The History Engine: Doing History with Digital Tools

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

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

One of the primary goals of the History Engine project has been to design a research and writing exercise modest enough in its analytical scope and its length that it allows students to “do history” long before a senior seminar or capstone course. (Another important goal, discussed below, is to capture this research to amass a large history archive.) The History Engine is an online archive consisting of thousands of “episodes” written and contributed by undergraduates. What we call “episodes” are concise historical narratives, short micro-histories about small moments in American history. An episode is much shorter than a fifteen- or twenty-page seminar paper; it’s roughly five hundred words in length. It does not draw upon a large number of sources requiring extensive research; instead, a typical episode generally is based upon a single primary source and one or two secondary sources. An episode doesn’t make an ambitious argument about some major question in American history; its scope is much more modest. Rather than a thesis-driven essay, an episode is instead an exercise in historical storytelling, a short analytical narrative unpacking a story from a primary source. An episode, for example, would not make an argument about the causes of the Civil War but might, say, recount the departure of a group of Southern settlers for the Kansas Territory in 1856 and place that event within the context of the conflict between antislavery and proslavery forces to control that territory.

A couple examples provide a sense of the scope and nature of episodes. An episode entitled “Southern Outrage” written by a student at the University of Richmond focuses on an 1835 letter to the editor in a Richmond newspaper that condemned Northern abolitionists; it explores how a Southerner turned the abolitionists’ critiques of anti-abolitionists and economic boycott tactics on their head. Another written by a Furman University student, “Local Chinese React to Imperial Decree,” is transnational in its focus, exploring the reaction of Chinese immigrants in New Orleans in 1911 to an imperial decree from the Qing Dynasty instructing them to cut off their queues.

But despite the brevity of an episode, its composition remains an intense and rigorous exercise in historical research, writing, and analysis. In fact, we have learned that writing succinctly often takes a great deal more thought than writing longer essays, and work in archives rarely proves to be an easy task. To produce their episodes, all students are asked to do original research using primary sources; many are directed or encouraged by their instructor to dive into local historical archives or special collections to find their primary source or sources. Primary source research is, of course, often simultaneously exhilarating and disorienting. It’s a more direct way of encountering the past and often prompts more questions than it answers. Once a student finds an interesting and evocative source that she would like to place at the center of her episode, she then turns to the secondary literature to understand, perhaps, something intriguing but confusing in her source, or, maybe, to situate her particular episode within a broader historical context. Typically, after she composes her episode she would upload it into the History Engine database as a draft (available to her instructor but not the public) along with associated metadata (dates, locations, tags, and citations). Her instructor might review the episode and ask for revisions, or might have students peer review each others’ episodes. After being vetted for accuracy and quality by the instructor, the episode is published, making it publicly available on the History Engine site.

The Engine‘s History
The first iteration of the History Engine was produced in 2005 at the University of Virginia and initially tested and refined in Ed Ayers’s lecture course “The Rise and Fall of the Slave South.” Like most digital history projects, the History Engine is a product of extensive collaboration. The development of the initial iteration of the project and its use in Professor Ayers’s course was only possible because of the contributions of a number of partners at UVA. The Digital Research and Instructional Services group at UVA’s Alderman Library with support from the Virginia Center for Digital History developed the first Web application and provided server space. Special collections librarians helped students in their research, providing orientations, suggesting sources, and providing extra staffing on the days immediately before the assignment deadline when large numbers of students descended on their holdings.

From the beginning, the History Engine was always envisioned as a multi-school project that would enable undergraduate students to share their work with students from  multiple universities. That was made possible in 2006-2007 through funding awarded by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). That award funded the refinement and expansion of the application software. As important as the monetary funding was, the relationship to NITLE also connected the project with faculty at a number of NITLE-affiliated colleges and universities. During the fall semester of 2007, four faculty at Furman University, Rollins College, Wheaton College, and Juniata College began using the project, with a handful of faculty from other colleges and universities joining since then.

The feedback from faculty who used early versions of the History Engine in their classrooms has been extraordinarily useful as we continue to revise and expand the project. Most reported that composing such short narratives challenged their students to engage in more careful writing, and that introducing undergraduates to primary source research required more instructor guidance than a traditional essay assignment. Based on their experiences, we developed a teacher’s guide outlining best practices for bringing the project into the classroom. Such feedback, as an informal means of measuring learning outcomes, suggested that the project’s emphasis on active learning and development of critical thinking skills resonated in the classroom. In a recent article reflecting on their use of the project, a collection of NITLE-affiliated teachers concluded that the History Engine “presented us new ways to teach the concept of historical significance” that “energized our teaching and intensified our students’ encounters with the past.”2

Since the summer of 2008 the History Engine has been hosted, redeveloped, and expanded at the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. During that period the Web application software for the History Engine has been completely redeveloped, making it more stable, modular, and extensible.3 More exciting than these largely invisible changes have been the additions of historical visualizations–maps, timeplots, tag clouds–that situate dozens or even hundreds of episodes in relationship to one another spatially, temporally, and topically.

The History Engine as a History Archive
These visualizations begin to realize the History Engine’s other main goal: to build a large history archive that would be both interesting and useful to students, the general public, and historians. Currently the History Engine contains several thousand episodes, and we hope it will eventually contain tens of thousands of episodes. Taken together, these collected episodes represent a fine-grained account of U.S. history. Even with tools as simple as a basic text search, the History Engine database has the potential to become a large interpretive finding aid for historical sources located in archives and libraries across the country.

One of the exciting aspects of this project is the possibility for leveraging the metadata associated with each episode to produce historical visualizations. When a student uploads an episode into the History Engine they include a number of pieces of metadata—the time and place the episode happened as well as tags or keywords that identify the issues addressed within the narrative. During the last year we have been working on developing visualization tools that use this metadata to allow users to navigate through and see patterns amid the complexity of the History Engine‘s thousands of episodes.

At times, mapping episodes reveals context that would otherwise be difficult to glean from the text of the episodes alone. For example, one episode located in Brooke County Virginia tells of the 1855 expulsion of five northern students for suspected abolitionism. That antislavery activism had infiltrated a religious college in the U.S.’s largest slave state only five years before the Civil War is, at first glance, surprising. When plotted on a map, however, the episode is more explicable and carries additional meaning. Brooke County, one discovers, was in the far northern tip of what is now West Virginia. It’s just forty miles from Pittsburgh, farther from what would soon be the Confederate capital, Richmond, than it was from one of the hotbeds of abolitionist activity, Rochester, New York. Mapping the episode suggests other conclusions not explicitly suggested in the text of the episode itself, namely how far north slavery reached.
Figure 1: Mapped location of Brooke, Virginia

Once mapped, this episode suggests not simply how bold the young antislavery students were but how little room for compromise on the issue existed in even the most distant, peripheral corner of the South.

Visualizing how episodes align over time is likewise revealing. The History Engine‘s timeline reveals that students have written about debt most often when investigating the 1870s and 1880s, times of dizzying economic dislocation and concurrent political fights over the possibilities of debt adjustment.

Figure 2: Search results for “debt” displayed on timeplot

What student narratives reveal is how the effects of public and private borrowing rippled across the Gilded Age. Episodes detail, through the diary of a company clerk, the collapse of the Northwest Pacific Railroad, which declared bankruptcy following the Panic of 1873. This panic caused the failure of some of the nation’s largest companies. But as episodes mapped onto the timeline show, it also led to the collapse of local credit markets and, ultimately, helped bring about the end of Reconstruction as white northern Republicans became more concerned with economic recovery in the North than with black civil rights in the South. These forces converge in some episodes; one narrates the 1877 seizure of the property of Martin Joson, a Natchitoches, Louisiana freedman, on account of his debts to a white neighbor, showing how the tightening of local credit hit southern black landholders especially hard as they lost power and influence at the state and federal levels of government.

We have high hopes for the History Engine as we continue to develop the project. As the archive grows to include tens of thousands of episodes, we hope it becomes a valuable finding aid and a rich vein for historical visualization. Perhaps more important than the History Engine as a product–as a digital archive–is the opportunity it offers undergraduate students as a learning exercise that provides them an opportunity to “do history,” to actively grapple with the remnants of the past and the work of historians in order to make sense of and better understand some aspect of American history. For any instructors reading this who would be interested in having their students participate in and contribute to the project–or just want to offer a comment, suggestion, or critique–contact us through the History Engine website.

1. Stephen D. Andrews, “Structuring the Past: Thinking about the History Curriculum,” The Journal of American History (March 2009), [return to text]
2. Lloyd Benson, Julian Chambliss, Jamie Martinez, Kathryn Tomasek, and Jim Tuten, “Teaching with the History Engine: Experience from the Field,” Perspectives (May 2009), [return to text]
3. For those interested in the technical aspects of the Web application, it’s built using a number of open source resources: the code is PHP using the CakePHP MVC framework, the database is MySQL, and APIs used include Google Maps and the Simile Project’s Timeplot. [return to text]

Curricular Uses of Visual Materials: A Research-Driven Process for Improving Institutional Sources of Curricular Support

by Andrea Lisa Nixon, Heather Tompkins, and Paula Lackie , Carleton College

The Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study began with case studies centered on sample support-intensive assignments that incorporated work with visual materials. Based on the findings of these case studies, three survey instruments were designed to examine initial findings in the context of the larger community. In the end, the study was intended to help members of the Carleton community improve institutional sources of support available to students and faculty members. This project’s ongoing aims are to align institutional forms of support with current and emerging curricular needs, and to mitigate the procedural overhead and assumption of deep institutional knowledge previously required of faculty members and students in creating and matriculating through such a curriculum.

Like many liberal arts colleges, Carleton College has a vibrant, ever-evolving curriculum that draws upon interdisciplinary initiatives in areas such as quantitative reasoning, ethical inquiry, spatial analysis, and in visual modes of expression. One characteristic these initiatives share is that they prompt faculty members to work across disciplines as they develop programs, courses, and assignments. In cases in which these initiatives prompt students and faculty members to engage in support-intensive projects, it is critical for the success of these initiatives that academic support professionals similarly work across organizational boundaries to consider ways of more effectively providing curricular support. This is particularly true where assignments draw on resources and expertise that have historically been provided by disparate areas of the college. This National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) case study describes one institution’s experiences engaging in such boundary-spanning discussions based on a research study that explores the ways in which contemporary students and faculty members engage Carleton’s campus as they work on assignments that incorporate visual materials. These discussions and the findings of the research study are the basis of a new coordinated support model at Carleton College.

Visualizing the Liberal Arts is a multifaceted initiative that, at its core, is intended to support the development of a curriculum designed to prompt students to express ideas visually or to use visual forms of evidence in argumentation. In the planning process that led to this initiative, a steering committee comprised of faculty members, academic support professionals, and administrators discussed institutional forms of support critical for incorporating “visual literacy” and understandings of visual culture essential outcomes of the contemporary liberal arts curriculum.1 The steering committee ultimately distilled the relationship between institutional forms of support and the curriculum by noting that creative collaborations between faculty and staff members in the development of assignments are the points at which the curriculum meets the support structure of the College. This focus at the level of individual assignments served to frame the present study and associated discussions.

Project Overview
Carleton’s Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study was a yearlong project designed to answer the question: Are the sources of support that the College provides well suited to the work demanded of students and faculty as they make curricular use of visual materials? This project was funded by a generous planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and involved the work of both a steering committee and a research group that worked in tandem. The former examined best practices in providing support for visual materials at a variety of institutional types (e.g. universities, museums, movie studios, and animation studios) and discussed ways in which these practices might align with curricular support needs at Carleton. The latter group framed the research study and generated research questions in sync with the discussions of the steering committee. During steering committee retreats, members of the research group presented their findings and incorporated suggestions and insights from the steering committee into the research design.

Figure 1: Curricular uses of visual materials project overview


The study itself was roughly divided into two parts. The ethnographic portion of the study was comprised of a series of four case studies. The research group decided that it was important to root the research study in observations of the ways in which students and faculty members create, carry out, and complete assignments that incorporate visual materials. As described in the full report these case studies featured assignments that involved creating a film short, making group presentations, writing a film analysis, and science writing. Students participating in the study took photographs of the resources, equipment, and locations they used while completing the assignments; kept logs of their work sessions; and then were interviewed about their experiences by student researchers. Academic support professionals (a reference librarian and an academic technologist) interviewed four faculty members while they were grading student assignments. The four case studies resulted in rich descriptions of the ways in which both students and faculty members members worked.

The second half of the study was comprised of a series of three surveys–one each for faculty, students and staff–designed to examine the findings of the case studies in the larger community. The faculty survey measured the degree to which faculty members create assignments requiring students to interpret, create, and present visual materials, and the forms of curricular support needed for these assignments. The staff and student surveys were not limited to questions about visual materials but instead related to curricular activities more broadly. The survey of staff members inventoried the types of curricular support available either directly to students or provided in coordination with faculty members, and recorded their involvement in that process. The forms of curricular support identified in this survey were derived from the cases studies as well as concurrent accreditation and curriculum redesign efforts underway at the College.

The student survey prompted students to identify where and when they chose to work, from whom they get assistance in completing assignments, and the characteristics of places in which they work. The survey asked students to reflect on the process they go through in completing an assignment that was familiar to them given their course of study as well as one they found challenging. The student survey was administered to sufficient sample size so that comparisons could be made across class years, assignment types, and majors.

Research Process Discoveries: Students and Academic Support Professionals as Critical Members of the Research Team
The research team associated with this study included two administrators, five student researchers and ten academic support professionals reporting to different academic departments and support units on campus. We noted a number of direct benefits derived from including individuals from these diverse perspectives in the process of designing, carrying out, and analyzing the case studies in particular.

The techniques employed in carrying out and analyzing the case studies were adapted from Foster and Gibbons’ model for the photo surveys and location logs that student participants completed.2Student researchers pretested these exercises enabling the larger research group to significantly redesign both exercises so that they were better suited for Carleton. In particular, the redesign of the location logs allowed the research team to map student work sessions and think spatially about the ways in which Carleton students engage the campus while working on assignments. As noted below, the spatial analysis resulted in one of the most important findings of the study.

Each case study was analyzed by a group comprised of:

  • a student researcher with a deep understanding of the case through transcribing and coding all interviews,
  • two academic support professionals not previously a part of the study but who, in the course of their duties, provided support to people creating or completing assignments that incorporate visual materials,
  • an academic support professional who was part of the research group, and
  • the project lead who was trained as a higher education researcher.

Members of the case analysis teams engaged the case study materials and were able to draw on rich and diverse understandings of the forms of institutional support available at the college. These analysis sessions ultimately resulted in recommendations for improvements to institutional sources of support that were rooted in deep institutional knowledge and incorporated the insights of individuals who both rely upon and provide institutional forms of support.3 This approach to analyzing cases resulted in more nuanced recommendations than if a single researcher had conducted the analysis and in a final research project in which support units on campus are invested.4

Research-Based Discoveries: Institutional Culture, Student Acculturation, and Working Across Boundaries
As noted earlier, the point of this research project was to learn about the ways in which forms of institutional support can be better aligned with the evolving curriculum at Carleton. Findings critical for designing a more effective curricular support model fall into three categories relating to elements of institutional culture, the process of student acculturation as it relates to seeking curricular support, and the importance of facilitating work across organizational boundaries. The following list of findings include the most significant ones in terms of improving institutional forms of curricular support (a full list is available in our research report).

Institutional Culture
There were two important findings of the study related to the existing culture of the institution that have bearing on the ways in which students seek out and academic support professionals communicate about curricular support. Findings relating to the culture at Carleton came out of analyses of the case studies. In this context, the analysis groups worked from photographs taken by student participants as they worked on their assignments (e.g. study spaces, tools or technologies used, or something that frustrated them while working on the assignment); logs of the student work sessions; and transcripts of the interviews between student researchers and student participants discussing student experiences with assignments and materials used. In particular, the analysis groups discussed forms of support available to students as well as the barriers students experienced in working on their assignments. This led to two distinct findings:

  • It is important for curricular support to be perceived as a resource for all students, not just for students who are struggling. In positive terms, this means conveying to students that working with academic support professionals or trained students in support centers is a natural part of joining an academic community rather than a sign of academic weakness. This is a communication strategy applicable to any support unit or academic support professional working within an academic department.
  • Rather than adding to the prodigious number of communication channels on campus, members of the analysis groups identified techniques for tapping into established lines of communication at the college. Across the analysis groups it was clear that support organizations should consider using regularly occurring events and existing lines of communication. This exercise was particularly effective in analysis groups where the discussions included strategies employed across divisions of the college and from both student and staff perspectives. This resulted in a list of communication strategies that was greater than any one person or support unit had previously employed. For instance, analysis group members from the dean of students’ division brought detailed understanding of the schedule and formal process of student orientation while others from the dean of the college division brought detailed understanding of the schedules and processes of academic departments. Candid insights from the team members who were current students helped to bring a “reality check” to the assumptions of staff members.

Student Acculturation
Study findings relating to student acculturation refer to differences in the ways students reported seeking help with assignments based on their class year. In the first half of the study the research group used GIS to map the work sessions of the student participants in the case studies in an effort to identify patterns in types of buildings and times of day during which in which students chose to work on their assignments. The research group then decided to design the student survey in such a way as to identify the places and times in which Carleton students chose to work on assignments associated with their major or course of study in the case of first year students. The associated survey analysis resulted in the most important finding of the study in terms of providing information about how to improve institutional sources of support across the college.

There were distinct patterns in the ways in which Carleton students reported seeking support for challenging assignments by class year, as outlined in Figure 2 below. (For a full interpretation of these findings, consult the full research report.)

figure2_larger_font_50_percent.jpgFigure 2: Percentage of students seeking assistance for challenging assignments

In essence, first- and second-year students were more likely than their junior and senior counterparts to report seeking support from other students. While faculty members clearly play very strong roles in supporting students as they work on challenging assignments across the board, seniors are twice as likely (56%) than first-year students (27%) to report seeking help from their professors on these assignments. This comes from an institution where students traditionally report very favorable satisfaction levels in their relationships with faculty members.

Particularly in the case of first-year students, students themselves play a strong role as providing sources of curricular support. First-year students are more likely to report seeking help from other students than seniors in terms of teaching assistants or prefects by 18% and students working at academic support centers by 12%. Thirty-one percent of students in their sophomore year reported not seeking help at all, the highest rate among all class years. Finally seniors were 5% more likely to report seeking help from other majors in their course of study.

The research group accounts for these differences in these response rates through a theory of acculturation. Early in their careers, Carleton students appear to be more comfortable going to other students for assistance. This may be a function of student reticence in approaching faculty with questions early on in their college career. As students become acclimated to their majors they increasingly report going to their course professors, other faculty members, and majors in the department for help. As noted below, it is important to re-administer the student survey so that the theory of student acculturation can be examined in the light of longitudinal data.

In terms of informing the ways in which Carleton provides institutional forms of support, academic support professionals who supervise prefects, teaching assistants, or students working in academic support centers would do well to give careful consideration to the ways in which they engage with students in their first and second years. Furthermore, it is important to consider the multifaceted approaches to providing curricular support to students. What kinds of support are best provided by faculty, academic support professionals, other staff members, student workers, and students advanced in a particular area of study? Once this is clarified, faculty members will be in a better position to identify sources of support for their students. Academic support professionals and support units can examine these data and, by their own measure and in coordination with others, determine how best to provide resources and support on campus.

