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Logo for CLE teaching collaborative, featuring four squares with circles that resemble students or teachers, themselves arranged facing each other in a square.
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Collaboration, Risk, and Pedagogies of Care: Looking to a Postpandemic Future

Abstract

Teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for many important, and often long overdue conversations in education and, hopefully, longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. In May 2020, Dr. Molly Buckley-Marudas and Dr. Shelley Rose, Associate Professors at Cleveland State University, founded the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC). This interdisciplinary group of instructors and instructional support professionals from Pre-Kindergarten to Higher Education emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. Through case studies of teaching, monthly discussions, and curation of resources, members of Cleveland Teaching Collaborative have developed a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future. This article articulates three main areas of pandemic pedagogy and our vision for critical changes in education: cross-collaboration that honors distributed expertise, prioritization of people that enacts pedagogies of care, and risk-taking that sets the stage for the #postpandemicteacher.

Introduction

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020, higher education and PK–12 schools abruptly transitioned to remote teaching and learning. In a matter of days, teachers at all levels of education were required to move face-to-face classes to remote, web-based contexts. Although instructors drew on their knowledge of the expansive existing body of research on remote teaching and learning, as well as a diverse range of educational resources, the spring 2020 transition to a remote context occurred without the benefit of additional time, training, or reflection. Without a blueprint for teaching and learning in a pandemic, teachers at all levels and in different institutional contexts hustled to find new and innovative ways to provide accessible, high-quality learning opportunities for all students. Like the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative (CTC) educators, all teachers imagined and enacted a still-evolving collection of pandemic pedagogies. Charged with tending to the pressing needs of their students, their communities, and their own families, our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has revealed that educators at all levels cultivated pedagogies of care and a culture of risk taking in their classrooms. The realities of the pandemic, from illness, death, and social isolation to increased unemployment, housing instability, and food insecurity, suggest that educators are teaching in an emergency.

We approach our work with the belief that what educators are learning during the COVID-19 era is useful for teaching and learning in this immediate moment, yet we also believe that what we learn during this crisis is critical to the future of education. In keeping with the call for this special issue, we consider: “How do we use what we’ve learned from teaching in and through an ‘emergency’ as a rehearsal for the future?” This network, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, was designed to bring together PK–university educators in Northeast Ohio to reflect on, write about, and discuss their individual experiences in these times. This work has implications for how educators and school administrators could create more connected, innovative, and humanizing spaces of learning in the future by normalizing pedagogies of care and supporting instructors to implement new strategies to enhance learning for all students.

Pandemic Pedagogies

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living in a state of uncertainty and, according to Sharon Ravitch, “an indefinite state of flux.”  In this moment of uncertainty, both relational and educational, Ravitch calls for “flux pedagogy” (Ravitch 2020). Flux pedagogy answers the urgent need for a flexible and humanizing approach to education. Flux pedagogy integrates critical relational frameworks into a complex adaptive pedagogical approach that identifies and addresses lived problems as a form of radical action.” We have also seen increased attention to and extension of prepandemic scholarship on critical pedagogy and humanizing pedagogy frameworks. Both traditions center students’ lives and histories and emphasize the significance of social and cultural contexts. Likewise, scholars and practitioners have emphasized the need for culturally sustaining pedagogies (Paris 2012; Paris and Alim 2020), culturally responsive pedagogies (Ladson-Billings 1995), and trauma-informed pedagogies, all of which aim to honor and be responsive to students’ lived realities. Critical educational technology scholars (Mehta and Aguilera 2020; Shelton, Aguilera, Gleason, and Mehta 2020, 125–129) have conceptualized a “critical humanizing pedagogies” framework to center pedagogies of care and decenter educational technology. Pandemic era teaching has raised attention around pedagogies of care (Rolon-Dow 2005) that tend to the examination of power, social location and access to any other resources in a relational context and recognize that learning happens in the context of relationships.

We have also seen a call for educators to cultivate what Michael Nakkula and Andy Danilchick refer to as an “uncertainty mindset” (2020, 14–33). According to their guide, “Planning for Uncertainty: An Educator’s guide to Navigating the COVID-19 Era” an uncertainty mindset is, “a stance that encourages embracing the unknown in order to remain responsive to the needs and opportunities as they emerge” (Nakkula and Danilchick 2020, 7). The growing body of pandemic pedagogies is both necessary and helpful to educators as they work to navigate this time. With the belief that the pandemic as we currently know it will end, we wonder: what are the characteristics of a postpandemic pedagogy? What are the key attributes of what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher? Some of the answers are found in the pandemic experiences of the CTC. Specifically, cultivating pedagogies of care and normalizing the risks we take when instructors center students and implement new strategies for remote, hybrid, and in-person learning.

The Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

With inspiration from NYU Shanghai’s Digital Teaching Toolkit (2020) and the understanding that the summer of 2020 would be a critical time for educators to reflect on, evaluate, and develop remote learning opportunities and pandemic pedagogies, we (Buckley-Marudas and Rose) launched the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. We collected and published a diverse collection of educator-authored case studies of remote teaching and learning during the pandemic. A core aim was to provide meaningful and timely support and tools for critical, accessible, and high-quality learning opportunities for students living and learning in a highly imperfect time. We hoped that the project would provide educators at all levels, within and across different institutional contexts, the space and time necessary to reflect as a community and to make recommendations and suggestions for future teaching and learning. More than static case-studies, however, the CTC also had the goal of fostering ongoing partnerships between university and PK–12 educators.

The first cohort of authors in summer 2020 included twenty-three educators, twenty-two from the greater Cleveland area and one from Los Angeles, CA. The California-based educator came to the collaborative as a result of an existing professional relationship with a Cleveland-based educator. The content and emergence of their co-authored piece reflects the potential of cross-country collaborations and partnerships for teaching and learning. The summer 2020 cohort included a combination of elementary, secondary, and university instructors and reflected a wide range of disciplines. The cohort also included educators who teach in a mix of public, private, and parochial institutions and from urban, suburban, and rural contexts. Every educator authored a case study about their transition to pandemic era teaching and learning, focusing on the pedagogical approaches, tools, and principles they used to make their decisions, the challenges they experienced, and what lessons they learned for the future. All the case studies were reviewed by the CTC leadership team and then published to CTC’s WordPress site. The platform was chosen because it is user-friendly and able to accommodate multiple contributing authors.

A unique component of this collaborative is the living, growing “resource referatory.” The referatory is a curated collection of educational resources. It is a crowdsourced, open access collection that began with materials cited by CTC contributors. By the end of fall 2020, the referatory had grown to over two hundred entries and at the time of writing, the referatory has increased to over eight hundred entries. With the third cohort of authors preparing to submit their case studies by the end of May 2021, we know this number will continue to grow. In addition to the written case studies and growing referatory, another component of the CTC is the opportunity for contributors to participate in video-based discussion groups. We held three discussion groups during the summer of 2020 and, on request, have continued to host discussions at least once a month. In addition to the shared home of the WordPress site, we have a space in Microsoft Teams for questions, announcements, idea exchange, and shared files, and in November 2020 launched the Assignment Design Café for instructors as an informal drop-in space staffed by CTC members and campus partners via Zoom for instructors to support learning along the way.

Rehearsal for the #Postpandemicteacher

In the spirit of the call for this issue, we believe that what we learn when teaching in an emergency is critical to navigating and surviving the emergency, yet these learnings are also a rehearsal for the future. Drawing on our work with the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative, we share the ways in which we have observed how the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some of the possibilities for educator growth and reflection, and how teaching in the COVID-19 pandemic has created space for educators’ individual and collective reflection, revision, and re-imagination. In the sections that follow, we will focus on the key lessons and insights that should be leveraged for future educational work and what we refer to as the #postpandemicteacher.

Crisis scenarios tend to surface existing problems or inequities and serve as a catalyst for critical changes. Teaching through this crisis has been a catalyst for many important conversations in education and, hopefully, several longstanding changes in how we design classrooms for meaningful, connected, and innovative learning. The collective space of the CTC emerged as a critical rehearsal space for the future. By this we mean that the collective, in concept and action, became a catalyst for new ways of operating, interacting, writing, and imagining regarding what learning might look like. The collaborative was conceptualized as a space that aimed to cultivate new patterns and forms of interaction and participation and a space for expanding, not narrowing, the possibilities of when and why we interact with other educators. In the remainder of this article, we will share three specific ways that teaching in an emergency has contributed to a collection of pandemic pedagogies that serve as a rehearsal for the future and setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher. The three ideas we offer are cross-collaboration, prioritization of people, and risk-taking.

Cross-collaboration: honor distributed expertise

One of the goals of the collaborative was to create spaces for educators to come together to connect, share, reflect, and enhance their teaching practice. Given the required social distancing and physical isolation that are part of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a need for teachers to be together and try to learn together, particularly during such an intense and demanding time. The conditions of this emergency precipitated the shift to online spaces and video calls. With this, some of the constraints tied to physical barriers, such as geographical location, buildings, and walls as well as social barriers, such as departments, roles, and affiliations were lifted. Consistent with the title of CTC members Charles Ellenbogen and Jason White’s case study, education has gained “moving walls.” For Ellenbogen and White, this meant a sustained cross-country collaboration around writing, with Ellenbogen in Cleveland and White in Los Angeles. Yet, the concept of the moving walls is similarly powerful for breaking down other walls or borders that have become deeply ingrained in the ways in which schools are organized and how ideas and information are exchanged. With the ease and accessibility of video calls, this moment could help to chip away at the existing walls dividing PK–12 educators and university educators, divisions such as discipline, department, or college affiliation within an institution, and borders we have created between different institutional roles or functions. Learning design specialist Lee Skallerup Bessette argues in her recent scholarship, the divides between instructors and instructional support staff at our institutions are both tacit, such as staff not receiving invitations to events like commencement, and explicit, like title policing (Bessette 2020; 2021; Perry 2020). The collaborative allowed university and PK–12 teachers ongoing opportunities to exchange ideas across disciplines and rank. For example, two CTC collaborators, one a part-time university instructor and one a high school teacher developed the idea for non-evaluative peer visitations.

At the institutional level, we have seen more instances of cross-functional collaboration. For example, for the first time in either of our experience at our university, we attended a meeting that included participation from tenure track faculty, part-time faculty, the instructional design center, the library, e-learning office, Blackboard support office, and our university’s center for faculty excellence in teaching. The meeting centered around a new outgrowth of the CTC called the “Assignment Design Café.” The café is structured as a drop-in opportunity for instructors, yet our staff facilitators also appreciate the space, which recognizes that regardless of position “it takes a village” to support digital teaching and learning (Bessette 2020). The café takes place on Zoom and is framed as an opportunity for participants to drop-in with an assignment, a challenge, or an idea related to their remote or web-based teaching. Although not required, all the centers and offices expressed an interest in supporting and facilitating the café. At a December session, it was powerful to listen to the range of perspectives in response to one instructor’s question about Google Forms and Microsoft Forms. Distributed expertise exists in a community in which levels of expertise vary and there is a willingness to both share and learn from that existing expertise. We benefited from the distributed expertise in the room and that many people knew different things about the platforms. Instead of one “expert” we had many knowledgeable and skilled users. In our March meeting we shared perspectives on different virtual conference platforms and started to name items that all fit on what we refer to as our “Awareness List.”  This list includes oversights, habits, and structural barriers that we, individually and collectively, have come to learn in the process of doing this work. For example, who is notified or and included in professional development opportunities and how information is distributed. This has emphasized the need to strengthen relationships between existing programs, centers, and IT personnel. The centers and supports are established on our campuses, yet they are not necessarily as integrated as possible with departments or instructors.

Instead of seeing Zoom meetings like this as an opportunity and privilege of the pandemic moment, we see this as an important lesson for the future. We know that teaching and learning improves when we can access and draw on a range and variation of diverse perspectives. When school buildings re-open, educators need to challenge and interrupt the instinct to return to the taken-for-granted ways of operating. We have seen the need to reimagine some of the systems and structures that consistently divide, rank, and sort, and, in the process, limit the benefits of cross-collaboration and distributed knowledge generation and distributions. We have used this chance as an opportunity to collaborate and work with individuals that we do not consistently see or come together with on a regular basis, yet the cross-collaborations create new opportunities for growth. How do we continue to create opportunities for educators to cross the boundaries constructed around variables including discipline, grade level, department, and teaching rank? How do we continue the practice of moving walls beyond the circumstances created by the pandemic?

