Education Reflection

Our rotation through the Education division has come to an end. It was a great experience and I learned a lot from our assignments.

To begin, I want to contrast the fellows experience in the Research division with our time spent in Education. Our entire rotation through Education was spent working on the 100 Leaders project. We were given various tasks and assignments to complete, all of which  focused on 100 Leaders. This was different from out time in Research, where our rotation was divided between two very different projects. My time in Research, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, gave me a broad over view of a project and then a more “nuts and bolts” experience with the second project. My time in Education working on one project allowed me to engage that project at different stages along its progression. The experiences in each division are very different but, for me, are complementary in their pedagogy.While Research allowed me to see how each division manages multiple projects, Education showed me how one project matures and develops.

Our first assignment was to build up a pool of images and videos for the people on the 100 Leaders website. We each were assigned 25 of the leaders to work on. It became somewhat like a treasure hunt as we were trying to find a quality image for each leader. It was a lot of fun to find interesting or unique images and then to share them with the other fellows. In a way, I  felt more connected to each leader I spent time searching the web for. This assignment also forced me to think differently about certain leaders whom I could not find many images for. I had to reword my search phrases or approach them from their work as opposed to their name. The biggest hurdle in collecting images was copyright. I must admit that after this assignment I became somewhat disillusioned with copyright the availability of public domain images. By way of example, I was assigned George Washington. As I began to search, I was excited to work on him as I had seen many amazing pieces of art on Washington. However, it turns out, many of the paintings of Washington are not public domain. I felt saddened that such an important figure in US History, a founding father and the first President of the United States, did not belong to the people but instead to some organization or government. Looking beyond the frustrations of copyright, this assignment was very rewarding and it was even more exciting to see the images used in the instructional videos on the 100 Leaders webpage.

Our next task was to do some user testing. A major facet of the 100 Leaders website is the voting component. End users will be able to vote on how well the leader did in five different leadership qualities. The voting functionality is still being worked on and we were tasked with testing it both on a laptop computer and on a mobile device. I had never user tested anything before, hardware or software. It was interesting to think about the various scenarios in which an end user would access the site. First, would they be using a PC or Mac? Second, what operating system would they be using? Third, what browser would then use? Safari? Chrome? Mozilla? Internet Explorer? Directions were written up (how we should vote) and we had to run through them in different scenarios. Luckily, with three of us doing this, we were able to move through the directions fairly quickly. On my MacBook Pro, I have a dual boot with Windows 7, so I was able to test the voting on both OS X and Windows 7. Whenever an issue arose (the webpage froze or had a glitch, links broke, webpages loaded incorrectly, etc.) we took screen shots to document them. The mobile testing was even more interesting as we had to interact with the site on touch screens. In the end, I learned there is a lot to consider and think about when user testing. This is the time the designers want the website to break, not when it is live and taking thousands of hits a day. I must say, it was fun to “try” and break a website.

Our final assignment was to draft a user manual for those who would be editing the 100 Leaders website. I had some experience in writing a manual for a website. During my undergraduate degree, I worked for a museum whose website was being switched over to a new content management system.  My task was to develop the content for the new website and then write a manual on how to manage/edit the new website. In all honesty, I did not entirely enjoy writing the manual. For the 100 Leaders website, I only had to work on a section of the biographical content of a leader. Writing a manual is a mental exercise. The author is trying to explain how to do something to someone who has never done it before. On top of that, the text is static so there can be no conversation between the author and the user. The sections I was tasked with writing the instructions for covered material that would change according to different scenarios. With the help from my mentor, Jannelle Legg, I was able to work through them. While I don’t necessarily want to write manuals, doing so stretched me as an academic and a student.

My time in Education was very rewarding. I am excited for the 100 Leaders project and will return to the site often to see its progress and to use its tools and information. Now on to Public Projects.

Education Division Reflection

Another four weeks has gone by! I cannot believe our time in the Education Division is already at an end. We’ve had a busy and productive month.