Working Across Boundaries
The final category of research findings relates to the importance of working across organizational boundaries. Assignments that prompt students to create, interpret or present visual materials can be support intensive in nature. Students may be prompted to work with spatial data, search for images, use video editing software, or use visual materials as evidence in argumentation for the first time. Frequently, support associated with these activities is variously housed in academic departments and a range of support units. One of the driving principles behind our year-long project was that creating or completing assignments that incorporate visual materials are complicated enough in their own right and the act of seeking help should not necessitate deep understandings of the organizational structure of the college. In short, it should not be difficult to find help. The following recommendations are intended to reduce the barriers members of the community experienced while working with support-intensive assignments in general and visual materials in particular:

  • Students and faculty members should not be required to have an understanding of the duties of specific support units in order to locate potential sources of support. Even if the College were able to produce a flawless description of support resources, that alone would not be sufficient. Academic support professionals need to have a clear understanding of the range of curricular support available so that they can provide expert reference when consulting with students or faculty members. Given the disparate sources of support, communication is a major issue both in terms of identifying relevant resources and sources of support for students and faculty as well as in providing expert reference among academic support professionals.
  • In cases in which faculty members create support-intensive assignments, it is critical to coordinate support efforts through a team-based approach where assignments rely on expertise and resources that span organizational units. While this team-based support structure may only be warranted for a small percentage of courses, potential benefits of this coordination include: 1. reducing redundant meetings and duplicate efforts through working together in the process of planning a support-intensive assignment, 2. lowering overhead for students and faculty members in carrying out, and completing the assignment, and 3. providing increased exposure among academic support professionals about the types of support each provides. In the last case, increased coordination around support-intensive assignments functions to further develop the expert-reference network on campus.

The recommendations to further coordinate curricular support on campus and the accompanying campus-wide discussions have afforded members of the Carleton community opportunities to consider ways in which students and faculty members choose to engage the campus as they engage in support-intensive work. This is a fundamentally different approach from assessing the efficacy of a specific support unit on campus. The recommendations and associated conversations are intended to provide academic support professionals and support units with useful data that will allow each professional or support unit to determine how best to engage the campus and coordinate efforts across campus.

Potential Relevance for Other Institutions
There are two potential ways in which the work associated with the Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study might be of use to other institutions. The first relates to the ways in which evidence-based discussions about institutional sources of support may be framed at an institutional level while working within existing organizational structures. The second relates to ways in which other institutions may conduct educational research into support needs of students and faculty members.

Framing Institution-Level Discussions About Curricular Support
At its core this project is based on the fundamental idea that sources of curricular support implied in assignments that incorporate visual materials come from multiple places within the institution and are beyond the scope of any single organizational unit. The four case studies included in our study illustrate this situation insofar as they implied support or instruction in the areas of video editing, audio-video equipment checkout and use, effective techniques for searching within image databases, scanning and manipulation of images, designing slides for effective presentations, effective practices in public speaking, ways of accessing video collections, effective use of visual forms of evidence in writing assignments, map making and the incorporation of spatial data, effective uses of high-end scientific information resources, tutoring in science writing, peer editing, uses of a wiki for a group writing assignment, and academic accommodations. This range of activities in this list clearly demonstrates that structural measures, e.g. shifts in reporting lines, are insufficient to meet the support needs implied by the Visualizing the Liberal Arts initiative, let alone all of the interdisciplinary initiatives at the college.

Rather, the Curricular Uses of Visual Materials study has been used on campus to prompt discussions among academic support professionals and leaders of support units in understanding the ways students and faculty members engage the campus, support units, and experience barriers as they work on assignments that incorporate visual materials. These discussions have resulted in:

  • support units considering how they might adjust the ways they provide support and train student workers in light of the likely role that acculturation plays in the ways that students seek help,
  • discussions among academic support professionals and across support units about ways of coordinating efforts associated with support-intensive assignments and courses,
  • coordinated efforts to mitigate any negative connotations associated with students seeking support by limiting uses of the word “support” in communications with students and shifting to strategies that emphasize that being a member of an academic community means engaging with people with expertise complementary to one’s own, and
  • identifying areas of duplicate or complementary efforts to provide support in order to ensure that academic support professionals give consistent advice and, where possible, to balance the load of requests for support.

This evidence-driven approach to framing conversations about institutional forms of support may be a useful model for other institutions. These ongoing conversations provide the basis for design and refinement of Carleton College’s coordinated support model.

Opportunities for Conducting Similar Research Projects
Other institutions considering conducting similar research projects may benefit from Carleton’s project in a couple of ways. Schools or individual researchers interested in conducting ethnographic research that incorporate students on the research team should consult the full study report that contains the research group’s adaptations of Foster and Gibbons‘ techniques.5 Additionally, the authors would also be happy to share our methods for training student researchers.

The greatest potential use of this research study for other contexts lies in the use of the student survey. Recently renamed as the Student Engagement with Curricular Support Survey, the student survey was designed to gather information about assignments that students encounter in their major, or in the case of students who have not yet declared a major, in their course of study to date. It was designed to gather information about the ways in which students work on assignments that are both familiar and challenging to them and is not limited to assignments that incorporate visual materials. Carleton College will be administering the student survey again to examine the theory of acculturation and its relation to ways in which students seek assistance with challenging assignments. Research to date supports claims about differences that existed by class years among Carleton students during the year in which the survey was administered. Longitudinal data will allow the researchers to test this theory. Having data from other institutions would provide the means to examine this phenomena in other contexts. The authors welcome contacts from institutions or researcher interested in discussing further uses of this survey.

1. The authors use the phrase “academic support professionals” to refer to roles such as running writing centers, tutoring programs as well as slide librarians, reference and instruction librarians and academic technologists. People in these roles may report through academic departments or support units at the college and they are charged with providing institutional forms of curricular support. [return to text]
2. Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2007), [return to text]
3. A. Nixon, H. Tompkins, and P. Lackie, Curricular Uses of Visual Materials:A Mixed-Method Institutional Study (Northfield, MN: Carleton College, Dean of the College Office, 2008). [return to text]
4. Here institutional support includes support provided by staff members in academic departments (e.g. with expertise in video editing or slide librarianship) or support units including but not limited to the language center, writing center, library, information technology, and the academic support center. [return to text]
5. Foster and Gibbons, Studying Students. [return to text]

Come for the Content, Stay for the Community

by Ethan Benatan, Jezmynne Dene, Hilary Eppley, Margret Geselbracht, Elizabeth Jamieson, Adam Johnson, Barbara Reisner, Joanne Stewart, Lori Watson, B. Scott Williams

VIPErLogo_C.jpgThe Evolution of a Digital Repository and Social Networking Tool for Inorganic Chemistry
It is said that teaching is a lonely profession. In higher education, a sense of isolation can permeate both teaching and research, especially for academics at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). In these times of doing more with less, new digital communication tools may greatly attenuate this problem–for free. Our group of inorganic chemists from PUIs, together with technologist partners, have built the Virtual Inorganic Pedagogical Electronic Resource Web site (VIPEr, to share teaching materials and ideas and build a sense of community among inorganic chemistry educators. As members of the leadership council of VIPEr, we develop and administer the Web site and reach out to potential users. The goals of VIPEr are best captured in the following statement by a new faculty member at a small college:

Joining VIPEr made me aware that although I am the only inorganic chemist on my campus, I am part of a large community of scholars and teachers at colleges and universities across the U.S. I recently met the VIPEr gang at an American Chemical Society meeting. Before the meeting, I already “knew” many in the community from their contributions to the site. I was not surprised to find that the enthusiasm that practically oozes from the Web site was replicated by the members in vivo.

We began the process of building a community of practice1 in inorganic chemistry through face-to-face meetings to discuss curricular issues and share educational materials. While the content of our courses varied widely due to our wide-ranging areas of expertise and the different levels in the curriculum at which we teach, we found that we employed similar teaching strategies such as discussions of the primary literature, writing exercises, and multi-week laboratory projects. During the first meeting of our group, our conversations were dramatically influenced by interactions with Kenny Morrell (Rhodes College), who described the Sunoikisis project, an online collaborative learning environment in Classics. Our group was impressed by the value and excitement of using technology to facilitate collaborative work across multiple colleges and the sense of invigoration and community that this provided, and so we set out to adapt this idea to our own group. From our own experience, we knew that personal bonds and familiarity would provide a rich setting where sharing would flourish. Early in the project, the chemists brought a technologist into the group as a partner, whose expertise in the social Web helped us envision ways for the group to interact with each other and with the wider community. Unlike Sunoikisis, which taught collaborative courses, we wanted to create a resource of reusable small discrete educational modules, or learning objects as the central mechanism for sharing our expertise. Such online collections exist outside of inorganic chemistry, but to our knowledge no collection had been created that fully embraced the power of the social Web to give equal weight to community and content.2

In this paper we describe the process and product of our collaboration to build this community through a series of lessons that we’ve learned. We approached this process as Randall Bass describes by merging “a culture of inquiry into teaching and learning with a culture of experimentation around new media technologies.”3 Through our work together, we have experienced both successes and challenges that may be informative to others considering a similar endeavor in their own fields. While the academic scope of VIPEr is limited to inorganic chemistry, we believe that the lessons from this project are broadly applicable to other disciplines and some of the most interesting lessons have arisen directly from our attempts to embrace new technology tools and the culture of Web 2.0. Since our inspiration actually came from classicists, there is no reason to expect that other groups of similarly-minded academics could not replicate or improve upon what we have done to build their own communities of practice. In this essay, we describe six lessons we have learned through the process of developing VIPEr and growing the community.

1. Inorganic Chemists Bowling Alone
In the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,4 Robert Putnam describes the sharp decline of our society’s “stock of social capital” and the disintegration of social structures in our community. In recent years, technology has provided a way to reverse this trend and facilitate these missing interactions by bringing together geographically dispersed participants with similar interests. Forums, blogs and wikis that address particular interest areas allow social interactions while other sites such as enable face-to-face connections. Academics in particular crave intellectual engagement and connections through the field that they love. At a primarily undergraduate institution it can be difficult to find kindred academic souls who understand a specific content area well enough to have those deep discussions both of content and pedagogy.

Problem: Face-to-face interactions are expensive, time consuming, and infrequent, but it is hard to build the strong ties needed to feel connected to the other members of a community without face-to-face meetings.

Solution: Combine the best of both face-to-face and online meetings.

The leadership council’s initial interactions to discuss pedagogy and content were via face-to-face meetings facilitated through funding from the Mellon foundation. We were frustrated, however, at how our progress stalled between those meetings. In order to remedy this, the council used course management software such as Sakai and Moodle to store and modify group documents and began to use Skype for weekly online chats. Later, we moved our weekly meetings to the Marratech MIV platform and began using Google docs for agendas and rough drafts of written work.

 Figure 1: Part of a “living agenda” document with input from all using Googledocs.

A more recent addition to our palette of technology tools has been a persistent Skype chat that has provided a way for us both to interact socially when we are at our home institutions and to replace most email messages among the group. It has also been a place for just-In-time teaching and research advice. When someone is in need of expertise, they simply give a virtual “shout” and others can often jump in to help with a problem set, an appropriate reference, or a lab technique.

Figure 2: Just-in-time teaching discussion via a persistent Skype chat.

Since early in the project, we have benefited from the advantages of both face-to-face meetings about three times a year and continuous online communication and collaboration in between. We have found that continuing the occasional face-to-face contact is essential for building energy, maintaining momentum, and developing ties among participants. Online communication and collaboration allow us to continue to advance toward our goals between those in-person meetings and is much cheaper from both time and financial perspectives.

The VIPEr Web site is our attempt to bring at least a bit of the sense of community that we experienced as members of the leadership council to a broader group of inorganic chemistry educators. As we envision the next phase of our project, we hope to combine face-to-face and online meetings for users of the VIPEr website as well. We have already hosted symposia and social hours at national meetings, and we hope to combine face-to-face workshops for content development for the site with online meetings where that content will be tested and refined in the classroom. We are also considering introducing features such as periodic themed online meetings for VIPEr users.

Lesson Learned: Balance face-to-face and online interactions.

2. It’s All Just Charlie Brown Adult Voice to Me
In the Charlie Brown television specials, the adult characters speak in incomprehensible muted trombone tones. We found it easy to replicate this by bringing together two professions: chemists and technologists. Some of the concepts are difficult enough that it takes practice to understand them, and we didn’t know which learning curve to climb. The first time the technologists introduced Slashdot, tagging, and mashups, all the chemists heard was “mwa mwa mwaaaaa.”

Problem: Chemists are not aware of the technology tools, Web 2.0 concepts, or best practices of the social Web; programmers generally do not understand how chemists mentally categorize their field or the nature of their pedagogical challenges.

Solution: Partner with a technologist who understands both science and teaching who can serve as a translator and help us frame questions we didn’t even know we had!

Our solution to this issue was to form a group consisting both of chemistry faculty and a technologist with a scientific background (Ethan Benatan, Director of Computer User Services at Reed College). This partnership was facilitated by early interactions with Michael Nanfito and Rebecca Davis of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). The NITLE representatives gave us a good start to understanding what was possible with technology. The chemists’ partnership with Ethan has been transformative–he has been critical to helping frame the social aspects of the site and to giving the chemists a sense of what was easy to do and what was hard. He was particularly helpful because he not only understood the language of science but was used to helping technology serve academic needs. Our overall design philosophy–keep barriers to participation low–was largely a result of his knowledge of how a nascent online community can begin to function and grow.

The inorganic chemists in the group contributed the structural framework that would make sense to the inorganic community–organizing forum topics and learning objects around the common subfields of inorganic chemistry, for example. This structure, while perhaps limiting the broader applicability of the site itself, creates an intuitive space for new members of the online community to find the topics and learning objects that are most useful to them and their courses. Through all of this, the nuts and bolts of programming, hosting, and Web design was largely outsourced to professional programmers and designers, allowing the leadership council to spend more time developing the vision, developing and contributing pedagogically rich content, and participating in the day-to-day administration of the site.

Lesson Learned: Faculty/technologist partnership is critical for success.

3. A League of Our Own
A growing number of general educational knowledge spaces such as MERLOT have come into existence over past decade or so, yet inorganic chemists have not adopted any as their virtual home en masse. A search of “inorganic chemistry” on MERLOT yields only two hits and neither of the two learning objects have any user comments associated with them. Why is this?

Problem: Existing online spaces attracted neither submissions from inorganic chemists to build a common repository of teaching materials nor participants in any sort of online community–two things we saw as sorely needed. We needed to get buy-in from potential users in order to get them to participate both as content contributors and community members.

Solution: Build a site that is shamelessly dedicated to our specific discipline and seed it with materials of our own.

By creating useful materials within our small group and posting them to the Web site, inorganic chemists could see immediate benefit to participation in the site. We focused especially on creative and higher-order assignments including things such as discussions of the primary literature and active learning classroom assignments. We also built in features such as implementation notes, metadata, and assessment information for learning objects.

We tried to make the site feel comfortable and familiar to the target community with a domain-specific look and feel. Site development was relatively inexpensive (though time intensive) to build a special-purpose site. We made the process of creating the website and its resources social, iterative, and chose a framework (Drupal) that allowed considerable customization for our purposes. Time spent planning and improving the Web site also bolstered human connections among members of the leadership council.

While learning objects would be the “meat” of our envisioned repository, we realized that the community would be the “magic sauce.” The literature about communities of practice reinforces this idea by describing these communities as social constructs where relationships are as important as content.5 Users of VIPEr share the same specialized language and can communicate easily with others on the site through built-in Web 2.0 features. To facilitate this sense of community, we designed VIPEr with minimal barriers to participation; most learning objects can be downloaded without the need to register as a site user. The leadership council reviews submitted learning objects on the site, offering suggestions to the contributor about how to improve their utility for classroom use. Once published online, each post or learning object has a comment feature so that the object can continue to evolve with input from the community, and this allows us to tap into the wisdom of crowds.6 Forums, ratings, and polls provide other low barrier, Web 2.0 methods for interaction with the community. The key is that the site was designed by and for inorganic chemists; users don’t have to wade through a lot of other material to get to teaching tools that will be of use to them and feel immediately that they belong.

Lesson Learned: Community requires commonality.

4. Not Tonight, I’ve Got a Headache, Baby, Tenure File, Lecture, Paper to Write….
Any professional project the size of this one requires a core of dedicated contributors like our leadership council, but the workload needs to be compatible with other professional and personal responsibilities.

Problem: If the group is too small, the workload is overwhelming. If the group is too large, the sense of commitment and responsibility, as well as the tight-knit nature can suffer. Members of the core group also need the flexibility to adapt their time investment somewhat as personal and professional needs change.

Solution: Get the size just right. Get people who are in the “associate professor plus or minus a few years” point of their careers. Rotate administrative duties and allow people to step up or step back in a given period based on their schedule in the coming year.

Several aspects of group dynamics and size have led to an unusually smooth functioning of the leadership council. The size of the group (eight chemists, a technologist, and a librarian) provides enough people to accomplish the administrative tasks, but is small enough to provide close connection and contribution to the project. Seven people are assigned a VIPEr administration day during which new users and content are approved. It is also the daily administrator’s role to post at least one piece of new content, whether as simple as a forum comment or as involved as a new learning object. Our weekly online meetings also have rotating conveners and minute takers. The writing and preparation of papers, grants, and presentations rotates, based on availability and, in the case of conference presentations, on geography. This latter rotation makes particular use of the fact that in most years at least one member of the leadership council is on sabbatical and thus has a bit more time. The composition of chemists in the group spans most subdisciplines of inorganic chemistry, important in shaping contributions to the site and connections to researchers in each field. Most of the chemists are also associate professors, as the project fits very well with a mid-career academic who might be looking to contribute on a national level to their discipline in a way other than research and who might serve as an excellent mentor for pre-tenure faculty in the leadership council and in the VIPEr community.

The rotation of various administrative duties provides an ideal structure to gradually bring new members into the leadership council structure as well as allow members with various other obligations to remove themselves for a time from additional responsibilities. In future proposals, we will build in release time or partial sabbatical support so that at any one time one or two members of the leadership council will have additional time to devote to the project.

Lesson Learned: Group composition, dynamics, and flexibility matter.

5. Copyrights, Commenting, and Crowdsourcing, Oh My!
Chemistry has a very conservative culture. Digital scholarship is not necessarily recognized or understood by the chemistry community, and the open access movement has made few inroads. Not only do we need to establish how we can be professionally recognized for contributing in new channels, but we also need to develop our own standards since they do not yet exist for the chemical community.

Problem: Undervaluing of digital scholarship, concern about use of copyrighted materials, and inexperience of Web site audience participation in a Web 2.0 environment raises new challenges.

Solution: Adapt and adopt the standards of other communities using digital scholarship, educate the community, and work within the system to effect gradual change.

Our goal in creating VIPEr was to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and resources by creating a virtual community of practice. Without sharing of intellectual property in the form of documents and ideas, VIPEr would have little value. However, scientists–like those in other disciplines–are still trying to figure out how to get the most from emerging models of intellectual property and collaboration while still honoring the traditional academic values of attribution and recognition.

We designed the site so that it is simple for users to add a copyright agreement to their work while ensuring that materials shared on VIPEr are legally available for reuse. VIPEr requires submissions to be made under a Creative Commons (CC) license so that uploaded materials are free for reuse by others. Authors can choose from among a small number of CC licenses so that they can control details about how their work may be reused, e.g. allowing free noncommercial use while retaining all rights for commercial use.

Many teaching materials are copyrighted by someone other than the teacher. While there are legal ways to use this material in the classroom (purchasing rights, fair use, etc.) there are different restrictions on how it can be shared beyond the classroom–for example between faculty members on VIPEr. We initially developed our copyright language by modifying language developed by the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), with permission. We provide users with a list of discipline specific content that may (and may not) be contributed to the site and work with them individually to educate them on our understanding of what they can legally contribute to the site and the implications of CC licensing.

