is a working theory and it will certainly continue to evolve.  I’m not ready to kick lectures to the curb or the dustbin, but would like to imagine the “student-centered lecture” taking its place in the ranks of this versatile transmedial pedagogical form. (A big thank you to Practice in Pedagogy for bringing Friesen’s article to my attention.)

Listening to Change

Listen, by Wayne Stadler.
Wayne Stadler, “Listen” Creative Commons License 4.0 Non-Commercial, No Derivatives

What are the implications for familiar genres as the mode of transmission and preservation evolves? We still talk and think about “files” within “folders” for many text documents, even though physical file cabinets and manila folders are on their way out. We process words on a simulated piece of paper and discard the rejects in a metaphorical trashcan.  And “books” now exist in a range of formats, including e-readers, paper, and audio books.  I do a lot of reading on the screen and appreciate the relative advantages and drawbacks of that mode of consumption. I love my Kindle and my Ipad for flipping through mysteries and PDFs, but paper between covers is still my preferred medium for serious reading and subsequent consultation of a text I want to know well.

I also listen to audio books while I run and have been enjoying Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind this winter. There is nothing brief about this book (the full Audible version comes in at more than fifteen hours), unless you consider the scope of the project. Harari’s provocative examination of the deep history of humanity artfully interweaves larger themes about how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet with the specifics of that story by focusing on three particular tectonic shifts in the development and organization of human societies: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. As a story of globalization, Sapiens, which evolved from Harari’s World History course, is an unusual and surprising blend of interpretation — an effort to find coherence in the story of humanity’s rise to world dominance, and of reflection on how that past might condition the future.

A couple days ago I listened to Harari’s discussion of the distinction between deterministic and humanist perspectives on historical change and possibility and nodded appreciatively at this observation in Chapter 13, near the end of Part III:

“In October 1913, the Bolsheviks were a  small, radical, Russian faction. No reasonable person would have believed that in a mere four years they would take over the country.”

Since we were just getting to the revolutions of 1917 in my Soviet History course and spent most of the previous week discussing the prospects of constitutionalism in Imperial Russia after the Revolution of 1905, I wanted to use the eight minute clip this quote comes from as a jumping off point for discussing contingency and the goals of historical study in class. So how does that work logistically and how does the format of the audio book condition the way we work with this “text” in class?

Making the excerpt accessible to the class was the easy part. We meet  in a Learning Studio equipped with several AppleTVs, so I used AirPlay to send the audio from my phone through the projection system. Instead of referring the students to a text they needed to read and then waiting for everyone to finish (it’s always tricky to gauge how long this should take) we all listened at the same speed and finished at the same time.

I was curious about how well, or rather how consistently we would listen as group. Individuals latch onto different aspects of a printed text, and helping students distinguish between the morsel they find interesting and the author’s main idea or analytical framework can be challenging. In the case of the audio excerpt, however, it most of the class seemed to “get it” right away. We spent very little time establishing “what the author said” and moved quickly to the issue I wanted to discuss — that causation and contingency are not just important, but that the more you know about a particular historical moment the more complex it becomes. We seek meaning in the past and connecting the dots that are only visible in hindsight is as misleading as it is appealing. So, making sense of how the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 requires us to consider the messiness of the present of that moment — the traumas of World War I and the social and economic stresses that conditioned the series of political crises that helped position this “small radical Russian faction” for success.

It’s hard to say if this initial experiment with discussion based on listening to a text together has many advantages over more traditional modes of reading, but I will likely try something similar again soon. I think the slower “delivery” of the spoken excerpt, combined with the fact that we were all physically in the same space made it easier for people to focus on what they were hearing. I observed no multi-tasking and very little squirming. When we have a text in front of us it’s easy and often necessary to point to a specific passage. In the case of the audio book, cuing up a particular sentence is a bit tricky, but in this case I didn’t need to. Enough people remembered the main ideas pretty well and could clarify them for the folks who were confused.

I’ve noticed that more and more of my own “reading” has shifted to audio books and podcasts recently, so I’m interested in how we can use these resources in teaching. And if you haven’t had a chance to read or  listen to Sapiens, you should give it a try. Whether you agree with him or not, Harari has an important message about where he thinks our past is taking us.

