Category Archives: Education

new ways with words

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve received a grant of £93,000 from the Esmee Fairbairn Trust to help us “explore how new media can be used to generate active reading, creative writing and fresh enthusiasm for literature amongst young people”. In collaboration with teachers and writers, we’ll be creating a library of materials for schools made in CommentPress and Sophie, running workshops and building on the success of our recent project FOUND, funded by Booktrust. Actor and writer Toby Jones (currently playing Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s W), worked with me and a class of twelve year olds in inner city Birmingham who found themselves immersed in the story of a lost child whose personality was, unbeknownst to them, being created by themselves. You can read a full account on the bookfutures blog which if:book london is developing for its projects and work with literature organisations in the UK.

where minds meet: new architectures for the study of history and music

This is the narrative text for an NEH Digital Humanities Start-UP grant we just applied for.
With the advent of the cd-rom in the late 80s, a few pioneering humanities scholars began to develop a new vocabulary for multi-layered, multi-modal digital publications. Since that time, the internet has emerged as a powerful engine for collaboration across peer networks, radically collapsing the distance between authors and readers and creating new communal spaces for work and review.
To date, these two evolutionary streams have been largely separate. Rich multimedia is still largely consigned to individual consumption on the desktop, while networked collaboration generally occurs around predominantly textual media such as the blogosphere, or bite-sized fragments on YouTube and elsewhere. We propose to carry out initial planning for two ambitious digital publishing projects that will merge these streams into powerfully integrated experiences.
Although the locus of scholarly discourse is slowly but clearly moving from bound/printed pages to networked screens, we’ve yet to reach the tipping point. The printed book is still the gold standard of the academy. The goal of these projects is to produce born-digital works that are as elegant as printed books and also draw on the power of audio and video illustrations and new models of community-based inquiry -? and do all of these so well that they inspire a generation of young scholars with the promise of digital scholarship.
Robert Winter’s CD Companion Series (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet, Dvorak’s New World Symphony) and the American Social History Project’s Who Built America? Volumes I and II were seminal works of multimedia scholarship and publishing. In their respective fields they were responsible for introducing and demonstrating the value of new media scholarship, as well as for setting a high standard for other work which followed.
Although these works were encoded on plastic cd-roms instead of on paper, they essentially followed the paradigm of print in the sense that they were page-based and very much the work of authors who took sole responsibility for the contents. The one obvious difference was the presence of audio and video illustrations on the page. This crucial advance allowed Robert Winter to provide a running commentary as readers listened to the music, or the Who Built America? authors to provide valuable supplementary materials and primary source documents such as William Jennings Bryan reading his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, or moving oral histories from the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.
Since the release of these cd-roms, the internet and world wide web have come to the fore and upended the print-centric paradigm of reading as a solitary activity, moving it towards a more communal, networked model. As an example, three years ago my colleagues and I at the Institute for the Future of the Book began a series of “networked book” experiments to understand what happens when you locate a book in the dynamic social space of the Web. McKenzie Wark, a communication theorist and professor at The New School, had recently completed a draft of a serious theoretical work on video games. We put that book, Gamer Theory, online in a form adapted from conventional blog templates that allowed readers to post comments on individual paragraphs. While commenting on blogs is commonplace, readers’ comments invariably appear below the author’s text, usually hidden from sight in an endlessly scrolling field. Instead we put the reader’s comments directly to the right of Wark’s text, indicating that reader input would be an integral part of the whole. Within hours of the book’s “publication” on the web, page margins began to be populated with a lively back-and-forth among readers and with the author. As early reviewers said, it was no longer simply the author speaking, but rather the book itself, as the conversation in the margins became an intrinsic and important part of the whole.
The traditional top-down hierarchy of print, in which authors deliver wisdom from on high to receptive readers, was disrupted and replaced by a new model in which both authors and readers actively pursued knowledge and understanding. I’m not suggesting that our experiment caused this change, but rather that it has shed light on a process that is already well underway, helping to expose and emphasize the ways in which writing and reading are increasingly socially mediated activities.
Thanks to extraordinary recent advances, both technical and conceptual, we can imagine new multi-mediated forms of expression that leverage the web’s abundant resources more fully and are driven by networked communities of which readers and authors can work together to advance knowledge.
Let’s consider Who Built America?
In 1991, before going into production, we spent a full year in conversation with the book’s authors, Steve Brier and Josh Brown, mulling over the potential of an electronic edition. We realized that a history text is essentially a synthesis of the author’s interpretation and analysis of original source documents, and also of the works of other historians, as well as conversations in the scholarly community at large. We decided to make those layers more visible, taking advantage of the multimedia affordances and storage capacity of the cd-rom. We added hundreds of historical documents -? text, pictures, audio, video -? woven into dozens of “excursions” distributed throughout the text. These encouraged the student to dig deeper beneath encouraged them to interrogate the author’s conclusions and perhaps even come up with alternative analyses.
Re-imagining Who Built America? in the context of a dynamic network (rather than a frozen cd-rom), promises exciting new possibilities. Here are just a few:
• Access to source documents can be much more extensive and diverse, freed from the storage constraints of the cd-rom, as well as from many of the copyright clearance issues.
• Dynamic comment fields enable classes to produce their own unique editions. A discussion that began in the classroom can continue in the margins of the page, flowing seamlessly between school and home.
• The text continuously evolves, as authors add new findings and engage with readers who have begun to learn history by “doing” history, adding new research and alternative syntheses. Steve Brier tells a wonderful story about a high school class in a small town in central Ohio where the students and their teacher discovered some unknown letters from one of the earliest African-American trade union leaders in the late nineteenth century, making an important contribution to the historical record.
In short, we are re-imagining a history text as a networked, multi-layered learning environment in which authors and readers, teachers and students, work collaboratively.
Over the past months I’ve had several conversations with Brier and Brown about a completely new “networked” version of Who Built America?. They are excited about the possibility and have a good grasp of the challenges and potential. A good indication of this is Steve Brier’s comment: “If we’re going to expect readers to participate in these ways, we’re going to have to write in a whole new way.”
Discussions with Robert Winter have focused less on re-working the existing CD-Companions (which were monumental works) than on trying to figure out how to develop a template for a networked library of close readings of iconic musical compositions. The original CD-Companions existed as individual titles, isolated from one another. The promise of networked scholarship means that over time Winter and his readers will weave a rich tapestry of cross-links that map interconnections between different compositions, between different musical styles and techniques, and between music and other cultural forms. The original CD-Companions were done when computers had low-resolution black and white screens with extremely primitive audio capabilities and no video at all. High resolution color screens and sophisticated audio and video tools open up myriad possibilities for examining and contextualizing musical compositions. Particularly exciting is the prospect of harnessing Winter’s legendary charismatic teaching style via the creative, yet judicious use of video.
We are seeking a Level One Start-Up grant to hold a pair of two-day symposia, one devoted to each project. Each meeting will bring together approximately a dozen people -? the authors, designers, leading scholars from various related disciplines, and experts in building web-based communities around scholarly topics -? to brainstorm about how these projects might best be realized. We will publish the proceedings of these meetings online in such a way that interested parties can join the discussion and deepen our collective understanding. Finally, we will write a grant proposal to submit to foundations for funds to build out the projects in their entirety. The work described here will take place over a five-month period beginning September 2008 and ending February 2009.
Some of the questions to be addressed at the symposia are:
• what are new graphical and information design paradigms for orienting readers and enabling them to navigate within a multi-layered, multi-modal work?
• how do you distinguish between the reading space and the work space? how porous is the boundary between them?
• what do readers expect of authors in the context of a “networked” book?
• what new authorial skill sets need to be cultivated?
• what range of mechanisms for reader participation and author/reader interaction should we explore? (i.e. blog-style commenting, social filtering, rating mechanisms, annotation tools, social bookmarking/curating, personalized collection-building, tagging, etc.)
• how do readers become “trusted” within an open community? what are the social protocols required for a successful community-based project: terms of participation, quality control/vetting procedures, delegation of roles etc.
what does “community” mean in the context of a specific scholarly work?
• how will scholars and students cite the contents of dynamic, evolving works that are not “stable” like printed pages? how does the project get archived? how do you deal with versioning?
• if asynchronous online conversation becomes a powerful new mode of developing scholarship, how do we visualize these conversations and make them navigable, readable, and enjoyable?
Relevant websites
Video Demo for Who Built America? (circa 1993)
Video Demo for the Rite of Spring (circa 1990)