Prioritization of people: enacting pedagogies of care

Pandemic teaching has reminded all of us—educators, students, parents, school leaders—that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes. One of the most critical lessons to carry forward from teaching in this global health crisis is a renewed commitment to understanding and enacting education as a human endeavor. The quality and depth of relationships with students has surfaced as an essential element of teaching in the pandemic, yet it is evident that the relational work of teaching and learning is something that must be prioritized in a postpandemic era. A theme that surfaced in nearly every CTC case study and discussion group was the pressing need to focus on relationships with students. Educators at all levels and across disciplines and institutional contexts emphasized the need to center on the students and to meet students where they were. Relatedly, many educators spoke about listening to, and regularly soliciting feedback from students outside of institutional evaluations as an important element of their pandemic teaching. Although this finding will sound familiar and may seem obvious, it became clear that these practices may not have been prioritized as much as we hoped in our prepandemic pedagogies.

Every CTC case study offered specific instructional approaches that drew on a pedagogy of care. For example, most CTC authors shared that they developed and distributed a student survey to guide their instructional approaches. According to Sophia Higginbottom, tenth-grade Language and Literature teacher and CTC author, “The first necessity was to ask students to complete a survey, which was posted into their Google Classrooms and sent via email to everyone enrolled in the course.” In Higginbottom’s essay, “Simultaneously Stimulating Autonomy and Global Citizenship: A Case Study on Education Through the COVID-19 Pandemic,” she explains that her survey focused on three areas: student access to internet and digital tools, availability for live class sessions, and students’ reflections on how they could “best learn in this new distance-learning world.”  Similarly, Lana Mobydeen, a university-based part-time instructor of political science, writes in her case study: “Once I decided to use Blackboard Collaborate, I sent a twelve-question survey via Microsoft Forms to my students regarding their internet access, preference for live or pre-recorded lectures, availability, and opinion on discussion boards. I received responses from twenty-three out of the twenty-nine students enrolled with examples of some of the responses included.”

Importantly, Mobydeen explains how she used the information from students’ responses to guide her pedagogical decisions. For example, based on preferences for live or recorded lectures, Mobydeen writes: “I decided to do live sessions and record them for students that wished to view them later. This would allow the best of both worlds for students. Whoever wanted live instruction could join via Blackboard Collaborate during our normal course time and those who could not join could view the recordings at their own pace. I did not require attendance for live sessions. I made them optional because of the impact that the pandemic had on students who might have been sick, caring for others, working, or had other issues.” This illustrates how this outreach offers an opportunity to connect with students and understand where they are. Mobydeen can then be responsive to the collected information. Mobydeen draws on a pedagogy of care in her decision-making in that she offers multiple ways to access the material and succeed in the class. John Dutton, high school science and computer science teacher, offers additional support for the value of student feedback. In “From the Tech Teacher Perspective: Distance Learning for Science, Computer Science and Fellow Educators,” Dutton writes: “Ultimately, using student feedback to consistently tailor the student experience led to improved student attitudes towards online learning.” Teachers know that student-responsive curricula improve engagement, and given that the body of evidence for effective all-school distance learning is slim, then it is critical that teachers seek student feedback on a regular basis. The parameters of this health crisis are changing daily; we must be flexible and proactive enough to seek out and respond to these rapidly evolving challenges.” The challenges of the pandemic, including the magnitude of uncertainty and unease, prompted many educators to embrace more flexibility and more care in their pedagogical approach.

Although the surveys ranged in format and frequency, the CTC authors spoke positively about what they gained from this decision. As illustrated in the examples above, authors highlighted the value of the student surveys for connecting with students in relationship to their well-being and for gaining insight into their students’ experiences in the class. Although this was not a new practice for everyone, this level and frequency of personalized, class-specific survey was new for many.

Many of the challenges that surfaced are not necessarily new, and we know that they will not go away when the pandemic ends, yet they became more challenging, more problematic, and/or more exposed during this era. For example, regarding technology, many PK–12 schools and districts were operating without a shared learning management system, making simple communication efforts and the transition to remote teaching incredibly difficult and time consuming. The moment of crisis forced us to confront what we knew, yet overlooked, about access to technology and the digital divide. At the beginning of the pandemic, many students, at all levels, lacked access to appropriate hardware for learning and reliable internet. Districts and our university scrambled to distribute laptops and hot spots to students.

In addition to individual educators adopting a humanizing pedagogy, we also noticed decisions at the institutional level that reflected a pedagogy of care. For example, offering students at the university a choice between a letter grade or pass/fail, recommendations to be flexible on deadlines, and a willingness to offer students an incomplete with additional time to complete the course. Instead of seeing these options as “easy” or “soft,” pandemic pedagogies recognize these modifications as responsive, attentive, and humanizing. They reflect an ethos of care and flexibility. Care and flexibility are imperative for teaching in a pandemic, yet these characteristics will enhance nearly any teaching and learning moment such as increasing attention to practices like ungrading (Blum 2021).

In the case of students with documented special needs, teaching in this crisis amplified the lack of existing flexibility, resources, and innovation to prioritize and support some of our state’s most vulnerable students. As Allison Welch, high school Intervention Specialist and Spanish teacher, shared in her case study, the specialized services and support for students with special needs came to a standstill and the state had no legal obligation to provide for many of the young people’s needs, exposing gaps and inequities in our current capacity to support young people in the face of disruption or extenuating circumstances. One lesson to carry forward is the recognition that many of the prepandemic teaching and learning approaches and systems were too rigid. The existing models for supporting students with special needs are not adequate for the pandemic era or, looking forward, the postpandemic era. This case highlights how existing teaching practices, along with district efforts to rely on old strategies failed students, families, and teachers. These failures exposed systemic barriers and institutional inflexibility, forcing changes in practice and increased risk taking to amend the issues.

Risk taking: setting the stage for the #postpandemicteacher

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all instructors, regardless of discipline, expertise, and experience-level. As Ravitch argues, educators transitioned courses from “specialized teaching and learning to more broadly solutionary and connective” practices (2020). All educators have content expertise, but the pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the fact that we are all experts in learning. It is as learners that educators have excelled in this moment of flux pedagogy, and it is as learners that instructors have taken risks in their pedagogies that would have seemed unimaginable prior to March 2020.

In many classrooms, remote or otherwise, a key aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is that instructors and students find themselves in an environment where the boundaries between teaching and learning blur. This is where Davidson’s call for instructors to be “human first, professor second” is an invitation to take a risk (2020). The risk is to position yourself as part of the community of learners in your course, be transparent, and share your experiences of success and failure. Instructors may not be able to understand the specific experiences of students, but we can acknowledge pandemic learning is a new environment for us as well as students. Everyone is learning something during the pandemic, from new technologies to time management, to caring for family members while teaching and learning. Systems administrator Angela Andrews articulates how instructors and instructional support staff are already equipped to teach new concepts without the traditional mantle of expertise: “We’re always explaining things to other people. This is just an extension of it.” Andrews elaborates, “It is taking a topic that we know something about. We may not be masters in it, but at least we can speak the language, and we feel comfortable enough trying to explain it” (Andrews 2018, 00:08:41). This language of pandemic teaching includes words like equity, flexibility, and experiment.

In fact, this language is a product of digital pedagogy communities of practice which have expanded exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis. Educators who were not in the habit of thinking deeply about remote or hybrid teaching found themselves thrust into a situation where they had to grapple with new practices, often those they had been exposed to in professional development sessions prior to the pandemic but never implemented, to continue as effective educators. “Diary of a Quarantined Teacher: A Seasoned Spanish Teacher Confronts a Whole New Way of Teaching” by world language teacher Sarah Schwab, and “Converse to Learn: Online Discussions to Engage Students in Remote Learning” by sociologist Marnie S. Rodriguez, both members of the CTC, reveal the commonalities in experiences between PK–12 and higher education instructors. Everyone is involved in learning. Educators are learning new communication and facilitation technologies in order to create equitable, accessible, and meaningful classroom experiences. Students are learning new modes of communication (often across several platforms) and new content related to their course and chosen academic path.

One important aspect of pandemic teaching and learning is the recognition that the world is in flux, not just for students, but for educators as well. The CTC is just one example of how the pandemic has expanded the communities of practice of educators engaged with digital pedagogy. Indeed, many educators are engaging in new practices with students that seemed untenable prior to COVID-19. As historian J. Mark Souther reflected, pandemic remote learning has the potential to be “A Bridge to Better Teaching.” Curriculum ideas and innovation that instructors have put off due to lack of development time or technology resources in past semesters now seem possible in part due to the need for alternative delivery methods and institutional investments in licenses for key applications.

The pandemic has enabled educators from diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and levels to practice taking risks in our classrooms. As instructors begin to acknowledge classrooms as filled with communities of learners and not hierarchies of expertise the future is rife with opportunity. COVID-19 has added urgency to our academic courage, yet it has also normalized trusting oneself and one’s students enough to take regular risks. Not every new idea or assignment works. In fact, this journal has an excellent section on teaching fails that began normalizing risks and their range of outcomes even before the current crisis. Now is the time for all educators to look to the future and reflect on this experience.

Thoughts Moving Forward

As the COVID-19 virus surges, teachers will continue to navigate an uncertain present and uncertain future. There is little doubt that teachers will continue to imagine innovative and humanizing ways to teach in this prolonged state of uncertainty and that the repertoire of pandemic pedagogies will keep evolving. Although it is impossible to imagine exactly what teaching and learning will look like in a postpandemic era, we believe that the success of the future requires that we pay attention to the lessons and questions in the three areas of cross-collaboration, pedagogies of care, and risk taking. From insight on promising pedagogical practices to the radical exposure of deep educational inequities, postpandemic classrooms and schools must look different than pre-pandemic classrooms. Although we may miss many aspects of school before the COVID-19 outbreak, this crisis has reminded us that pre-pandemic school was not adequate or meaningful for far too many students. It spurred instructors and staff to work through issues previously seen as too embedded in our institutions to question. Teaching through this unprecedented and unsettling time offers educators a unique opportunity to challenge some of the time-honored approaches to teaching and learning and the taken-for-granted ways of engaging students in traditional classrooms.

For us, teaching in this emergency was a catalyst to create the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative. Although we imagined that the collaborative would be a place to support the exchange and expansion of ideas, it was impossible to know exactly how the network would unfold. With the benefit of time and reflection, we now see that one of the most critical lessons to carry forward is the role and power of the collective. More specifically, the CTC opened an important space for what we have come to refer to as collective care. The collaborative prompted dialogue between and among a range of educators, instructors, instructional designers, technologists, and administrators, most of whom do not typically interact or spend professional time with one another. This created the potential for a new space and, we observed, a new version of distributed expertise and shared knowledge generation and dissemination, all with an ethos of care. In this unprecedented moment, the silos started to break down and conversations began.

For us, collective care is an emergent concept that refracts care in three ways: (1) caring for one another (e.g., as professionals, educators, humans) by being engaged in the writing, talking, thinking of this group, (2) a group that supports and works to develop pedagogies of care, and (3) a group that believes educators and educational institutions are better off when we do this work together.  While the institutional barriers between instructors, staff, and administrators remain, and will remain, after the pandemic, the conversations will continue. They are a critical step to reimagining teaching and learning in a postpandemic classroom.

As vaccines arrive and we look toward a transition from emergency pandemic teaching and learning to a new phase of education, we are reflecting on the origins of the collaborative, analyzing what we have learned from the most recent cohort of collaborators, and planning for the future of the CTC and the #postpandemicteacher. In May 2020 we received institutional support to launch and facilitate the first cohort of authors. We used these funds to purchase three years of web hosting services and pay authors an honorarium to reflect on their experiences with remote teaching and learning. Buckley-Marudas drew on existing professional networks, including her work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, to recruit PK–12 educators. Both of us also reached out through personalized emails to invite reflections from a range of PK–12 and university collaborators. We chose to develop the blog on WordPress based on Rose’s previous experience with the platform and its ability to handle multiple authors. Designed as a collaborative, it was important that the host site could support all participants as named authors. As we began documenting open-access and crowdsourced educational resources for our members on a blog page, it quickly became clear that we needed a more robust solution to enable educators to search our links. Rose drew on her experience leading a digital humanities referatory project in her courses to build a resource referatory for our growing collection and train team members in curation of these items. Institutional support for the CTC was renewed at the start of the fall semester and we now have an institutional commitment to support new and existing CTC activities through the end of 2021. Recognizing that the collaborative was evolving from a support network for pandemic teaching to a network of dynamic educators committed to change beyond the scope of COVID-19, we applied for multiyear external funding to gather data from educators at this critical crossroads, make technical upgrades to our resource referatory, and use pandemic experiences to promote changes in education for Cleveland-area students and beyond.