The Costs of Victory

Winning the Great Patriotic War: The Soviet Union in World War II

Montgomery County Public School Teachers’ Workshop, November 3, 2015

Featured Resources:

The Fallen of World War II – by Neil Halloran. Both understated and stunning, this animated, data-driven documentary looks at the human cost of the second World War. The cinematic story-telling technique of this data visualization brings the staggering complexity of the war’s casualties into focus in unexpected and illuminating ways.

Seventeen Moments in Soviet History – Archive of primary sources developed by Lewis Siegelbaum (Michigan State University) and James Von Geldern (Macalester College) in 2002. I joined the editorial team as web director and content curator in 2015. This rich multi-media repository includes texts, images, video, and music. The site is designed as a window on the Soviet experience as ordinary people made and experienced it. The materials are organized chronologically and thematically. A short subject essay introduces the user to the materials on a particular topic. All of the modules in 1943 (as well as many in 1939 and 1947) relate to the war in some fashion.

Victory Day 70 — Interactive multi-media website developed by RT (Russia Today — a state-funded television network broadcasting in English, Arabic and Spanish outside the Russian Federation). Developed for the seventieth anniversary of the Allied Victory in Europe in May 2015, this site presents many beautifully-produced resources relating to the Soviet war experience to English-speaking audiences. Materials high school students will find especially compelling include oral histories with Soviet veterans and their children, an interactive documentary map, and a dynamic timeline of the Eastern Front, as well as posters, songs and key speeches from the war. (Site works best in Chrome.)

Other Gems:

Restored film of Victory Day Parade, Red Square, Moscow June 24, 1945

The Battle of Russia from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series

Gremlins in the Kremlin, Robert Clampett / Warner Brothers, 1944

And One Book:

Geoffrey Roberts, Victory at Stalingrad. The Battle that Changed History (2002)


Networked Learning Communities in Hybrid Courses

Diggs Roundtable Presentation, Virginia Tech

October 26, 2015

Links for materials referenced below here
I am a historian – not of the cut and dried variety, but of the shades of grey and multiple viewpoints persuasion. I have always been committed to promoting active learning, critical thinking, and analytical writing in my classes and helping my students become good historians. I have always seen myself more as a facilitator of learning than a font of knowledge. And I have always tried to teach in a way that helps students make sense of the world around them and appreciate the experiences of people who lived in other times and places. These principles remain at the core of my teaching praxis, but have been augmented in the last three years by a series of epiphanies about the potential for particular tools and learning environments to amplify this kind of learning.

The project I want to share today uses networked learning environments and active co-learning strategies to expand and extend the reach of the course beyond the physical confines of the classroom and the conceptual constraints of traditional writing assignments. I’d like to briefly describe what it is and how it works, and then say something about what I like about it. Questions, comments and suggestions will be most appreciated.

Course Design

A syndicated blog serves as the gateway to a hybrid course in which students author original research posts on topics of their choosing, using print materials, sources available on the open web, and databases provided by the Virginia Tech Library.

we use print materials, high value resources from the open web and primary sources from proprietary databases

The main course blog uses a WordPress template with a custom magazine layout to showcase exemplary posts, direct readers to relevant material, facilitate discussion of the posts (via a “shadow” comment blog), and articulate the content parameters of the weekly digest (via an “editors’ corner” sidebar).

We highlight content on the main course website with a slider, sticky posts, and two customizeable sidebars.

An editorial team comprised of the instructor and undergraduate alumni of the course curate the posts from individual researchers into a Weekly Digest. This builds peer-to-peer mentoring into the course design and allows the editorial assistants to further develop their web working skills and content expertise. A Twitter feed for the course hashtag provides additional social networking around the course content, and the “publicize” widget disseminates updates from the course to broader audiences via social media.

Editorial team members curate and comment on student-generated content
Editorial team members curate and comment on student-generated content
Students develop and maintain their own blogs, which become a key deliverable of the course

Students design and maintain their own blogs, which are syndicated to the main site. This format allows them to develop multi-media research projects (using images, video and sound as well as text), embed ancillary material, and document their sources via conventional citation formats and hyperlinking. They give and receive feedback on their work from their classmates, the editors, and the instructor through the comment function. They revise their work throughout the semester. At the end of the course their individual blogs serve as digital portfolios demonstrating their accomplishments in research, writing and web work. They comprise a key deliverable of the course.