The culture of scientific knowledge gives great weight to material that has been published and to the authorship of such work. Published knowledge is built on with further work and publication, and it is acceptable to rebut published knowledge with a separate publication. Culturally, work that has been published in science stands alone, clearly attributed and unchanging. This is antithetical to the idea of a dynamic, ongoing creation of knowledge by volunteers, a system of knowledge production often called crowdsourcing, and familiar to us through Wikipedia and Linux.

We want VIPEr to be a home for crowdsourced information on the teaching of inorganic chemistry. We have had some successes in this area such as the modification of a Web resource and a forum discussion that led to learning object sharing and modification. However, we find that chemists are reluctant to engage in contributions that dilute attribution and change content in a dynamic way. Even commenting and voting, which might be called particularly mild forms of crowdsourcing, have been adopted slowly on VIPEr. When we ask about it, the participants–even the leadership of VIPEr–acknowledge a strong cultural aversion to meddling with someone else’s completed work. We see this even when we ourselves work collaboratively; we are much more prone to comment on each others’ work than to dive in and edit, even though we do most of our collaborative writing on Google Docs, which makes the process completely reversible through automatic backup of each version.

While the American Chemical Society has recently begun experimenting with Web 2.0 technologies to enhance communication through JACSß, there are few existing mechanisms in the chemistry community to publish teaching tips and materials.7 The Journal of Chemical Education (JCE), published by the Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society, publishes teaching-related work across the field of chemistry and provides recognition essential for advancement and tenure. While sharing teaching tips and materials on a social site like VIPEr may be very valuable to practitioners, it usually does not lead to formal recognition since it is not included in a scientist’s record of publication in peer-reviewed journals. To make matters worse, an academic sharing material online risks being denied a chance to have similar material peer-reviewed on the grounds that it has been previously published.

At this time of shifting publication paradigms, we feel strongly that these two modes of publication–the formal journal process and the informal and dynamic online posting of materials–complement each other. Fortunately we find ourselves in agreement with the editors of JCE: contributors to VIPEr can now be assured that sharing their teaching materials informally on VIPEr will not interfere with later publication in JCE.8 VIPEr and JCE have a written agreement to this effect, and JCE has publicized VIPEr and gives VIPEr space in their publication to highlight VIPEr resources.9 We think that this forms an ideal model for collaboration between an informal, dynamic, community-based site and a peer-reviewed journal.

Lesson Learned: Scientists are still trying to figure out how new models of intellectual property and collaboration, as well as digital libraries and databases, most effectively function while still giving credit where credit is due.

6. There Go Those Crazy “Snake People”. . .
Because our resource is so dependent on community buy-in and participation, and because the social aspects of Web 2.0 technologies are still somewhat new to many practicing chemists, we have tried to make our site appealing and fun to potential users.

Problem: How do we find, invite and “encoil” potential members to our shared vision of online collaboration?

Solution: We cast the net widely, connect to existing structures in synergistic ways, and inject with our own somewhat warped form of discipline-specific humor.

Casting the net widely means inviting diverse groups within the inorganic chemistry community as well as those interested in the pedagogical aspects of teaching with technology to be a part of the VIPEr community. At traditional disciplinary conferences (e.g., meetings of the American Chemical Society or the Gordon Research Conferences) we have presented VIPEr both to audiences of faculty teaching at PUIs as well as those doing research at R1 universities. The latter group, in particular, is an important resource not only because they can share their cutting-edge science through learning objects on the site, but also because they can act as a conduit to inform their graduate students and postdocs headed for academia about our community. New faculty frequently need resources and a support community! At teaching oriented conferences (e.g., the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education), we have conducted hands-on workshops to introduce community members to the site and to provide practice using the technology. At instructional technology conferences (e.g., NITLE and Consortium of Liberal Arts Colleges), we introduced the site both to receive feedback particularly on the use of technology and social networking and to invite participants to contribute learning objects with a specific technology focus. For each group, we have tried both to showcase the aspects of the project most relevant to their interests and to provide a very low barrier way to jump right in! We have also publicized our community in various print sources used by the inorganic chemistry education community (JCE, Chemical and Engineering News) and electronic groups (ChemEdDL, Academic Commons). This outreach connects those who have not attended a conference presentation or workshop with the resources.

We have sought to coordinate with existing structures both to introduce potential community members to our resource but also to serve as a resource to the broader inorganic chemistry community. We have educated potential new faculty about VIPEr at the Academic Employment Initiative poster session at the National ACS Meeting. This past spring we also hosted the Web submission for the inaugural ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry Undergraduate Award. As a result, approximately 100 new faculty visited our Web site to nominate a student for this award. By providing this service, we were able to introduce our resource to others and publicize the award to our existing community members.

From the beginning, the leadership council has found their own interactions fun and energizing, and we have sought to share this experience with the wider VIPEr community. During our very first meeting we came up with an acronym (VIPEr) spelled with element symbols, designed to appeal to the inner inorganic chemists. We routinely bring stuffed snakes to National American Chemical Society Meetings, resulting in some presenters at our symposium even giving their talks with our mascots wrapped around their necks. At meetings and around our home institutions, we invariably hand out assorted “swag” such as logos on temporary tattoos and magnets to potential participants. Members of the leadership council (and our progeny) proudly wear t-shirts, baseball caps, and Buffs® emblazoned with our logo and URL. Diet Coke and Mentos bottle-rocket launchers, Wordle tag cloud visualizations of our group’s writing, and a 3-D version of our logo in cake have provided comic relief during project meetings. The somewhat offbeat campy attitude has been a great recruiting tool for cultivating the community of VIPEr contributors and users. To the wider chemistry community, we have acquired the unofficial name of “The Snake People.”

Lesson learned: Reach out, make connections, and have fun!
Photo: Members of the leadership council with tattoos and one of their multiple snake mascots.

We hope we have provided one model of how a community of practice can develop, thrive, and grow incorporating both traditional face-to-face interactions and emerging technologies. This project has served the cause of liberal arts education by bringing creative assignments with detailed learning goals and that require higher order thinking to our students. For a relatively low cost (in money at least!) we have developed a discipline specific community that is poised to take full advantage of Web 2.0 tools to collaboratively improve teaching.

There are many potential avenues we envision for expansion of this project. For example, we hope to initiate back-to-grad-school workshops that would bring together researchers at research institutions together with faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions to develop learning objects on cutting-edge science. These new learning objects could be uploaded to our site and could generate novel ways that students on different campuses might interact and collaborate while working on common modules. We are also interested in supporting similar attempts by other communities as they develop online resources that act both as repositories and social hubs. We invite conversation with interested groups both from the instructional technology community and from other academic disciplines at a forum dedicated to discussion of this article on VIPEr:

We acknowledge financial support from the Mellon Faculty Career Enhancement Initiative (Inter-institutional award), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) Western Region Instructional Innovation Award, and the National Science Foundation (CCLI-0737030). We would like to thank Grand Junction Design for the Web site design and ongoing development, The Longsight Group for initial construction of the Drupal framework for the site and hosting, and Jeff Fisher Logomotives for the logo design. Kenny Morrell (Sunoikisis), Rebecca Davis (NITLE), and Michael Nanfito (NITLE) facilitated early discussions of technology interactions, and John Moore and Jon Holmes from the Journal of Chemical Education and ChemEdDL have worked with our group to integrate VIPEr into both the traditional publishing world and the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). David Lopatto, Grinnell College, and Donna Sundre from CARS at James Madison University have helped our group with assessment of the project.
1. Etienne Wenger, “Communities of Practice,” [return to text]
2. Tom Carey, Jennifer Meta Robinson and John Rakestraw, “Building a Network, Expanding the Commons, Shaping the Field: Two Perspectives on Developing a SOTL Repository,” Academic Commons (March 2009), [return to text]
3. Randy Bass, “New Media Technologies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Brief Introduction to this Issue of Academic Commons,” AcademicCommons (January 2009), [return to text]
4. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and  Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000). [return to text]
5. Wenger, “Communities of Practice, [return to text]
6. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (Random House, 2004). [return to text]
7. JACSβ went online in June 2009 as a testing ground for the ACS Publications Web platform. [return to text]
8. See supplemental materials for Ethan Benatan, Jezmynne Dene, Hilary J. Eppley, Margret J. Geselbracht, Elizabeth R. Jamieson, Adam R. Johnson, Barbara A. Reisner, Joanne L. Stewart, Lori A. Watson, Scott B. Williams, J. Chem. Educ. 86 (2009): 766-767, [return to text]
9. Ethan Benatan, Hilary J. Eppley, Margret J. Geselbracht, Adam R. Johnson, Barbara A. Reisner, Joanne L. Stewart, Lori A. Watson, and B. Scott Williams, “IONiC: A Cyber-Enabled Community of Practice for Improving Inorganic Chemical Education,” J. Chem. Educ. 86 (2009):123; Ethan Benatan, Hilary J. Eppley, Margret J. Geselbracht, Adam R. Johnson, Barbara A. Reisner, Joanne L. Stewart, Lori A. Watson, and B. Scott Williams, “JCE VIPEr: An Inorganic Teaching and Learning Community,” J. Chem. Educ. 86 (2009): 766-767. [return to text]

War News Radio

by Abdulla Mizead, Swarthmore College

IMG_7381.jpgWar News Radio (WNR) is an award winning, student-run radio show produced by Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. It is carried by over thirty-seven radio stations across the United States, Canada and Italy, and podcasts are available through our Web site. It attempts to fill the gaps in the media’s coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by providing balanced and in-depth reporting, historical perspective, and personal stories. Since its founding in 2005, WNR has greatly enriched US media coverage of the Iraqi and Afghan war by giving voice to Iraqis and Afghans living daily in a war zone. But it has also had a significant impact on Swarthmore and its students, and has even motivated students and teachers beyond the college to seek out new ways and technologies to tell stories that are left out by the mainstream media.

Starting WNR
It would have been difficult to conceive that a group of college students would be able to report about a conflict 6,000 miles away without leaving their peaceful campus. The US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably the most important events in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam, but unlike the Vietnam War, the recent wars don’t have a direct impact on students’ lives, though they will witness the effects for years to come. Dissatisfied by the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflicts, and a sense that Americans weren’t getting the real story about the impact of these wars on ordinary Iraqis and Afghans, a group of dedicated Swarthmore College students launched War News Radio in January 2005.

The brain behind this program was David Gelber, a 1963 Swarthmore graduate, and senior producer at CBS’ 60 Minutes. Gelber, who is also a member of the college’s board of managers, says he was “particularly irritated by the quality of network coverage of the lead-up to the war in Iraq and of the war itself in 2003 and 2004.” He felt the US media wasn’t really doing a good job at bringing the conflict closer to home, and that there was more to it than just reporting about the everyday violence, suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and the death tolls. There was more to it than just the stories coming from reporters embedded with the military and covering military tactics. He wanted the students to get involved and broaden the scope of the media coverage.

After the idea won support from several college administrators and faculty members, came the first challenge: how to teach the students the basics of journalism. Swarthmore College does not teach journalism, and if the students were to report about the wars, they definitely needed the basics. So Gelber and several other producers organized an intensive journalism workshop for the thirty students who joined this new project, some of whom became founding members of War News Radio. One of those students, Aaron Strong ’06, remembers the event, “Four years ago on a snowy day in January, fresh from a lengthy winter break, a small group of Swarthmore students, myself among them, huddled in an office space and started talking about media coverage of the Iraq war. We had all signed up to be a part of this new project–a radio show covering the “untold stories” of the Iraq war, and, well, we knew what we wanted to do, but we had no idea what we were doing.” The vision for the program was clear: to tell the stories of ordinary people who experienced the conflict firsthand, and were living with its effects. But how would these undergraduate students find these people and interview them?

That turned out to be easier than expected. With Google and online phone directories, it was fairly easy to find Iraqis living in particular parts of the country. In fact, Robert Fisk, one of the best journalists covering conflicts in the Middle East, described this as a kind of “hotel journalism.” “More and more Western reporters in Baghdad” he writes in a survey of media coverage in Iraq, “are reporting from their hotels rather than the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities.”1 If the journalist in Iraq could prepare his or her reports by relying on phone interviews, Swarthmore students could do that as well. And they did. The first shows ranged from pieces about challenges getting a decent phone line to Iraq to conduct an interview to anti-war protests and profiling government contractor companies.

Challenges in Developing WNR
Initially college administrators and faculty explored the idea of incorporating War News Radio into the college curriculum, where students involved in the program could receive credit for their broadcast work. Students took courses through the film and media studies department and completed required readings on the Middle East. However, it was hard to do both things at the same time and the college stopped giving credit, which made the show more focused on reporting. And then it became clear that an experienced journalist was needed to guide the students.

Marty Goldensohn became WNR‘s Journalist-in-Residence in 2005. Goldensohn, a veteran award-winning broadcast journalist, with a career in radio spanning more than three decades, shared his rich experience with the students. He instilled in the young student-journalists the confidence to call up US senators and generals, Iraqi politicians, and complete strangers–ordinary Iraqis and Afghans–asking them to share their stories about living every day in a war zone. Hansi Lo Wang ’09, a senior producer at WNR, says that to have the confidence to do such interviews, Goldensohn asked us to “ordain ourselves as journalists,” and to “mumble with authority.” Students took these words to heart, and that gave them the confidence a journalist needs.

Goldensohn was also innovative in employing new technology to connect the students with Iraqis and Afghans. He introduced Skype, allowing students to make free voice calls over the Internet. Another great feature of Skype is that one can search for users by country and language, which enabled the students to reach out to even more people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students captured the audio from those interviews through software called Audio Hijack. This made it possible for students to conduct interviews using just a Mac computer. Though this technology was very effective, it also had limitations. Students could only interview people who had access to the Internet, for example. And without translators, students could only interview English speakers, which limited them to the well-educated middle class, whose opinion wasn’t necessarily representative of the larger society.

Despite these issues, the students were becoming better reporters and the show became more professional as it moved to a weekly format. Stations throughout the U.S. began to take interest in what WNR was covering as the shows were uploaded to Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a Web-based platform for digital distribution, review, and licensing of radio programs. Students’ reports were now being heard by thousands of people in the U.S. and abroad. With this publicity, students felt increasingly responsible for meeting weekly deadlines and producing a high quality program. Currently staff members contribute more than twenty hours of work into every show, and Thursday nights often extend into early Friday morning, as students refine their pieces and collaborate on producing a twenty-nine-minute show that is true to the program’s mission.

Photo of a staff member sound editing an interview. (Swarthmore College)

War News Radio is a huge undertaking for students. It requires a sizable time commitment that sometimes interferes with coursework. Interviews often take multiple phone calls over several days to complete because it is difficult to get a decent phone line and record an audible interview. Calls often take place after midnight because it is nearly half a day later in Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes things even harder for students are the frustrations they face in reporting about a conflict that is increasingly harder to grasp in its complexities.

The biggest challenge, however, remains financial. WNR continues to be funded by Swarthmore President’s Office and the College’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and has not yet raised much new money to support itself. But as Vice President Maurice Eldridge notes, the program has done much for the college. In addition to placing Swarthmore on the map, it has boosted the number of applicants. WNR is “one of two or three things that have influenced applicants to the college, so that people who want to come to Swarthmore and have to write the essay: “Why Swarthmore?” one of the most frequently cited things in the last few years has been War News Radio,” Eldridge says.

Educational Impact at Swarthmore and Beyond
For the students involved in the project, the rewards are clear and keep them going during their everyday frustrations with logistical and production issues. Part of it has to do with the uniqueness of the program. Eva Barboni ’07, a former producer of the show, felt it enriched her academic studies in international politics. “In my political science classes, I was exposed to the arguments of prominent political thinkers about the war. At War News Radio, I could speak directly with the everyday Iraqis, American soldiers and politicians who were making the news about which these thinkers were writing. These two parts of my education, working together, gave me a fuller understanding of the war and international politics than I could have gotten just in the classroom.”

Wren Elhai ’08, a former host of WNR, believes the program has exposed students to one of the most important geographical areas in the world today, but also influenced the way they communicate information to the larger public. “War News Radio has shaped the way I write, the way I talk, and the way I think. Every time I put aside a fancy, unnecessarily dense turn of phrase for a simpler one, or ask myself ‘how would you say that in plain English?’ I thank War News Radio,” Elahi writes.

The experience has also influenced students’ professional choices. After working for a year and a half, Reuben Heyman-Kantor ‘06 is now a broadcast news producer at CBS. “Without the skills and direction I gained from the year and a half I spent at War News Radio, I would not be where I am today,” writes Heyman-Kantor. The use of the Internet in journalism has been particularly important, as Alan Smith ’05, who worked on the show from its inception, is quick to emphasize. “What we in some ways pioneered,” says Smith, “has become commonplace: the idea of using the Internet to re-make the way stories are told and to re-imagine who gets to be the storytellers about a war. Thinking about the Internet, and how it is changing and will change journalism, has become the focus of a television show that I produce ever week with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, and it has become one of the most important and highly debated concerns in the journalism industry.” Other WNR staff members have gone to work for 60 Minutes, Marketplace, and WNYC public radio. Amelia Templton ’06, who was part of the program from the start, has taken a different direction. She now serves as a refugee policy analyst for Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization, with a special focus on the plight of Iraqi refugees.

War News Radio has also inspired like-minded projects on other campuses. It served as a model for students to investigate the conflict in Sudan through Sudan Radio Project, Chinatown Youth Radio Philadelphia, and most recently the Swarthmore Migration Project, an online multimedia project raising awareness about migration issues. Zachary Fryer-Biggs, who volunteered to work for WNR in 2006, founded The Epoch, an international affairs magazine with funding from his school, St. John’s College, a small liberal arts college in Annapolis. He says his magazine was about “applying War News Radioon a global scale.” In 2006 students in the “Global News Analysis” class taught at St. Lawrence University created The Weave, a public intellectual project that brings together a range of perspectives on local, national and global issues and on mainstream and independent media coverage of those issues. War News Radio inspired them to create The Weave.

War News Radio has also become an educational tool for both high schools and colleges. Social sciences teacher Jeff MacFarland uses it in his classes at Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, PA. He writes: “I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy that Americans are not getting many of the real stories on the ground in Iraq and I use [WNR] to show the students there are many different perspectives on issues beyond CNN or Time. I pattern the class’s unit project around a War News Radio report and ask the students to portray their unique viewpoints through an online technology called VoiceThread. This allows them to be reporters crafting the story behind an issue they research and back up this story with poignant visuals. In short, War News Radio is central to my teaching on the war in Iraq.” Dr. Brad Nason, a media professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology is also a fan. “I’ve played it in my classes before as an example of quality, in-depth journalism. Second, it offers a perspective that traditional media don’t give.” It’s been cited in THiNK, a textbook for undergraduate students in logic and critical thinking, by Judith Boss. Asked why she used the show, Boss replies, “I used War News Radio to illustrate creative thinking and innovation in the use of the media, as well as the limitations of traditional mass media.” WNR is even listed as a resource on the Foreign Policy Association Web site, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the American public to learn more about the world.

It is remarkable and gratifying for us to see how influential WNR has been in just four short years. In fulfilling a simple mission–to make some kind of difference in the world by giving voice to those who would not be heard otherwise–WNR has been particularly effective in empowering students and motivating them to empower others. It serves as medium to expand beyond the abstract experience, and to bring some of the most abstract experiences into concrete realities. It has deepened the liberal arts learning into one full of self-discovery and increased the potential for communicating information to a large public in very exciting and challenging ways. WNR is the product of some innovative thinking, generous institutional support, and very dedicated students. With those simple ingredients, projects like War News Radio can happen in any liberal arts setting.