We recognize that we do not yet know the implications of this prolonged time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders for students’ learning or for students’ and teachers’ social and emotional health and well-being. Yet, we close here with a few thoughts on what we think a post pandemic pedagogy and #postpandemicteacher might look like. The postpandemic teacher will be more comfortable taking risks and assuming the role of learner, see collaboration as a privilege and an opportunity for growth, and operate with the belief that teaching and learning are deeply relational processes that must be rooted in collective care. Focusing on these areas, the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative has not just become a space for reflection and support, but also a catalyst for change.

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About the Authors

Mary Frances (Molly) Buckley-Marudas is Associate Professor of Adolescent and Young Adult English Education at Cleveland State University. Buckley-Marudas teaches courses in English Education, content area literacy, and Young Adult literature and is professor-in-residence at Campus International High School. Buckley-Marudas’s research focuses on adolescent literacies, youth-led research, and teacher education. She is currently PI on a LRNG Innovator Challenge grant and Co-PI on a multi-year IES grant, both of which focus on youth participatory action research. She has published articles in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (CITE), Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Shelley E. Rose.

Shelley E. Rose is Associate Professor of History and Director of Social Studies at Cleveland State University. Rose teaches a range of topics from geography to world history, gender studies to European history. Her research and professional activities focus on the topics of digital humanities, protest history, European history, and gender history. She has published articles in Peace & Change and The Journal of Urban History, leads the Gender Studies Resources database project, and is a founder of the Cleveland Teaching Collaborative and recipient of the 2022 Divergent Award for Excellence in Implementation of Literacy in a Digital Age with Molly Buckley-Marudas.

A sepia-toned stereoscopic image from the turn of the twentieth century depicts a woman in a drawing room, herself looking into a stereoscope.
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Interdisciplinarity and Teamwork in Virtual Reality Design

Abstract

Virtual Reality Design has been co-taught annually at Vanderbilt University since 2017 by professors Bobby Bodenheimer (Computer Science) and Ole Molvig (History, Communications of Science and Technology). This paper discusses the pedagogical and logistical strategies employed during the creation, execution, and subsequent reorganization of this course through multiple offerings. This paper also demonstrates the methods and challenges of designing a team-based project course that is fundamentally structured around interdisciplinarity and group work.

Introduction

What is virtual reality? What can it do? What can’t it do? What is it good/bad for? These are some of the many questions we ask on the first day of our course, Virtual Reality Design (Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications from 2017–2018). Since 2017, professors Ole Molvig of the History Department and Bobby Bodenheimer of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering have been co-teaching this course annually to roughly 50 students at a time. With each offering of the course, we have significantly revamped our underlying pedagogical goals and strategies based upon student feedback, the learning literature, and our own experiences. What began as a course about virtual reality has become a course about interdisciplinary teamwork.

Both of those terms, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, have become deeply woven into our effort. While a computer scientist and a historian teach the course, up to ten faculty mentors from across the university participate as “clients.” The course counts toward the computer science major’s project-class requirement, but nearly half the enrolled students are not CS majors. Agile design and group mechanics require organizational and communication skills above all else. And the projects themselves, as shown below, vary widely in the topic and demands, requiring flexibility, creativity, programming, artistry, and most significantly, collaboration.

This focus on interdisciplinary teamwork, and not just in the classroom, has led to a significant, if unexpected, outcome: the crystallization of a substantial community of faculty and students engaging in virtual reality related research from a wealth of disciplinary viewpoints. Equipment purchased for the course remain active and available throughout campus. Teaching projects have grown into research questions and collaborations. A significant research cluster in digital cultural heritage was formed not as a result of, but in synergy with, the community of class mentors, instructors, and students.

Evolution of the Course

Prior to offering the joint course, both Bodenheimer (CS) and Molvig (History) had previously offered single-discipline VR based courses.

From the Computer Science side, Bodenheimer had taught a full three-credit course on virtual reality to computer science students. In lecture and pedagogy this course covered a fairly standard approach to the material for a one semester course, as laid out by the Burea and Coiffet textbook or the more recent (and applicable) Lavalle textbook (Lavalle 2017). Topically, the course covered such material as virtual reality hardware, displays, sensors, geometric modeling, three-dimensional transformations, stereoscopic viewing, visual perception, tracking, and the evaluation of virtual reality experiences. The goal of the course was to teach the computer science students to analyze, design, and develop a complex software system in response to a set of computing requirements and project specifications that included usability and networking. The course was also project-based with teams of students completing the projects. Thus it focused on collaborative learning, and teamwork skills were taught as part of the curriculum, since there is significant work that shows these skills are best taught and do not emerge spontaneously (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). This practice allowed a project of significant complexity to be designed and implemented over the course of the semester, giving a practical focus to most of the topics covered in the lectures.

From History, Molvig offered an additional one credit “lab course” option for students attached to a survey of The Scientific Revolution. This lab option offered students the opportunity to explore the creation of and meaning behind historically informed re-constructions or simulations. The lab gave students their first exposure to a nascent technology alongside a narrative context in which to guide their explorations. Simultaneous to this course offering, Vanderbilt was increasing its commitment to the digital humanities, and this course allowed both its instructor and students to study the contours of this discipline as well. While this first offering of a digital lab experience lacked the firm technical grounding and prior coding experience of the computer science offering, the shared topical focus (the scientific revolution) made for boldly creative and ambitious projects within a given conceptual space.

Centering Interdisciplinarity

Unlike Bodenheimer, Molvig did not have a career-long commitment to the study of virtual reality. Molvig’s interest in VR comes rather from a science studies approach to emergent technology. And in 2016, VR was one of the highest profile and most accessible emergent technologies (alongside others such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRISPR, blockchain, etc). For Molvig, emergent technologies can be pithily described as those technologies that are about to go mainstream, that many people think are likely to be of great significance, but no one is completely certain when, for whom, how, or really even if, this will happen.

For VR then, in an academic setting, these questions look like this: Which fields is VR best suited for? Up to that point, it was reasonably common in computer science and psychology, and relatively rare elsewhere. How might VR be integrated into the teaching and research of other fields? How similar or dissimilar are the needs and challenges of these different disciplines pedagogical and research contexts?

Perhaps most importantly, how do we answer these questions? Our primary pedagogical approach crystallized around two fundamental questions:

  1. How can virtual reality inform the teaching and research of discipline X?
  2. How can discipline X inform the development of virtual reality experiences?

Our efforts to answer these questions led to the core feature that has defined our Virtual Reality Design course since its inception: interdisciplinarity. Rather than decide for whom VR is most relevant, we attempted to test it out as broadly as possible, in collaboration with as many scholars as possible.

Our course is co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanist. Furthermore, we invite faculty from across campus to serve as “clients,” each with a real-world, disciplinary specific problem toward which virtual reality may be applicable. While Molvig and Bodenheimer focused on both questions, our faculty mentors focused on question 1: is VR surgery simulation an effective tool? Can interactive, immersive 3D museums provide users new forms of engagement with cultural artifacts? How can VR and photogrammetry impact the availability of remote archeological sites? We will discuss select projects below, but as of our third offering of this course, we have had twenty-one different faculty serve as clients representing twelve different departments or schools, ranging from art history to pediatrics and chemistry to education. A full list of the twenty-four unique projects may be found in Appendix 1.

At the time of course planning, Vanderbilt began a program of University Courses, encouraging co-taught, cross disciplinary teaching experiments, incentivizing each with a small budget, which allowed us to purchase the hardware necessary to offer the course. One of our stated outcomes was to increase access to VR hardware, and we have intentionally housed the equipment purchased throughout campus. Currently, most available VR hardware available for campus use is the product of this course. Over time, purchases from our course have established 10 VR workstations across three different campus locations (Digital Humanities Center, The Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the School of Engineering Computer Lab). Our standard set up has been the Oculus Rift S paired with desktop PCs with minimum specs of 16GB RAM and 1080GTX GPUs.

As the design of the joint, team-taught and highly interdisciplinary course was envisioned, several course design questions presented themselves. In our first iteration of the course, a condensed and more accessible version of the computer science virtual reality class was lectured on. Thus Bodenheimer, the computer science instructor, lectured on most of the same topics he had lectured on but at a more general level, and focused on how the concepts were implemented in Unity, rather than from a more theoretical perspective that was present in the prior offering. Likewise, Molvig brought with him several tools of his discipline, a set of shared readings (such as the novel Ready Player One (Cline 2012)) and a response essay to the moral and social implications of VR. The class was even separated for two lectures, allowing Bodenheimer to lecture in more detail on C#, and Molvig to offer strategies on how to avoid C# entirely within Unity.

Subsequent offerings of the course, however, allowed us to abandon most of this structure, and to significantly revise the format. Our experience with how the projects and student teams worked and struggled led us to re-evaluate the format of the course. Best practices in teaching and learning recommend active, collaborative learning where students learn from their peers (Kuh et al. 2006). Thus, we adopted a structured format more conducive to teamwork, based on Agile (Pope-Ruark 2017). Agile is a framework and set of practices originally created for software development but which has much wider applicability today. It can be implemented as a structure in the classroom with a set of openly available tools that allow students to articulate, manage, and visualize a set of goals for a particular purpose, in our case, the creation of a virtual experience tailored to their clients specific research. The challenge for us, as instructors, was to develop methods to instrument properly the Agile methods so that the groups in our class can be evaluated on their use of them, and get feedback on them so that they can improve their practices. This challenge is ongoing. Agile methods are thus used in our class to help teams accomplish their collaborative goals and teach them teamwork practices.

Course Structure

We presume no prior experience with VR, the Unity3D engine, or C# for either the CS or non-CS students. Therefore the first third of the course is mainly focused on introducing those topics, primarily through lecture, demonstration, and a series of cumulative “daily challenges.” By the end of this first section of the course, all students are familiar with the common tools and practices, and capable of creating VR environments upon which they can act directly through the physics engine as well as in a predetermined, or scripted, manner. During the second third of the course, students begin working together on their group projects in earnest, while continuing to develop their skills through continued individual challenges, which culminate in an individual project due at the section’s end. For the second and third sections of the course, all group work incorporates aspects of the Agile method described above, with weekly in-class group standups, and a graded, bi-weekly sprint review, conducted before the entire class. The final section of the course is devoted entirely to the completion of the final group project, which culminates in an open “demo day” held during final examinations, which has proven quite popular.

Three-fifths of our students are upper level computer science students fulfilling a “project course” major requirement, while two-fifths of our students can be from any major except computer science. Each project team is composed of roughly five students with a similar overall ratio, and we tend to have about 50 students per offering. This distribution and size are enforced at registration because of the popularity of the CS major and demand for project courses in it. The typical CS student’s experience will involve at least three semesters of programming in Java and C++, but usually no knowledge of computer graphics or C#, the programming language used by Unity, our virtual reality platform. The non-CS students’ experience is more varied, but currently does not typically involve any coding experience. To construct the teams, we solicit bids from the students for their “top three” projects and “who they would like to work with.” The instructors then attempt to match students and teams so that everyone gets something that they want.

It is a fundamental assertion of this course that all members of a team so constructed can contribute meaningfully and substantially to the project. As it is perhaps obvious what the CS students contribute, it is important to understand what the non-CS students contribute. First, Unity is a sophisticated development platform that is quite usable, and, as mentioned, we spend significant course time teaching the class to use it. There is nothing to prevent someone from learning to code in C# using Unity. However, not everyone taking our class wants to be a coder, but they are interested in technology and using technical tools. Everyone can build models and design scenes in Unity. Also, these projects must be robust. Testing that incremental progress works and is integrated well into the whole project is key not only to the project’s success as a product, but also to the team’s grade. We also require that the teams produce documentation about their progress, and interact with their faculty mentor about design goals. These outward-facing aspects of the project are key to the project’s success and often done by the non-CS students. Each project also typically requires unique coding, and in our experience the best projects are one in which the students specialize into roles, as each project typically requires a significant amount of work. The Agile framework is key here, as it provides a structure for the roles and a way of tracking progress in each of them.

Since each project is varied, setting appropriate targets and evaluating progress at each review is one of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by the instructors.

Projects

A full list of the twenty-four projects may be found in Appendix 1.

Below are short descriptions and video walkthroughs of four distinctive projects that capture the depth, breadth, and originality fostered by our emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all aspects of the course design and teaching.