In contrast to traditional “delivery” systems, this format positions students, editors and the instructor to create and curate content, thereby elaborating the course in a collaborative, accessible, and enduring medium. Blog posts are not just a key feature of the course, they are the course.
We also use Googledocs to support the course and help extend its reach. The class has a shared folder where we manage administrative details (such as nominating posts for a weekly “students’ choice” award, or suggesting primary materials to work with during class), and keep track of work done during class. A second shared folder gives the editorial team a work space where they can maintain records (of posts and comments) and consult (via Chat or Hangout) on the selection of exemplary posts to be featured in the weekly edition.
What students produce on their blogs conditions what we do in class:
The content students create provides a jumping off point for our face-to-face meetings. I don’t give set lectures, and I don’t lecture for more than twenty minutes per class. Instead I use the content created by the students to frame a particular topic or period. I help students see how their posts are connected and address the interpretive issues raised by them.
We also use class time for discussion, focused work with primary materials, and with databases. Having small groups of students working on a series of googledocs that I can see and contribute to in real time allows for a rich multi-lateral conversation about the source. I can encourage, query or correct as warranted and project a particular group’s document on the classroom’s screen if she wants to bring something to the class as a whole. Class sessions may also be devoted to “blog beautification” (workshops helping students customize and enhance the functionality of their blogs) and practice locating and citing high-value materials for upcoming posts. We also designate some classes as “make sessions,” where students produce digital artifacts such as interactive timelines, collectively authored blogposts or animated gifs illustrating a particular theme of the class.

Advantages of the networked learning community approach:

This course format puts students in charge of their learning and encourages them to pursue their own interests at the same time it stimulates collaboration and peer-to-peer mentoring. It engages students directly and immediately in the research process and the production of knowledge. I have found that student engagement with the material tends to be higher than in a traditional class setting, and it intensifies over the course of the term. Students gain confidence and satisfaction from producing longer, more sophisticated and better-documented posts as the course progresses.

Engagement intensifies over the semester as students gain confidence and expertise that supports their curiosity about the material.
Shifting the focus of individual posts away from “grades” facilitates lots of formative feedback about more qualitative indicators of accomplishment, including enhanced understanding of the subject and more sustained intellectual engagement with peers.

Because blogging is required but not “assigned” (in the sense that the parameters of the posts are left quite flexible), and the individual posts are not graded, the focus of the course shifts away from evaluation in favor of more qualitative indicators of accomplishment (i.e. discovery of new insight, intellectual engagement with peers, enhanced interest and effort in understanding the subject, enhanced skills in critical thinking and analytical writing).

Students’ work continues to resonate beyond the classroom and after the course is over.

Finally, access to the course site on the open web amplifies the project’s impact, especially when visitors to the site comment on salient posts – often long after the semester has ended.

Essentially historical Freire

It is all here:

“The teacher who thinks “correctly” transmits to the students the beauty of our way of existing in the world as historical beings, capable of intervening in and knowing this world. Historical as we are, our knowledge of the world has historicity. It transmits, in addition, that our knowledge, when newly produced, replaces what before was new but is now old and ready to be surpassed by the coming of a new dawn. Therefore, it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist. And these two moments of the epistemological process are accounted for in teaching, learning, and doing research. The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research. Thus, the teaching-learning process, together with the work of research, is essential and an inseparable aspect of the gnostic cycle.”

Paolo Freire — Pedagogy of Freedom, p. 34

I share the widespread admiration of Freire for his indictment of the “banking model” of education (deposit knowledge in empty vessels), his commitment to literacy as a vehicle for enlightenment (reading the word to read the world), and his insistence on the integral connection between teaching and learning (the former needs the latter).  I am captivated by his exposition via aphorisms that compel and provoke engagement: “There is no such thing as teaching without research and research without teaching.” And, “as I teach, I continue to search and re-search.”

Coming at Critical Pedagogy from historical contexts where the connections between education, creativity and political change were fiercely contested I imagine Alexander Bogdanov talking to Freire about the creation of a proletarian culture that would be free of the oppressive ideology and antiquated forms of the bourgeois heritage the Bolsheviks admired (as a hallmark of civilization) and sought to supplant. In Freire’s summons to action I hear echos of emancipatory projects committed to enhancing human dignity that stretch back to the Enlightenment and far beyond.