Introduction to the CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
(circa 1989)

channel 4 goes cross-platform

On the subject of major traditional media entities and cross-platform experimentation. Over in London last night Chris and I went to the launch event for Bow Street Runner, an online game launched by UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 to coincide with a major historical TV drama. Players explore 1754 London as one of the city’s first police officers, solving crimes and – it is hoped – picking up some historical brownie points along the way.
It’s interesting because Bow Street Runner is the first game to be launched by the channel, and represents a significant change in strategic direction. Channel 4’s public service obligations were hitherto tackled with the production of ‘educational’ (daytime) TV aimed at 14-19-year-olds and very occasionally, it seems, recorded by teachers for use in classrooms. Having realised that this approach was generating little interest, the channel’s Head of Education, Janey Walker, decided last year to shift the entire commissioning budget for educational material into cross-platform offerings.
Along with showing trailers for the game and introducing us to its creators, commissioning editor Matt Locke described how the channel’s new approach will in many cases reverse the typical 360-degree media approach – create some TV content, then tack on an ARG – opting instead to create cross-platform offerings with TV outputs as one element only. A number of ARGs and other offerings are scheduled for release later in the year.
Though it’s hardly the first time an ARG has been deployed by a major ‘traditional’ media company – after all, the first ARG to have any impact was intended as a trailer for the film AI – this entry into the space by a major TV channel promises to raise the profile (not to mention some much-needed financial backing) for the still very young world of cross-platform entertainment.
It’s early days yet, and Locke was frank about the experimental nature of this new approach. But it hints at a sea-change in mainstream recognition of the relative significances of online and other media – and, maybe, the potential for a wave of new, profoundly net-native entertainment.