Example Project: Protein Modeling

The motivation for this project, mentored by Chemistry Professor Jens Meiler, came from a problem common to structural chemistry: the inherent difficulty of visualizing 3D objects. For this prototype, we aimed to model how simple proteins and molecules composed of a few tens of atoms interact and “fit” together. In drug design and discovery, this issue is of critical importance and can require significant amounts of computation (Allison et al. 2014). These interactions are often dominated by short-range van der Waals forces, although determining the correct configuration for the proteins to bind is challenging. This project illustrated that difficulty by letting people explore binding proteins together. Two proteins were given in an immersive environment that were graspable, and users attempted to fit them together. As they fit together, a score showing how well they fit was displayed. This score was computed based on an energy function incorporating Van der Waals attractive and repulsive potentials. The goal was to get the minimum score possible. The proteins and the energy equation were provided by the project mentor, although the students implemented a Van der Waals simulator within Unity for this project. Figures 1 and 2 show examples from the immersive virtual environment. The critical features of this project worth noting are that the molecules are three-dimensional structures that are asymmetric. Viewing them with proper depth perception is necessary to get an idea of their true shape. It would be difficult to recreate this simulation with the same effectiveness using desktop displays and interactions.

While issues of efficiency and effectiveness in chemical pedagogy drove our mentor’s interest, the student creators and demo day users were drawn to this project for its elements of science communication and gamification. By providing a running “high score” and providing a timed element, users were motivated to interact with the objects and experience far longer than with a 2D or static 3D visualization. One student member of this group did possess subject matter familiarity which helped incorporate the energy function into the experience.

Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers. Embedded video: Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers.

Example Project: Vectors of Textual Movement in Medieval Cypress

Professor of French Lynn Ramey served as the mentor for this project. Unlike most other mentors, Prof. Ramey had a long history of using Unity3D and game technologies in both her research and teaching. Her goal in working with us was to recreate an existing prototype in virtual reality, and determine the added values of visual immersion and hand tracked interactivity. This project created a game that simulates how stories might change during transmission and retelling (Amer et al. 2018; Ramey et al. 2019). The crusader Kingdom of Cyprus served as a waypoint between East and West during the years 1192 to 1489. This game focuses on the early period and looks at how elements of stories from The Thousand and One Nights might have morphed and changed to please sensibilities and tastes of different audiences. In the game, the user tells stories to agents within the game, ideally gaining storytelling experience and learning the individual preferences of the agents. After gaining enough experience, the user can gain entry to the King’s palace and tell a story to the King, with the goal of impressing the King. During the game play, the user must journey through the Kingdom of Cyrus to find agents to tell stories to.

This project was very successful at showcasing the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach. Perhaps the project closest to a traditional video game, faculty and students both were constantly reminded of the interplay between technical and creative decisions. However, this was not simply an “adaption” of a finished cultural work into a new medium, but rather an active exploration of an open humanities research project asking how, why, when, and for whom are stories told. No student member of this group majored in the mentor’s discipline.

This project is ongoing, and more information can be found here: https://medievalstorytelling.org.

A video walkthrough of the game can be seen below.

Figure 2. Video walk-through of gameplay. Embedded video: Fig 2. Video walk-through of medieval storytelling project gameplay. Video shows gameplay in main screen, with small inset filming user in VR headset. Gameplay shows the goal and user interface by which players tell stories and explore medieval village. Scenes include a market, a castle, and a village environment.

Example Project: Interactive Geometry for K–8 Mathematical Visualization

In this project, Corey Brady, Professor of Education, challenged our students to take full advantage of the physical presence offered by virtual environments, and build an interactive space where children can directly experience “mathematical dimensionality.” Inspired by recent research (Kobiela et al. 2019; Brady et al. 2019) examining physical geometrical creation in two dimensions (think paint, brushes and squeegees), the students created a brightly lit and colored virtual room, where the user is initially presented with a single point in space. Via user input, the point can be stretched into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a solid (rectangles, cylinders, and prisms). While doing so, bar graph visualizations of length, width, height, surface area, and volume are updated in real-time while the user increases or decreases the object along its various axes.

Virtual Reality as an education tool has proven very popular, both amongst our students and in industry. No student member of this group specialized in education, but all members had of course first hand experience learning these concepts themselves as children. The opportunity to reimagine a nearly universal learning process was a significant draw for this project. After this course offering, Brady and Molvig have begun a collaboration to expand its utility.

A video demonstration of the project can be seen below.

Figure 3. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a rectangle. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background. Embedded video: Figure 3. Video demonstration of geometry visualization project gameplay. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a various shapes, including regular polygons and conic sections. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background.

Example Project: Re-digitizing Stereograms

For this project, Molvig led a team to bring nineteenth-century stereographic images into 21st century technology. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and later improved by David Brewster, stereograms are nearly identical paired photographs that when viewed through a binocular display, a single “3D image” [1] was perceived by the viewer, often with an effect of striking realism. For this reason, stereoscopy is often referred to as “Victorian VR.” Hundreds of thousands of scanned digitized stereo-pair photos exist in archives and online collections, however it is currently extremely difficult to view these as intended in stereoscopic 3D. Molvig’s goal was to create a generalizable stereogram viewer: capable of bringing stereopair images from remote archives for viewing within a modern VR headset.

Student interest quickly coalesced around two sets of remarkable stereoscopic anatomical atlases, the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) and Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy from the Stanford Medical Library. Driven by student interest, the 2019 project branched into a VR alternative to wetlab or flat 2D medical anatomy imagery. This project remains ongoing, as is Molvig’s original generalized stereo viewer, which now includes a machine learning based algorithm to automated the import and segmentation of any stereopair photograph.

Two demonstrations of the stereoview player are below, the first for medical anatomy images, the second are stereophotos taken during the American Civil War. All images appear in stereoscopic depth when viewed in the headset.

Figure 4. Demonstration of anatomy stereoscopic viewer. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library. Embedded video: Figure 4. Video demonstration of medical anatomy stereoscopic viewer project gameplay. User selects and relocates various stereoscopic images of cranial anatomy. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library.
Figure 5. Demonstration of Civil War stereoviews. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection. Embedded video: Figure 5. Video demonstration of Civil War stereoview project gameplay. User selects and and relocated various stereoscopic images taken during the American Civil War. Images depict scenes from battlefields, army encampments, and war material preparations. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Challenges

This course has numerous challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom, and we have by no means solved them all.

Institutional

Securing support for co-teaching is not always easy. We began offering this course under a Provost level initiative to encourage ambitious teaching collaborations across disciplines. This initiative made it straightforward to count co-teaching efforts with our Deans, and provided some financial support for the needed hardware purchases. However, that initiative was for three course offerings, which we have now completed. Moving forward, we will need to negotiate our course with our Deans.

We rely heavily on invested Faculty Mentors to provide the best subject matter expertise. So far we have had no trouble finding volunteers, and the growing community of VR engaged faculty has been one of the greatest personal benefits, but as VR becomes less novel, we may experience a falloff in interest.

Interdisciplinarity

This is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of this course. Securing student buy-in on the value of interdisciplinary teamwork is our most consistent struggle. In particular, these issues arise around the uneven distribution of C# experience, and perceived notions of what type of work is “real” or “hard.” To mitigate these issues, we devote significant time during the first month of the course exposing everyone to all aspects of VR project development (technical and non-technical), and require the adoption of “roles” within each project to make responsibilities clear and workload distributed.

Cost

Virtual reality is a rapidly evolving field, with frequent hardware updates and changing requirements. We will need to secure new funding to significantly expand or update our current equipment.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Virtual reality technology is more accessible than ever, but it is not as accessible as one might wish in a pedagogical setting. It is difficult to create even moderately rich and sophisticated environments, without the development expertise gleaned through exposure to the computer science curriculum. A problem thus arises on two fronts. First, exposure to the computer science curriculum at the depth currently required to develop compelling virtual reality applications should ideally not be required of everyone. Unfortunately, the state of the art of our tools currently makes this necessary. Second, those who study computer science and virtual reality focus on building the tools and technology of virtual reality, the theories and algorithms integral to virtual reality, and the integration of these into effective virtual reality systems. Our class represents a compromise solution to the accessibility problem by changing the focus away from development of tools and technology toward collaboration and teamwork in service of building an application.

Our class is an introduction to virtual reality in the sense that students see the capability of modern commodity-level virtual reality equipment, software, and these limitations. They leave the class understanding what types of virtual worlds are easy to create, and what types of worlds are difficult to create. From the perspective of digital humanities, our course is a leveraged introduction to technology at the forefront of application to the humanities. Students are exposed to a humanities-centered approach to this technology through interaction with their project mentors.

In terms of the material that we, the instructors, focus most on in class, our class is about teamwork and problem-solving with people one has not chosen to work with. We present this latter skill as one essential to a college education, whether it comes from practical reasons, e.g., that is what students will be faced with in the workforce (Lingard & Barkataki 2013), or from theoretical perspectives on best ways to learn (Vygotsky 1978). The interdisciplinarity that is a core feature of the course is presented as a fact of the modern workforce. Successful interdisciplinary teams are able to communicate and coordinate effectively with one another, and we emphasize frameworks that allow these things to happen.

Within the broader Vanderbilt curriculum, the course satisfies different curricular requirements. For CS students, the course satisfies a requirement that they participate in a group design experience as part of their major requirements. The interdisciplinary nature of the group is not a major requirement, but is viewed as an advantage, since it is likely that most CS majors will be part of interdisciplinary teams during their future careers. For non-CS students, the course currently satisfies the requirements of the Communication of Science and Technology major and minor.[2]

Over the three iterations of this course, we have learned that team teaching an interdisciplinary project course is not trivial. In particular, it requires more effort than each professor lecturing on their own specialty, and expecting effective learning to emerge from the two different streams. That expectation was closer to what we did in the first offering of this course, where we quickly perceived that this practice was not the most engaging format for the students, nor was it the most effective pedagogy for what we wanted to accomplish. The essence of the course is on creating teams to use mostly accessible technology to create engaging virtual worlds. We have reorganized our lecture and pedagogical practices to support this core. In doing this, each of us brings to the class our own knowledge and expertise on how best to accomplish that goal, and thus the students experience something closer to two views on the same problem. While we are iteratively refining this approach, we believe it is more successful.

Agile methods (Pope-Ruark 2017) have become an essential part of our course. They allow us to better judge the progress of the projects and determine where bottlenecks are occurring more quickly. They incentivize students to work consistently on the project over the course of the semester rather than trying to build everything at the end in a mad rush of effort. By requiring students to mark their progress on burn down charts, the students have a better visualization of the task remaining to be accomplished. Project boards associated with Agile can provide insight into the relative distribution of work that is occurring in the group, ideally allowing us to influence group dynamics before serious tensions arise.

This latter effort is a work in progress, however. A limitation of the course as it currently exists is that we need to do a better job evaluating teams (Hughes & Jones 2011). Currently our student evaluations rely too heavily on the final outcome of the project and not enough on the effectiveness of the teamwork within the team. Evaluating teamwork, however, has seemed cumbersome, and the best way to give meaningful feedback to improve teamwork practices is something we are still exploring. If we improved this practice, we could give students more refined feedback throughout the semester on their individual and group performance, and use that as a springboard to teach better team practices. Better team practices would likely result in increased quality of the final projects.

Notes

[1] These images are not truly three dimensional, as they cannot be rotated or peered behind. Rather two images are created precisely to fool the brain into adding a perception of depth into a single combined image.
[2] https://as.vanderbilt.edu/cst/. There is currently no digital humanities major or minor at Vanderbilt.

References

Allison, Brittany, Steven Combs, Sam DeLuca, Gordon Lemmon, Laura Mizoue, and Jens Meiler. 2014. “Computational Design of Protein–Small Molecule Interfaces.” Journal of Structural Biology 185, no. 2: 193–202.

Amer, Sahar, and Lynn Ramey. 2018. “Teaching the Global Middle Ages with Technology.” Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 35: 179–91.

Brady, Corey, and Richard Lehrer. 2020. “Sweeping Area Across Physical and Virtual Environments.“ Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education: 1–33. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40751-020-00076-2.

Cline, Ernest. 2012. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books.

Hughes, Richard L., and Steven K. Jones. 2011. “Developing and assessing college student teamwork skills.“ New Directions for Institutional Research 149: 53–64.

Kobiela, Marta, and Richard Lehrer. 2019. “Supporting Dynamic Conceptions of Area and its Measure.” Mathematical Thinking and Learning: 1–29.

Kozlowski, Steve W.J., and Daniel R. Ilgen. 2006. “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, no.3: 77–124.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, Jennifer A. Buckley, Brian K. Bridges, and John C. Hayek. 2006. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

LaValle, Steve 2017. Virtual Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lingard, Robert, and Shan Barkataki 2011. “Teaching Teamwork in Engineering and Computer Science.” 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2017. Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramey, Lynn, David Neville, Sahar Amer, et al. 2019. “Revisioning the Global Middle Ages: Immersive Environments for Teaching Medieval Languages and Culture.” Digital Philology 8: 86–104.

