The Collaborative Liberal Arts Moodle Project: A Case Study

by Joanne Cannon, Joseph Murphy, Jason Meinzer, Kenneth Newquist, Mark Pearson, Bob Puffer and Fritz Vandover

What is CLAMP?
The Collaborative Liberal Arts Moodle Project (CLAMP) is an effort by several schools to support continued and sustainable collaborations on Moodle development at liberal arts institutions. Moodle is an open-source learning management system designed with social constructivist pedagogy as part of its core values. With highly-customizable course pages, faculty can organize course material by week or by topic and add modules, resources and activities that help students meet learning objectives by encouraging collaboration and interaction. While the lack of licensing fees initially attracts many campuses, the flexibility of working with an open source tool also becomes a real advantage, allowing for additional customization to meet the specific needs of the institution.

Moodle is well-supported through its core developers and the large community at, but CLAMP has a different focus: the issues and challenges unique to four-year liberal arts colleges using Moodle. By creating a smaller network of Moodle users with a tighter focus on the liberal arts, we are able to undertake development projects which none of us could accomplish alone. CLAMP develops community best practices for supporting Moodle, establishes effective group processes for documentation and fixing bugs, and better connects our institutions to the thriving Moodle community worldwide. Put briefly, by partnering programmers and instructional technologists across multiple institutions, CLAMP lowers the practical barriers to supporting and adapting this open source software.

To better understand CLAMP, it is helpful to look at the lexical components of the acronym:

  • Collaborative: True participatory collaboration between member institutions is the motor of the project through a consensus process. Artifacts collaboratively produced from online and in-person gatherings are significant, benefiting all liberal arts Moodle institutions.
  • Liberal Arts: While the liberal arts educational model is almost exclusively represented by institutions in the United States, we believe that the core values of this model–“critical thinking, broad academic interests, and creative, interdisciplinary knowledge” are embraced by many educational institutions worldwide.1 They are also critical for the Moodle community. Indeed, a cursory dig into the support forums of the developers, users, and managers mother site exposes rich seams of liberal arts values in the strata of developers, users, and managers. Here you find core characteristics of a liberal arts education reflected in both the outcomes and the artifacts of CLAMP activities (such as the Moodle Liberal Arts Edition, bug fixes, documentation) and the process by which they are produced.
  • Moodle: As the premier open source learning management system, Moodle is a model of the open source sharing, cooperative and empowering collaborative ethic. And for CLAMP, the relationship with the larger Moodle community is symbiotic and synergistic–all bug fixes are reported back to the Moodle tracker for inclusion into the core, the Moodle Liberal Arts Edition is made freely available, and CLAMP members take an active role in voting on issues raised in the development community.
  • Project: While the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) has nurtured CLAMP for the past year through the NITLE’s Instructional Innovation Fund, the universal approach of CLAMP broadens its appeal to campuses beyond NITLE and even beyond the confines of North America. It is important to note, however, that our focus is exclusively on liberal arts educative goals. While we certainly recognize K-12 concerns, research university needs and distance education imperatives, these are not addressed through this project.

The technical culmination of these efforts over the last year is the Moodle Liberal Arts Edition distribution. It includes all third party modules and add-ons commonly used by our institutions; bug-fixes of critical importance to our schools; functions that simplify the user’s experience; and backend tools to give Moodle administrators better information about how their systems are being used. Although all CLAMP bug-fixes are contributed back to the Moodle core project, this distribution gathers the collective work and wisdom of the institutional network, simplifying the job of finding and installing each vetted patch or module.

Origins of the Project
CLAMP traces its origins back to 2006, when a small group of  representatives from liberal arts institutions gathered at Reed College to discuss the potential of a collaboration focused on improving Moodle. The following year, as Moodle was being adopted by a growing number of institutions across the country and the world, this circle of schools was expanded and the NITLE showed interest in providing support. An active support network developed as NITLE arranged two Moodle user community meetings and provided infrastructure for the online NITLE Moodle Exchange. Leading members of the NITLE Moodle Exchange organized two collaborative programming and documentation events called “Hack-Doc Fests” to bring programmers and educational technologists from twelve different institutions together in one place. Six of the schools–Earlham College, Lafayette College, Luther College, Kenyon College, Macalaster College, Reed College and Smith College–received a $43,000 award from NITLE’s Instructional Innovation Fund to continue and formalize their efforts.

Collaborative Projects
Since its inception, CLAMP has initiated three major projects: a Web-based workspace, a usability testing initiative, and the collaborative Hack/Doc Fests described in greater detail below. The Web-based workspace was essential to all three projects; we needed a private place to discuss, document and track our projects, as well as a front-end tool for sharing our completed efforts with the world. The end result was, which uses Redmine (an open source, Web-based collaboration suite) to provide project committees with online discussion forums, project trackers, and wikis, and WordPress (an open source, light-weight content management system) for public content.

