The (medium) Hard Work of Open

Long Trail

My what a couple of weeks it’s been….So much anticipation, trepidation, incredulity, outrage, sorrow….resolve…

No, I’m not talking about #OpenLearning17. The course launch last week provided a wonderfully affirming forum for engaging with the forces of enlightenment.  Laura Gogia’s masterful facilitation of a Twitter Journal Club (#TJC17) on Friday brought folks together around a close reading of Jeffrey Pomerantz’ and Robin Peek’s Fifty Shades of Open, and through Twitter magic and generosity Jeffrey Pomerantz was able to participate in the discussion. Some of us even carried the conversation further by annotating it on . And because the #TJC17was open and coincided with the annual AAC&U conference in San Francisco, conference participants could join the fun and those of us who were not physically in attendance could share in some of the buzz generated by the big gathering.

Continue reading “The (medium) Hard Work of Open”

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.

Continue reading “The Student-Centered Lecture”

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.

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.

Timeline vs. Webs

“Both the readings (McCloud & Berners-Lee, et al.) consider how interfaces shape user experience. For this week’s make, do a brief analysis of time (like McCloud did for comics) as encoded in a digital interface of your choice. For instance, how is time represented on your web browser, smart phone, Apple Watch, Mac or Windows interface, YouTube, Twitter, WordPress, Scholar, or some other digital interface? And what are the implications for how users use the system/object/technology?”    — NMS, Week 12 Make

Even though most of the digital interfaces I use leverage webs of layered data, linear chronology remains central.  Your Twitter timeline, Firefox browsing history, Nike+ activity record — all present a reverse chronology of what has happened and where you have been.

I am not complaining. I believe that sequence matters.  Indeed it is essential to understanding change over time, which is what historians are all about. But the promise and magic of web-based interfaces comes from the explicitly non-linear nature of a web — the linked, infinitely expanding nodes of related material and meaning that add dimension to a sequence (or chronology, or linear narrative, etc.).  The multidimensional crowd-sourced canvas of the web allows us to customize just about anything on a timeline. It gives our chronologies depth and uniqueness, and infuses them with meaning.  But despite the “infinite canvas” potential and foundation of the web, we remain attached to linear chronologies as a first-line ordering of experience and meaning. So when we think about how interfaces shape user experience, we also have to think about how users condition the organization of the interface.  How much do we need that timeline? What are its advantages and costs? Continue reading “Timeline vs. Webs”

Your motherblog might need a (mostly invisible) spouse

Course blogs are everywhere these days. While Tumblr and instagram might be the “it” social media of the moment, a course blog’s suitability for exchanging ideas, presenting research, and engaging in an open, distributed conversation is hard to beat. Course blogs come in all shapes and sizes of course, but the format I’ve been using extensively this year came about with the help of Gardner Campbell. I’ve deployed it in a range of course settings, from seminars with six undergraduates to upper-level courses with thirty-eight. It has worked beautifully for helping new graduate students come to terms with historiography as well. Several people have asked me about the set-up, and although it can be explained with spoken words and hand motions, it will be easier to lay out here.  So what follows is partly a plug for this particular configuration and partly a “how-to” for those who want to try it themselves.

Why does a motherblog need a spouse?

Like many course blogs, this format uses a “motherblog” that syndicates posts from all of the contributors’ individual blogs. Each student has their own “childblog” which they can customize according to their own preferences. The student’s blog becomes an eportfolio of their work, a “deliverable” they can take away (and continue to build on) when the course ends. The motherblog aggregates the feeds from all members of the course in one easy to find and search place.

Mother Blog


 Child Blog


But how do you handle the comments?  One of the main advantages of having students blog is the amplification of the audience. Instead of completing an “assignment” for me (“Is that what you wanted?”), they are writing for a much more diverse and interesting audience — it includes me, but is mainly comprised of their classmates and anyone else who happens to be interested in what they have to say. Commenting gives us a chance to engage in a multilateral conversation about the substance of the posts over a few hours, several days, or the entire term. But since every student has her own blog, the comments on a particular post are going to be attached to the individual blog, rather than the course blog. (You can set the motherblog up so that comments on the syndicated posts appear on the course blog, but then they won’t be attached to the student’s blog.)  This means you have to click around and look for a conversation to join, which could be serendipitously fun, but might also be a pain in the neck.