youtube purges: fair use tested

Last week there was a wave of takedowns on YouTube of copyright-infringing material -? mostly clips from television and movies. MediaCommons, the nascent media studies network we help to run, felt this rather acutely. In Media Res, an area of the site where media scholars post and comment on video clips, uses YouTube and other free hosting sites like Veoh and to stream its video. The upside of this is that it’s convenient, free and fast. The downside is that it leaves In Media Res, which is quickly becoming a valuable archive of critically annotated media artifacts, vulnerable to the copyright purges that periodically sweep fan-driven media sites, YouTube especially.
In this latest episode, a full 27 posts on In Media Res suddenly found themselves with gaping holes where video clips once had been. The biggest single takedown we’ve yet experienced. Fortunately, since we regard these sorts of media quotations as fair use, we make it a policy to rip backups of every externally hosted clip so that we can remount them on our own server in the event of a takedown. And so, with a little work, nearly everything was restored -? there were a few clips that for various reasons we had failed to back up. We’re still trying to scrounge up other copies.
The MediaCommons fair use statement reads as follows:

MediaCommons is a strong advocate for the right of media scholars to quote from the materials they analyze, as protected by the principle of “fair use.” If such quotation is necessary to a scholar’s argument, if the quotation serves to support a scholar’s original analysis or pedagogical purpose, and if the quotation does not harm the market value of the original text — but rather, and on the contrary, enhances it — we must defend the scholar’s right to quote from the media texts under study.

The good news is that In Media Res carries on relatively unruffled, but these recent events serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of the media ecology we are collectively building, of the importance of the all too infrequently invoked right of fair use in non-textual media contexts, and of the need for more robust, legally insulated media archives. They also supply us with a handy moral: keep backups of everything. Without a practical contingency plan, fair use is just a bunch of words.
Incidentally, some of these questions were raised in a good In Media Res post last August by Sharon Shahaf of the University of Texas, Austin: The Promises and Challenges of Fan-Based On-Line Archives for Global Television.

ghost story

02138, a magazine aimed at Harvard alumni, has a great article about the widespread practice among professors of using low-wage student labor to research and even write their books.

…in any number of academic offices at Harvard, the relationship between “author” and researcher(s) is a distinctly gray area. A young economics professor hires seven researchers, none yet in graduate school, several of them pulling 70-hour work-weeks; historians farm out their research to teams of graduate students, who prepare meticulously written memos that are closely assimilated into the finished work; law school professors “write” books that acknowledge dozens of research assistants without specifying their contributions. These days, it is practically the norm for tenured professors to have research and writing squads working on their publications, quietly employed at stages of co-authorship ranging from the non-controversial (photocopying) to more authorial labor, such as significant research on topics central to the final work, to what can only be called ghostwriting.

Ideally, this would constitute a sort of apprentice system -? one generation of scholars teaching the next through joint endeavor. But in reality the collaborative element, though quietly sanctioned by universities (the article goes into this a bit), receives no direct blessing or stated pedagogical justification. A ghost ensemble works quietly behind the scenes to keep up the appearance of heroic, individual authorship.

generation gap?

A pair of important posts, one by Siva Vaidhyanathan and one by Henry Jenkins, call for an end to generationally divisive rhetoric like “digital immigrants” and “digital natives.”
From Siva:

Partly, I resist such talk because I don’t think that “generations” are meaningful social categories. Talking about “Generation X” as if there were some discernable unifying traits or experiences that all people born between 1964 and pick a year after 1974 is about as useful as saying that all Capricorns share some trait or experience. Yes, today one-twelfth of the world will “experience trouble at work but satisfaction in love.” Right.
Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.
In the case of the “digital generation,” the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

From Jenkins:

In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there’s a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.
As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky’s original formulation
[pdf], now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations.

build your own texbook

Peter Brantley pointed me to an interesting experiment from Pearson Custom Publishing, who is working with faculty at Rio Solado community college in Arizona to print custom textbooks assembled from multiple sources. Inside Higher Ed has details:

The result, in what could be the first institution-wide initiative of its kind, will be a savings to students of up to 50 percent, the college estimates, as well as a savings of time to faculty, who often find themselves revising course materials to keep pace with continuously updated editions.
…Professors can pick from among the books in Pearson’s library as well as outside sources in preparing their custom textbooks. For works not published by Pearson, there’s a limit of 10 percent of the contents, but the company will then handle copyright clearance.