Interviews for this article were conducted by several WNR staff members through the Internet. I conducted the interviews with Vice President Maurice Eldridge and David Gelber.
1. Robert Fisk, “Hotel journalism gives American troops a free hand as the press shelters indoors,” The Independent, January 17, 2005, [return to text]

Can We Promote Experimentation and Innovation in Learning as well as Accountability? Interview with Terrel Rhodes

by Randy Bass, Georgetown University

Editor’s Note: What does the learning revolution inherent in the expansion of social and digital media have to do with the national conversation around assessment and accountability? Faculty often fear that “assessment” (especially mandated assessment) will have a reductive effect, either by reducing the rich complexity of teaching and learning to simplistic metrics, or by limiting what’s being measured to lower-order skills that can easily be measured. Among those who experiment with new media technologies the tension is exacerbated, as student learning gains in new digital environments seem increasingly expansive, holistic and difficult to measure. How then might we find common ground between an impulse to get a more trenchant read on institutional effectiveness at inducing learning and the cultivation of innovation in teaching that higher education so badly needs?

The VALUE project comes into the middle of this tension, as it proposes to create frameworks (or metarubrics) that provide flexible criteria for making valid judgments about student work that might result from a wide range of assessments and learning opportunities, over time. In this interview, Terrel Rhodes, Director of the VALUE project and Vice President of the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) describes the assumptions and goals behind the Project. He especially addresses how electronic portfolios serve those goals as the locus of evaluation by educators, providing frameworks for judgments tailored to local contexts but calibrated to “Essential Learning Outcomes,” with broad significance for student achievement. The aims and ambitions of the VALUE Project have the potential to move us further down the road toward a more systematic engagement with the expansion of learning. –Randy Bass

Randy Bass: What is VALUE? What problem is it trying to solve?
Terrel Rhodes: In short, the VALUE Project (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) works to develop approaches to assessment based upon examples of student work completed in their courses and saved over time in an e-portfolio. The project collects and synthesizes best practices in assessing student work using rubrics developed by faculty members. One of the project’s core purposes is to identify commonalities of outcome expectations of achievement across a variety of institutions.

The project really grew out of the national conversation that was begun with the Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) articulated as part of AAC&U’s ten-year LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) initiative and developed through campus-community conversations (AAC&U 2007). There are fourteen ELO’s, ranging from skills–perhaps more readily assessable–such as written communication or quantitative literacy, to broader abilities and dispositions, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and ethical reasoning. Also included among the ELO’s were more abstract–but no less “essential”–learning goals such as civic engagement, intercultural knowledge, creative thinking, and integrative learning. (See a complete list and description of the Essential Learning Outcomes.)

What we were finding was that there was broad agreement about the value of these learning outcomes, but considerable lack of clarity and precedent for how to be accountable to them. That is, how could a campus or a program use one or more of these Essential Learning Outcomes as a driver for changes and improvement in practice, or even as a measure of how well current curricula were achieving these goals? People were asking, “if we wanted to take these learning outcomes seriously how would we do that? Where would we look? How would we have results that might be comparative and valid?”

We were responding to the growing consensus that to achieve a high-quality education for all students, valid assessment data are needed to guide planning, teaching, and improvement. That was one core assumption. And it was clear that colleges and universities were interested in fostering and assessing many of these essential learning outcomes beyond those addressed by currently available standardized tests–or for that matter that are captured by student performance in individual courses.

We also started from some other assumptions, such as: that learning develops over time and should become more complex and sophisticated as students move through various pathways toward a degree; that good practice in assessment requires multiple assessments, over time; and that well-planned electronic portfolios provide excellent opportunities to collect meaningful data about student learning, from multiple assessments, across a broad range of learning outcomes. At the same time, the electronic portfolio process can serve to help guide student learning and build self-assessment capabilities. Ultimately, we believe that e-portfolios and the assessment of student work in them can better inform programs and institutions on how effectively they are helping students achieve their expected goals.

Say more about what kind of learning is being assessed? What kind of student performance gets looked at in the e-portfolios?
The project builds on a philosophy of learning assessment that privileges multiple expert judgments of the quality of student work over reliance on standardized texts administered to samples of students outside of their required courses. The VALUE project builds on the work campus faculty and staff have done in developing assessment rubrics to evaluate achievement of a broad range of Essential Learning Outcomes and in articulating the expectations and criteria for student learning at beginning through advanced levels of performance. The project explores how rubrics can be applied to the actual work students have done both in their required courses and co-curricular activities.

The initial reaction to the national accountability demands for indicators of student learning have resulted in calls to use tests that have some basic characteristics in common: they are in some way standardized; they result in a score or quantitative measurement that summarizes how well a group of students has performed; they test only samples of students at a given institution; they require additional costs for students or institutions to administer; they reflect a snapshot picture at one point in time; they provide an institutional rather than an individual score; and they lack high stakes for the students taking the exams.

It is ironic that just at the point when higher education research has finally developed a rich information base on effective practices that enhance learning, on cognitive development and neurobiologic bases of knowing, and technological advances that greatly expand our abilities to collect, preserve and demonstrate complex, multi-faceted learning, that we so willingly accept outmoded, snapshot, shorthand representations of the value of our educational outcomes and impact on student learning.

In contrast, the VALUE project responds to the need for multiple measures of multiple abilities and skills, many of which are not particularly well suited to snapshot standardized tests. The types of learning that employers and policy makers are calling for  need to be demonstrated through cumulative, progressive work students perform as they move through their educational pathways to graduation; rich, multifaceted representations of learning in curricular and co-curricular contexts, rather than artificial examinations divorced from applied contexts.

Why e-portfolios? How is the e-portfolio different from other kinds of assessments?
The  evidence of learning collected in an e-portfolio creates a rich portrait of achievement for an individual and, with sampling and analysis from a collection of portfolios, can create a similar portrait of a program or an entire institution. Drawing directly from curriculum-embedded and co-curricular work, e-portfolios can represent multiple learning styles, modes of accomplishment, and the quality of work achieved by students.

Although it is not a direct objective of the Project, VALUE promotes wider use of e-portfolios for assessment without impairing the developmental and progressive dimensions of e-portfolios as spaces that students can own to represent themselves as learners and to make connections across their educational experience. We believe that e-portfolios, potentially, can foster and provide evidence of high levels of student learning, across a vast range of experiences, and across programs and institution-wide outcomes.

By gathering and disseminating student work through electronic portfolios, the same set of student performance information can be used at course, program and institutional levels for assessment purposes, and faculty can collaborate on assessing and responding to student progress. Student work from on and off campus and from all the institutions a student may have attended can be included in a single presentation of student accomplishment over time and space.

We also know, from twenty or more years of pioneering work with portfolios in higher education that periodic reflections on learning by students are critical components of an education. Student reflections, along with self and peer assessments, guided by rubrics, help students to judge their own work as an expert would. These reflections and self-assessments all become part of the collection of work that gets evaluated in light of the Essential Learning Outcomes.

What are these rubrics or metarubrics? What are they supposed to do? What can’t they do?
All teachers use criteria for achievement, if only implicit. Many educators at all levels have created and make use of explicit “rubrics,” or scoring guides, with statements of expected levels of achievement using criteria vital to quality work in a chosen area. For VALUE, the criteria for the rubrics at the center of the project are determined in discussions among experts in the appropriate fields.

The VALUE project has collected rubrics from faculty and programs across the country designed to assess all of the Essential Learning Outcomes. Teams of cross-institutional faculty and staff have been assembled, bringing their own expertise to the process. They have examined the rubrics for the purpose of identifying and articulating the most commonly shared expectations or criteria for learning for each outcome and at progressively more sophisticated and complex levels of performance. This analysis has resulted in what we have been calling “metarubrics,” or shared learning expectations.

Creative Thinking Metarubric

Critical Thinking Metarubric

Integrative Learning Metarubric

The VALUE project is piloting the use of these rubrics by having faculty score actual student work collected in e-portfolios on twelve leadership campuses and additional partner campuses. (See a complete list of leadership campuses.)

Although e-portfolio assessment does not typically result in a simple number or score for students, programs, or institutions, it does result in shared judgments about the quality of student performance in terms of important learning outcomes. The use of rubrics is not new, nor are the methods for creating inter-rater reliability. The resulting e-portfolio scores and judgments are more detailed, indicative of the types of learning expected, and nuanced than simple numeric scores. The examples of work upon which the assessments are based are what the students actually submitted in response to assignments and requirements of the curriculum (and co-curriculum) that comprised their educational program; therefore they reflect the students’ levels of motivation, focus, and investment in demonstrating their learning as exhibited on a day-to-day basis, i.e. the assessment data have face validity.

We hope that the VALUE project will be able to demonstrate several things:  that faculty across the country share fundamental expectations about student learning on all of the Essential Learning Outcomes deemed critical for student success in the 21st century; that rubrics can articulate these shared expectations; that the shared rubrics can be used and modified locally to reflect campus culture within this national conversation; and that the actual work of students should be the basis for assessing student learning and can more appropriately represent an institution’s learning results.

Specifically, how does student learning and student work get assessed? What is the relationship between these “metarubrics” (at a national level) and what actually happens at the local level?
From the collection of rubrics for each outcome, we have engaged teams of faculty and staff to examine the rubrics and to identify the criteria or expectations for learning that appear across multiple institutions. In essence, we have asked the teams to articulate shared expectations and criteria for each outcome. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate to ourselves, and to those outside the academy, that faculty across the country and at different types of institutions do have shared criteria for what student learning should look like from beginning or novice levels through advanced understandings and applications.

The shared general criteria are too broad to be useful for assessing specific student work at a course level, but the local rubrics developed for assessing student work are mirrored in these metarubrics that encapsulate the shared expectations of faculty and others for student performance. The local rubrics will use different terms and language, but the core criteria contained in the metarubric map onto these local rubrics so that faculty and staff can use what they have developed that works for their purposes with their students, and at the same time show how what they and their students are doing fits within the core expectations for learning that are shared nationally. We can reduce these shared or common expectations to numbers, but we don’t have to and we can therefore engage as a result in a much more robust conversation about what and how well our students are mastering learning outcomes.

Various campuses have been taking the core criteria of the metarubrics and translating them into the language and context of their particular discipline or program when using the rubrics to assess their students’ work. Other campuses have been testing the metarubrics along with their previously developed local rubrics and comparing the results when used side by side to assess assignment products. We are in the process right now of gathering these types of feedback to modify the metarubrics and further refine the ability of the metarubrics to represent shared expectations that can be used on a variety of campuses and programs.

Where are they being used and tested? What are some examples of what test campuses are doing?
The metarubrics are being tested by faculty on twelve leadership campuses that have histories of using rubrics and e-portfolios to assess student work. The twelve leadership campuses represent large and small, public and private, two and four year institutions, and regions of the country. Each of these campuses uses student e-portfolios in one form or another to have students capture and present examples of the work they have done in response to assignments embedded in the curriculum and co-curriculum at their institutions.

We have relied upon the established processes on these campuses for testing the metarubrics. In many instances, the campus faculty has used their local rubrics and the metarubrics for comparison of the comparability of the rubrics. No campus has piloted all of the rubrics, but all rubrics have been piloted among the campuses collectively. Based on the piloting of the metarubrics, the rubric teams have revised the metarubrics. In total, there will be three iterations of piloting and redrafting for each metarubric during the VALUE project process. Final drafts will be available in the summer of 2009.

In addition, almost sixty other campuses have requested permission to pilot test one or more of the rubrics with student work on their respective campuses (not all of these campuses are using e-portfolios of student work). On every campus, though, faculty members and student services colleagues are using the metarubrics to see how useful they are in assessing student work on the respective learning outcomes.

A lot of work with new media technologies involves student work that doesn’t fit traditional assessments. How might VALUE be useful for understanding new kinds of learning?
One of things that we have learned through the research on student learning is that newer generations of students are exhibiting a variety of learning styles. As everyone knows, current students are much more technologically savvy than earlier generations; they use and expect to use the internet, audio and video sources, social networking modes, etc. Many of our students do not perceive learning as a linear process more attuned to traditional reading and writing – hyperlinking and networked learning are more commonly apparent in the classroom. Couple this with the fact that most student learning occurs outside of the classroom, we have an environment in which we need to be able to encompass a wider variety of modes for students to demonstrate their learning processes and achievements. By definition this forces us to encompass audio and video, Web 2.0, hard copy and virtual learning.

The e-portfolio allows us to bring all of these, and other, modes of learning and demonstration of learning into the collection of evidence we use to assess student learning in the full complexity and variety of its existence. We have tried to encourage our rubric development teams to write rubrics that are not bound by the printed page conception of learning, but applicable and encompassing of other modes of performance.

Are there campuses using the VALUE rubrics to look at non-traditional kinds of learning?
Several campuses already have their students incorporate non-traditional modes of demonstrating their learning in the student e-portfolios. Portland State University has students including videos of community based work, performances, presentations to government boards, or interviews in their e-portfolios to demonstrate communication skills, civic engagement, working in teams, etc. Alverno College has all of their students record oral presentations to show the growth and development of these abilities as they move through the curriculum. LaGuardia Community College has their students deeply engaged in visual representations of their learning through art work, e-portfolio design, etc. as a way to communicate their learning to family and communities outside the academy who are often not accustomed to the text-heavy traditions of higher education. Bowling Green State University, St. Olaf College and the University of Michigan have students incorporate connections outside the classroom, whether they are in co-curricular activities or community-based learning related to the curriculum.

Often we perceive a tension between the desire to assess student learning and the interest in experimentation with new approaches to learning. Assessment of recognizable outcomes and innovation often seem at odds. Might the work of the VALUE project help address that tension?

We certainly hope so. The development of the metarubrics and their pilot testing on campuses was designed to create a shared set of standards that could be used for assessing, or judging, more traditional modes or demonstrations of learning, as well as Web 2.0, live performances or other types of learning. The outcomes for learning can be demonstrated in many ways. In the past, some have been too quick to conclude or declare that certain types of learning cannot be measured. The reality that we all face is that when we begin to evaluate learning, we are always grasping at and relying upon indicators of learning.

Learning of the essential outcomes does not occur in a vacuum or in the ether, it occurs through content and knowledge bases, and therefore will vary depending on the knowledge base on which it rests. Part of the reason we have different disciplines and interdisciplinary programs, is that different knowledge sets and ways of knowing result in learning outcomes being demonstrated in different ways. But in the deconstruction of the demonstrated learning, we tend to find similarity in the core components or criteria of learning, e.g. for critical thinking.

Just as we learn from our research and from our colleagues, we also learn from our students. Innovation and creativity are part of what we all look for in our students’ learning–it tends to be the ultimate learning outcome that we try to capture in many ways, e.g. capstone courses and projects, senior recitals, e-portfolio graduation reflections on work, etc. Having shared expectations or standards for learning outcomes is in no way in conflict with innovation. Our limitations are often due to lack of knowledge and comfort in using newer technologies to capture and represent the learning we seek in our students.

How could a campus make these viable? How would they be useful to start a conversation or provide a framework for discussion around student learning?

Our experience at AAC&U in working with faculty on campuses across the country is that faculty are typically eager to have permission to talk about and to focus on student learning. Once you get beyond complaints about teaching is not rewarded adequately, etc., faculty embrace discussing learning and teaching. So, there is no difficulty in getting faculty interested in talking about the subject. The biggest barrier is often a lack of awareness about options for assessing learning and what it would take for the individual faculty member to adapt what they know and are familiar with to some new environment or process.

Part of the selection of the VALUE leadership campuses was to identify a diverse set of campuses that are using e-portfolios and rubrics in different ways on their respective campuses to illustrate how faculty and institutions can see themselves beginning, expanding or enhancing what they are doing to assess student learning. By broadening our work to include campuses that are not using e-portfolios, we also wanted to demonstrate how similar approaches can be undertaken in the absence of the investment in e-portfolios. Increasingly, the investment in e-portfolios is becoming less and less of an obstacle for campuses since there are free Web tools that students can use to construct e-portfolios.

Essentially, we are finding that campuses are recognizing that student learning is something that the entire campus community is engaged with; each person on the campus participates in the learning, but no one is responsible for all of the learning. By creating and articulating shared learning expectations, we are helping faculty and others on campus see how they can contribute to student learning for essential outcomes; we help students become better judges of their own learning progress; and we create the evidence we can use to communicate to other audiences exactly what it is that our students are learning and what they can do with that learning.

By experimenting with e-portfolios and Web technology, we expand the robustness for capturing learning and the opportunities for students to apply their learning in “real world” situations, which employers, civic leaders and policymakers are calling for. E-portfolios also reflect the attendance patterns of so many of our students who attend multiple institutions (often at the same time) as they move through their educational careers. Their learning is shared in ways we often overlook–different faculty and colleagues in different institutions, perhaps in different states, and different spans of time. The sharing of rubrics, of expectations for learning, perhaps most importantly allows our students to have a much clearer picture of what their learning should look like. They can use the rubrics to frame the demonstration of their learning in an e-portfolio when transferring among institutions, when applying for a job, or for graduate school. The rubrics allow students to better assess their own strengths and weaknesses in areas of learning.

Having been a faculty member on several campuses for over twenty years, I know that using rubrics and e-portfolios does not have to create more work–it requires working differently, shifting my time and focus a bit–but it is richer and more rewarding than what I used to struggle with in trying to communicate my expectations for learning and how students could more readily succeed in meeting those expectations. There is a transparency and communication ability that enriches the conversations both with students and with colleagues.

Attachment Size
Creative Thinking Metarubric Fall 2008 Draft for Public Release.pdf 120.08 KB
IntegrativeLearningMetarubricF08.pdf 121.14 KB
Fall 2008 VALUE Critical ThinkingMetarubric Draft for Public Release.pdf 105.71 KB
Value-Rhodes-Interview.pdf 1.8 MB

Building a Network, Expanding the Commons, Shaping the Field: Two Perspectives on Developing a SOTL Repository

by Tom Carey, Jennifer Meta Robinson and John Rakestraw

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?

Introduction by John Rakestraw
More and more college and university faculty–in community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and large research universities–are working to improve their teaching practice. Many of these teachers see themselves as part of a larger community, and they are eager to learn more from other teachers and scholars about the practice of teaching. They learn from conversations with local faculty colleagues, and many are fortunate to work with teaching centers and other school resources dedicated to the promotion of teaching and of reflection on teaching.

However, when they look for resources beyond the local setting, they are often overwhelmed by the mass of information. Whether they are seeking answers to specific pedagogical questions–e.g., how might one help students in an intermediate-level class  to frame their own research questions in a discipline? Or asking broader curricular development questions–e.g., how might a senior capstone course help students to build upon and integrate work done in lower level courses in the major and in general education?–they are often frustrated. In some instances they find an abundance of theoretical information but lack the time to explicate fully just how this theory might apply in a particular situation. In other instances they find reflections on particular teaching practices, but those reflections are grounded in very different teaching situations, making  it difficult to relate the conclusions to their own teaching. These frustrations are often intensified when one adds to the mix the question of whether or how to use a particular technology to support student learning. To build on an earlier example, how might an online writing environment help students work collaboratively between face-to-face class sessions to define their own research questions?

All of these questions together pose the important challenge: just how do teaching faculty–faculty who, after all, were trained in particular disciplines rather than in general teaching skills–cultivate and then share knowledge about teaching practice?

Building a Scholarship on Teaching and Learning
One approach to answering this last, larger question is embodied in the field now known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SOTL. SOTL practitioners are building a body of research  that’s impressive in its breadth and depth. However, they have not yet solved the problem of making this work accessible. SOTL researchers are presenting their scholarly products in different media, ranging from digital stories to electronic posters to more traditional scholarly papers. Moreover, although there are conferences and organizations (such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education) that provide professional settings in which those engaged in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can present their research and discuss the growing body of literature in the field, these organizations still attract only a small subset of the teacher-scholars engaged in scholarly reflection on the teaching practice. Finally, while many of these works are being published on the World Wide Web, this publication takes place in a variety of venues, from organized collections (like this issue of Academic Commons) to school Web sites, to Web sites developed and maintained by individual scholars presenting their own work. There are more and more resources available, but teachers and scholars still face significant challenges in their attempts to locate materials particularly relevant to their own situations.