Takala, Tuukka M., Lauri Malmi, Roberto Pugliese, and Tapio Takala. 2016. “Empowering students to create better virtual reality applications: A longitudinal study of a VR capstone course.” Informatics in Education 15, no. 2: 287–317.

Zimmerman, Guy W., and Dena E. Eber. 2001. “When worlds collide!: an interdisciplinary course in virtual-reality art.” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 33, no. 1.

Appendix 1: Complete Project List

Project Title (Mentor, Field, Year(s))

  1. Aristotelian Physics Simulation (Molvig, History of Science, 2017, 2018).
  2. Virtual Excavation (Wernke, Archeology, 2017, 2018).
  3. Aech’s Basement: scene from Ready Player One (Clayton, English, 2017).
  4. Singing with Avatar (Reiser, Psychology, 2017).
  5. Visualizing Breathing: interactive biometric data (Birdee, Medicine, 2017).
  6. Memory Palace (Kunda, Computer Science, 2017).
  7. Centennial Park (Lee, Art History, 2017).
  8. Stereograms (Peters, Computer Science, 2017).
  9. Medieval Storytelling (Ramey, French, 2017, 2018, 2019).
  10. VR locomotion (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2017).
  11. 3D chemistry (Meiler, Chemistry, 2018).
  12. Data Visualization (Berger, Computer Science, 2018).
  13. Adversarial Maze (Narasimham and Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2018).
  14. Operating Room Tool Assembly (Schoenecker, Medicine, 2018).
  15. Autism Spectrum Disorder: table building simulation (Sarkar, Mechanical Engineering, 2019).
  16. Brain Flow Visualization (Oguz, Computer Science, 2019).
  17. Interactive Geometry (Brady, Learning Sciences, 2019).
  18. Jekyll and Hyde (Clayton, English, 2019).
  19. fMRI Brain Activation (Chang, Computer Science, 2019).
  20. Virtual Museum (Robinson, Art History, 2019).
  21. Peripersonal Space (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2019).
  22. Solar System Simulation (Weintraub, Astronomy, 2019).
  23. Accessing Stereograms (Molvig, History, 2019).

About the Authors

Ole Molvig is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Program in Communication of Science and Technology. He explores the interactions among science, technology, and culture from 16th-century cosmology to modern emergent technologies like virtual reality or artificial intelligence. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University.

Bobby Bodenheimer is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Vanderbilt University. He also holds an appointment in the Department of Psychology and Human Development. His research examines virtual and augmented reality, specifically how people act, perceive, locomote, and navigate in virtual and augmented environments. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
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Creating Dynamic Undergraduate Learning Laboratories through Collaboration Between Archives, Libraries, and Digital Humanities

Abstract

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is a growing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among archives, libraries, and digital humanities. Three colleagues at a small Liberal Arts university—a digital librarian, a historian-archivist, and a historian-digital humanist—planned an integrated set of assignments and projects in an “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course that introduced students to archival management and digitization of archival material. This article demonstrates how we developed this signature course and curriculum on a limited budget in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. We first describe our collaborative workflow, and how we involve undergraduate student-workers in these efforts. Next, we provide a detailed lesson plan for an Introduction to Digital Humanities course that integrates traditional archival materials, in this case photographs and blueprints of campus structures, into a digital archive. Finally, we share how our students converted these photographs and blueprints into digital 3D models via Sketchup, a powerful architectural modeling software.

Introduction

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is an increasing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among libraries, archives, and digital humanities. There is also a growing body of literature—on research support for scholarship, curriculum development, collaborative publishing, and on shared values across these organizations and disciplines—about how historians, librarians, archivists, and digital humanists can forge mutually supportive relationships (Locke 2017; Middleton and York 2014; Rutner and Schonfeld 2012; Svensson 2010, para. 39; Vandgrift and Varner 2013). Kent Gerber (Digital Library Manager) Diana Magnuson, (archivist at the History Center and historian), and Charlie Goldberg (Digital Humanities coordinator and historian), are colleagues who set out to do just that at Bethel University, a small Christian Liberal Arts university in St. Paul, Minnesota. Applying insights from these literatures to the ever-evolving landscape of humanities teaching in higher education, the three planned an integrated set of assignments and projects that spanned a new “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course. “Introduction to Digital Humanities” was the first course in the new Digital Humanities major, and was designed to: engage and motivate students early in the curriculum with “hands-on, experiential, and project-based learning … where students think critically with digital methods” (Burdick et al. 2012, 134); “develop a broader set of skills … essential to students’ success in their future careers” (Karukstis and Elgren 2007, 3); and give students meaningful experiences and agency as a form of “professional scholarship” rather than placing them in a position of fulfilling “menial labor in a large-scale project” (Murphy and Smith 2017, para. 8). Our thinking about the design of this course was influenced by the pedagogical theory of Brett D. Hirsch, Paolo Freire, and Claire Bishop (Murphy and Smith 2017). Collaborative teaching always poses special challenges, but we anticipated that our diverse backgrounds and training would result in a rewarding and distinctive experience for our students.

This article will explain how we developed this signature course and curriculum in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. Built on the foundation of the material holdings of the History Center (Magnuson), the Digital Library (Gerber) was able to grow connections and extend the reach of these materials through an infrastructure of digital skills and collections. This combination provided a robust environment for the campus community to seek and eventually establish a Digital Humanities program, including a new major and a new faculty member (Goldberg) to develop and coordinate the program. The curriculum developed along the lines of Cordell’s four principles of how to incorporate digital humanities into the classroom, including starting small, integrating when possible, scaffolding everything, and thinking locally (2016). These relationships and principles enabled the development of a course, “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” which engages the archives, the digital library, and digital humanities domains in a mutually supportive and emergent cycle of learning and research.

Opportunities for undergraduate digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy are burgeoning, particularly at more prestigious liberal arts institutions. Occidental College in California, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and Hamilton College in New York all maintain well-funded centers for either Digital Liberal Arts or Digital Humanities focused on undergraduate students. There are also several noteworthy inter-institutional collaborations among liberal arts schools—COPLACDigital (comprised of more than twelve schools), the Five Colleges of Ohio (Oberlin College, Denison University, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and the College of Wooster), the Five Colleges Consortium in New England (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) and St. Olaf, Macalester, and Carleton Colleges in Minnesota have all received collaborative grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

At schools (like our own) that lack these resources, it can sometimes feel like the unique pedagogical opportunities afforded by this support are beyond the reach of faculty and staff. Our aim here is to describe our collaborative experiences and provide other scholars with a model of how the archive can intersect with digitization efforts and undergraduate pedagogy at smaller institutions of higher education. Together, these assignments and projects produced learning outcomes related to concepts in the humanities, archival research methods, digital competencies, information literacy, and digital humanities tools and software (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

History Center

The History Center, the archives at Bethel University, contains the institutional records of the university and its founding church denomination, known as Converge (formerly the Baptist General Conference). The History Center provides stewardship of manuscript and digital materials, collects historically relevant materials, curates three-dimensional objects, offers access to special collections, assists researchers, documents the story of its institutions and supports the mission of Bethel University and Converge. The types of collections housed at the History Center include but are not limited to: institutional records of Bethel University (college and seminary); Baptist General Conference (and all its iterations) minutes and annual reports; conference and university publications; church and district records (from both active and closed churches); home and foreign mission records; Swedish Bibles and hymnals; bibliographic records on conference pastors and lay persons; photographs and other media.

The director of archives at Bethel University (Magnuson) is a part-time position created in 1998 and held by a full time faculty member in the history department. This dual appointment provides unique positioning for the faculty member to provide a bridge for students between academic and public history. Students in her classes work with a variety of primary source materials, regardless of the level of the history course. Through the faculty member’s engagement with students in the classroom, Magnuson identifies students with proclivity for detail, curiosity about archival work, and willingness to explore a variety of primary source material. Sometimes, just by working with primary sources, or hearing a description of archival work or records management, a student reacts enthusiastically to the physical and intellectual encounter: “This is so cool, where can I have more of this kind of experience?” Over and over again, the experience of encountering a primary source in its original form is at once awe inspiring and profoundly transformative for the student. It is one thing to read about one of the first professing Baptist believers in nineteenth century Sweden and the impact this life had on Swedish Baptists in America, but it is quite another kind of experience to encounter in person the artifact of his diary (Olson 1952).

Two or three students each year are invited to work with the director of archives as student archive assistants. Students with a major or minor in history are given preference in the application process. Once hired, over the course of an academic year, students are exposed to and trained in: initial stages of archival control; digital inventory projects; arrangement and description; digital metadata entry; and patron assistance. For example, our students have contributed to developing collections focusing on photographs, film, artifacts, institutional records such as catalogs, yearbooks, and student publications.

In 2009 Bethel University hired someone for the newly created position of Digital Library Manager (Gerber). Since then, both the History Center and the Digital Library have transformed into dynamic learning laboratories for our undergraduate students to experience first-hand the tools of the professions of history and digital librarianship. The now nearly decade-long partnership between the History Center and the Digital Library is characterized by lively and productive collaboration on a number of fronts. For example, students hired by the history department are trained and work with both the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager. Major equipment that benefits both the History Center and the Digital Library has been purchased through mutual consultation and contribution of funding, such as an overhead book scanner and 3D scanner. Monthly meetings identify and move forward projects, workflow, grant applications, institutional initiatives, web presence, and troubleshooting as the need arises. At the behest of the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager, two foundational committees were formed to anchor our institutional conversations about our cultural heritage: the Cultural Heritage Committee and the Digital Library Advisory Committee, respectively. These committees support the History Center and the Digital Library through institution-wide input, drawing committee members from faculty, staff, and administration. In tandem we are significantly growing the breadth, depth, and reach of our collections, not only to our Bethel community, but to the world.

The Digital Library as Infrastructure and Bridge between the Archive and the Classroom

Of the Bethel Digital Library’s twenty-six collections spanning five major themes—Bethel History, Art and Creative Works, Faculty and Student Scholarship, Natural History, and the Student Experience—the majority of the content comes from the cultural heritage materials held in the History Center. Digitization of these unique materials broadens their availability to the community for teaching and research while simultaneously preserving the originals from wear because they do not need to be handled as frequently. Regular conversation between the Digital Library Manager and the Director of the Archives developed the library and archive as an infrastructure of values, practices, and workflows enabling a deeper understanding of Bethel’s cultural holdings and a broader reach of those materials to the Bethel community and beyond (Gerber 2017; Mattern 2014). In one of his series of four seminal articles on digital humanities, Director of the HUMLab in Umea University, Patrick Svensson discusses how the research-oriented infrastructure of technology, relationships, and practices, called “cyberinfrastructure” can be built specifically for humanities teaching and research (2011). Magnuson and Gerber’s collaboration developed a cyberinfrastructure at Bethel with the scanners, software, networked computing, meetings, digital collections, and committees mentioned above. The shape and scale of these resources influences a broad range of digital humanities literacies and competencies, as Murphy and Smith point out in their introduction to the special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly focused on undergraduate education (2017, para. 7).

Bringing student workers into this cyberinfrastructure of the Digital Library and History Center also continued this cooperation and cross-pollination of knowledge and skills, and introduced them to information literacy skills and digital competencies. The first set of concepts these students learn are aspects of the Association of College and Research Libraries Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Information literacy is “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” Knowledge of these skills has particular potency due to the influence of Mackey and Jacobson’s (2014) concept of “metaliteracy,” which expanded on information-literacy abilities with respect to the networked digital environment, rapidly changing media, increased consumption and production of media, and critical reflection upon one’s self and the information environment (ACRL 2015, para. 5). The Framework consists of six frames, or core concepts, of information literacy, which are marked by certain knowledge practices and dispositions when a learner moves through a threshold of awareness from novice to expert. The six frames are, in alphabetical order: 1) Authority is Constructed and Contextual; 2) Information Creation as a Process; 3) Information Has Value; 4) Research as Inquiry; 5) Scholarship as Conversation; 6) Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Digital competencies, as developed at Bryn Mawr College, are a useful complement to information literacy, spanning media and disciplines, specifically focused on the digital environment, and developed within the context of a small, liberal arts college. This model of skills is organized into five focus areas and can be used as learning objectives or as descriptions of skills one already has. The five focus areas are: 1) Digital Survival Skills; 2) Digital Communication; 3) Data Management and Preservation; 4) Data Analysis and Presentation; and 5) Critical Making, Design, and Development (Bryn Mawr, n.d.).

