Digital scholarship blog

19 April 2013

This is not a post about MOOCs this is a post about learning

Back in Summer 2011 when I first began to notice the disruptive word 'digital' preceding the comfortable (though perhaps under-theorised) word 'humanities', the two together leading to capitalisation and the acronym DH, I was uncertain quite where to seek knowledge and understanding of this phenomenon. The traditional silos of knowledge were little help. Ket entries into 'the canon' as we now know it would not arrive until November (Ramsay's Reading Machines) and the following January (Gold's Debates in the Digital Humanities), and my search term prowess had yet to lead me to Moretti's superb (though at the time unhelpfully titled) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). So, to learn more about DH I started reading examples of what I am currently writing - blog posts - and by following the hyperlinks within I came across many authors whose names (and amended blog posts) would eventually surface in Gold's DDH: Mark Sample, William Pannapacker, Bethany Nowviskie, Dan Cohen, Trevor Owens, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Alan Liu.

Debates in the Digital Humanities is out photography courtesy of Flickr user BryanAlexander / Creative Commons Licensed

So far, so standard DH trajectory. But one name not included in that list (and ergo not included in DDH) is Brian Croxall or, more specifically, the students who took his English 389 module at Emory University during the autumn of 2011. English 389 or #389dh as it became known to me, was the code for Emory's 'Introduction to Digital Humanities' course, and as a consequence of some serendipity I ended up 'taking' the course. I write 'taking' for I wasn't flying to Atlanta on a weekly basis, neither was I tapped into the seminar room via Skype, nor was I contributing in any meaningful way, rather I was following the course via the excellent class blog, reading what the students were reading, and thinking through the assignments they were doing (with the benefit of hindsight, I should have got more involved: posted comments or used twitter as a platform for engaging with the student community). What the experience created in me - apart from an enthusiasm for using blogging in teaching - was a desire to exploit the openness of so many DH modules and module conveners as a means of learning more about DH. This learning encompassed a range of activities: reading documentation, comparing reading lists, installing software, understanding assignments and following staff/students (and their conversations) on twitter. Most recently this has led me to Matthew Kirschenbaum's Introduction to Digital Humanities module and two excellent reflections (here and here) on knowledge in a digital age from a student working with Ryan Cordell, all repositories of knowledge as (if not more) valuable than traditional academic outputs.

And so with all this talk on digital learning the word MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, screams into view. Depending on your opinion the MOOC is the future of higher education, the end of higher education, a positive (and necessary) force for creativity within higher education, or a flash in the pan best ignored by higher education (for two excellent recent reflections on MOOCs see posts by Matthew Yglesias and Clay Shirky). I shan't wade into this war of words and pedagogies here, but what is unquestionable is that MOOCs are out there, are being used and are being taken seriously by some institutions: the University of Edinburgh being the most recent to join Stanford University's Coursera platform.

A popular meme. Say "MOOC"... image courtesy of Flickr user audreywatters / Creative Commons Licensed
This week I decided to start Coursera's Computer Science 101 module on the recommendation of an attendee at THATCamp London, an event on humanities and technology held at the British Library on 14 April. The course offers a grounding in CS aimed at those, like me, who were never offered the opportunity to learn the basics at school or university, and have found themselves occasionally a bit ahead of themselves when trying to manipulate data in platforms such as Open Refine. I am pleased to report that I am finding the course very useful, with the videos, documentation and tasks well attuned to the type of knowledge being communicated and learning requried. It is clear, however, that not all learning can take place on MOOCs. Quite apart from the now standard claims that deep learning and nuanced subject areas require a level of interpersonal discussion not possible with MOOCs (and ergo only possible at an HE institution can), it is clear that the sort of learning I undertook to understand DH requires a broader definition of learning than both the MOOC and the HE institution can at present offer.
THE MOOC! the movie image courtesy of Flickr user giulia.forsythe / Creative Commons Licensed

As Digital Curators at the British Library we aim to communicate our knowledge of digital scholarship to both internal and external audiences. Part of this message is that the structured learning delivered by courses and institutions can only go so far and that learning often requires the learner to embed themselves within digital communities in order to learn. In some senses then the digital scholarship community is in itself the best, the most supportive and the most interactive MOOC on digital scholarship out there. What might this mean for the future of the MOOC?

James Baker, Digital Curator, @j_w_baker


Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I'm very glad to hear that our class and activities served the role that it did. My own work in the digital humanities has been immeasurably improved by the interactions I've experienced with others and the cribbing that I've done from their syllabi and resources. In the end, perhaps it is the web itself that is the biggest MOOC.

My pleasure.
I like 'web is MOOC'. But I am also of the opinion that the web only works 'as MOOC' when the users knows how to get the best out of the web. And that, tomy constant surprise, remains a big challenge.

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