These challenges are not unique to SOTL. All of these factors–the variety of media, the relative isolation of many of those doing the work, and the different venues of web publication–create difficulties for practitioners even of established academic fields to do research in their field and to build on the work of others in the field. However, the difficulties are even more pronounced in SOTL simply because the field is still not clearly defined and established. Scholars of teaching and learning, both those well established and recognized and those just beginning work in this field, find it difficult to keep up with others’ contributions, and to figure out exactly what is encompassed by the label “SOTL.”

The two articles presented here discuss the possibilities of using online technologies to respond to these challenges. Authors Jennifer Meta Robinson and Tom Carey consider the question of how online environments might not only house collections of SOTL contributions and reflections on pedagogical practice, but also host ongoing exchanges about how these contributions can be used and developed more fully by both teachers and researchers. While Robinson and Carey share much common ground–indeed, as will be obvious, they have participated together in many discussions about these issues–they come at the challenges from different perspectives.

Carey is particularly concerned that users of the repository will come to see it as a resource for what some have called Just In Time teaching practice. He would like teachers to discover in such a collection teaching resources that they can incorporate efficiently into their own teaching practice. Moreover, he argues that the technology housing the collection must allow these teachers and others to make their own contributions, and comment on work done by others, in a dynamic collaborative space. He and others suggest that it’s best to see the collection as bringing together both people and resources–an “Open Educational Resources Knowledge Exchange Network.”

Robinson considers the question of what an online collection would add to already existing collections and Web search tools. She also notes that the practitioners of SOTL are not only grounded in a wide variety of academic disciplines, but also employed in a variety of teaching environments ranging from K-12 schools to community colleges to large research universities.  She suggests that an online collection developed by and for scholars doing this work would help to shape the still coalescing field, and foster the development of a community of scholars.

Robinson and Carey’s brief essays begin to draw into focus what a SOTL repository might look like, and to envision how such a repository would influence the direction of the field of SOTL itself. However, as Robinson, Carey, and other scholars continue to grapple with the challenges of designing a repository, some of their questions, and others as well, remain. These questions, both conceptual and logistical, to consider as this process moves forward include the following:

  • What should be the level of institutional affiliation for the repository? What kind of visible support from organizations such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or from specific colleges and universities would lend the repository the credibility it would need to persuade scholars to view it as a valuable and legitimate resource?
  • What is the incentive for users to contribute to the repository? How can we aid users in feeling that they were contributing to a scholarly community? What kind of institutional support and reward system would encourage users to contribute original items and to develop or comment on existing items in the repository? For example, education and library science students from research methods courses might be paired with professors in other departments who wanted annotated bibliographies or other digests of the state of the literature on a topic related to their SOTL.
  • How can we address the diversity of users’ primary disciplines and of the types of participating institutions? Robinson reports that, in discussions among members of her working group, some of these initially fragmenting differences ultimately proved to be broadening and productive. How can that experience be replicated among members of the repository community, without the benefit of face-to-face meetings and working groups?
  • Should the repository aim to collect, contextualize, and present work that already exists, or to elicit production of new work?
  • What is the right balance to strike between the value of community-generated knowledge, on the one hand, and the value of direction provided by some kind of an authority, on the other? In other words, how do we blend the openness of Wikipedia with the credibility of an academic journal?
  • Are there ways to combine elements of these approaches into a hybrid model, e.g., links in the repository to wiki-type discussion boards?

As both Robinson and Carey suggest, answers to these questions and to others that follow will emerge  in the concrete practice of teaching, as teachers and SOTL scholars contribute to existing collections and make use of the teaching resources they find there. However, it’s important to remember that the use of particular tools will not only lead to changes in the tools as they’re adapted to new uses, but will also help to create new ways of working together for those teachers who see themselves as part of the larger community of teachers reflecting on the practice of teaching.

Follow the links to the two essays:

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?

Opening Up Education–The Remix

by Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar

Excerpts from Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.

Editor’s Note: In their new book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (MIT Press, 2008) , editors Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar bring together a diverse group of scholars of teaching and learning to address this question:  “How can open educational tools, resources and knowledge of practice improve the quality of education?”  That is, how can educators take advantage of new knowledge-sharing tools in order to make their own learning visible, enhancing the collective understanding of how best to use these same tools in the classroom?

Iiyoshi and Kumar contend that, as technological tools continue to evolve at a rapid pace, the educational community must consciously consider how best to take advantage of these resources, and should implement specific strategies to facilitate sharing of knowledge and practices. This process will require significant adaptation by institutions and educators, as traditional definitions of authorship, credentialing, and curriculum are all thrown into question. The volume looks at three broad areas of open education–technology, content, and knowledge–where diverse authors reflect critically on core questions, drawing on lessons learned from past projects, and proposing new directions for the future of the movement. Here, we focus on the area of open knowledge about teaching and learning, and the challenge of developing open education practices in the context of the ways new media is changing the way we learn, teach, collaborate, and circulate knowledge in our culture. Through this remix of the editors, Iiyoshi and Kumar, the author of the preface and collaborator, John Seely Brown, and a chorus of authors from the volume, we present a snapshot of open education that sits at the intersection of innovation and the imperative for an expanding knowledge base on teaching and learning.  -RB

Defining ‘Open Education’ 
Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar: a fresh perspective on resources and relationships
Rather than propose one more definition, our reference to open education embraces the many dimensions of this movement as well as the main interpretations of the term “open” as it has been applied to education over time, such as increased access, greater choice, and flexibility. What we offer instead is an extension to these definitions . . . that a key tenet of open education is that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. (Iiyoshi and Kumar, “An Invitation to Open Up the Future of Education,” introduction, 2)

Higher education places a high premium on originality, whereas adapting or improving another’s educational materials is rarely understood to be a creative or valuable contribution. Thus, while scholars are expected to build on the work of others in their disciplinary research, teaching is largely treated as a private, highly territorial enterprise. Open education demands a fresh perspective on resources and relationships. A significant first step towards creating new education models is to build receptivity to open resources at many levels through effective professional and leadership development. (Ibid, 5)

Toru Iiyoshi from The Carnegie Commons Community Forum

Despite the increasing interest in open education, and the availability of these growing collections of educational tools and resources, we risk missing transformative and innovative opportunities. We must think really hard about how open education can help us improve teaching and learning in the small classroom as well as help us create the necessary educational capacity for the entire world. As a global education community, we could benefit from a deep understanding of how educational tools and resources are being created and used in ways that build upon each other’s educational knowledge and practice. It is vital we continue to explore possible synergies and sustainability strategies for all these current and future open education efforts and promote a culture of openness across boundaries and borders. (Toru Iiyoshi, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Vijay Kumar from The Carnegie Commons Community Forum

Our hope is that the book actually launches a process, that it becomes a vehicle for reflection, for discourse, for some very serious planning, for a variety of us: for institutional leaders, as they grapple with how to preserve and contextualize the value of residentially-based education, something that we at MIT for instance worry about a lot–how do you change the production function, the mix of resource and spaces given the new clientele, given that there’s this plethora of quality resources available out there? In cases as nations, as we start thinking about increased access to quality educational opportunity in the new knowledge economy, how do we start thinking as teachers to figure out, you know, how is our role, as John pointed out, as coaches, mentors, managers of educational resources, how does it need to change to take advantage, to leverage this new possibility, how does that role as advisors and mentors change? And then also we hope that this becomes a vehicle for policymakers to think about some of what the new norms for intellectual property need to be–how do you launch this governance, how do you address governance issues, considering that we’re suddenly dealing with the distributed collective of producers and participants in this educational realm. So we hope that this book really starts fueling the discussion so that we can start not just preparing for some of these unintended consequences, but also start proactively constructing a preferred vision of the future. (M.S. Vijay Kumar, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Framing the Imperative 
Toru Iiyoshi, Vijay Kumar, and John Seely Brown
John Seely Brown: Web 2.0 as a new jigsaw puzzle

The world becomes more complex and interconnected at a lightning-fast pace, and almost every serious social issue requires an engaged public that is not only traditionally literate, but adept in a new, systemic literacy. This new literacy requires an understanding of different kinds of feedback systems, exponential processes, the unintended consequences inherent in evolving social systems, etcetera. In addition, the unrelenting velocity of change means that many of our skills have a shorter shelf life, suggesting that much of our learning will need to take place outside of traditional school and university environments. It is also unlikely that sufficient resources will be available to build enough new campuses to meet the growing demand for higher education, at least not the sort of campuses we have traditionally built for colleges and universities. Nor is it likely that current methods of teaching and learning will suffice to prepare students for the lives they will lead in the twenty-first century.

In response, we need to find a way to reconceptualize many twentieth-century education models, and at the same time reinforce learning outside of formal schooling. There may be powerful ways to blur the distinction between formal learning and informal where both turn on the social life of learning. (John Seely Brown, “Creating a Culture of Learning,” foreword, xi)

John Seely Brown from CNDLS on Vimeo.

I mean, if you wish, this book reflects the major shift from Web 1.0, a push notion of just push the material out there, to kind of a Web 2.0 in terms of how do we become more participants, how do students learn from and with each other, how do students and faculty live together and then how do we make that richer than ever?

We’re beginning to have the puzzle, the pieces of a brand new jigsaw puzzle that we’re figuring out how to put together here. And I think if you look at this book, you find kind of reflections on each part of that, but you also see the attempt to start to put these pieces together.

So to me, that’s why I find this so exciting, is that in a curious way the explosion of digital technology still increasing this exponential path is driving change, change, change ever faster, which is creating a tremendous problem for the old ways of learning and teaching. But the same thing that’s driving this challenge we have is also providing us the tools and mechanisms to attack this problem in fundamentally new ways. (John Seely Brown, video from The Carnegie Commons community forum:

Open Knowledge and the Challenge of Improving Teaching and Learning: A Chorus of Contributing Authors from Opening Up Education
Cheryl R. Richardson: Opening knowledge is more than just opening the classroom door
Opening knowledge in education goes a step beyond opening out classroom doors to colleagues. It involves cocreating, experimenting, reflecting, sharing, and reusing accumulated ideas and knowledge about teaching and learning. It is active and welcomes the participation of everyone involved–student, instructor, researcher, policymaker, as well as faculty developer and administrator. We think of this genre as embracing the ideals of scholarship and the practices of our contemporary, digital-participatory culture.

Similar to knowledge generated within disciplinary circles, proponents of open knowledge see the field as gaining credibility from knowing which questions were asked and understanding how they were tested and examined, what results emerged, and how we can trust these results. More importantly, we want results measured in terms of better practice and improved student learning. We encourage change that is driven from the ideas, practices, and reflection of all of these participants . . . In other words, it is rich in particular practices of connecting, co-creating and distributing teaching and learning. With the right kinds of support and development, this culture has the potential to quickly and broadly spread innovation and improved educational practice.

In the context of improving teaching and enhancing learning, authors examine different perspectives of open knowledge. Authors ask–and with theory, example, and description–answer questions about what opening knowledge about teaching and learning means, how it might be accomplished, the challenges of trying, and the various potential and realized benefits of doing so:

  • What role does opening knowledge play in promoting and sustaining systemic and systematic change? What are the various stages of change the authors describe–from the classroom to the institution–and the roles of various players, including faculty, external projects, and administrators?
  • What are the implications for tools that may help capture and share knowledge?
  • What is the role of intermediary projects, organizations, and people in sustaining movements and providing opportunities for shared thinking?
  • How might the slow-to-change culture of education adapt elements inherent in a fast-paced technological world? When is it most appropriate to do so?
  • What kinds of scaffolds and frameworks help introduce newcomers, carry novices further, and use the skills and attributes of ‘experts’ to effectively nurture and encourage open knowledge?

All of these overlapping intentions and propositions show how it takes more than opening our classroom doors to keep up with the needs of education. (Cheryl R. Richardson, “Open Educational Knowledge: More than Opening the Classroom Door,” 279-80; 285-6)

Candace Thille: Creating a self-sustaining ecology
Many OER [Open Education Resource] projects to date have focused on making content that supports existing traditional forms of instruction openly and freely available. In these projects, the power of the Internet is used to overcome barriers to access by serving as a medium for freely distributing content. Making existing content available in this way is based on the revolutionary idea that education and discovery are best advanced when knowledge is shared openly. These OER projects have enabled a great leap forward in democratizing access to educational material. The next step in the revolutionary potential of the OER movement is in using technology to make instruction, as well as materials, accessible to the widest possible audience of learners and, at the same time, improve teaching and learning. . . .

The technological challenges may well be easier to overcome than the greater challenge of creating a self-sustaining ecology in which members are active participants not only in production, adaptation, and consumption of learning resources but also in reflection and evaluation. . . .

Ultimately, it is not the technology itself but rather the new practice and communities that the technology enables that will revolutionize postsecondary education. In the case of OER’s, the technology, the communities, and practices that develop around the OER’s may ultimately allow us to close the feedback loop and support institutions of higher learning to become learning institutions. (Candace Thille, “Building Open Learning as a Community-based Research Activity” 165; 172;175)

Richard A. Gale: Higher education’s black box
[Lee Shulman’s] charge . . . was to build knowledge that illuminates and improves student learning and faculty teaching, to encourage institutions to support and promote this form of scholarship, and to establish a field of endeavor and expertise that facilitates the sharing of what Shulman calls “the wisdom of practice.” To achieve this, students and teachers, administrators and staff, policymakers and the public at large would need to view learning, teaching, and scholarship in new and more collaborative ways.

Behind the work of the scholarship of teaching and learning is a teeming landscape of thought and practice, understanding and action, belief and engagement. Because teaching and learning are so hard to see and know, they are even harder to systematically analyze and improve. One reason why policymakers have turned their attention to the clamor and cry for assessment and accountability is higher education’s “black box” of classroom excellence and student success. If the so-called “best practices” of teaching and learning could be identified and articulated beyond local environs, shared in a transparent and transferable mode with an assurance of accomplishment at the end of the day, then educators the world over might be convinced to embrace change. But the current reality for most higher education institutions is that learning is contextual and unexamined, teaching is ephemeral and private, and scholarship on both is frequently limited in scope and impact by the restrictions of the academy and the lack of resources (variously defined from funding to reward structures). (Richard A. Gale, “Inquiry Unplugged: A Scholarship of Teaching and Learning for Open Understanding,” 289; 292)

Bernadette Chuck Fong: Synergies between academic and open source communities
At Foothill College, open education is more than a passing trend: it has reached the core of what we do. . . . With ETUDES [distance education software system], our faculty maintains the academic locus of control over their courses, curriculum, and pedagogy. An open source community is inherently synergistic with an academic community, and therefore, a highly compatible and self-sustaining relationship. . . .

[A]s the use of online technology becomes more integrated into a course, and particularly in its content delivery and dialogue between faculty member and students, an interesting shift emerges. That is the real shift from teaching to learning and, ultimately, deep learning. The issue of access and success could take on new and more important meaning as the unit of measurement of student work is increasingly more focused on what the student is learning rather than how much time is spent in a course. (Bernadine Chuck Fong, “Open for What? A Case Study of Institutional Leadership and Transformation,” 408-410)

Catherine M. Casserly and Marshall S. Smith: The capacity to reuse and remix

However, open access is not the only feature of OER that distinguishes it from other content on the Web accessible by search engines or from behind a wall that requires status or permission or resources to penetrate. Fully open educational resources provide a license that grants permission to users not only to read the material but also to download, modify, and post it for reuse. Users are empowered to change the materials to meet their own needs. They can mix and remix. The capacity and right to reuse materials is an important step in providing users all over the world the opportunity to actively participate in the open education resources teaching and learning processes. It creates the opportunity for the localization of the materials, where users tailor materials according to their language and culture, and for personalization, where materials can be adapted and modified for individual learners. Reuse also makes possible continuous cycles of improvement of educational materials as users quickly provide critical reactions and evaluations to developers of the quality and effectiveness of the materials. These fast feedback loops of users and developers create an environment for the improvement of content similar to the environment of open source software. (Catherine M. Casserly and Marshall S. Smith, “Revolutionizing Education through Innovation: Can Openness Transform Teaching and Learning?,” 262-3)

James Dalziel: Open source teaching
Open education has had two great successes and one significant failure to date. The first success is the development and adoption of open source course management systems. Moodle, Sakai, LRN, ATutor, and other systems demonstrate that open source development processes can create excellent course management systems that can readily be adopted by educational institutions throughout the world. The second success is the open sharing of educational content. OpenCourseWare, MERLOT, ARIADNE, and other initiatives illustrate how educators and students throughout the world can benefit from freely shared educational content.

The failure is harder to put into words. It could be described as our lack of progress on sharing “pedagogical know-how” among educators. We have systems to run e-learning courses and content to view, but we have not captured the teaching processes that expert educators use to bring learning alive in their e-learning courses. If an educator creates a great sequence of learning activities that leads to a rich learning experience for students in an e-learning class, how does this educator share the activity sequence with colleagues so that they can automatically run the same activities or adapt them to suit local conditions? How does the educator share the thought processes that led to the design of the activity sequence?”. . . Put simply, what we lack is an agreed way to describe and share the teaching process, regardless of whether the activities are conducted online or face-to-face. As a result, individual educators spend heroic amounts of time on planning and preparation, but with enormous duplication of effort and no economies of scale. Apart from the lack of efficiency in preparation, educational quality also suffers: While some educators regularly create outstanding learning experiences for their students, some do not. How could the best teaching processes be shared among the widest number of educators?

Most importantly, if we could share descriptions of educational processes together with advice on the reasons for their design, then not only could a novice educator  benefit from the work of experts, but all educators could collectively adapt and improve each others’ work, leading to improved quality overall.

