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.

More Than A Two-Way Conversation

The last time I read Personal Dynamic Media, I blogged about the resonance of Kay and Goldberg’s flute metaphor for the possibilities of creating and communicating with the internet and new media.  As a recovering musician with an interest in how music is created and perceived in times of political and social upheaval, I find the prescience of Kay and Goldberg’s vision for an interactive Dynabook that instantly represents and captures a composer’s input thrilling and awe-inspiring.

Today things unfolded a bit differently.  I went to class thinking about Kay and Goldberg’s insight about the connection between media, communication and learning:

Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea.  It may be representational or abstract.  The essence of the medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed…..the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided.  Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active — it can respond to queries and experiments — so that the message may involve the learner in two-way conversation. (NMR, pp. 393-394)

I’m a pretty enthusiastic endorser of the transformative potential of that two-way conversation with the computer as medium, but today I wanted more.  The class had just submitted another good set of posts about the Soviet experience of World War II, and the weekly edition of the blog looked terrific.  But I wanted to make sure that the class’s understanding of the big picture behind Soviet victory had not been left by the wayside of some excellent posts about battles, war-time hardships, and the origins of the Cold War.

So, using a variation of a method for “google-doc-ing discussion” my honors colloquium pioneered last spring, I set up several google docs and sent the links out before I headed to class.  I had asked everyone to bring their text book to class and to have reviewed the section that analyzes the reasons the Soviets prevailed.  (Years of teaching Soviet history have impressed upon me how resilient the old chestnuts about the war on the Eastern Front are.  I’ve learned that I can’t count on enlightenment and lecture to counter the mystique of the Russian winter or Hitler’s strategic errors as causal explanations for an enormously complicated struggle that was as much a Soviet victory as it was a German defeat.)

In the last fifteen minutes of class I had the students divide into groups, and claim a blank document.  Most of them had their laptops with them and when I asked them to outline the author’s thesis and the claims he makes in support of it, they began to talk, type, and flip through the book.  I had all seven documents open on my computer which was mirrored on the projector.  I watched as the outlines developed in real time over the next few minutes.  Some groups got it right away – setting up an outline which supported the author’s assertion that “paradoxically, the USSR won the war both because of and despite the Stalinist system.”  But most of them didn’t.  Some of them made bulleted lists of factors they deemed relevant (and yes, Hitler’s mistakes were on some of those lists…and that’s ok), and some of them found a minor interpretive point and used it to structure the main argument.  So I started typing questions on the docs. (“What is Fuller’s thesis?”  “What role does he say the Stalinist system played?” “Are you sure about that?”).  One group listed “not JUST the weather” as an important factor, which prompted me to write “YAY!”, and prompted them to laugh. And suddenly, we were all working really hard and having some fun.  The groups without the correct thesis went scrambling back to their books and started talking and typing among themselves.  The groups that were struggling looked at the projector to watch how a more successful answer was taking shape in another group, and then went back to their own document.  A few more minutes would have been really helpful, but when class ended five of the seven groups were on the right track, and everyone was still working. No packing up five minutes early, no shuffling and looking at the clock.  I could see on the google docs that everyone kept writing and working until I told them we needed to stop.  We will go back to the exercise next week to finish up, but I can tell that there will be more google-doc-ing group work down the line.

Yesterday I heard a colleague talk about how her daughter refers to her computer as an “internet machine.”  Today in class it seemed as though the computer/internet machine/medium “an sich” had transformed an ordinary exercise with group work into a multi-level conversation that leveraged engagement and communication in promising and exciting ways.

Blogging Soviet History – Field Report #1

With support from the History Department, University Libraries and an Innovation Grant, I’ve been working on a blogging project with my Soviet history course this fall.  Lots of people have asked me how things are going, so here’s an update:

20th-Century Russia Fall 2013 Weekly Digest - Sept. 25 (Screencapture)
20th-Century Russia Fall 2013 Weekly Digest – Sept. 25 (Screencapture)

The short answer is: Great!

The slightly longer answer is: There are some kinks to work out, not everything goes according to plan, and managing something on this scale takes a LOT of time. (I have 38 students posting weekly to the motherblog, which my TA and I curate as a “weekly edition” that comes out on Wednesday.)  BUT it’s completely worth it in terms of the quality of the content produced, and the level of student engagement.  This kind of original, digital history work develops the research, writing, communication, and digital literacy skills of students in ways that are deeply exciting to witness and rewarding to facilitate.

Underneath the Skin

There are two main components to the project.  The first involves using blogs to create and curate the course content.  While I’ve found blogging to be a rewarding medium for students to respond to and engage with course material, the format I’m using here gives students the chance to engage directly with primary and secondary materials (both print and electronic), conduct their own research, and present their findings in ways that are meaningful and interesting to them.  Each week I post the guidelines for a particular topic and ask the class follow their noses and hearts to a topic that interests them. They post on Sunday, my awesome undergrad TA assigns them a category (i.e. Week 3 blog posts), and Monday and Tuesday we all read and comment on each others’ posts. I tag posts as I read them (which generates an evolving, tag cloud to help us find posts on a particular topic). On Wednesday, the “Weekly Edition” of our crowd-sourced Soviet History Digest comes out.  A custom slider, sticky posts and categories highlight the most salient and contentious content areas.

Categories10-2-13Posts that are exemplary in terms of their research, methodology, sophistication, or insight about a particular topic get a “Red Star,” and five of them are featured in the slider. Posts that address issues we especially need to talk about in class are categorized in the “Comrades’ Corner.” (This is a Soviet history course, after all.) We also have a “Student Choice Award” for the post that generates the most discussion in the comments, and occasionally, a “Blog Beautification Award” for sites that show dramatic improvement in appearance and functionality.

The blog posts are not graded, there are no requirements in terms of length or format, and students have considerable latitude in choosing what to research and write about. I’ll write more about the pedagogical rationale for that later, but will just note here that when students write for themselves and their peers (rather than for a grade which reflects my assessment of that work), we are all happier and the quality of the work is significantly better than what I’m used to seeing on conventional assignments.

One of the main goals of the project was to move beyond the model of “delivering” content and empower students to create and process that content themselves. Having the right interface for this was critical, and here is where I am enormously grateful to Brian Matthews, who understood that I needed a blog skin with a particular suite of functions to give my students the opportunity to present and showcase their work.  “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the old saying goes, but for a digital history site like this one, the aesthetics and functionality of the skin not only shape the content, they also condition the options I have as the lead content curator (my corner of the blog is called “Motherblog Central”) to moderate and highlight the material the class needs most.  There were several free templates available to me, but none of them had the particular combination of features and flexibility I was looking for. Instead of modifying what I wanted to do to fit the available skins, the library purchased a skin that maximized the experience of creating the weekly “Soviet History Digest” for the students and for me. It was not expensive – far less than most books cost these days, but it was also much more than a symbolic gesture.  To me it signaled that our library is committed to supporting and developing networked learning environments and helping its constituents tap its holdings in easier, more productive ways.

This brings me to the second main component of the project, which involves helping students develop course content using a combination of print and electronic resources, including proprietary databases (supported by the library), as well as freely accessible material on the web.  The course blog provides the main interface for this.  One of the key resources my students will be using in the second half of the course is the complete archive of the  Current Digest of the Russian Press.  For these first few weeks, they have found source material in a digitized collection of the Tsar’s photographer at the Library of Congress (unavailable during the government shutdown), the extensive multi-media archive for Soviet History developed by Lewis Siegelbaum and James Von Geldern, and the Historical New York Times.  I will post more about that in the future as well.