Informed by their work in the archives with historical materials, student workers in the archive and the Digital Library are exposed to and develop skills and competencies related to the above ACRL information literacy frames and the Bryn Mawr digital competencies. They accomplish this through learning the processes of digitization, learning how to use scanning equipment and image manipulation software, writing descriptive metadata, and encoding finding aids in a version of XML called Encoded Archival Description (EAD) for public display. Going through these processes introduced students to information literacy frames of “Information Creation as a Process” and “Information has Value” as well as digital competencies like “Digital Survival Skills,” “Data Management and Preservation,” and “Data Analysis and Presentation” (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr, n.d.). As students begin work with the Digital Library, they begin to realize the limit of their own skills and abilities with technology and recognize how they can grow their awareness and competencies with “Digital Survival Skills,” particularly in the subcategory of “metacognition and lifelong learning.” The competency of “Data Management and Preservation” included learning more sophisticated hardware like flatbed scanners and the software environment of spreadsheets. The flatbed scanner process involved scanning at a high enough resolution for the resulting image to represent the original in print or digital formats as well as enable the ability to zoom in for very close examination afforded by a digital format. Some students had not used spreadsheets before and learned how to navigate a spreadsheet and use them to organize different categories of data and store multiple records of items. Students were introduced to the domain of “Digital Analysis and Presentation” through classification methodologies and learned how to navigate a digital archive to research a topic of interest. The skills students learned from these experiences motivated them to learn more and prepared them for further study in graduate school or employment in the cultural heritage sector. This built a culture of trust, common understanding, and shared competencies between both units and set a foundation for further integration of Bethel’s cultural heritage in the classroom and the establishment of the Digital Humanities major (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

While these competencies and literacies were building in student workers, it was necessary to integrate the learning of these concepts more broadly into the general curriculum so that more students could benefit. Some classroom opportunities emerged as a result of the digitization activities in various classes and disciplines. Students researched historical events and trends through their increased access to documents within a collection like the historical student newspaper collection for their journalism projects, engaging the frames of “Research as Inquiry” and “Searching as Strategic Exploration.” Students in a computer science course on data mining were also able to use the corpus of metadata from collections like the student newspaper, college catalogs, and faculty research as an object of study in their projects to identify trends in course offerings, changes in campus space, changes in school mascots through the years, and profiles of particular individuals in Bethel’s history. These assignments and experiences also built some familiarity with ways to engage archival material in classes other than a history class. Some of these students were excited to make these discoveries and had a heightened interest in the history of the institution, but their ability to pursue it in any depth was limited by the length of one single assignment.

In 2017, two developments in Bethel’s cyberinfrastructure improved the scope and scale for student learning anchored in these concepts: the launch of Bethel’s Makerspace in the Library and the creation of a Digital Humanities major. Bethel’s Makerspace is the result of a purposeful design discussion consisting of a cross-disciplinary group of faculty, staff, and administrators. This discussion resulted in a technology-infused space in the Library to explore innovative, creative technologies and encourage collaboration and experiential classroom experiences through the use of 3D scanners, 3D modeling and media production software, photo studio equipment, movable furniture, 3D printers, and meeting space for groups and classes. With the Digital Humanities program in place beginning in 2017, a new opportunity emerged for students to use the Makerspace as a lab to learn information-literacy concepts and digital competencies as demonstrated by other programs (Locke 2017, para. 8–49; White 2017, 399–402), and to engage more fully in the physical archive and the digital collections.

The Archive in Digital Humanities Pedagogy

Powerful technology has never been more accessible to educators, even, as we describe above, to educators at smaller schools like our own. Yet there remains the assumption that the digital humanities are best left to R1 institutions with deep pockets and deep rosters of instructors and support staff (Alexander and Frost Davis 2012; Battershill and Ross 2017, 13–24). However, there is a growing conversation and community of practice for undergraduate and liberal-arts–oriented digital humanities education, like the Liberal Arts Colleges section of the Digital Library Federation, that seeks ways for smaller institutions to thrive (Buurma and Levine 2016; Christian-Lamb and Shrout 2017; Locke 2017, para. 7). Bethel has been able to do this through incremental financial investments in technology and intentional partnerships like the efforts of the History Center and Digital Library mentioned above. In 2016–2017, Bethel designed and launched a new undergraduate Digital Humanities major informed by concepts from digital humanities pedagogy that capitalized on the existing technical and relational investments that can be available to faculty at most institutions with limited means (Brier 2012; Cordell 2016; Wosh, Moran, and Katz 2012).

We have benefited greatly by our archival holdings in the History Center. A particular challenge to incorporating digital humanities in the classroom is avoiding the technological black hole, whereby the technology used to make something becomes the focus of the thing itself, demanding the attention of both instructor and student at the expense of the humanistic subject. The archive, as an essential repository of humanistic data, can help anchor the traditional humanities at the center of digital humanities pedagogy. Here, we share an example of a lesson plan that aims to do just this—to craft an undergraduate archival project that is at once technologically sophisticated yet true to traditional humanistic values—all without the use of expensive equipment.

This project was inspired by a research trip Goldberg made to Rome as a graduate student at Syracuse University. On a day off from research, he visited Cinecittà, a large film studio just outside the city that housed the set for the 2005 HBO series Rome. The studio still maintains the set, featuring a scale replica of the ancient Roman forum, and allows visitors to traipse the grounds as part of a tour. As a Roman historian, standing in a replica of the forum was a powerful experience for Goldberg, and delivered a new sense of historical place and space that examining traditional scholarly materials—maps, plans, and written descriptions—couldn’t match.

When Goldberg arrived at Bethel in the Fall of 2016 and began designing the Digital Humanities curriculum, he looked for ways to emulate his experience abroad. Digital 3D modeling, including virtual reality applications, can provide such an immersive experience for the viewer, and holds a special value for bringing archival materials to life (Goode 2017). Working in tandem with Magnuson and Gerber, it became apparent that the History Center archive contained a treasure trove of materials pertaining to the university’s spatial past: photographs of historical groundbreaking ceremonies, architectural blueprints, and design sketches. Particularly alluring were plans and renderings for campus expansions that never panned out; such materials suggested alternative campus realities that would have fundamentally altered the contexts of how students, faculty, and staff interact with one another on a daily basis.

During a summer meeting in the History Center, we began to design a six-week lesson plan for Goldberg’s semester-long Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Our primary pedagogical goals were twofold: 1) to introduce students to archival digitization practices, culminating with the creation of digital records for traditional archival materials; and 2) to create immersive, experiential worlds based on the History Center’s architectural records. We determined that Trimble’s Sketchup, a 3D modeling program used by architects, interior designers, and engineers, was the best software tool for goal #2. Even more, Trimble provides 30-day trial versions of its Pro software for educators and students, long enough to cover the three weeks dedicated to 3D modeling in this assignment. They also now offer Sketchup for Web, an entirely online, cloud-based version of the software, which eliminates the need to install the software on campus or student computers, though it does lack certain key features of the Pro version.

For this assignment, students chose a building, actually built or only existing in design plans, from the campus’s present or past. They chose two photographs or other visual records of it from the History Center (such as blueprints or design illustrations), and were tasked with incorporating these as entries into the Digital Library. This aspect of the assignment was structured over three weeks, and gave students an introduction to many of the professional archival practices and digitization fundamentals described above, providing a hands-on “experiential” learning opportunity that immersed them in the fabric of our institutional history. Finally, students were to create 3D digital models of their structure using Sketchup. This final step also took three weeks.

As Digital Library manager, Gerber took the lead in the first half of the assignment. Because most students were freshmen, we assumed no previous exposure to the archival setting. We therefore took a field trip to the History Center, where Magnuson gave an overview of her work there and introduced students to basic archival practices. We then reassembled as a class to learn some basic digital competencies like how medium impacts the experience and the meaning of an archival item by comparing and contrasting physical and digital versions of the same object. Once introduced to this framework, the class focused on how any object, be it a photograph, document, or physical object, possesses a range of features unique to it and how to attach a description of it to a digital file in order to be intelligible and findable by both humans and computers. To use a nonarchival example, an action figure is made of a certain material (e.g., “plastic”), is a certain size (e.g. “8 inches tall”), made by a certain company (e.g., “Mattel”), in a certain year. This basic principle is a crucial aspect of proper digital asset management, and allowed us to introduce the concept of “metadata,” or information about an object that describes its characteristics. We stressed the importance of metadata in the archival setting and introduced our students to the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, an international organization dedicated to maintaining a standard and best practices for describing and managing any kind of information artifact including archival material. At its heart, Dublin Core consists of fifteen common elements necessary to describe the metadata of any archival object (e.g., “Title,” “Creator,” “Subject,” “Description,” etc.). We then looked at how items catalogued in the Digital Library store this metadata and apply local standards, like the Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, adapted from the Minnesota Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, to determine what kind of information is needed in each element. We focused particularly on the purpose of the Title and Description elements in the Historical Photographs Collection and analyzed the quality of the entries based on how well they provided context and facilitated discovery of the item by a potential researcher. For example, the Title element for the image of Esther Sabel, a prominent woman in Bethel’s history, was used to demonstrate levels of quality seen in Table 1: Poor – “Woman,” Good – “Portrait of Esther Sabel,” Better – “Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School.” Finally, based on this scaffolding, students were given the assignment of analyzing two images in the Historical Photographs Collection with insufficient or erroneous metadata, and improving the records in this Metadata Improvement Worksheet using a shared Google Spreadsheet.

Poor Descriptive Titles Good Descriptive Titles Better Descriptive Titles
These titles lack specificity and do NOT assist users in finding materials. These are examples of basic descriptive titles. These titles provide users with more specific information and relay exactly what is in the image.
Woman Portrait of Esther Sabel Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School
Crowd of People Group of students sitting on grass Group of seven students outside signing yearbooks
Table 1. Excerpt from Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines.

In the second week, we gathered several folders of photographs, blueprints, and architectural renderings awaiting catalogue entry in the History Center, and had our students spend some time perusing their contents. Since the assignment was quite long at six weeks and culminated in a large finished digital work that some students found intimidating, we found that students greatly appreciated this unstructured exploration, or “tinkering” (Sayers 2011) time. These photographs provided intimate glimpses into the university’s past and unrealized future(s), and motivated our students to find out more about the students who came before them. Students then selected two images for entry into the Digital Library, and received their second assignment: tracking down the necessary metadata. Their submissions would become a publicly-available part of the Historical Photograph Collection, adding a “real-world” application incentive to this assignment. Some images were easier to provide metadata for than in others, with dates or a list of subjects written on the back. Photographs of ground-breaking ceremonies could be dated by looking up construction dates for buildings on campus. Others required reasoned speculation. Dates for difficult photographs could be estimated by the style of clothing of the people photographed, for example.

In the third week, students wrote a two- to three-page blog post synthesizing Digital Library records into a narrative of a past campus event. Some students chose to write on their dorms or the campus building they had previously studied, while others wrote on a key historical event, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s scheduled visit to campus in the 1960s. This aspect, since it required close reading of a text or texts, was the component of the assignment most aligned with the traditional humanities, and helped alleviate some anxiety in the instructors that this digital-centered project might stray from core humanities values.

In the second half of the assignment, students created three-dimensional digital models of their campus building using Trimble’s Sketchup. Sketchup is a popular software tool with an active and enthusiastic online support community. Having access to a wide range of tutorial walkthroughs and videos greatly reduced the learning curve for acclimating both instructor and student to the software. There are also several guides and tutorials written specifically for those in the digital humanities community, which provide helpful tips for applying it to the humanities classroom. In particular, Goldberg benefited from the step-by-step guide for creating 3D models from historical photographs written by Hannah Jacobs at Duke University’s Wired! Lab, as well as Kaelin Jewell’s use of Sketchup to bring medieval building plans to life (Jewell 2017). We have made Goldberg’s intro and advanced tutorials available online. The fourth week was devoted to installing Sketchup on student computers and learning the basics. Students with experience playing video games tended to get up to speed faster than others, as the software’s simulated three-dimensional environment can be disorienting at first. Students, and instructors, should be encouraged to simply search Google if there is a particular process they are struggling with, since there are many helpful tutorials on YouTube.

After we learned the basic functionality, we began to translate our photographs into architectural models in Sketchup. The program allows the user to upload an image and transform the two-dimensions represented within it into three dimensions of digital space. It does this by insinuating axis lines on the image, and “pushing” the façade of the building back into a third dimension, as demonstrated in these two photos:

Figure 1. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing how 2D images are projected into 3D space.
 