The solution is a second blog that aggregates all of the comment feeds from the students’ blogs. I think of it as a (mostly invisible) spouse to the motherblog, because it does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of pulling content together and pushing it forward. But like many spouses, it does this quietly and without much recognition. It will work just as hard as the motherblog, but never rise to a search engine’s attention.  This blog of the collected comments from all of the students’ blogs appears in an RSS feed on the mother blog. When someone goes to main website to see what’s been posted recently, the comments on those posts are visible on the front page as well.  Clicking on a post or an interesting comment will take you directly to the student blog you want to engage.

Comment feed on Mother Blog


Student Blog Post


  It’s elegant, functional, and not hard to set up:

1) Create and set-up your motherblog to aggregate the posts from all of your contributors. (If you don’t have access to a WordPress enterprise installation, you can use an RSS multiplier to get the similar kind of functionality as you have with the syndication application.)

2) Create another blog to do the same for the comments.

3) Syndicate the individual blogs to the comment blog:


4) Select the “comments” feed:


5) On the motherblog, pull the comment blog through the RSS feed and relabel the RSS feed as a comment feed:


6) Drag the “recent comments” widget on the mother blog to the “inactive” area of the dashboard:


7) Create a link to the comment blog on the motherblog (optional):


8) That’s it!

DO Save the Time of the Reader/ Researcher

As a historian, I self-identify as a “super searcher.” I was trained to identify and track down whatever evidence I need, regardless of the time, effort, and tedium involved. As a researcher those skills stand me in good stead every day, but as a teacher, I want my students to spend at least as much time working with materials as they do identifying and locating them. They need to develop strategies for searching and acquire the content expertise to search intelligently, but they also need to start with “the good stuff” so that their curiosity will take over and spur them to dig deeper. For the project Brian Matthews cited in [Don’t] Save the Time of The Reader, my goal was to bring the teaching and learning of Soviet history into the networked age by using blogging and googledocs to contextualize sources available in at least three formats: print, the open web, and proprietary databases.

I’ve provided some background on the design of the course elsewhere, but the basics were as follows: Each student (38 total) had a blog that served as their digital portfolio for the semester and contributed to the content of the course. The individual blogs were syndicated to a motherblog with a magazine-style layout that included a slider and a featured post section. We curated the content from the individual posts into a “weekly edition,” highlighting the most engaging and sophisticated research in the slider or with a “red star.”

The class used a number of openly accessible collections, especially Seventeen Moments in Soviet History — a rich multi-media repository of translated primary sources for the Soviet period.  Other high quality internet sources for Soviet history include Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives —  a browseable archive of video, artifacts and film, that immerses viewers in the history of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps; Making the History of 1989 — a digital history repository for studying the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; and 1917: Did the War Cause a Revolution?  an interactive teaching module about the Russian Revolution based on primary sources (part of the Digital History Reader created by a team of faculty at Virginia Tech with funding from the NEH)

Students find topically coherent, multi-media repositories like Seventeen Moments appealing and user-friendly. The images and audio files are engaging, the translated primary documents are selected for their significance and interest, and the scaffolding of the web site makes it easy to dig more deeply into a particular topic or branch off on a different one.

Getting students to use (and like) the proprietary databases held by the library presents more of a challenge. Every vendor has a different search interface, the scope of the resource (i.e. The New York Times) is far broader than Soviet History, and the sophistication of the database can be daunting for the novice researcher. For this project I wanted students to take advantage of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, (now called the Current Digest of the Russian Press) a translated monthly compilation of articles from Soviet newspapers dating back to 1949. I was pleased that once the class got the hang of finding, analyzing and citing materials from the openly accessible sites, they also found it easier and more interesting to work with the Current Digest. Providing a link directly to the search interface for these resources helped, as did using class time to work together on finding articles about particular topic.  In classic crowd-sourced style, our collective networked searching proved far more efficient and productive than our solitary forays would have been.  The student’s post became more sophisticated in terms of analysis and source base as the semester progressed.

In this context, the first step in saving time for student researchers involved helping them build proficiency with openly accessible repositories that are relatively easy to use and cite. Once the students’ interest in the subject, content expertise, and searching skills had developed, they were more willing to add the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times into the mix and invest the extra time and attention to detail these resources require.

“Saving time” like this allowed the class to use time more productively. Class-sourcing the content for an entire course required a significant investment of time and energy from all of us, but had numerous benefits, including:

1) Giving students a bigger role and larger stake in developing historical knowledge and presenting history to audiences outside the academy;  2) Bridging the conceptual and technological divide between the resources of the open web and the proprietary knowledge of commercial databases; and 3) making the walls of the classroom and the library more porous and transparent.

Expert researchers still need their super searcher skills, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is changing.  Tomorrow’s super searchers will be just as competent as we are, but they will arrive there by different means.