But for me, Freire’s acknowledgement of our historicity, our existence as historical beings – with all of the powers and limitations that implies is what makes his theory so complete – so all-encompassing – integrating both what is and what will be: “it is as necessary to be immersed in existing knowledge as it is to be open and capable of producing something that does not yet exist.” Here I find support for Paul Gee’s  ideas about the challenges of educating for the future as well as Seymour Papert’s insistence that students become the subjects rather than the objects of education. And in this pithy assessment of the integral relationship between research, teaching and learning I find a succinct and absolutely convincing validation of the university mission:

“The one moment, in which knowledge that already exists is taught and learned, and the other, in which the production of what is not yet known is the object of research.”

It is all there. You can’t separate out the teaching from the learning from the researching.  They work together as part of a whole.



GEDI Gems: Learner-Centered Syllabi Nuggets from GEDI@VT

In lieu of an introduction: After two glorious years facilitating the New Media Seminar, my charge as Faculty Fellow for Technology-Enhanced Learning and Online Strategies shifted this fall to the Graduate Education Development Institute (GEDI). These are distinctly different, but also related projects. While the New Media Seminar brought together faculty, staff and graduate students from across the university to explore the intellectual pre-history of Web 2.0 (and yes, there is at least one wrap-up post waiting to hatch about the experience of working through Gardner Campbell‘s elegantly constructed syllabus with so many talented people), in GEDI I lead some of the university’s best graduate students in an interdisciplinary conversation devoted to contemporary pedagogy and the development of an individual pedagogical praxis for the next generation of higher ed faculty. Developed by Shelli Fowler, the course integrates theory and practice in ways that support the understanding and articulation of the how, what, and most importantly why of learner-centered teaching and course design for future faculty from Animal Science to Women’s and Gender Studies and everything in between.

We are about halfway through the semester, and so far the ride has been invigorating, inspiring, mostly fun, and not nearly as bumpy as I’d imagined it might be. While I have not been writing here as much as I like, I hope that will change in the coming weeks. Before last week’s session on syllabus design slips off the radar, I want to highlight some of the terrific work the group shared in class. Designing a learner -centered syllabus is one of the key deliverables of the course, and as we workshopped drafts of the “front-end” of syllabi during the seminar, the following gems surfaced:*

*As agreed, no names are provided in what follows, but if you recognize your voice and want attribution, please let me know. I would LOVE to give you credit.

Course Descriptions that articulate a topic or curriculum in ways that make the relevance and significance of the course clear and compelling:

(1) “Welcome to BSE xxxx. This class will be an introduction to the physical, chemical and biological principles of non-point source pollution. Non-point pollution as you should know is the most complex form of pollution to control due to its dependence on non-constant environmental factors such as rainfall and wind. As, future biological systems engineers, most of you will be at the forefront of understanding this complex topic; therefore your education as biological system engineers will be quite incomplete without learning the details of NPS pollution. If you care to check, you will realize that more than half of the BSE professors are involved in NPS research, in the field or computationally.”Akin

(2) “Welcome to Transportation Engineering Research and Analysis. In this course, learning how to be adaptive in tough situations is paramount to being successful. Being adaptive, means learning how to acquire new skills without fear of failure. After all, in engineering, developing new skills to solve tough problems with which you have little or no prior experience is a common occurrence.”

Succinct, ethically informed, and clearly articulated course objectives:

“To understand the needs of the dairy cow, and how to maximize her well-being, and how this affects different management techniques and facility design.”

Structuring learning communities by outlining the instructor’s expectations and approach to the course (note the range of options and tone):

(1) “During our first class period, we will discuss the importance of learning communities and determine what type of online community we would like to create. Options include a Facebook page, collaboration through a class hashtag, and blogging; I am certainly open to other ideas and suggestions, as well. The goal of this online community is to extend our class discussions beyond the classroom. As such, weekly contributions will be required (more on this later in the syllabus).”

(2) “I expect that you will show up to class wanting to learn environmental engineering concepts, techniques, and problem solving.  You will not just be a lump in a chair being spoon fed information which you will later regurgitate on an exam.  You will be learning how to apply concepts, not just repeat them.  I hope to engage you in learning through problem solving with as little lecturing as possible.  You will need to help each other learn the material, learn to use credible resources, and self-teach concepts in order to succeed in this class (and in engineering).”