Figure 2. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing early stages of 3D modeling from a 2D photo of a building.
 

Because this process involves transforming a two-dimensional image into three-dimensional space, it is imperative to start with the right kind of image. The one used above demonstrates the proper perspective; essentially, the image must contain a vanishing point. Head-on images do not allow the user to determine how deep the actual physical building is and are therefore not usable in this process.

Next, the user can begin to add features to their model, referring back to the two-dimensional image as necessary. In our class, we allowed students two additional weeks to complete this process. We found this to be necessary since none of our students were previously familiar with Sketchup. This time therefore allowed them to troubleshoot errors as they came up. Class time was dedicated to working on our models together. Students and instructors collaborated with one another and shared strategies and tips. Finally, the completed models were rendered with V-Ray, a plugin for Sketchup which places the models in simulated environments, adding convincing lighting and other scenery effects.

Many projects succeeded. Graham McGrew, for example, started with an unbuilt plan from the 1960s for an A-frame building to house the university’s seminary chapel, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 3. Final rendering of un-built “A”-frame chapel made by Graham McGrew.
 

Another student, Bobbie Jo Chapkin, chose to model the existing Seminary building, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 4. Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
 

There are clear challenges to incorporating archival practices into digital humanities pedagogy. Regarding our lesson here, students lacking familiarity with video games or other three-dimensional computing tools may find orienting themselves to Sketchup challenging. And, as with any large project, the quality of the final products will depend entirely on the effort and energy students put in. Still, this project successfully combined a focus on the humanistic value of the archive with a modern software application to create a sophisticated experience that recreated an episode from our past campus.

Expanding from this specific project to consider the collaborative efforts described here generally, the intersection between three diverse academic disciplines might be thought to be a difficult place for three busy researchers and teachers to land upon. However, we feel that the best strategy for effecting meaningful interdisciplinary pedagogy in the archive and the humanities is to encourage organic opportunities to develop at their own pace, and to scaffold larger projects such as this one upon the foundations already laid. Our efforts were long in the making—Bethel’s archivist position was created in 1998, its digital librarian position in 2009, and its Digital Humanities position in 2016. Rome, even as a modern HBO set, wasn’t built in a day. Though incorporating the traditional archive into digital undergraduate pedagogy is a relatively recent effort, it still rests primarily on tried-and-true humanities principles like thoughtful reading, analysis, and attention to detail.

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Svensson, Patrik. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html

Svensson, Patrik. 2011. “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html.

Vandegrift, Micah and Stewart Varner. 2013. “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships between Libraries and the Digital Humanities.” Journal of Library Administration 53 (1): 67–78.

White, Krista. 2017. “Visualizing Oral Histories: A Lab Model using Multimedia DH to Incorporate ACRL Framework Standards into Liberal Arts Education.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 24 (2-4): 393–417.
https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1325722.

Wosh, Peter J., Cathy Moran Hajo, and Esther Katz. 2012. “Teaching Digital Skills in an Archives and Public History Curriculum.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch. 79–96. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. http://books.openedition.org/obp/1620.

Appendix – Technology Tools

Spreadsheets (Google Sheets, Excel)
CONTENTdm
Epson Expression XL 10000 Flatbed Scanner
Sketchup
V-Ray plugin for Sketchup

About the Authors

Kent Gerber, the Digital Library Manager at Bethel University, is responsible for the library’s digital collections, the Makerspace, and collaborative digital scholarship projects. He holds an MLIS and Certificate of Advanced Studies in Digital Libraries from Syracuse University and focuses on how libraries engage with technology, teaching, research, cultural heritage, and digital humanities through facilitating conversation. He serves on the Operations Committee for the Minnesota Digital Library and co-designed new Bethel programs including the Digital Humanities major and the Makerspace.

Charlie Goldberg is Assistant Professor of History and Digital Humanities Coordinator at Bethel University. He helped design and currently oversees Bethel’s undergraduate Digital Humanities major. He has a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, and his primary research pertains to gender and politics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Diana L. Magnuson is Professor of History at Bethel University and Director of Archives, History Center of Bethel University and Converge. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and teaches courses on American history, introduction to history, and geography. As Director of Archives, Magnuson stewards and provides access to manuscripts, media, three-dimensional objects, and digital materials that document the institutional history of Bethel University and Converge. Magnuson also curates the institutional history of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.

Screenshot of University of Mary Washington Libraries Digital Collections homepage.
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What Do You Do with 11,000 Blogs? Preserving, Archiving, and Maintaining UMW Blogs—A Case Study

Abstract

What do you do with 11,000 blogs on a platform that is over a decade old? That is the question that the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) and the UMW Libraries are trying to answer. This essay outlines the challenges of maintaining a large WordPress multisite installation and offers potential solutions for preserving institutional digital history. Using a combination of data mining, personal outreach, and available web archiving tools, we show the importance of a systematic, collaborative approach to the challenges we didn’t expect to face in 2007 when UMW Blogs launched. Complicating matters is the increased awareness of digital privacy and the importance of maintaining ownership and control over one’s data online; the collaborative nature of a multisite and the life cycle of a student or even faculty member within an institution blurs the lines of who owns or controls the data found on one of these sites. The answers may seem obvious, but as each test case emerges, the situation becomes more and more complex. As an increasing number of institutions are dealing with legacy digital platforms that are housing intellectual property and scholarship, we believe that this essay will outline one potential path forward for the long-term sustainability and preservation.

As a leader in what is called the Digital Liberal Arts, we at the University of Mary Washington are facing the unique challenge of archiving our early digital output, namely, UMW Blogs. Started in 2007, UMW Blogs contains 11 years of digital history, learning, and archives. Although we are best known today as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW Blogs was a testcase for showing the viability of such a widely available online platform for faculty, staff, and students.

After three years in which Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) staff and a few UMW faculty experimented with blogs in and out of the classroom (Campbell 2009, 20), UMW Blogs launched in 2007. It provided the campus with a WordPress installation that allowed any student, faculty, or staff member to get their own subdomain (e.g. mygreatblog.umwblogs.org) and WordPress site, administered by DTLT. Since then, the 600 blogs of 2007 has grown to over 11,000 blogs and 13,000 users as of 2018! Each site has any number of themes, plugins, and widgets installed and running, creating a database that is exponentially larger and more cumbersome than the user numbers suggest at first glance.

The viability and popularity of a digital platform available to the UMW community convinced the administration that we should be providing faculty, students, and staff not only with a space on the web, but with their own web address, hosting capabilities, and “back-end” access to build on the web beyond a WordPress multisite installation. Domain of One’s Own was born, where anyone with a UMW NetID could claim their own domain name and server space on the web, and where they could install not just WordPress, but also platforms like Omeka, docuwiki, or even just a hand-coded HTML website.

As a result, we now have two “competing” platforms—one legacy, one current—to administer and maintain.

Maintaining UMW Blogs today can be quite a challenge, and as the administrators we frequently alternated between idyllic bliss and mass panic. It’s not very heavily used (most users have moved to Domain of One’s Own instead), but when something does go wrong, it goes really wrong, bringing down every site on the system. And with a number of sites that haven’t been updated since the twenty-aughts, there are many that are poised to cause such problems: too many sites using too many outdated themes and plugins, leaving too many security vulnerabilities, and impacting the overall performance of the platform.

And while there was the initial expectation that the sites would be left up on UMW Blogs forever, the changing nature of the web and our understanding of digital privacy and data ownership has evolved as well. We have an open, online platform featuring works by former faculty and students that are over a decade old, many of which are inaccessible to the original creator of the content to delete. Content they may no longer want on the web. How do we balance preservation and privacy?

Of course, we can’t just pull the plug—well, okay, we could, but for many faculty, this would be unacceptable. Some of our faculty and students are still using UMW Blogs, and many of the sites no longer being maintained are important to our institution and its history—whether it’s an innovative (for its time) course website, an example of awesome student collaboration, or an important piece of institutional history. Former students, as well, may still be using content they have created on UMW Blogs in their job search. We want to ensure the UMW Blogs system works and that those important pieces of our institutional history and students’ intellectual property don’t become digital flotsam.

With that in mind, DTLT in collaboration with UMW Libraries have embarked on a major project to ensure the stability of our legacy system and the long-term preservation of UMW’s digital history. We are going to chronicle some of those efforts, both for the benefit of the UMW community and for those at other institutions who find themselves in a similar situation, or soon will.

Outline of the Problem

UMW Blogs contains some stellar content. A group of students (some of whom are now UMW staff) catalogued historical markers and other landmarks throughout the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania area, mostly from the Civil War, providing important historical context. A student wrote love letters to his girlfriend at another university regularly for several months, leaving her coded messages and invitations to dinner dates (“don’t forget the coupon!”). Two colleges on campus hosted their Faculty Senate sites there. Student government leaders (and campaigns) hosted sites on UMW Blogs. And there are historical sites from many student clubs, activists, and research groups. And who can forget Ermahgerd Sperts, or possibly the most creatively unimaginative username: umwblogs.umwblogs.org.

While most faculty, students, and staff have migrated to Domain of One’s Own (DoOO), there are always those who remain on the the platform they are most familiar with. As a public liberal arts, teaching-intensive institution, many upper-division courses are only taught on a three-year rotation, meaning that course sites built in UMW Blogs remain inactive for two or three years until the course itself is once again offered. While the course sites could (and often eventually are) migrated into DoOO, the way that faculty and students then interact with those sites inevitably shifts, causing some degree of anxiety from faculty members, who thus delay the migration process.

In other words, in the faculty’s mind, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Except, of course, it does break. Often. Leaving their course sites down.

In addition to valuable contributions to UMW history, scholarship, and archives, UMW Blogs also contains about 700 sites that were last updated on the same date they were created. (“Hello, World!”… and nothing since.) A number of sites have “broken” since they were last maintained, mostly as a result of using themes and plugins that have not been updated by their developers to retain compatibility with upgrades to the WordPress core platform. And then there are sites that, while valuable to some at the time, have been neither updated nor visited in a long time. This leaves broken and vulnerable sites, compromising those who are currently using the platform.

One of the challenges we are facing in the process of archiving the sites is the ethos under which the project was created, of openness and experimentation. The original Terms of Service for UMW Blogs reads:

UMW Blogs is an intellectual and creative environment, owned and maintained by the University of Mary Washington’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies. Users of the system are expected to abide by all relevant copyright and intellectual property laws as well as by the University’s Network and Computer Use Policy.

Users are encouraged to use UMW Blogs to explore the boundaries of Web publication in support of teaching and learning at the University, with the understanding that UMW may decide to remove at any time content that is found to be in violation of community standards, University policy, or applicable federal or state laws.

As participants in a public Web space, users must also understand that the work they publish on UMW Blogs generally may be browsed or viewed by anyone on the Web. Some features are available to users who wish to protect content or their own identity. Information about protecting content and/or your identity within the system can be found at the following address:[1]

While the TOS capture the ethos and spirit of UMW Blogs and prompt users to think about privacy, they don’t prompt users to address their own IP and copyright. This oversight is partially a reflection of the approach to the Web as open. Nevertheless, it leaves us, now, wondering what we can actually do with student work, former faculty and staff work, group blogs, long-term collaborative projects between faculty, staff, and students.

The intention was always that copyright would remain with the creator of the content (which was made explicit in the Domain of One’s Own Terms of Service). But as we archive sites, we have encountered a number of issues regarding whose permission we need to move these sites into the (public) archive, to which the original creators will no longer have access. This is particularly difficult for collaboratively created sites, where contributors to the site are not owners of the site.

There’s another related issue that has been weighing on our minds. Past members of DTLT (none of whom are still administering the platform) told users that their UMW Blogs sites would be hosted in perpetuity, but that presents a major data ownership and privacy issue. The internet is a different place than it was in 2007. According to Paul Mason, the entire internet in 2007 was smaller than Facebook is today (Mason 2015, 7)! And that’s to say nothing of the changing ways in which we view our personal data, even our public creative work, since GamerGate, Ferguson, and Cambridge Analytica. And as the birthplace of Domain of One’s Own, UMW (and DTLT in particular) has focused increasingly over the past decade on the ownership aspect of writing and working on the web—empowering students to make critical decisions about what they put on the web, what they don’t put on the web, and what they delete from the web.

We’ve also received a number of requests from alumni asking us to remove their blog from UMW Blogs, to remove a specific post they created on a faculty course site, or even to remove specific comments they left on a classmate’s blog as part of an assignment. We are well aware of the vulnerabilities that working in public can create, as well as the ways in which we as people change and grow, leaving behind aspects of the (digital) identity that we once shared with the world.

