Putting Study Abroad on the Map

by Jeff Howarth, Assistant Professor, Middlebury College

(Originally Posted September 28th, 2010)

“Each year about 60% of the junior class at Middlebury studies abroad in more than 40 countries at more than 90 different programs and universities.”

When I read this sentence on the Middlebury College Web site, I thought to myself: that’s a dataset that my students ought to map. I knew that there had to be a dataset behind that sentence, something that the author could summarize by counting the number of different countries, programs and students. But I imagined this dataset could show us much more if we represented it spatially and visually rather than just verbally. I didn’t know exactly what it might show, but I knew that my cartography students could figure that out as long as I taught them the technical skills for handing the data and the general concepts for visualizing multivariate data. What they decided to make with this knowledge was up to them.

Increasingly, teaching cartography involves training students on specific software platforms while communicating more general principles of the craft. This presents the need to design instructional materials that connect technical skills with thematic concepts while allowing students to creatively achieve the broader educational objectives of a liberal education. As an instructor of cartography at Middlebury College, I have largely followed a project-based learning approach focused on the process of cartographic design. My learning objectives seek to link techniques and concepts in an extended creative procedure that involves data management, problem setting, problem solving and reflection. At different steps along the way, the students must make their own design decisions, applying the available means to their chosen ends. Here, I describe the case of mapping the study abroad program in order to illustrate the general approach of integrating technical and conceptual teaching through design problems.

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The History Engine: Doing History with Digital Tools

by Robert K. Nelson, Scott Nesbit, and Andrew Torget

(Originally Posted September 9th, 2009)

The History Engine as a Teaching Exercise

In a recent article about the contours of history department curricula across the country, Steven D. Andrews notes that

Many students do not “do history” until deep into their college careers, sometimes in the last semester of their senior year. It is only then, in some kind of seminar class, that students experience the process so familiar to historians: identifying their own questions, selecting their own sources, pursuing those sources and constructing arguments, documenting the research process, producing multiple drafts and rewrites, and finally presenting the work in a formal document. For some students, the first comprehensive use of the skills of a historian may be the final act of their education.

This delay in introducing to students the practices of historical inquiry is at odds with what many, perhaps most, historians would prefer, a lamentable if understandable product of the distinct goals of lower- and upper-division courses. The former tend to emphasize, as Andrews suggests, “accumulation of information” about historical context, the latter the acquisition of the “thinking skills” of historical research, reasoning, and argumentation. It is often logistically challenging, sometimes impossible, to ask students to “do history” in lower-division classes simply because there is a lot of information for them to accumulate. Covering, say, roughly two centuries of American history in a survey course affords little time to ask students to engage in original research and formulate their own questions. The length of the “formal document” that Andrews mentions–perhaps a fifteen-page term paper or an even longer seminar paper that’s modeled on the articles that historians themselves produce–doesn’t help. It is, more often than not, simply impractical to ask students in lower-division history courses to engage in that kind of time-intensive, ambitious research and writing exercise (to say nothing of the daunting prospect of grading many longer student research papers in larger sections).1

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From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments

by Michael Wesch , Kansas State University

(Originally Posted January 7, 2009)

Knowledge-able
Most university classrooms have gone through a massive transformation in the past ten years. I’m not talking about the numerous initiatives for multiple plasma screens, moveable chairs, round tables, or digital whiteboards. The change is visually more subtle, yet potentially much more transformative. As I recently wrote in a Britannica Online Forum:

There is something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation.1

This new media environment can be enormously disruptive to our current teaching methods and philosophies. As we increasingly move toward an environment of instant and infinite information, it becomes less important for students to know, memorize, or recall information, and more important for them to be able to find, sort, analyze, share, discuss, critique, and create information. They need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.

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The ERIAL Project: Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries

by Andrew Asher, Lynda Duke and David Green (Originally Posted May 17th, 2010) 

About the Authors

  • Andrew Asher is the Lead Research Anthropologist for the ERIAL project. Asher holds a PhD in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Illinois and has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Poland, Germany, and the United States.
  • Lynda Duke is Associate Professor, Academic Outreach Librarian in The Ames Library, Illinois Wesleyan University. Duke is the Lead Research Librarian for the ERIAL Project IWU Team.
  • Dave Green is Associate University Librarian for Collections and Information Services in the Ronald Williams Library at Northeastern Illinois University. Green is the Project Manager for the ERIAL Project.  

Introduction Librarians and teaching faculty often think they know how students conduct their research and many have specific ideas on how students ought to conduct their research. However, with the increased ability to access information online and the corresponding changes in libraries, the question of what actually happens between the time a student receives a class assignment and when he or she turns in the final product to a professor is especially compelling, and one that is not as straightforward as it first appears.

Two years ago, five Illinois institutions (Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS)), began working together to investigate this issue. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project was organized around the following research question:

What do students actually do when they are assigned a research project for a class assignment and what are the expectations of students, faculty and librarians of each other with regard to these assignments?

The primary goal of this study is to trigger reforms in library services to better meet students’ needs. Traditionally, academic libraries have designed library services and facilities based on information gleaned from user surveys, usage data, focus groups, and librarians’ informal observations. While such tools are valuable, this project employed more user-centered methods to form holistic portraits of student behavior and needs, directly resulting in changes to library services and resources. Read more

Technology as Epistemology

by Peter Schilling, Amherst College

(Originally Posted December 12th, 2005) 

Early in the 20th century Gertrude Stein wrote that America was the oldest country because it was the first to arrive at the new Century. Today’s students have formed their habits of mind by interacting with information that is digital and networked. They are, in a way, older than their teachers, whose relationships with information are governed by earlier generations of technology. There is more. Not only do our students possess skills and experiences that previous generations do not, but the very neurological structures and pathways they have developed as part of their learning are based on the technologies they use to create, store, and disseminate information. Importantly, these pathways and the categories, taxonomies, and other tools they use for thinking are different from those used by their teachers.

Schilling_Figure01_215(http://www.userfriendly.org indicates use in this manner is not an infringement of the creator’s intellectual property.)

To say that “new technology is changing the way we think” is as obvious as it is ambiguous. While it may be popular, and accurate, to complain that Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has a greater influence on American English than any teacher, curriculum, or book, I would like to consider the relationship between technology and thinking explicitly in the context of education, where the mission is to help students learn to think.

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