It’s been nearly a week after Bryan Alexander’s invigorating tour through a “week of Digital Literacy” in our Open Learning cMOOC. Among many other things, the week helped me appreciate how fun and difficult it can be to stay abreast of a free-wheeling Twitter chat, how delightful it is to meet new people and work on shared intellectual concerns collaboratively, and how much I have to learn — not just about digital literacy, but but about learning itself.
The latter connects powerfully to the crisis of knowledge and knowing that has engulfed most communication channels since the new administration’s war on the media began under the banner of “Fake News.” Like many others, I have spent many hours searching my soul, reading (and reading), and talking with people seeking understanding — not just of how we got to what still feels like a surreal moment, but what can and must be done to move us forward — or maybe it’s backward — to a time when dissembling, manipulating, and simply lying about what happened or what one said might not have been unheard of, but wasn’t projected at a national level as an acceptable, indeed expected mode of engagement.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
Our afternoon session at the Digital Pedagogy Lab today focused on using digital environments to support student learning communities. I promised a couple of people I would post / tweet references for the blogging guidelines and course websites where my students have come together to create rich learning environments that outlived the chronological parameters of the semester and the physical confines of the classroom. So here goes:
This is the syllabus for the second iteration of “Deep History and Domestication” (which prompted the reference to “dinosaur afterlives”). As I mentioned today, this course was my first foray into networked and connected learning. Gardner Campbell gave me the inspiration to try something new, and my students showed me how incredibly powerful, fun, and effective such endeavors could be.
These are the Soviet Historycourses that extended the networked component of the Deep History and Domestication format to include class-sourcing the majority of the content and supporting students’ use of proprietary databases as well as openly accessible high-value sources on the web.
A couple of people asked about the mechanisms for framing and supporting vibrant student interaction in these online environments. Here’s an excerpt from the blogging instructions for Deep history:
While this syllabus provides a road map to the course, a large part of our work together will be constructed, elaborated and refined on the web. I am interested in deepening and expanding on our in-class discussions and research endeavors and hope that this experiment with blogging will help us create the course together in an immediately accessible, professional, enduring and transparent medium.
You are required to blog at least once per week about the assigned readings, and you are required to comment on another person’s blog at least twice per week. There is no assigned length or format for your blogging. I just ask that you engage the readings thoughtfully and substantively, and that you explore and play with the many nuances of the blogging modality. You might comment on the author’s theoretical/methodological framework or relate the assigned text to other readings for the course, other perspectives you have encountered elsewhere, and the thoughts, questions, and responses of your classmates on their blogs. You may also respond to the text’s major arguments in more personal terms, as long as you engage those arguments carefully. Individual blog posts are not graded, but will be considered holistically as evidence of your general commitment to the course and its content.
Guidelines for blogging and commenting in the Soviet History courses are here. You can also look in the category “blogpost guidelines” for the weekly prompts.
And finally, I’ll note that all of these courses use two blogs — one that aggregates posts from the students’ individual blogs (the main course website), and one that aggregates the comments from all of the students’ blogs. I pull the second blog through an RSS feed on the main blog so that students can see all of the comments on the main site. If you really want the deep dive on setting this up, I’ve outlined the process here.
I savored every moment of the first ALTFest at Virginia Commonwealth University this week. From the first afternoon’s “unconference” ALTCamp to the final showcase lunch, opportunities for interaction, experimentation and engagement abounded. Indeed after Mimi Ito’s wonderfully interactive keynote there were so many synchronous sessions and activities; my only complaint is that I couldn’t take advantage of all of them!
The session I most regret not being able to clone myself for was the hackjam devoted to interrogating and reimagining “the syllabus.” What is a syllabus anyway? A descriptive overview? A schedule? A contract? All of the above? So, a big shout out to Jon Becker for his post about the highlights of the hackjam that includes so many cool examples of what a syllabus might be and might inspire…. I don’t even know where to start poaching as I start developing the syllabus for the newly networked course on Soviet culture I’ll be teaching in the fall. Continue reading “ALTFest@VCU”
“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”