From transparencies to etherpad: teaching (and) DH

Report by Kaisa Kulasulu, Estonian Folklore Archives

In his novel „Thinks…“ David Lodge describes how the protagonist Helen Reed, a writer in her forties, is asked to make some concluding remarks on a conference of cognitive science. The novel takes place in year 1997. Helen does not recall any of her teachers of literature ever using slides or any other visual aids during her years in Oxford, but at the conference, she notes that almost everyone has viewfoils and decides to use some of them herself. Although the attempt to visualize her speech ends up being a bit clumsy, all in all, the field of sciences and computers enriches both her work and personality.

15 years later, it has been expected by default that a scholar in almost every field gives his or her presentation with some kind of visual material, whether PowerPoint or Prezy. And what is more, inter- or multidisciplinarity is praised and expected. Digital humanities is an emerging field and it seems that the digital part of humanities can become as usual as slideshows in classes and in conferences.

As I had my MA graduation ceremony just a week before the DH Summer School, I still feel very much as a student and most of my friends are students or fresh graduates as well. And from a student point of view, on one hand, the digital approaches don’t seem that revolutionary, because we have not had the chance of getting to know world and university system without digital technologies, methods and approaches. On the other hand, the concept and notion of digital humanities is still a bit confusing. „Where exactly are you going? What are digital humanities?“ These are the questions I kept hearing when I told my friends that I’m going to a digital humanities summer school.

Of course it might be just that in Estonia „there’s not a ton of DH stuff happening“ to cite Jeana Jorgensen, a folklore scholar form University of Indiana who used DH in her dissertation about fairy tales and kept an eye on the developments in digital humanities via Twitter while she spent a semester in Estonia. However, people who decide to study humanities, might do that because they are not that good with maths, computers, technology and want to spend their lives far away from stuff like that. Therefore, the field of digital humanities is more than a bit intimidating. In her lecture, Elena Pierazzo illustrated that with a list of things a editor should be aware of: this list consists of traditional skills such as languages, knowledge of the social and historical context, style of the author and the period, but a good editor should be aware of XML, TEI, XSLT, HTML, CSS, web design and databases. All that is quite a lot.

I’m not saying that students in humanities are not using digital skills (at least they’re using the meme generator, but they are often thought of separately from research practices. However, elementary digital literacy in higher education demands the students to understand various things their predecessors did not. But it should be noted that digital humanities are not only about the content of the disciplines, they are connected to the teaching methods as well.

Digital methods that are used uncritically are as bad as PowerPoint presentations that have been used just because everybody does that. During the last morning of the DH summer school, we had a unconference, one of the sessions was about DH and pedagogy. The topic grew out of the experience of the summer school: during these days, there was a variety of sources of information: lecturer, PowerPoint, Framapad and the chat within that, Twitter, everybody’s own notes, photos of the slides, conference website, USB stick with articles and information. What is more, the conference was filmed, that adds an extra layer of information. Obviously, finding your way through all these different mediums is more than a bit confusing. This raised a discussion on the topic of different ways of teaching and using digital aids for that. PowerPoint is widely used, but often it does not help to understand the lecture in a more meaningful way. Long texts on slides take the attention off the lecturer, bullet points are too salesman-like for complex arguments. Slides that function well in presenting the ideas might not that useful outside the dynamics of presentation, when used as notes. Claire Lemercier pointed out that although preparing different materials for students is time-consuming, the good thing about different supportive materials is that students are different in their ways of most efficient receiving of information. Instead of traditional PowerPoint, collaborative note-taking in Framapad or other Etherpad-based editors could be helpful. With PowerPoint, a teacher always faces the questions whether to share it before or after the lecture. The idea of using Framapad seemed more fruitful: the teacher can write the structure of the course there in advance, and the students can take notes there. This kind of solution is good for both teachers and students.

Of course, digital age could also mean letting go of the traditional classrooms, lectures and seminars. Universities have various technologies for e-learning, for instance, Moodle is widely used. Some of the teachers praise e-courses as a way of moving from teaching to learning, a whole new approach to learning. The online courses are good for several things. Audiovisual materials can be easily represented there. Students with varied backgrounds have different opportunities for studying – they can get more detailed background information of the topic if the lack it, or interested students can find out more, whereas in lecture or in seminar, the pace is quite the same for all the students. And web-based courses should help to plan your own time between work, family and other obligations. There’s more room for feedback as well. Nevertheless, online learning environments are often complicated to grasp and understanding the structure of the learning environment and the course takes much effort from both teachers and students. Discussion boards in Moodle are not as lively and active as classroom discussions in real life environment. As far as my experience goes, e-learning works the best when the course combines features of a online course with seminars or tests in live. But all that goes for university courses for specialized student audiences. Massive open online courses like the ones offered in Coursera are a bit different. Students involved there have decided to take the course because they want to, not because it’s a part of their curriculum. As they are not obliged to, the motivation to complete the course might not be big – it has been estimated that only 10 % of the students complete the course.

Digital humanities are changing the universities. The curriculum is changing, but so are the methods of teaching. Finding your way through all the technical possibilities is a big task for both students and teachers, but it sure is a rewarding one. Events like DH Summer School in Bern give the opportunity to test out the different ways and communicating about them creates a better understanding of digital humanities for all these people who tend to look at that concept as an oxymoron. With reasoned and well-advised usage of digital methods in classroom, even these humanities students who are not very keen on computers get the feeling of the advantages of technology and that could lead the way to wider understanding and usage of digital humanities.