To guide our development efforts, we designed a usability testing initiative to identify problem areas in Moodle. This involved asking faculty and students to complete tasks they were likely to encounter in Moodle, such as uploading files and grading assignments, and for students, responding to forum posts and editing personal profiles. After identifying the tasks, we purchased screen capture software for Windows (Camtasia Studio) and Mac (Screenflow), and conducted ten tests at five colleges. The results of these tests helped guide our development efforts.

The Hack/Doc Fest is a unique effort that brings coders and instructional technologists together to fix bugs, develop new functionality, and document features in Moodle. The name comes from “hacking” (a slang term that refers to digging into code to find and fix problems) and “documentation” (referring to the instructional technologist side of the event). But this is not a conference or a workshop. Instead, it is a chance for Moodle enthusiasts to focus on getting work done. Prior to the events we poll our community for features they would like added or documented. When we arrive on site, we spend an hour or so triaging these requests, factor in our own ongoing projects, and then launch into three days of coding and writing. The event has become the cornerstone of our collaborative efforts, as it gives us dedicated time to focus on improving the software and adding functionality essential to our campuses.
Photo: Courtney Bentley (Lafayette) works on a documentation project at Hack/Doc Fest at Smith College while Charles Fulton (Kalamazzo), Jason Alley (Lafayette), Dan Wheeler (Colgate) and Cort Haldman (Furman, back row) discuss a coding project.

Not surprisingly, the Hack/Doc Fest played a pivotal role in both the and usability efforts. Our initial experiments with Redmine began at Hack/Doc Fest at Reed College in January 2009 and the first drafts of our usability test scripts were written there as well. As the Spring 2009 semester progressed, we increasingly relied on Redmine to coordinate our efforts. By our second Hack/Doc Fest at Smith College in June 2009, we were able to use the software to track all of our bugs, features, and documentation requests. By the end of the event we had created or upgraded a host of new tools including the following:

  • Census report: a tool for auditing active courses in Moodle
  • Simple file upload: a script allowing faculty to quickly upload files to Moodle, bypassing the normally cumbersome upload script
  • Current course block: a content block that allows Moodle to display courses from the current and upcoming terms
  • TinyMCE integration: a new WYSIWYG editor that replaces the outdated, buggy editor that ships with Moodle
  • Random course generator: a program that randomly creates hundreds of courses and assignments in Moodle, allowing developers to quickly test a medium-scale LMS installation
  • Code repository: established this version control repository based on the open source Subversion software that allows our developers to easily make and track code changes

On the instructional technologist side, new documentation was created explaining how to use Moodle 1.9.5’s newly-revised gradebook, which introduced a number of new features and usability enhancements. Based on feedback from the larger CLAMP community, the instructional technologists also crafted documentation for Moodle’s “groups” and “roles” functions. (Groups and roles are powerful concepts in Moodle and allow administrators and faculty to customize the LMS to their needs, but they can also be a challenge to implement. The documentation addresses that.)

As our online and off-line efforts progressed, it became clear that we needed some mechanism for collecting and distributing our work. This realization led to the creation of our liberal arts edition of Moodle, which pulls together our finished code into one easy-to-install package available for download from Our Subversion repository and documentation, crafted to be generic enough to be used at any college, is available through the Web site as well.

Participation and Funding 
Two years ago programmers and instructional technologists  from a half-dozen colleges saw a need–and an opportunity–to fix bugs and brainstorm solutions that were unique to using Moodle in a liberal arts environment. It was an ad hoc meeting, with each college paying its own way and the agenda created on a day-to-day basis. Flash forward to the present day–we have had seventeen NITLE member institutions participate in CLAMP, including attending a Hack-Doc event, contributing to the discussion regarding prioritizing needs, performing usability testing, fixing bugs in Moodle or creating and sharing documentation of the gradebook, groups and other features. What started off as a singular event has quickly become something more and in the process we have needed to find a way to govern and fund ourselves effectively.

To that end, we established a steering committee consisting of representatives from seven member colleges. This group organizes Hack-Doc events, prioritizes major projects, and handles financial matters. We have also established a number of other committees, including ones dedicated to code development and documentation. On the funding side, we established a membership fee of $300. Based on an initial membership of fifteen colleges, this will provide us with sufficient funds to cover our basic operating expenses, such as, the code repository and licensing fees.

Once registered with CLAMP, colleges receive access to the development server that hosts our Web site and groupware suite. In addition to typical development tools, the development server provides custom commands that automate all of the busywork involved in setting up a new instance of Moodle. If, as happens quite frequently, a developer needs to test something in a “clean” installation of Moodle, she can create one in seconds with one command and then delete it just as easily when she’s done. The combination of single sign-on and Moodle-oriented workflow tools alleviates some of the major pain points for system administrators and developers alike.