(3) “The way I envision to instruct this course is by using a student-centric approach. In other words, you will be responsible for constructing your understanding and I will act as a facilitator or guide in the process of knowledge construction. This will require you to take charge of your own learning and be an active participant in the learning process. And this is why I would strongly recommend you to go through this document during the first few days of the semester so that we can discuss the course policies in the first week of class. If you think that one or more aspects of this document need to be reconsidered to help you learn better, I would be happy to take up a class discussion on those aspects and change the document based on mutual consent. Remember, the idea is for you to learn and I will be happy to modify the syllabus (or the instruction) if it helps your learning.”

(4) The course has an approach with the following characteristics: It values collaboration and collective construction of knowledge; Its evolution is based upon students’ weekly participation in class and in blogging; It is experiential, meaning that students will not only learn about the “designerly ways”, but also experience it in applied situation; Its second part (weeks 10 to 15) is applied, working as a studio-based class.”

Course policies explained so that the rationale for them and the connections to real life are clear:

(1) “Treat your emails for this course as professional communications. Professional email (email written to professors, supervisors, or colleagues in a professional setting) is not an appropriate venue for expressing anger, complex feelings, or venting about others. Instead, think of each email as a strategic career event that represents you and creates a permanent record of your accomplishments, attitude, and professionalism. Here are some guidelines that I use and expect students to employ:…..

Specific Examples of Learner-Centered Activities and Assignments:

(1) “Toward the ending of the semester we will be having an inclusive activity, which will require the application of learnt course material to solve the problem. Because the students customize this part of the course, it will depend on what area of genetics you would like to focus on. The crime scene activity will be completed at a forensic lab where we will analyze samples collected from a crime scene using applicable techniques learned in class. The other option for this inclusive activity is to help a beef cattle rancher to make critical decision for his herd. We will collect data on his farm located in southern Virginia and assess the environmental effects on the performance of his herd as well as to determine a mating strategy and by extension the type of semen he should purchase to artificially inseminate his heifers and cows.”

(2) “An optional team project is designed for some motivated students to challenge yourself and have hands-on project development experience. By participating in the project, you will be exempted from the comprehensive exam. But I can assure you that you would spend more time on this project than the preparation time for the final exams! This project will help you gain experience in building an IT system. Each project can be completed by two or three students as a team. Each team will go through different phases of a Text Analysis project, including preprocessing, analysis, implementation, evaluation, and report. This experience will not only improve your understanding of our course material, but also benefit you in the long run with regard to your future employment opportunities. Past BIT graduates’ experiences show that it is well worth all the efforts and time spent on this project. Please make sure that you are motivated before committing to this team project.”

There are many more fine examples, but this sampling gives a sense of the variety of approaches and innovation that made our discussion of the learner-centered syllabus so rich.  For those wanting more on the context for the syllabus assignment, the guidelines are here.

And finally….When I saw Shelli Fowler last week we talked about doing an “interview” on the backstory of GEDI and its wonderful syllabus. It may take us a couple of weeks to get organized, but please stay tuned.

Image: Ball, Round, Alone, Different (CCo Public Domain)

Almost back in the game

Last night’s GEDI seminar provided plenty of action and interaction, as we thought about various ways to engage the imaginations of 21st-Century learners, debated whether or not gaming might save the world (or condemn it once and for all), and concluded with an impressive round of Massively Multi-Player Thumb Wrestling guided by Jane McGonigal herself.

Our discussions focused first on the kinds of pedagogies and tools we might use to build in more play and gaming into class projects and experiences, and then shifted to a more meta-level inquiry about the challenges of motivation in the broader context of the costs and purposes of higher education (inspired by this especially nuanced reflection on Ortega y Gasset).  I have drafted several posts in my head these last few weeks, but am still waiting for the mental space and clarity I need to produce something coherent enough to warrant spending pixels on it. (I just started Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk yesterday, and imagine her observation that “the goshawk is like grace. It is rare and you never know when it will appear,” might apply to the muse as well.)

But as a preliminary step to producing something significant of my own, I need to give a shout out here to the author of Wide. Open. Learning, who assembled a wonderful array of resources and ideas about game-based learning.  This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a thoughtfully curated synthesis of reflections, suggestions and resources.  Whether you are a novice or expert, have just leveled up or never leveled up, this is a gem you will want to use and admire: game-based learning

History, Animals, and Networked Learning