I recently read in the Times about a similar service from Condé Nast for individualized cookbooks culled, à la carte as it were, from the recipe library.

using commentpress with adolescents, first assessment (sol gaitan)

The bulk of this post is from Sol Gaitan, a teacher of Spanish language and literature at the Dalton School in New York and an occasional writer on this blog. Over the past couple of months Sol has been using CommentPress in an assignment for one of her classes and recently took the time to reflect on how the experiment has gone. The result is a fascinating report from the front lines on the complexities and ambiguities of employing digital technologies in the classroom. From this one trial it becomes obvious that the digital divide can run through almost any place – ?even a hyper-privileged school like Dalton in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – ?and that maintaining a communal Web environment as an annex to the classroom presents tremendous benefits as well as tremendous burdens.
I am using CommentPress in my Hispanic Literature class to study Gabriel García Márquez. Instead of putting his work in to CommentPress, I decided to put in my introduction and the goals for this part of the course, what at Dalton we call “the Assignment” -? one of our pedagogical pillars. I instructed my students to comment on the assignment based on what they learned after reading his collection of short stories, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande. I also added a section of guiding questions, a section with excerpts from one of the short stories, and a few other texts. My expectation was that the students would comment on my text, but they went to the specific questions and commented there. I believe they felt more comfortable with a familiar format. We still need to read his novel El coronel no tiene quien le escriba so I have asked the class to enter comments to my introductory text as the culmination of this assignment. My rationale behind all of this is that students fully grasp what I tell them when I present an author only after they have read his/her works and not the other way around. Furthermore, CommentPress allows me to evaluate their work within the context of their whole experience as they gain knowledge and understanding along the way, something that a final paper doesn’t necessarily do. I also value enormously the fact that the classroom extends beyond its physical confines.
After about one month of using CommentPress, I decided to have my students assess their experience with this medium for communication outside the classroom. All students appreciated the advantages of sharing their literary thoughts in a forum that provides the immediacy of classroom discussions, but also allows them the time to elaborate their thoughts before expressing them. This is especially important in a class conducted entirely in a foreign language.
At an institution like Dalton where computers are an integral part of daily communications, it took me by surprise to realize that there is still a digital divide. One half of my class is comprised of affluent Manhattan kids and the other half of less privileged ones. Interestingly, the latter expressed some level of discomfort in dealing with technology. The rest, who also happen to be younger, were absolutely excited about it. For the less privileged ones, lack of fast Internet connections at home or older, slower computers are major obstacles to the use of a networked assignment. Also some complained that they cannot read/work on this assignment on the subway. This has to do with the fact that these students have long commutes while the more well to do students often live “around the corner” from the school. One student claimed that he doesn’t have four computers at home as some of his classmates do. This presents a logistical problem since some students may use this as an excuse for not posting as often as they should. Regardless, inequality is definitely an issue.
I realized that the need to post comments regularly helps students to know where they stand regarding grades because I use their posts in lieu of in-class essays and papers. This opens up the evaluation process as students are in intimate contact not only with their individual progress and production, but also with that of the whole class.
Group discussion is central to Dalton’s philosophy thanks to our small classes. Thus, students do not necessarily value conversation beyond the classroom as much as students in schools with larger classes might do. One student argued that she had already shared her thoughts in class and preferred working after school on papers in the privacy of her home. Others argued the opposite, that it’s a very useful thing to be reading at home and right then and there have the chance to share their ideas with their classmates and with me.
A frequent complaint from students who expressed uneasiness with networked assignments was that we are using their favorite tool for communication, the computer, for a school assignment. All agreed that e-mail, social networking and text messaging are their preferred ways to connect. Why is it then that they object to having this applied to their learning experience? They say they feel an academic blog demands a more “serious” approach and a certain degree of formality, and also seem annoyed at the fact that they MUST comment. We agreed that they could feel free to be less formal in their postings (though when I read them, I notice that they cannot avoid showing their intelligence and articulacy) and that they should enter a minimum of two comments per week. Also, because they are writing in Spanish, they must also enter grammatical corrections.
CommentPress has added work to my daily life because I must check student work more often, I must send them grammatical tidbits, and I must add my own comments when things need clarification. However, I can feel the pulse of the class more closely and accurately, and I don’t have a ton of papers or exams to grade all at once.