This suggests a fascinating question. Could the collaborative development processes of open source software be applied to open teaching? Harnessing the collective expertise of the world’s educators to achieve greater efficiency and improved quality would transform education as we know it. (James Dalziel, “Learning Design: Sharing Pedagogical Know-How,” 375-76)

Diana Laurillard: Teaching must become problematized
The idea of a learning system capable of adapting itself to new environmental conditions is applicable also to the teaching community itself. Our knowledge and understanding of “technology-enhanced learning” will accelerate faster in a teaching community that acts like a learning system–one that makes knowledge of what it takes to learn explicit, adapts it, tests it, refines practice, reflects, rearticulates, and shares that new knowledge. Teaching must become problematized, innovative, and professional, taking research as its model. If lecturers were to conduct the process of teaching as rigorously as they conduct their research, then they would expect 1. support for some personal development in how to teach; 2. the means to build on the work of others to design their approach; 3. the means to experiment and reflect on what the results imply for their design and their understanding; and 4. the means to articulate and disseminate their contribution. Those four characteristics together define the essentials of what we might call “open teaching”–what James Dalziel has called “open source teaching”–such as an environment in which “educators can freely and openly share best practice teaching.”1 This communitarian approach reflects the ideals of the research community in general, and the scholarship of teaching in particular.2 It would enable the teaching community, throughout the education system, to learn how to adapt to the new challenges for education and to exploit technology in the process. (Diana Laurillard, “Open Teaching: The Key to Sustainable and Effective Open Education,” 328)

Diana G. Oblinger and Marilyn M. Lombardi: Building a sustainable practice
Several programs in the United States and the United Kingdom are pushing the concept of Open Education beyond the courseware model in order to build a sustainable practice capable of scaling broadly. Examples include the Connexions project at Rice University, the National Science Digital Library project, the Open University’s OpenLearn pilot project, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which is marked by its unique interdisciplinary course development process. Launched in the fall of 2002, OLI is dedicated to the development of freely available “stand-alone” college-level online courses informed by research from the cognitive and learning sciences. The OLI course design process is unique in its dedication to teaming faculty content experts with cognitive scientists, learning scientists, human-computer interaction specialists, formative assessment specialists, and programmers, along with ongoing course evaluation and iterative improvement. Ultimately, the collaborative nature of the OLI course design process has had an additional, unanticipated effect: inspiring participating faculty members to rethink their approach to teaching. Although OLI courses are designed as “stand-alone” online experiences, Carnegie Mellon faculty are successfully integrating OLI’s Web-based instruction modules into their traditional instructor-led courses.3 (Diana G. Oblinger and Marilyn M. Lombardi, “Common Knowledge: Openness in Higher Education,” 397)

Randy Bass and Dan Bernstein: The middle space between local and cosmopolitan

We propose that a key location for the scholarship of teaching and learning is in a middle ground between what we might call the “individual” and the “cosmopolitan.” These two ends of a spectrum are often the focus of scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching: the individual engaging in reflection for the improvement of his or her own practice and the individual published work available for others more generally. There is a loop between them in that many individuals draw on cosmopolitan resources while some individuals aspire to produce written or digital work that contributes to a general body of literature. Thus, by “middle ground” we mean work that falls between individual practice and the world of generalized knowledge about teaching and learning. . . . Our sense of this middle space–what often will be local but could be virtually achieved communities of practice–is not merely one version of the scholarship of teaching and learning, but an essential link between individual practice and the eventual construction of knowledge in open systems. Perhaps this middle level is the critical bridge between the logic of the learning paradigm that turns us inward and the implications of a broader notion of learning that draws us outward. . . . An open electronic space will provide a flexible and dynamic home for both ongoing collaboration as well as post hoc identification of common themes and coherent results. To maximize the potential of open education, we need to learn how to link local and cosmopolitan work with vibrant and visible practice, and to find a middle space between isolation and full participation in a research community. (Randy Bass and Dan Bernstein, “The Middle of Open Spaces: Generating Knowledge about Learning through Multiple Layers of Open Teaching Communities,” 304; 316)

Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings: Balancing big ambitions with small steps
Looking ahead, the questions that stand out most for us are how to expand and preserve the openness about teaching and learning that is increasingly in place and how to ensure that the new (or newly available) resources in the teaching commons are actually useful to those who can benefit from them. It is well and good to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?

The answer, we believe, will be shaped by progress in two related areas. To deliver on the promise of open knowledge will first require concerted attention to conceptual questions about what kinds of knowledge can best contribute to educational quality. To put it simply, “they will come” if they find resources and insights they value and can use. Second, future prospects will depend on the development of policies and practices that support an ethic of openness in ways that are inclusive, inviting, and rewarding (in several senses of the word). These challenges are related, clearly, and are likely to be further complicated by the increasing calls for accountability faced by higher education today.

Like the vision of open education itself, these challenges can seem daunting. It is tempting to reach for shiny new answers that depart, radically sometimes, from what has gone before. Our instinct is to be more modest. The promise of open knowledge can best be met, we believe, by building on what is already underway, by not underestimating the value of small gains, and by balancing big ambitions with lots of small steps along the way. (418)

As with other areas of academic thought and practice, the best chance for pedagogical knowledge to circulate widely and publicly will be the success of that knowledge itself. Will this work improve teaching? Will it help create better environments for student learning? Will it create a vision of what is possible that is compelling enough to attract colleagues to join in? The challenge for the open knowledge community is to realize that their big ambitions can best be pursued in concert with others who care about learning in higher education, and by taking the many small steps necessary to create an academic culture where the intellectual and creative work involved in teaching is understood, encouraged, and supported. (Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings, “What’s Next for Open Knowledge?” 418; 426-7)

Building The Collectivity Culture

Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar
Transferring practical knowledge about how to use tools and resources, even if they are readily available, is not easy. Indeed, this kind of pedagogical know-how is notoriously hard to make visible and portable. While some might argue that such knowledge is already built into educational tools and resources–that a syllabus, for instance, already embodies what the user needs to know about using that syllabus–the vast majority of this kind of practical knowledge remains tacit and invisible in the experiences of the educator(s) who created and used the materials or the learners who used the materials. Thus, a crucial task before us is to build intellectual and technical capacity for transforming “tacit knowledge” into “commonly usable knowledge.” Building this capacity is urgent, as the process of creating and sharing quality educational knowledge needs to catch up with the burgeoning availability of open educational goods . . .

In order to collectively advance teaching and learning globally, we need to devise mechanisms to harvest, accumulate, and distribute locally created educational assets, pedagogical innovations, and wisdom of practice in a manner that can be reused effectively in different local contexts. As practice and experience is made increasingly tangible and transferable, we need to create a network of educational knowledge-bases that inspires and helps to inform future efforts.

The canvas of educational issues and opportunities is wide and varied–from national concerns about competitiveness to bringing more global perspectives to curricula. The ambitious and accomplished projects represented in this book and other open initiatives can provide even more powerful solutions to the large problems of education if they can effectively collaborate to maximize the collectivity of their individual efforts. For example, the vision of the Meta University, eloquently articulated by Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of MIT, as “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced” presents the dramatic potential of synthesis and the collective.4

Fostering the collectivity culture and harnessing its power will require the creation of conditions favorable to the spawning and sharing of new ideas and models. Making openness thrive will require policies and practices that entice and reward openness, as well as programs for supporting and monitoring diversity as well as quality. . . . The systemic nature of change requires that synergy among various open education efforts, along with the intersection with other initiatives, are explored for end-to-end delivery of quality education. By employing powerful multimedia, data mining and analysis, knowledge management, and social and semantic network technology, we should be able to help people around the world find and use appropriate educational tools, resources and knowledge of practice that advance their local learning and teaching. Ideally, this should also enable learners and educators to contribute back to an ever-growing knowledge-base of open education, thereby leading to a spiral of educational transformation efforts.

Educational institutions, organizations and communities must understand that open education is not just about disseminating resources that can be localized in many ways to improve education in local contexts, but also about an opportunity toward broadening and deepening our collective understanding of teaching and learning. Difficult and unchartered as the terrain may appear, we anticipate at least three dramatic improvements over time: increased quality of tools and resources, more effective use, and greater individual and collective pedagogical knowledge. Ideally, all will occur concurrently, combining local innovations and learned lessons through global knowledge-sharing. This process also needs to be spiral so that we can continuously pursue “betterness” in various aspects of education. (Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, “Conclusion: New Pathways for Shaping the Collective Agenda to Open Up Education,” 436-9)

1. J. Dalziel, “LAMS community launch,” LAMS Foundation News (Sept. 30, 2005), [return to text]
2. C. Kreber and P. A. Cranton, “Exploring the scholarship of teaching,”The Journal of Higher Education 71 no. 4 (2000): 476–495. [return to text]
3. M. M. Lombardi, “ELI Innovations and Implementations: The Open Learning Initiative,” EDUCAUSE (July 2006), [return to text]
4. Charles Vest, “Enabling Meta University,” EDUCAUSE Review 41, no. 3 (May/June 2006): 18–30. [return to text]

“The Future of ePortfolio” Roundtable

by Bret Eynon, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY


Dr. Helen Barrett, Center for Advanced Technology in Education, University of Oregon
Dr. Trent Batson, Communications Architect, Educational Innovation and Technology, MIT
Dr. Darren Cambridge, Internet Studies, George Mason University
Dr. J. Elizabeth Clark, English, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
Dr. Melissa Peet, Generative Knowledge and ePortfolio Program, University of Michigan
Mr. James Richardson, New Media Technology, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

Moderator:  Dr. Bret Eynon, Center for Teaching & Learning, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

On April 10-12, 2008, LaGuardia Community College held an international conference entitled,“Making Connections: ePortfolios, Integrative Learning and Assessment.” The conference was keynoted by Kathleen B. Yancey and offered fifty-five different sessions by faculty and students, half from LaGuardia and half from other institutions using ePortfolio. More than six hundred people attended, coming from seventy different colleges in thirty states and five different countries. This is the transcript of a well-attended roundtable session that joined LaGuardia faculty with internationally recognized ePortfolio leaders to discuss the issues facing the ePortfolio movement.

Setting An Agenda
Bret: I want to start out by asking, what are the key questions facing ePortfolio? What issues do you think we’re wrestling with?Trent: Well, I’m focusing on Web 2.0. Open source is a construct–unbundling the code from the services. That seems to be working. The code is free, and the services we pay for. Now I’m thinking, what if we apply that to ePortfolio learning or to learning in general? Unbundle the code and the services, the code in this case being the content. So that teachers no longer own the content–the content is open and free, and what we provide are the services around that content.  My question is: Can education itself open up? I’ve got an essay in a book coming out with MIT Press called Opening Up Education. How do we open up education in a way similar to the ways the open source movement opened up the creation of software?

Elizabeth: For me, one of the major challenges is what Trent and Darren mentioned earlier today: an intellectual/philosophical tension around how we open the door for creativity by students, and get students fully invested, but also answer to our institutions. How can we use ePortfolio for assessment without losing the flavor and the creativity that brought many of us into the movement?

Helen: That’s a major tension right now–between student-centered and institution-centered portfolios. Between what I would call the Assessment OF Learning on one hand, and on the other: assessment FOR learning, assessment AS learning. Those issues emerge because we’re in an age of accountability.

Darren: We need to reframe the role of portfolios in assessment as assessment FOR institutional learning. Currently, I don’t think accountability-oriented assessment actually does much good for institutions, because it’s not in service of organizational learning. Reframed, it might be. How do we build on our successes with portfolio authors? How do we cultivate new portfolio audiences, particularly institutional organizational audiences–audiences that really understand how to learn, as organizations, from these new, richer, student-created representations of learning?

James: I don’t see institutional assessment as separate from student self-assessment. This is something I’ve seen in my own courses. When students are able to self-assess, they see how they’ve grown over time. And that helps them to reflect and make better choices in terms of career, in terms of transfer schools. On an institutional side, it helps us look at how well we instruct the students. If a student’s portfolio hasn’t strengthened from the time they’ve entered to the time they’re ready to graduate, there’s a disconnect there. We can look at how well we’re doing, and then hopefully redirect our curriculum to address any gaps.

Darren: That’s exactly the right direction. LaGuardia is exceptional–nationally, perhaps internationally–in its commitment to link student self-assessment with institutional improvement, from senior leadership all the way down to grass-roots enthusiasm from students. There’s a lot we all can learn from what’s happening at LaGuardia, and what made that possible. But that’s very different from the situation at many other educational institutions.

Melissa: Here’s a questions that comes to me in conversations like this: ePortfolios to what end? For whom? For what purpose? I think that oftentimes so much meaning and possibility is compacted onto ePortfolios. And we need to unpack that.

What’s powerful about LaGuardia’s ePortfolio is that the fact that the ePortfolio is an outcome, generated by an institution-wide commitment to fostering students’ identities as learners and professionals, with a group of students who are often forgotten in higher education. And I want to know: how can ePortfolios enable a conversation about the purpose of higher education in the twenty-first century? It should enable but not compact that conversation. How do we become learning communities? I think that’s what LaGuardia is showing us. But I think that hasn’t even begun to be unpacked. I consider LaGuardia a leader, embodying a learning community–and a powerful part of that is ePortfolio and integrative pedagogy. So that helps to switch the conversation. People go around saying “ePortfolio, ePortfolio,” like it’s a magic wand thing, but it really is about organizational change.

Trent: I agree with you, Melissa. I was in a session where Julie Hughes from the University of Wolverhampton, in the UK, said something really interesting. She said they try not to start with student deficiencies but with student competencies. That’s a key ePortfolio idea. As educators, we’ve so often focused on deficiencies. But we can start with competencies: what students already know.

Building Sustained Institutional Commitment
Bret: Excellent. We’ve just identified an interesting and overlapping set of challenges about audience, creativity, assessment, institutional purpose, this whole question of Web 2.0 erupting underneath us. Now, I’m curious about what you’ve heard at the conference that could help us think about some of these challenges. Trent just surfaced something he heard from Wolverhampton. What have others seen or heard that can help us think about the challenges and the possible solutions?

Helen: I would say LaGuardia’s institutional commitment to ePortfolio, from the top down to the students. And the focus on learning and integrative learning, rather than on what I’d call bean counting. Too many ePortfolio implementations have been funded out of institutional accountability rather than out of the focus on student learning. I see both here, but I see more of an emphasis on learning. You know, “It’s the learning, stupid.” That’s the focus.

James: We did a lot of planning before we started talking about systems. So the systems supported the process, as opposed to buying a system and then tweaking the process to fit. And we were lucky. We had so much support from the administration. And faculty development was key. We got buy-in from all the stakeholders, from the administration to the faculty to the students. Each had its own level of challenge, of course. But without all of this falling into place, I don’t think it would have blossomed the way it has.

Trent: What’s so surprising about LaGuardia is the institutional commitment that wasn’t about accreditation. Or was it that, too?

Bret: We have to do assessment, too. That’s our challenge: how do we combine it? What we’ve done is start with an emphasis on ePortfolio for learning and transformation. And that makes it more likely that the assessment process stays focused on learning.

Melissa: I’d like to go back to what James just said about LaGuardia; it wasn’t like you had a master plan, but here you are. You said things that are very key. You said “technology,” you said “institutional commitment.”You said “a strategy, a plan.” You said “faculty development.” Implied is also “pedagogy” and “organizational learning” and “time” and “commitment” and “transformation.” Those are big.

My big moment of great inspiration was hearing about LaGuardia’s plan for a National Resource Center. Because, from what I heard, this is going to be about all the things that are essential for something like ePortfolios to succeed. Actually it’s not even about ePortfolios; it’s about your students becoming successful. That’s what I keyed in to.

ePortfolio Beyond Technology
Darren: I would even say that ePortfolio is not a technology. It is manifestly not a technology. There are a range of technologies that can support the key processes associated with ePortfolios, such as collecting evidence of learning, organizing it, reflecting on it, receiving feedback, and planning for future learning and personal development. The ePortfolio is one genre that fits well with those processes. As a genre, an ePortfolio is not just any reflection supported by technology or any digital evidence of learning, but reflection on evidence of learning that is also part of the portfolio. Making the link between reflection and evidence is what distinguishes an ePortfolio. There are a range of tools that can help with the processes of documentation, reflection, and planning, a range of tools that can create ePortfolios that link reflection and evidence in powerful ways–things called ePortfolio systems, general purpose Web design tools, and also the whole range of social software technologies that we’ve talked about at this conference.Elizabeth: I‘d actually take that one step further. I’d say that the key to ePortfolio is not technology at all. It goes back to what Trent said this morning. ePortfolio is all sorts of things coming together in this contemporary moment–it’s ephemeral, right? Trent talked this morning about the ephemeral moment, the ephemeral technology. Five years from now, if we are doing our jobs well, it’s not going to be ePortfolio, or it’s not going to be ePortfolio as we know it. It’s going to be something totally new.

To me, the key thing about this is the evolution of this educational technology with the students. At LaGuardia, our students created those gorgeous templates. We didn’t create them. The students created them. The students said, “This is how we think that we should organize our knowledge, and now we’re going to give this to other students.” The students say, “Dr. Clark, you’re not doing that right. That’s wrong.” Then they show us how to do it.  It’s about that co-learning moment.

That’s exactly what Kathleen Yancey said this morning, right? She had that amazing transformational moment when, as an educator, she realized she’s co-learning with her students. She’s taking notes with them, she’s typing them up, and that’s becoming the learning process. To me, that’s what ePortfolio is about: learning with and from our students.

James: It took me a while to get to that point because I was by nature a technologist. For me technology was key. So when I initially came on to the project, I’m thinking, Web pages. Why is everybody so excited about student Web pages? But as I started to look at it, I started to see that it’s not the Web pages, it’s the content. And really, it’s the way the content is developed. It’s what the students gather from content, what they learn about themselves, and how they use that information to make themselves better.

And then I also started to see, from the way that they were designing and developing the pieces, what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong as an instructor. In the long run, I think I’m a much better instructor now than I was when I first started. I know what works. I think I know how to approach it better. I think I know how to steer students towards moving toward self-discovery. But it took a while. Now, when people talk about how do we extend this to faculty, many of whom are tenured, it raises a question: how do we get them to buy into this and really have it be meaningful?

Elizabeth: This approach changes the educational paradigm. To be involved with students in this way means that you don’t get to pull out your lecture notes you’ve been teaching from for the last twenty-five years on the history of military strategy. Right? You don’t get to do that. You have to change what you’re doing. Every time you go to back to the classroom it’s new. It’s different. It’s evolving.

Trent: That’s a key issue, one of the biggest questions: Can we trust the students? Can we trust that they learn, if we’re not watching their every move? Or we’re not controlling the parameters? Trust.

Melissa: A related question: how can we become institutions that build students’ capacities as lifelong learners? How do we, as institutions, build collaborative and deep learning capacities in our faculty? So to me, asking questions about ePortfolios is synonymous with asking questions about the future of learning. And the future is here now.

Trent: There’s another side to the trust issue. It’s so easy to produce content, now. There are so many ways to do it. But what we know about this new age, what Kathleen Yancey was talking about, is that we don’t want to do prior censorship. That doesn’t fit. Prior censorship is when we say: this is the syllabus, these are the four walls, and you follow my path. No. We have to trust the students. We’re not really able to do prior censorship anymore. But we can do post-production editing with the students. That is Web 2.0. That’s our age.

Life-Long and LifeWide Learning
Helen: It’s very important, as we implement ePortfolios, that we look at this in the context of a lifelong process, a lifelong process of self-directed learning. That’s one of the challenges I would pose to all of you, as you start implementing ePortfolio: is this something students can continue after they graduate? Not only, what types of skills and competencies are they bringing in?  But also, how is this going to fit in the rest of their lives? I’m also anxious to see some more examples of the ways you’ve brought in the community and people’s backgrounds and their lives and their families. It’s so important to educate the whole person, not just someone who meets our graduation requirements.James: For us it was reflection. It took me awhile to get that point, too. It was like, “Reflection, what does that really mean? Thinking about myself?” It boils down to thinking about choices. What brought you to this point? And what choices can you make that will take you–hopefully–where you want to go? I don’t know about all of you, but the choices that got me here were pretty hit or miss. For students–particularly students at LaGuardia, many of whom are underprivileged, who have a lot of things stacked against them–it’s even more critical to think about the choices they make. Because they have less leeway for mistakes. So, reflection becomes an issue of thinking: what’s the right choice? If that’s one thing they can take away from ePortfolios, then I think it’s a miracle.

Melissa: Another way to think about reflection is that they’re learning to find a projected self. I can project myself into the future as–I saw an example earlier–a graphic designer, as an artist/dancer/writer, all in the same person. Developing a projective capacity is a part of empowerment, or agency.

Stories and Numbers: Dealing with Accountability
Darren: But again, it’s a wider version of projective capacity than a lot of other contexts invite. It’s not saying “Project yourself as a teacher by checking off standards 1 through 8.” It’s saying “Envision what it means to be a teacher and how it connects to being someone who grew up in Nepal and someone who lives now in Queens and someone who is a mother, and how do I connect those things into a version of myself that connects with that larger profession.”Trent: That’s in strong tension with what Helen brought up before, the whole accountability push.  This group seems to be positioned very much toward the end of spectrum of ePortfolio as story, ePortfolio as narrative, personal narrative. So then, the question becomes what metrics do you use from a story to quantify results, to meet the accountability requirements?