Logistical Lessons Learned
Any collaboration across institutions will have significant logistical hurdles to overcome. Since CLAMP has always desired to build a broad and active membership, we gave these areas particular attention from the start. Here we present some of our lessons learned, in the belief that CLAMP’s experiences, and even our hardships, can be useful information for other collaborative open source projects.

Misadventures in Web Conferencing 
Clearly we need to be able to talk to one another from our different campuses. For that, the CLAMP steering committee relies on bi-weekly Web conferences in order to manage the planning, oversight, and logistics. NITLE’s current Web conferencing software, Marratech, has provided CLAMP with a fairly stable platform from which to conduct these sessions. But Google’s recent acquisition of Marratech and decision to discontinue supporting it in the future compelled us to explore other options, including DimDim (, Twiddla ( and Skype ( Unfortunately, we have yet to find a viable alternative to Marratech. DimDim uses a “few-to-many” presentation style that only allows for four speakers–not enough for our five- or six-person committee meeting. Twiddla has an excellent whiteboard, but poor audio quality. Skype is useful for small conference calls, but doesn’t scale well and lacks white board support. While Marratech would occasionally crash and had audio-issues, it worked best for our purposes. Fortunately, NITLE has recently begun rolling out Elluminate and we are hoping that this online conferencing tool will be the magic bullet we’ve been looking for.

Our misadventures illustrate another advantage to our collaboration: bringing together technically-savvy individuals ready and willing to try out new software. Not only were we willing to try new things, we weren’t afraid to fail while doing. We braved microphone malfunctions, software crashes, terrible audio and video quality and other setbacks that casual users might not have had the patience for. The lesson is twofold: if you have the people and the time, use them to try new things. And if you begin collaborating extensively on one project, you can’t help but start to do the same on others.

Finding Convenient Meeting Times
Colleges and universities are lucky to have set academic calendars that govern the ebb and flow of their work, but that doesn’t mean it is easy finding blocks of time to work with one another. Navigating our weekly schedules for video conferencing is challenging enough, but finding a three or four days of time when our member colleges can get together for our Hack/Doc Fest work sessions is far more difficult. Not only do we need to work around academic terms, but we have to anticipate Moodle’s release cycle and consider our own internal software release cycles. For example, meeting in August would not only put us in the middle of the start-of-term crush for most of our colleges, but any code and documentation we started developing then would likely not be ready in time for September. Coupled with the tendency of Moodle to release new editions in late spring and early summer, we decided an early June session was best.

Software bugs wait for no developer, and we knew that we would need to follow up our summer session with another meeting six months later. Finding a time during the academic year was difficult; we finally scheduled the follow-up in January 2009, and had good participation from the our member institutions while June saw a greatly increased participation from both new and returning institutions. The increased June participation is due in part to heavier marketing of the Hack-Doc Fest, our choice to schedule Hack/Doc immediately after NIS Moodle Camp, and a general influx of NITLE schools beginning to use Moodle. We have discovered that it is important not to underestimate the potential for scheduling conflicts. What may be four weeks of pristine January quiet for one college may be a frenzy of winter terms, off-campus programs and special events at another school.

Development Collaboration Platform 
It is impossible to collaborate without communication. And when those collaborators are spread out across the country and working on a dozen-odd projects simultaneously, it is essential that they have some way of keeping track of who is doing what. Finding the software tools to support this collaboration was an essential step for CLAMP.

We began by using the NITLE Moodle Exchange (NME)–a Moodle instance hosted by NITLE–to plan our Hack/Doc Fests and report bugs while turning to a Google Code Project to provide version control. We quickly outgrew both. While Moodle is useful for online conversations, its sub-par wiki  and lack of a bug tracking tool would have played havoc with our developers’ workflows. At the same time, our long-term plans involved deploying a public Web site of our own, outside of the NME. We considered using Moodle for this, as it supports a barebones home page news forum, but we felt it would be an awkward fit. Moodle is about enabling classroom conversations, not serving Web pages to an anonymous public.

Because of our two very different needs, we decided to use two different tools. WordPress, an open source, lightweight content management system, powers our public Web site. For our ongoing development needs we turned to Redmine, for its robust wiki and issue tracking tools, as well as integration with version control. Tight integration between Redmine’s components means that it easily and automatically builds hyperlinks between the bugs, wiki pages, files and other resources that it’s tracking. Finally were were able to bind Redmine and WordPress together using a single signon solution called CoSign. This was critical, as it prevented a proliferation of one-off usernames and passwords and insured that people could spend their time working, not trying to remember their login information.