And so, beyond the need to streamline the platform, we think it’s important that we take the initiative to remove old content from our public platform, and to pass it along to former students and faculty so they can decide what should be public and where it should be hosted.

After everything is archived locally and before anything is deleted from the platform, DTLT will be reaching out to those former students, faculty, and staff, letting them know our plans, and providing them the opportunity (and documentation) to export their data and preserve it publicly or privately, in a place of their choosing. This not only helps those currently on the platform have a better experience, but it helps our former community members once again reflect critically on their public digital identity and take a bit more ownership over their data and what’s done with it.

As proponents of “digital minimalism,” we often tell our students and colleagues that what we delete is as important a part of curating our digital identity as what we publish. We want to encourage students (and faculty and staff) to think about how large a digital footprint they are leaving, and help devise strategies everyone can use to minimize traces of themselves online. And our freedom to delete increases our freedom to experiment. As the attention economy and algorithmically driven content discovery have radically changed the internet since the early days of UMW Blogs, it’s worth rethinking both what we as an institution hold onto, and what we as individuals decide to keep in public venues.

Another challenge was that at the start of this project, we at UMW did not currently have any policies governing data storage, collection, and deletion. Alumni could keep their email addresses, the only time we ever deleted a course in the LMS was when we moved from one to another, and we do not have a enterprise-solution cloud-based shared digital storage space. We were starting from scratch.

The Process, DTLT

We identified over 5000 blogs on the platform that have not been updated since 2015 or earlier, are not administered by any current UMW community members, and have either not been visited at all in the last two years or have been visited less than 100 times in the entire time period for which we have analytics. That means essentially half the platform is inactive and no longer providing benefit to users, but is also open to vulnerabilities or “bit rot,” which can cause problems for the active sites.

However, some of the inactive sites we identified are also important pieces of institutional history. After analyzing the metadata for all 11,333 sites in the UMW Blogs database, we identified a list of over 5000 blogs that meet all of the following criteria:

  • The blog has not been updated since Jan 1, 2016.
  • None of the blog administrators are current members of the UMW community.
  • The site has either not been visited at all in the last two years, or has logged fewer than 100 visits all-time.

We then went through the entire list to identify sites important to our institutional history, as well as course websites that are less than five years old. (Some courses are offered every three or four years, and having relatively recent course websites live can be useful for faculty and students.) These are sites that we either think should be kept on the platform, or—more likely—that we think would be good candidates for UMW Libraries’ new Digital Archive. The latter will create a flat-file archive (a website with no databases or dynamic content, only HTML and CSS code) that will be far more future-proof and less likely to just break one day.

Now, we didn’t visit all 5000+ blogs manually! Rather, we looked carefully at the metadata—site titles, the person(s) attached to the sites as administrators, the administrator’s email address, and the dates the sites were created and last updated. This told us if the site was created by a student or faculty member, and if the site was a course website, collaborative student project, personal blog, etc. We identified almost 300 sites from this collection which we did check manually, often consulting with each other about them, before deciding on the 62 of these 5000+ sites that were important to keep public or submit to the UMW Digital Archive (more on that process below).

In the end, we determined that of the 11,333 blogs on the UMW Blogs platform, 6012 of them were important to keep actively published on the web (including about 50 which would best serve the UMW Community by being frozen in time and preserved publicly before “bit rot” and broken plugins bring them down). The other 5321 blogs, many of which were important in their time, are ready to be removed from the platform.

To be clear, we’re not talking about just deleting them! We are working with our hosting company, Reclaim Hosting, to create a flat-file archive and a WordPress XML export of each of those blogs, which DTLT will retain for 2 years before permanently deleting them. We are also preparing to email the administrators of those sites to let them know our plans so they can download their content before we remove anything from the platform (or, worst-case scenario, ask us to email them the backup archive after we purge the platform). But ultimately, it is important for the health of the platform to streamline the database and focus on supporting the more recent and active sites.

Through this process, we also identified a number of faculty and staff “power users” of UMW Blogs—those people who had more than 10 sites on UMW Blogs or had created a course site on the blog within the last two semesters. Once that handful of faculty were identified, we reached out to them to schedule one-on-one meetings with a member of DTLT to discuss the options for their UMW Blog site: deletion, personal archive, library archive, or migration to personal subdomain.

This was, admittedly, a fraught process for some of the faculty; these sites had become important and significant resources, examples, and case-studies of the viability and ultimate success of working openly on the web. They were sometimes years in the making, informed by countless hours of student and faculty work. To come in and say, “These sites aren’t viable in this space anymore” is intimidating.

One advantage of targeting the “power users” first is that we interacted frequently with these faculty members on a number of other projects, and thus had already developed a relationship with them, not to mention an understanding of their values, their work, and their pedagogy. We decided collectively which DTLT team member would work with each individual faculty member based on past relationships and interactions. We weren’t cold-calling these faculty; we were approaching colleagues with whom we had previously collaborated. Thus, we knew better how to discuss the issues with each individual faculty. While time consuming, we built on our relationships to tailor each interaction to the specific needs of the faculty member, allowing us to better explain and recommend options for their UMW Blog sites.

Explaining that our goal is, in fact, to preserve these websites in a more sustainable format, in order to celebrate and highlight their importance and significance to faculty, is key. We also want faculty to take more control over their data and their sites, understanding better how WordPress works and how the archival process will be of benefit to them. No technology, no matter how advanced, can survive this long without a lot of help, a lot of work, and some hard decisions about how we are going to invest our time, energy, and monetary resources.

We worked with faculty, then, to create a list of sites on UMW Blogs and categorized them based on how they wanted them to be preserved. Once that list was created and finalized, we passed the information along to the relevant people, including DTLT and UMW Archives staff, to make sure that all sites ended up in working order where they were supposed to be. When moving sites to Domain of One’s Own, we often had to replace themes and plugins, so that while the site might not look the way it did when initially created, we tried to ensure it would still retain its original functionality. The static library archive preserved the original link and function of the site in a static file.

The Process, UMW Libraries

UMW Libraries has been archiving the University’s web presence for several years now, primarily with established, automated web crawls and the occasional manual crawl to capture historical context during a special event, such as a university presidential inauguration. Our focus has been on archiving institutional sites, such as the main website, social media, UMW Athletics, or UMW News. Despite this effort, we were often missing the individual stories of the campus community.

We have a fantastic scrapbook collection in the University Archives. Stories from UMW (or MWC) students across the decades. Though students are still creating and donating scrapbooks, many are recording their college experience online, through Domain of One’s Own or UMW Blogs, rather than on paper. We also have detailed records of university business, such as meeting minutes, correspondence, and publications. The vast majority of this information is online today, with blogs or other platforms used to keep notes on committee work or to provide transparency on important campus issues, such as faculty governance or strategic planning. We must be proactive in not only preserving but providing access to these records for future students and researchers.

The UMW Archives appraisal process is an important step in beginning to archive this material. We not only need to make sure that the websites and digital projects we collect fit within our collection development policies, but we must also be confident in our abilities, through both technology and staff power, to preserve and provide access to the material we agree to accept. To help us with this process, we developed a set of criteria for appraisal:

  1. Scholarship that is new and impactful in its field.
  2. Highly innovative technical and/or creative aspects.
  3. Content that complements existing archival collections and subject areas of emphasis.
  4. Content that documents the history, administration, and/or culture of the University.
  5. Unique content that supports the research and curriculum needs of faculty.
  6. Content created, owned, or used by university departments, faculty, or students in carrying out university-related business, functions, or activities.
  7. Compatibility with SCUA’s preservation software.
  8. A faculty member’s statement of support for student-created websites.

This set of criteria will help us work through lists of current websites to determine what would be best suited for the UMW Archives. It is also published on the library website so that faculty, staff, and students can read through the list and determine if their website will be a good fit for the library’s collections. However, even if a UMW community member is unsure of where their website belongs, our hope is that the broad guidelines will encourage them to contact us and start a conversation. Even if a suggested website is not acquired by the archives, DTLT and UMW Archives staff will work with the creator to find other alternatives for migrating or archiving their content.

The lists of current websites that we are combing through and appraising do not contain the thousands of websites that DTLT started with on this project. For example, we removed from consideration sites that were created but never built out, don’t have any content, haven’t been accessed, etc. Other websites were also included because they were listed in previous university publications or suggested by a colleague. Our initial list of potential websites to archive is not all-inclusive, and it will be a continuous process as more URLs are recommended or discovered.

After websites are selected for archiving, the very important step of requesting permission follows. While the University Archives actively archives institutional websites, such as UMW Athletics or UMW Social Media, we feel strongly that we must receive permission before archiving individual blogs, websites, and other digital projects. DTLT and UMW Archives work together to reach out to the community to request permission from all creators and contributors of items that we want to archive. For those submitting archive requests, the copyright permission statement is published on the library’s website so that anyone can read and understand the terms before submission. Even if a faculty member recommends a website for archiving, the student still must provide permission before archiving takes place.

If permission is received to archive a website, the crawling can begin! UMW uses three tools for archiving websites: Preservica, Archive-It, and Webrecorder. Each web crawl is manually initiated by staff and student aides, as well as checked over for quality control after the crawl is complete. The crawl creates a WARC file, which is uploaded in the library’s digital preservation system. A metadata record in the form of Dublin Core is created for each WARC file, which includes creator(s), contributor(s), and two to three subject headings. Library staff used “Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group” to help determine metadata guidelines, in addition to local, unique needs (Dooley and Bowers 2018).

The final component to the archiving process is making the archived websites accessible. Once a WARC file is created and metadata is applied, the archival item is published in Digital Collections, the library’s digital preservation and access platform. Users of the platform are able to locate archived websites through search functions that use both metadata and full-text. The websites render within the browser itself, so users can navigate the website as it existed at the time of capture.

Conclusion: Further Challenges, looking forward, plan for it

This is only the beginning of a long process of preserving and protecting our legacy platform, UMW Blogs. The platform was a launch pad for Domain of One’s Own and put UMW on the map for innovative digital learning. At the time, there was no precedent, no best practices, no road map, no rules. Now, we hope the lessons shared in this essay help schools trying to maintain their own legacy, open, digital learning platforms.

Moving forward, we will likely confront similar issues with Domain of One’s Own, particularly concerning what we should preserve in our library archives. We are developing a process for students, faculty, and staff to submit a site for preservation consideration. But given the ethos of DoOO—that the work done on users’ website is theirs to do with as they like—we know there have already been some potentially important sites deleted, as is the prerogative of the user.

How, then do you balance the imperative to save, preserve, and keep digital artifacts of (potential) historical significance with the need for agency, privacy, and freedom of the student, staff, or faculty member to delete, let die, or decay? These are the questions we are now collectively grappling with, and will continue to moving forward.

Notes

[1] Much like this project itself is trying to illustrate in the preserving of historic or significant materials that lived online, the original links to these policies and information are broken and the original information is all but inaccessible.

Bibliography

Campbell, Gardner. 2009. “UMWeb 2.0: University of Mary Washington Webifies Its World.” University of Mary Washington Magazine, Fall/Winter 2017. https://archive.org/details/universityofmary33fwuniv.

Dooley, Jackie, and Kate Bowers. 2018. Descriptive Metadata for Web Archiving: Recommendations of the OCLC Research Library Partnership Web Archiving Metadata Working Group. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. https://doi.org/10.25333/C3005C.

Mason, Paul. 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

About the Authors

Angie Kemp is the Digital Resources Librarian at the University of Mary Washington. She works in Special Collections and University Archives, focusing on maintaining and expanding the university’s digital archives. She also oversees the Digital Archiving Lab, where campus and community members go to collaborate on digital collection projects and preservation. Her research interests include ethics and privacy in digital archives, as well as the long-term sustainability of digital projects.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a Learning Design Specialist at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. Previously, she was a Instructional Technology Specialist at DTLT at UMW working digital literacy and Domain of One’s Own. Her research interests include the intersections of technology and pedagogy, affect, and staff labor issues. Her writing has appeared in Hybrid Pedagogy, Inside Higher Ed, ProfHacker, Women in Higher Education, and Popula. You can find her talking about everything on Twitter as @readywriting.

Kris Shaffer is a data scientist and Senior Computational Disinformation Analyst for New Knowledge. His book, Data versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, will be published Spring 2019 by Apress. Kris also coauthored “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” a report prepared for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on social media. A former academic, Kris has worked as an instructional technologist at the University of Mary Washington and has taught courses in music theory and cognition, computer science, and digital studies at Yale University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Mary Washington, and Charleston Southern University. He holds a PhD from Yale University.

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