Helen: That’s the major dilemma right now. How do we take this very rich story and assign numbers to it?

Melissa: The way we address that dilemma at Michigan, in our ePortfolio integrative learning environment, is having students self-assess around those outcomes, both quantitatively and qualitatively, at the beginning. Then they create their knowledge artifacts, they create their philosophy. They create a narrative of coherence. And while they’re doing that they’re also mapping those knowledge artifacts to outcomes. At the end they also assess again. We can take that data to accreditors–that’s what we’re doing. So I don’t experience that level of disconnect.

Elizabeth: I think the story is the road map to what’s actually in the portfolio. It’s the narration of the journey that the student has taken and the way the student understands the pieces. If you need to pull out the pieces–the research paper, for example–to demonstrate that your students have intellectual literacy or technological literacy, that’s not a problem: here it is. But the meaning is in the story. The assessors don’t necessarily care about that, but the students care about that and we care about that.

Darren: But they should! They should care about that! And we’re not taking up the real challenge if we don’t try to transform what assessors want, if we just give them numbers that have no impact on actually improving the educational enterprise. That’s hard as hell. It really is. I don’t have the perfect solution–but I don’t think we can give up on that challenge. I think that accountability can be a really good thing. I think it is important. We have got to continue to do better, and we ought to do it in a systematic way. But we ought to do it in a way that takes advantage of the really rich representations of learning we can get through the processes, the genre, and the technology related to portfolios.

Bret: I’ve served on an awards committee for the national Council for Higher Education Accreditation, giving awards for innovations in assessment of student learning. I was on the committee with all these chancellors, presidents, and the heads of accreditation agencies. And our conversations are very interesting. These folks are very smart, and they’re open to possibilities. They’re not set in stone. They’re thinking hard about how to make things work.

You know, I’m a historian, and I believe in the contingent quality of history. The future of education is not set in advance. It’s evolving, it’s in flux, and we’re part of determining how it’s going to shake out. All of us, all around the room, all of our students. We have opportunities to get in there and wrestle with it and push it this way and push it that way. We don’t have total control, but we do have some weight. We do have potential to make an impact.

If we think that an integrative approach and the questions of story and the questions of deep learning need to be part of picture, then we have capacity to open a space for that. To help make it happen. What we choose to do matters.

Darren: And it’s not as if the ePortfolio community is the only group in higher ed taking this up. In fact one of the things that’s powerful about ePortfolio as an idea and as a community is that it stands at the intersection of a number of powerful initiatives trying to transform higher ed. The discourse around Integrative Learning, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Assessment for Learning, Community Engagement, and so forth. One of the things that I like about portfolio as a concept is that it’s a place where all of these things can be connected up. It touches the concerns of all of those other communities. And we need all of those folks to make the kind of change we’re advocating.

The Faculty Role with ePortfolio
Question from audience: First of all, I sort of like the feeling in this room, like I’m in the French Resistance or something. It’s great. Also, I was interested in the comment in the keynote, about the potential demise of the professoriate in the twenty-first century. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the changing role of professors.
Trent: We’ve talked about the guide on the side for a long time, but we didn’t know what that really meant. But now we have concrete models. Companies ask the same thing about Open Source: “Are companies going to go away?” But of course, we need companies, because they provide services. IBM, ten to fifteen years ago, realized they were going to make more money from services than from selling big iron. That’s a model to think about: unbundling the parts.  Right now, the professor provides the services and controls the content. Maybe that’s changing. But that doesn’t mean that professors are going out of business. It means that they have to shift to support students doing the kinds of things LaGuardia students do, the kinds of things that Michigan students do. Discovering their stories. Provide support and guidance and then see what use we can make of it. It’s a service model. But it does depend on trust. And I don’t think most faculty, to be honest, trust their students.

Melissa: Our students get a lot of guidance and support. When they first come to class, they don’t know how to create knowledge artifacts. That’s a process and it’s really iterative. But once they have that scaffolding, they’ll have it for the rest of their lives. That will stick with them. As faculty, we are by no means obsolete. There is a great deal that we need to do. We just have to think about it in different ways.

Question from audience: There’s a parallel with online education and the open educational resources world. Some institutions, MIT included, have put all of their content online. So what would a student get from taking a course at those institutions? It’s the interaction. It’s the social construction of knowledge. That’s what you’re paying for.

Darren: There’s some unlearning that has to happen for a lot of students to take advantage of open resources and social learning networks. A lot of my students want to be told what to do, step by step. They fight tooth and nail if I ask them to take responsibility for their own learning. If they’ve been successful in school, they’ve learned to follow the old rules. It’s a challenging process to help them realize that it doesn’t have to work that way. We’ve got to help with that unlearning process.

Question from Audience: I hear you about student resistance, but I’m imagining resistance among faculty. There’s so much status attached to the whole professorial career; to give up authority so that you don’t control the agenda, you don’t control the curriculum–I can see my faculty going out of their minds. So my question is: are there models where faculty have bought in and it’s not just people like ourselves?

Elizabeth: I’m faculty! There’s a lot of faculty in the room. That goes back to the question about the future of the professoriate. So, James is in CIS [Computer Information Systems] and I’m in English. If you told us in graduate school that I was going to spend a lot of time coding Web pages and that he was going to craft reflective writing assignments, we would’ve said you were crazy. But ePortfolio pushes you as a faculty member, pushes you to get outside of your silo.  I’m not in the creative writing/poetry silo anymore. I would argue, for the future of our profession, those silos can’t exist anymore. Maybe if you present that to faculty as a philosophical challenge, you can get more buy-in. You can’t walk in to faculty and say “Everything you are doing is wrong.” You have to explain why this is a wonderful educational movement they want to get on board with.

To do that, you’ve got to invite them into the room, and you’ve got to make it okay for them to fail. Because they are going to fail. We’ve all failed, at some time or another. James and I have both failed a lot in different things that we’ve tried. But our institution has given us permission to fail and to say “Great,” not “You screwed up,” but “That’s so awesome! We’re so happy you screwed up. What did you learn from it and what are you going to do differently?” I think that what causes the fear that you’re suggesting for a lot of faculty is the idea that there are going to be huge repercussions if you walk into your classroom to do ePortfolio and you screw up.

Darren: But we’re not going to get everybody, so you’ve got to plan the way you think about portfolios on the campus so that there’s space for some people who are not going to be on board. Certainly for the next couple decades that’s going to be the case, and maybe perpetually, and you probably don’t want to waste your energy!

Bret: There need to be opportunities for differential levels of engagement.

Melissa: Also we can portfolioize the curriculum. When you do that, there’s a little piece that Darren does, a little piece that Melissa does, a little piece that Helen does, and the student owns the coherent whole. Our mantra with faculty is “three critical degrees of difference”–that’s all we’re looking for. It’s really powerful when a student creates a knowledge artifact in a faculty member’s class that then becomes part of their coherent meta-narrative, and then you can get faculty pretty pumped up about that.

Stories That Matter
Liz: I’d like to think about whose stories get to matter in our culture. We’re in an election year: how do we get to know our politicians? They publish autobiographies. They tell us their stories. We’re supposed to be invested in John McCain because he has a story of his transformation in Vietnam. Yes, that is a powerful story. Why does that story get to be more powerful than the story of my student who crossed the border illegally into the United States? As a society, what do we value? And how do we, as an educational community. say, ‘Wonderful, you’ve set the bar, you’ve said stories matter, and you’ve shared your stories with us, and that’s great.’ And now, we as an educational community say ‘Yes, stories matter, so here they are, thousands and thousands and thousands of stories, every one is as important as John McCain’s.’James: I’ve also seen the stories in ePortfolios work almost as an electronic mentor. I had one student develop his portfolio and then get a job at a major interactive firm. A lot of my students who are now taking my introductory flash courses look at that and say “Jimmy did it. These are the steps Jimmy took; these are the courses Jimmy took. It can be done. I knew Jimmy.” It’s very powerful as a model, very influential.

Helen: This is why using the ePortfolio is a way of creating a map toward the future. Helping students realize “these are my strengths.” As we get down in the secondary schools I think that’s even more important: “These are my strengths, this is where I want to go in my life, this is how I’m going to get through high school, this is what I’m going to do after I graduate, this is how to get there.”

Melissa: That goes back to why it’s important that we’re at LaGuardia right now, where we see the construction of narratives of possibility for other people to follow. Someone said it today. We’re really talking about different forms of knowledge generation. When students learn to bring their identities and backgrounds and positionalities to the formal educational enterprise; and they mash them together and they create something new–not just like, “Here I am,” but “This is what I can do. This is what I can do now.” That’s new knowledge creation. That’s the kind of epistemological shift that we need.

Making Common Cause: Electronic Portfolios, Learning, and the Power of Community

by Kathleen Yancey, Barbara Cambridge and Darren Cambridge

In Electronic Portfolio 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact, edited by Darren Cambridge,  Barbara Cambridge, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, contributors from diverse institutions of higher education in sites across two continents share their research on electronic portfolios. Here, excerpting from the conclusion to this volume, we consider how electronic portfolios provide a vehicle for a transition into the future of higher education.

In 2003 the National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (NCEPR) was formed, its purpose focused on a single large question: what difference(s) might electronic portfolios actually be making in higher education–for instance, in student learning generally, in student learning in specific disciplines, and/or as reflected in specific measures like student retention? In forming this coalition, we thus intended to assist institutions engaging students, faculty, and staff in eportfolio projects with research that would catch up with their practices. Moreover, we expected the need for such research to grow. We anticipated that as the power of electronic portfolios became more and more apparent, practitioners would want to go to scale, a move that would require agreements both about learning outcomes supported through portfolios and about infusion of resources justified by evidence. We also understood that although many faculty members were asking excellent questions about their practices, there were few designed inquiries into those practices. The coalition, first nationally based and now internationally based, was thus established to bring together practitioners ready to ask insightful questions about their practices and ready to apply findings to improve their practices and those of others.

At this point in time, some five years later, and as we reflect upon the research documented by participants in the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, a sampling of which we report here, we see three transitions central to the future of eportfolio practice:

  1. moving research from a national focus to an international articulation;
  2. transforming accountability driven by testing into richer conversations around inquiry into learning; and
  3. opening a detached, hierarchical academy to engagement across the multiple knowledge spaces of the digital world.

As important, just as the work of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research has pointed towards the coming of these transitions, so too the continuing work of the coalition will move them forward.

Moving Research from a National Focus to an International Articulation
Our initial national focus on electronic portfolio research expanded early on to a more international perspective, at least in part because we understood that not only inside but also across national boundaries eportfolio educators face similar issues that can better be addressed by international dialogue. Members of the coalition from each of the four countries represented so far–Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US–have confronted very similar challenges, among them motivating learners and teachers, integrating eportfolio practice into programs, balancing learning and assessment, working across disciplinary and professional boundaries, and supporting and evaluating reflection. Presentations by European scholars and practitioners at the conferences on eportfolios organized by the European Institute for E-Learning each of the last five years reflect all of these themes, and preliminary results from a comprehensive survey of eportfolio practice in Australia show that these issues top the agenda there as well.1 In short, bringing participants from multiple contexts to explore these issues made international sense.

Very quickly, we have seen results from this coalition-sponsored international collaboration. For example, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, a member of Cohort III, is using in its research the developmental scales for assessing reflection developed by Alverno College, a US Cohort I member. Likewise, coalition members from Stanford University (Cohort I) and the University of Waterloo (Cohort III), along with colleagues from Scotland have published a shared conceptual framework for ways eportfolios can be used to support learning throughout life.2 At the same time, we are aware of the need to go truly global. While the work of the coalition, as well as most of the published work in eportfolios, has so far focused on the Europe and the Anglophone world, the use of eportfolios is now becoming a more thoroughly global phenomenon, with important work underway in dozens of countries, including Japan, Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, and South Africa. Because eportfolio scholarship and practice as we now know it reflects distinctively Western beliefs about individual identities and institutional dynamics, more research is needed to learn how the purposes and forms change in these new cultural contexts. Put simply, how will the idea of the portfolio be transformed by educators and learners worldwide? Since an ever increasing portion of students in higher education in most Western countries also come from non-Western cultures, the answers have the potential to help the educators in the West better embrace the diversity of their learners.

Transforming Accountability Driven by Testing into Richer Conversations around Inquiry into Learning
Assessment, of course, is an integral part of the learning process. As learners develop, it is important that they receive feedback on their learning, identify how their learning occurs and progresses, and develop their own abilities as self-assessors. Formative assessments that literally help form students’ process and progress in learning are essential. Eportfolios as evidenced in Coalition projects provide opportunity for formative assessment in deep and extended ways. Through their own reflections students practice self assessment, and as students post learning objects and reflect on them, they invite response from peers, teachers, and other readers of their portfolios, both formally and informally. Then, through analyzing their own reflections and the feedback of others, students become more knowledgeable about the progress of their own learning. Eportfolios are, therefore, ideal vehicles for formative assessment.

Accountability, however, requires summative assessment, most often scaled to levels beyond the classroom or institution. Because scaling involves costs of administration, evaluation, and dissemination, governments, through a variety of accountability and accreditation systems, rely most often on one-time tests. Although literature about assessment and evaluation establishes that to be valid, assessments must be varied and multiple, one-time tests dominate both nationally and internationally. Policy decisions about funding and structuring of education are often made on insufficient data from such tests, which fail to reveal the extent or depth of student learning.

Eportfolios are an antidote to the inadequacies of testing. Even if testing is so entrenched that it is unlikely to be replaced soon, institutions and governments can build into accountability systems additional information for decision making. As described in Electronic Portfolio 2.0, several institutions–including the University of Georgia, IUPUI, and Portland State University in the United States–have demonstrated that eportfolios can provide multiple stakeholders with rich evidence of student learning that provides a compelling rationale for curricular, pedagogical, and budgetary decisions. Similarly, work in the state of Ohio to build an infrastructure that coordinates eportfolio use and availability of eportfolio evidence for decision making statewide is paralleled by the California State University system in a newer cohort of the Inter/National Coalition for Eportfolio Research. In the United Kingdom, eportfolios are a natural outgrowth of nationwide mandated Personal Development Plans. If foundation and governmental funding were channeled to support eportfolio system development in the same way that such funding has supported test development and implementation, eportfolios would emerge as essential complements to tests. More importantly, in the future they can replace testing as a more responsible method of documenting student learning, especially as institutional and governmental control of education continues to dissipate with ubiquitous sources and sites of learning.

This new world of distributed learning sites and multiple identities as teachers and learners also mandates investigation into how learning occurs in these new circumstances. One movement especially knowledgeable in such investigations, the scholarship of teaching and learning, includes as foundational practices a designed inquiry into important questions about learning with findings shared for critique and use. One reason that this movement has gained momentum internationally is that every discipline and educational environment must study the implications of new learning sites and modes in order to prosper. The growth of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning evinces the widespread commitment of educators to study and apply new knowledge concerning students’ lifelong and lifewide learning.

Educators are, however, not the only inquirers into student learning. Because they are at the center of such inquiry, students can become co-inquirers and, increasingly as they gain experience with reflection and integration, independent inquirers into learning processes and products. In their book The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons, Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings recommend that students have a greater role in discussions about learning.3 Eportfolios provide that greater role as students document, reflect on, and analyze what occurs during their own learning processes. As we see in Coalition research projects, students can participate in the intellectual work of discovering how they learn–through keeping a continuous record, making links among occasions and products of learning, and building on past experience as they move into deeper and deeper learning. When Huber and Hutchings call for “new genres and forms to document the work of teaching and learning,” they echo Peter Smith’s call for a new kind of learning passport that enables students to move among educational sites. The new genres and forms need to be transportable to many sites, understandable by multiple audiences, and guided by learners themselves, all features of electronic portfolios.

Opening a Detached, Hierarchical Academy to Engagement across the Multiple Knowledge Spaces of the Digital World: Or, How Eportfolios Help Us All Learn
As explained by Carl Raschke in The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, precisely because of the digital revolution and Web 2.0, higher education risks a fatal irrelevance. Talking specifically about the spaces where knowledge is made, he notes that the university no longer holds the monopoly on such space. One question he raises, then, is how the postmodern university can continue to maintain its relevance and authority in the twenty-first century.4

As Coalition research demonstrates, eportfolios may be the most likely vehicle to help us make the transition to an academy of the future that is both relevant and authoritative. In such an academy, higher education will welcome students’ experience in increasingly significant and transformative ways. What’s relevant here, of course, is the promise of such an academy already: in Coalition projects where a key assumption underlying research reports is that student accounts of learning can help us all understand learning differently. In other words, we invite student accounts of learning, especially through reflection, because those accounts from a Vygotskian perspective promote and enhance student learning. Inside eportfolios, where they use multiple systems of representation to map learning in new ways, however, students also help faculty learn about how learning actually works such that we all understand learning in new ways.

A few current examples can help us see how the contours of such future practice might look. In one, accounting majors at the University of Waterloo articulate and show the distinction between two outcomes: mastering concepts, which students say is not difficult, and determining the relationships linking them, which they say is. Students explain this doubly, through verbal explanation and visual map, both inside of an eportfolio. Through student articulation, we literally see distinctions between novice and expert in new ways from a student vantage point. In a second, student teachers at Virginia Tech show us another aspect of learning: how they have adopted and adapted the theory of the classroom to the everyday realities of classroom practice, and what that adaptation means for their professional futures. Such knowledge can only be made by these former students, who help us see the value of our curriculum as they enact it in real world contexts. And as members of a community, these new teachers continue–two years beyond graduation–to engage in reflective practices together, committing to a profession that in the US loses fifty percent of its early professionals within five years. And in a third, in the blogs of the University of Wolverhampton students’ eportfolios we see Web 2.0 tools enriching eportfolio learning through documentation, dialogue, and community. These practices–documentation, dialogue, and community–are characteristics of the Coalition as well, a real and virtual community of learners working on institutional projects and on projects across a larger international network.

In Sum
Over the current lifespan of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, we can see a movement from the past to the present: from implementation to designed inquiry, from formal schooling to lifelong and lifewide learning, and from local contexts to larger contexts. This reflection, pointing from the present to the future, suggests that in the future, all learners will operate more and more in an international context; that designed inquiry will become even more the purview of learners themselves; and that the digital revolution will challenge formal schooling in even more ways. Eportfolios provide a unique way to feature student inquiry and knowledge, to benefit from what technology offers as a mode of and vehicle for learning, and to place each individual’s learning in the broadest of contexts.
1. S. Lambert, L. McAllister, and C. Brooks, “Audit of ePortfolio Practice in Higher Education in Australia: Methodology, Data and Trends” (paper,  Australian ePortfolio Symposium, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, February 7, 2008). [return to text]
2. D. Tosh,  B. Werdmuller, H. Chen, T. Penny Light, and J. Haywood, “The Learning Landscape: A Conceptual Framework for ePortfolios” in A. Jafari and C. Kauffman, Handbook of Research on ePortfolios (Idea Group, 2006), 24-32. [return to text]
3. M.  Huber and P. Hutchings, The Advancement of Learning: Building a Teaching Commons (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 119-120. [return to text]
4.  C. Raschke, The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University, (London: Routledge Falmer, 2002). [return to text]

Participatory Learning and the New Humanities: An Interview with Cathy Davidson

by Randy Bass and Theresa Schlafly

Cathy Davidson is Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC (pronounced “haystack”: Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Advanced Collaboratory) and co-director of the Digital Media and Learning Competition, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Davidson talks here with Randy Bass. Interview and related materials edited by Randy Bass and Theresa Schlafly.