The system wasn’t perfect. Redmine has a learning curve, and it took a concerted effort by our developers and instructional technologists to learn the system. Even once we had mastered Redmine’s feature set, we had to spend considerable time organizing it and figuring out what workflows would be best for code, documentation, and event planning. In the end, it worked well. We used it extensively at our fourth Hack/Doc Fest at Smith College to track our progress. That in turn meant it was easy to pick up where we left off when we returned to our home campuses and concentrated on finishing the work we had started at Smith. The key wasn’t the software though–it was identifying what we needed to make our online collaboration work, and then finding the tools that fit those needs.

Usability testing
It is easy to complain about the shortcomings of an application’s user interface, but harder to quantify those shortcomings. One of CLAMP’s premier objectives in 2008-2009 was to conduct usability tests with faculty and students at our member campuses. The goal of these tests was to identify problem areas in Moodle to be fixed at one of our Hack/Doc Fest sessions. Before we could conduct the tests though, we had to establish a protocol: What questions would be used? How would the tests be administered? What software would we use to capture the results?

Developing the scripts was relatively straightforward; we drew from our own previous experiences and insights from Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.2 Establishing the testing protocol was more difficult. After a few test runs, we determined that having two facilitators–one taking notes, the other one conducting the test–worked best, but as with video conferencing, finding the right software was a time-consuming ordeal.

While open source worked well for our Web ventures, after quite a bit of research and testing, we concluded that open source options for screencasting software were unreliable and limited in functionality. Ultimately we chose Screenflow for the Mac platform and Camtasia Studio for the PC, for their ease of use and their ability to cleanly capture the screen action with a video inset of the user from the computer’s Webcam. After several tests the formula for software setup was finalized allowing a smooth use of either package.

A best practice in usability testing is to not assist users when they have trouble but to objectively document their problem-solving process. As the usability tests unfolded, we found this approach was difficult to implement on our campuses. The instinct to help people solve a problem is strong, particularly among instructional technologists, and all of us had to balance the need to gather usability information against faculty or student frustration with the test. This tension led to very different approaches to conducting the tests that only became apparent afterward. While we were still able to gather useful data from the tests, this is an area we will need to discuss before the next round of testing.

As for the tests themselves, they revealed what might have been obvious–that the instructor’s task to use Moodle is more complicated and therefore, more difficult to master than the student’s task. Particularly troublesome areas included the gradebook, the file upload interface, and the collaborative editing of documents within Moodle.

We are still analyzing the student results, which points to another major issue with usability testing that we hadn’t anticipated: the time it would take to analyze data. We conducted a total of ten tests at five colleges, with each test generating twenty to sixty minutes worth of video footage. While our facilitators did take notes on each presentation, none of those notes were time-indexed. This in turn made it difficult for anyone other than the facilitator to go back and look for a specific problem mentioned in the notes, and sitting down to watch all of the video would take days. We also ran into issues with the quality of the video results; while most turned out fine, some experienced technical issues that caused the audio to be lost. Going forward we plan to review our usability tasks, create a more detailed testing protocol, and come up with a system for time-indexing the videos on the fly.

The goal of the Instructional Innovation Fund grant from NITLE was to turn a loosely-knit group of higher education institutions with a shared interest in Moodle into a coherent, sustainable association. We have accomplished that, creating not only an organizational framework for carrying our work forward, but a software framework as well. With the release of the Moodle Liberal Arts Edition, we have provided a mechanism for distributing our work back to the larger Moodle community as well as to our peer institutions. Along the way, we have discovered the limitations of videoconferencing, the value of open source, Web-based collaboration tools, and the inadequacies of open source video-capture software. We’ve also learned much about what works and what doesn’t when conducting usability tests.

Looking to the future, our next challenges are clear. Solidifying our software development protocols to streamline releases of future versions of the Moodle Liberal Arts is of critical importance. We have the tools, now we just need to master them. Similarly, with a large number of new schools joining our ranks, we’ll need to ensure that our participation model holds up, and that the new recruits feel every bit as involved as the old ones. As part of that, we will also need to review our approach to Hack/Doc Fests to ensure they remain well attended and productive even as many of our institutions face declines in funding. Pursuing more regional Hack/Doc Fests is one option. Looking for additional grant opportunities is another.

We are optimistic that we will be able to achieve these goals. CLAMP’s established a two-year track record of working together, both online and off. While the financial landscape has changed, our commitment to working together to improve Moodle for our respective campuses has not.

1. Michelle Glaros, “The Dangers of Just-In-Time Education,” Academic Commons (6/10/2005), . [return to text]
2. Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: New Riders Pub, 2006); Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd ed. (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2007). [return to text]

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]