Bass: In the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, which featured it as a theme, “Participatory Learning” is defined this way:

Participatory Learning includes the ways in which new technologies enable learners (of any age) to contribute in diverse ways to individual and shared learning goals. Through games, wikis, blogs, virtual environments, social network sites, cell phones, mobile devices, and other digital platforms, learners can participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment upon one another’s projects, and plan, design, advance, implement, or simply discuss their goals and ideas together. Participatory learners come together to aggregate their ideas and experiences in a way that makes the whole ultimately greater than the sum of the parts.1

Why did “participatory learning” become important as an organizing theme for the DML Competition?
Davidson: Last year this competition was more wide open–one category was just innovation, another was knowledge networking. As we looked back after the competition was over we found among the winning proposals a cluster of exciting projects that were all looking at this newly enhanced, digitally enhanced, form of learning. We thought it would be interesting to do a more specialized competition on participatory learning this year and see what we came up with. We were especially interested in a form of interactive learning where the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

This builds on a method that HASTAC has been dubbing since 2002, when we first began, “collaboration by difference.” If you read much of the management literature, it’s almost always fundamentally about collaboration where you have shared goals, and shared methods or shared areas of expertise. We became interested in  this much looser way of learning, kind of mash-up learning, where people may or may not share credentials–some people might be credentialed, some people might not, and where people might have radically different training–a humanist and an artist and a cancer specialist might be talking about things together but the artist might be a cancer survivor who’s in fact educated her- or himself more than many doctors on the diverse ways that cancer might be cured. What happens if you put all of those people in conversation? What new insights emerge from interactions where the protocols for success are not scripted in advance?

We were also very interested in a third area of participatory learning: the global dimension. We’re piloting an international competition this year. In globally interactive learning, participants may not even share ideas about the basic epistemology of learning. What we’re interested in is how people can use existing digital tools–the social utility sites, social networking sites, something that looks like what some people are calling Web 2.0–to aggregate a range of responses from people who might not have anything else in common except that they’re all participating on the same site. Someone might wander in and wander off and not even be part of any pre-existing community, yet might have something interesting to share.

We’re very interested in the outcomes that happen when you don’t know the outcomes that might happen. We went back and forth over the definition of participatory learning many times. For example, we put “problem-solving” in, and then we took it out, put it in, took it out. We decided not to include it because we didn’t want to limit learning to the utilitarian. We wanted learning to be as visionary, creative, theoretical, or abstract as anybody’s imagination. Problem-solving is one thing you can do through this accretive way of learning, but we were afraid that if we put problem-solving in there, ninety percent of applications would be about problem-solving, rather than thinking in the broadest, most interesting ways about what you can do when you’re in a community with people that you may know but that you may not know. What happens if you leave your community open and invite the whole world in? In other words, when a community gets together and is talking about things, it not only defines the original problem or goal, but the goal itself might change dramatically over the course of the project. We wanted to allow for the free flow of thinking that may or may not end up solving “a problem.”

That does feel very much like the way knowledge work, or even creative work, often gets done in the world. There is a kind of fluidity to it.
The fluidity needs to happen from beginning to end. You cannot separate creative design of new technologies from critical thinking about the use, the application, the cost, the environmental impact, and the intellectual property issues, as well as all of the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationalism, religion, and region so important to humanistic study today. All of those issues have to be thought through at the same time that you’re thinking about designing technology. That’s why the Digital Media and Learning Initiative is such an interdisciplinary project. Often the people who are most skilled at making technology are not the most skilled at thinking critically about it. The people who are most skilled at thinking critically about these issues might not be the most skilled at the aesthetics and the kinesthetics of design. And so we all need to be working together. This is that model of “collaboration by difference.” We might not have anything in common except what we know to be the case about our one contribution to something. But collaboratively and collectively we can yield something more interesting at the end. But all those things have to be thought through together. What we found last year with the winners of the first competition is often they worked in teams. It might be a musician who also was proficient in computer science working with a computer scientist who loved music. The Princeton Laptop Orchestra is what I’m thinking of here. People are working across divides which seem very distant but when they actually start working out problems together it turns out they might not be so distant after all. Again the whole can be larger than the sum of the parts.

Yet, all of this feels very different from the way we educate people–let alone how research and scholarship has traditionally unfolded in the humanities.
I know. To me it’s one of the tragedies of the so-called information age. Here we have this astonishing new way that people are making knowledge together. As educators we should all be vibrating with happiness at this moment! Here are millions of people, typically unpaid, with no ulterior motive, for profit or otherwise, who are validating what we do as a profession with what they do in the spare time as a passion. That seems to suggest that all of us overworked underpaid teachers have it right, that in fact there is something about humanity that likes to learn, and likes to share its learning, and likes to participate. That’s incredible! Every time I read some professor grousing about Wikipedia–that it’s not reliable, it’s not credentialed, etc.–I say sure, of course, so what reference work is perfect? What we may give up in some instances in expertise we more than make up for in scope.  We have to have some skepticism about the products of participatory learning–skepticism is what we do as a profession. But, my God, you’re talking about billions of contributions that people are making for free to world knowledge in so many languages, from so many different traditions of knowledge-making, and on a scale that the world has never seen before. I guess part of me just doesn’t understand why this isn’t the most exciting time for all of us in our profession. Why aren’t we figuring out ways that we can use this exciting intellectual moment to bolster our mission in the world, our methods in the world, our reach in the world, our understanding of what we do and what we have to offer our students in the world? It just feels like we’re in an age where we educators should be the thought leaders and instead we’re futzing around the edges. Our profession’s lack of excitement and leadership in all the issues surrounding the information age baffles me.

Is that an objective of HASTAC, to get beyond “futzing around the edges”?

Yes. Exactly. The Mellon Foundation did a wonderful thing–they invited the directors of all these humanities institutes to New York back in 2002. Harriet Zuckerman, Senior Vice President of the Mellon Foundation, invited me to talk to the directors of all these other institutes about what we were doing. This is when I was the co-director and co-founder of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke along with our dean, the literary scholar Karla F. C. Holloway. The Franklin Humanities Institute was at the epicenter of the much larger intellectual crossroads called the Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. It wasn’t an isolated, hermit-like space but was in the center of the newest, most active intellectual space on campus. We were the new kids on the block, and we had this new idea that knowledge was important enough to be shared, not just among humanists but with all academics and with the general public. We were designing technologies to make our knowledge as public as possible. And we were holding weekly public forums, with a free lunch and free parking (crucial technologies!), to make even the most specialized knowledge available, accessible, and urgent.

This was 2002 and a lot of folks there had the attitude: “We’re humanists now, we have to fight technology.” But a couple of us felt the opposite. We were trying to say, “Wait, it’s the information age! This is our era! This is what we’ve been waiting for! The humanities finally are central. We should be the voice of the information age! We have historical knowledge, we have critical tools, we know what information is, we have whole fields dedicated to understanding what knowledge and information are in this age, why isn’t this our moment?” It was a great meeting. After we left, many of us resolved that the heads of as many humanities institutes as possible should come together to start a new organization that would be not digital humanities in the sense of archiving and tools, but as a new way of  thinking about the human issues that are touched by absolutely every aspect of technology. If we were going to design tools, they should be tools that would help in the larger sense to promote thinking, and sharing of ideas, and learning together.

So that’s the HASTAC origin story. We didn’t have the term participatory learning back then, of course–that’s a relatively new term. But social learning, creatively designing tools, and thinking critically about the role of technology in human life and in all aspects of society, were what we were pushing from the very beginning.

This shift, it seems, is not just about “digital humanities,” but humanities in general. In a piece you published in PMLA this year you called it “Humanities 2.0,” where you said

Humanities 2.0 is distinguished from monumental, first-generation, data-based projects not just by its interactivity but also by an openness about participation grounded in a different set of theoretical premises, which decenter knowledge and authority. Additional concepts decentered by Web 2.0 epistemologies include authorship, publication, refereeing, collaboration, participation, customizing, interdisciplinarity, credentialing, expertise, norms, training, mastery, hierarchy, taxonomy, professionalism, rigor, excellence, standards, and status.2

Where in particular do you see resistance in the humanities around the idea of participatory learning? 
I think it butts up against a number of issues. One is hierarchy and credentialing. If we’re going to be thinking about participatory or social learning, what does that do to the idea of expertise? I personally don’t think it really undermines it it, but many of the formal ways that we evaluate good work–mainly peer review–will undergo a significant transformation, at least expansion. As I said in the piece in PMLA,

The very concept of peer review needs to be defined and interrogated. We use the term as if it were self-explanatory and unitary, and yet who does and does not count as a peer is complex and part of a subtle and often self-constituting (and circular) system of accrediting and credentialing (i.e., “good schools” decide what constitutes a “good school”). We peer-review in different modes in different circumstances. (I’ve known some kind teachers to be savage conference respondents–and vice versa.) Humanities 2.0 peer review extends and makes public the various ways in which we act as professionals judging one another and contributing to one another’s work, whether subtly or substantively.3

David Theo Goldberg and I wrote a draft of a book called The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age that’s been up for the last year on the Institution for the Future of the Book collaborative website, so that any human in the world is allowed to give us feedback and make comments on our book and on our ideas. As I wrote in the PMLA piece, it’s a little scary to have “track changes” available to the world, to anybody who has an internet connection and wants to register. Most of us don’t put our work up to that kind of scrutiny when it’s in draft form. That’s pretty terrifying. So I have some empathy for people who have these resistances to Humanities 2.0.

Despite the terrifying nature of laying out your work, you say in the PMLA piece that it has been worth it. Again, to quote your PMLA piece:

Is this new process worth the trouble? Immeasurably. The project has exposed us to bibliographies from many different fields, to the specific uses of terminologies (and their histories) within fields. It has been one of the most fluidly interdisciplinary exchanges that I have yet experienced. It has also taught me how one’s words can signal meanings one didn’t intend. Reader response is humbling; it is also illuminating. So much of what passes in our profession for response is actually restatement of one’s original premises. In an interactive collaborative exchange, one often gains a better sense of assumptions unfolding, a process that helps make one’s unstated premises visible (especially to oneself).4

That seems like the “peer review” version of what you called earlier “collaboration by difference.” Do you see this becoming common practice?  
I don’t think it is yet clear how much radical reorganization people in the humanities and social sciences want to do. If you carry through the conclusions of social and participatory learning, you come to deep issues that our fields may not wish to interrogate; we pass on these assumptions, often unspoken ones, from generation to generation. I’m teaching a class next semester called “The Early American Novel and Other Fictions.”  Talking about this course, I commented recently on a blog that every term in that title has to be interrogated, because that is what English studies are based on. Early–periodization. American–nation. Novel–genre. So, periodization, genre, and nation are the pillars of how we post job offers, how we recruit people to English departments, how we define our field, how we define specializations.5

Can you say more about how participatory learning potentially destabilizes disciplinary categories? Is it because it reorganizes expertise?
Let’s stay with the example of English departments and their reliance on periodization, genre, and nationalism. Personally, I’m not sure that any of those categories is relevant anymore, to the intellectual world we live in today or to the ways most of us do research. We are always reaching back, no matter what our field, to other sources, earlier examples, and we are constantly casting about in contemporary theory for constructs that help us to see our field more clearly. Ideas rarely have genres and rarely have national borders. Most of us know that.  Yet to redefine what is important in a productive way to the field itself requires enormous upheaval. It isn’t easy to redefine your field and interrogate its most basic structuring principles. It requires a lot of work and results in a lot of acrimony and often the result is backlash that lands you back where you started, but with irreparably bruised, battered, and bitter colleagues. That’s one reason people create new interdisciplinary fields or even virtual organizations such as HASTAC. It is far easier to start new interdisciplinary movements from scratch with like-minded individuals than to try to change existing disciplines from inside. I always believe that if the new field succeeds, if it generates intellectual excitement, then it will feed back into and change the traditional discipline in a far more productive way, in the end, than engaging in departmentally-based attempts at disciplinary reform. And if the excitement is elsewhere, and departments dig in their heels and refuse to respond to it, their enrollments inevitably shrink, and they shrink into irrelevance. So be it.  Those are choices that disciplines make.

What if we turn from the humanities as a profession to the “classroom.” Should we be teaching students how to be effective participatory learners? How do we cultivate critical participatory learners or participatory knowledge creators?
I think that students are fabulous at participatory learning outside the classroom. When they are in the classroom, at any institution of higher learning, they have succeeded their entire life by excelling in a hierarchical model of learning of the kind that Ichabod Crane would be quite familiar with. To switch to the flickr “this photo sucks” kind of learning in an educational setting where–at least metaphorically–you’re used to sitting in rows, looking straight ahead to the teacher, handing in your work on time, getting your A from the teacher, doing what’s necessary to get that A, passing your PSATs, passing your SATs with flying colors, taking after-school cram school in order to do better on your SATs: after a lifetime of such preparation, it’s really hard to switch modes. I mean, we’ve been training kids from infancy.

We know that even two-year-olds recognize when they are in “teaching situations.” Infant developmental studies show that when you address toddlers in teaching mode, they sit straighter, their pupils dilate, they turn their heads less. By the time they are 18, they think education is this posture of attention to superiors who have knowledge to impart to them–the whole hierarchy. Kids who are coming into college now were born around 1991, 1990. So we’ve had a whole generation not just trained in Web 2.0, but also in the fact that once you enter the schoolroom, Web 2.0 is over. It’s not easy to teach them how to integrate the participatory learning from their social interactions and online extracurricular life into an educational setting that, structurally, remains entirely Ichabodian. You can’t exactly say “Participate freely or I’ll smack you with this (institutional) yardstick!” Right now, for most students, the Internet’s openness is like a dirty secret you’re not allowed to talk about in front of your teachers. The whole system of credentialing, grading, evaluating, writing recommendations, all of that, is antithetical to true participatory learning formats and learning communities. Higher education has never figured out if its primary goal is learning or if its primary goal is training citizens for elite positions of class power and leadership. The whole system of ranking (among institutions and among students) is based on “distinctions,” as Bourdieu would say. Participatory learning, especially when it is anonymous, contests the bases and even the sanctity of many of those distinctions.

Do you think it would be possible, either within the HASTAC network or outside of it, to have some kind of thriving community among higher education faculty that would actually help us understand what we are learning, help people make sense of where participatory pedagogies are going?
Yes, I think a lot of it is happening already, even if it is around the edges. As I’ve said, change happens from the edge and then moves back into the center so this is as it should be, although I wish it were happening far faster. A lot of new networks are being formed, such as Classroom 2.0 which is mostly for high school teachers. Or, for example, Savage Minds is this great collaborative blog in anthropology that a number of young scholars have started which is getting enough attention that some people within the cultural anthropology establishment have even worried about it, asking, Hey, how come you are making pronouncements? What entitles you? Who gave you permission? What gives you the right to comment on anthropology? Every field needs the equivalent of Savage Minds. And that is happening, more and more.

Within HASTAC, we have an exciting new program which gives intellectual leadership not just to junior faculty but to graduate and even some undergraduate students and some practitioners in the field. We asked board members to support with a very modest fellowship ($300 per student) up to six students per institution whom they would nominate as HASTAC Scholars. The selection was rigorous and so the director of the program, Erin Gentry Lamb (who is herself a doctoral student at Duke), wrote each HASTAC Scholar an impressive letter signaling for them, their chairs, and their deans, and for future employers that they have been chosen to be the intellectual leaders of a new field.  We now have fifty-six HASTAC scholars representing twenty-one institutions. They can blog any time they want about what’s happening at their institutions, what’s happening around the world, what’s happening in their intellectual lives. Every two or three weeks a HASTAC Scholar also hosts an online forum, typically using SEESMIC (a vlog-to-vlog format) as well as blogs with discussion boards.  We’ve had HASTAC Scholars forums on teaching in Second Life and other metaverses, on fair use, on academic electronic publishing, and on the role of history in the study of new media. A HASTAC Scholar also co-hosted a forum with Howard Rheingold (Smart Mobs) and over 6000 people tuned in and many participated in that forum on participatory learning.  The HASTAC Scholars themselves model the excitement with their own work across many different fields.

What were the key themes of that Forum? Where did he locate learning issues in relation to participatory learning?
In that Forum, Rheingold talked about how we should think about social media environments as where today’s students live, and how he has observed that “student-led collaborative inquiry, and some student involvement in the selection and application of the texts to that inquiry, enlists their enthusiasm in ways that even very good lectures and excellent texts and otherwise excellent class discussions don’t.”  In that session, he emphasized the importance of helping students to develop “meta-skills” of critical inquiry around these media. For example, he thinks some of his most effective teaching happens when he doesn’t lay out the connections in the material too clearly, leaving the students to develop what he calls “the meta-skill of path-finding.” Or, and this goes back to our discussion on peer review, he talks about how the responsibility for questioning the authority of the text belongs not to the publisher but to the readers. He also describes the “meta-skill of developing an individual voice in a collaborative environment.”6

That sounds like the application of participatory learning to the project of educational transformation itself!

Yes, that’s the point. With these HASTAC Scholar forums, we have the most exciting group of  undergraduates and graduate students putting their interests out there, and showing their professors and advisors how much interest there is in these new intellectual areas. What we’re doing is saying, Let’s jump ahead by going directly to the students to see what their interests are and let’s support those interests in every way we can. Let’s see if we can’t push education in a Web 2.0 way through a network we’re creating from the students on up instead of from the top down. But we certainly give them a safety net in the fact that they are nominated by scholars who are among the most respected in the country. We don’t want young scholars to have to fight this fight; we want to be able to support their future by exemplifying what they contribute rather than “plea bargaining” for it. In other words, instead of trying to preach to people who aren’t converted yet, we’re trying to build strength and networks and solidarity and credentialing and refereeing and respectability for the people who are there, on the assumption that if something’s really exciting, people gravitate to it. We are positive that being an active and visible presence in the HASTAC Scholars program will be an asset when these students are pursuing their careers. What will be exciting is when, a few years out, we turn to these assistant professors and have them nominate their best students as HASTAC Scholars.

HASTAC is a virtual community of about 1700 members. It is voluntary and very loose. No dues. If you participate, you’re likely to be put on the Steering Committee.  It is what people want it to be, and decentralization is key. We advertise one another’s projects and work and, if we do the advertising, then the home institution credits HASTAC as one of the contributors to the project. Other viral communities are springing up. At present, I think this is the right way to go. Maybe that will change but, at present, it seems as if it would be exactly wrong to try to capture the flux.  It’s better, I think, to try to ride this moment of transition as the Information Age changes just about every aspect of social interaction, political organization, intellectual exchange, and, more slowly but surely, education. Personally, I think it would be wrong to institutionalize because institutions move far more slowly than the Information Age. We live in a time where we all need to relax a little and accept the fact that we live in one of the world’s great, epistemic eras of communication and information and intellectual transformation. We cannot stop it.  And I, for one, wouldn’t want to. The best we can do, as true intellectuals, is for each of us to work to understand how what we are doing best capitalizes upon, helps us all to understand, and in other ways appreciates the fact that we live in one of the most exciting and challenging ages in recent human history. As we HASTAC’ers keep saying, this is not the age of technology. It is the age of information. We educators, we human and social scientists, need to accept that this is our age and take up the challenge.


1. HASTAC Initiative, “Digital Media and Learning Competition,” . [return to text]
2. Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (May 2008): 711-712, [return to text]
3.  Davidson, 711. [return to text]
4. Davidson, 712-713. [return to text]
5. Cathy Davidson, “This is Your Brain on the Internet,” (blog entry, Sept. 8, 2008), and “Youth in the Humanities Fourth Great Internet Age,” (blog entry, Sept. 19, 2008), . [return to text]
6. HASTAC Scholars Discussion, “HASTAC welcomes Howard Rheingold for a discussion on participatory learning” (Aug. 24, 2008), . [return to text]