Our first task was to find images and videos of the people featured on the 100 Leaders website. I enjoyed examining the leader gallery, seeing which leaders were chosen by the panel, and debating with the other fellows over leaders that should have been included (like John Adams). We had to find videos or images of the leaders in context or performing some action rather than portraits, so for Martin Luther I used a picture of him nailing the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenburg. We also had to find images of the leaders that exemplify the five qualities of leadership: articulating a vision; motivating others; making effective decisions; willingness to confront tough issues; and impacting history. It was immensely satisfying to see the images we collected highlighted in the video Chris created on using 100 Leaders in the classroom.

The only problem I ran into with collecting images and video footage was, of course, copyright. While in library school I took an excellent class titled Legal Issues in Information Handling: Copyright and Fair Use in the Digital Age, taught by Dr. James “Kip” Currier. In this class we delved into the problems and consequences of American intellectual property laws, including patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyright. It was both frustrating and interesting from an academic standpoint to see how far the hand of copyright can reach into historical work. The fact that we cannot use a decent image of any of the Founding Fathers is ridiculous. The problems I encountered with copyright furthered my opinion that American intellectual property law hinders rather than helps the creation, promotion, and usage of intellectual property.

We also did user and mobile testing on the 100 Leaders site. I first tested the site out on my laptop and didn’t have too many problems. Mobile testing was much more problematic. I used an iPad and had a really difficult problem using the slider. What struck me most was how many changes I saw on the site from one week to the next. The voting box looked completely different after only one week of work. User and mobile testing helped me understand how much work goes into creating an interactive website. Any problem we had with the site was reported to make sure that everyone who will vote on National History Day will have a positive experience and be able to navigate and use the website.

We also worked on creating a user guide for the 100 Leaders site for when we turn the site’s management and maintenance over to National History Day. Between the first year fellows we divided up the content portion of the site. I worked on providing step-by-step instructions for how to edit the biographical information associated with each leader. We had to ensure that our work was consistent in style and that the screenshots were uniform. Prior to starting work on the guide we were able to play around with the back end of the site, since we had previously only used the front end for user and mobile testing.

Working in the Education Division has given me an appreciation for knowing one’s audience, something we’ve been discussing in Clio 1 as of late. The work we did in Research with PressForward and DHNow was catered to an academic audience, but the work we did with 100 Leaders is for a much younger audience of school-aged children. When we were discussing what went into choosing the leaders, determining the qualities that make a leader, how the site was constructed, and mobile and user testing, I was constantly reminded that National History Day and 100 Leaders was designed for children in school to be able to understand and use for their own purposes. Especially with mobile and user testing, we had to think about how children would most likely interact with the sight. We had to consider such things as: would the slider or a dropdown box be more appropriate? Would they have a problem moving the slider? Is it visually and aesthetically appealing enough for that age group?

The Education team is busy with a multiplicity of projects and it’s been fun listening to what everyone is up to at the weekly staff meetings. I also found the lightning talks informative and I would have never known about The American Yawp, the timeline Stephanie told us about, or the religious atlas that Jordan discussed otherwise. The lightning talks were a great way to highlight digital tools and resources for educating all age groups about history.

I’ve really enjoyed my time in the Education Division. I’m looking forward to seeing how the voting turns out on National History Day and I’ll be sure to vote for a few of my favorites!

Digital Campus Podcast: Back to the Future of Digital Humanities

This past Friday, I co-produced a Digital Campus Podcast with help from my digital history mentor and second-year Digital History Fellow at the Center, Anne Ladyem McDivitt. Stephen Robertson hosted, and Dan Cohen, Amanda French, Mills Kelly, and Tom Scheinfeldt joined the discussion. Of particular interest to me was their debate about the use of Twitter as an academic outlet, how it has evolved, and the possibilities for the future. Will the academic community return to blogging or will Tumblr be the go-to platform?

Digital Campus Episode #106 – Back to the Future of Digital Humanities

Reflections: Year Two, Semester One

As the first term of 2013-14 closes, it seems appropriate to reflect on the experiences of the Digital History Fellows. Last year, our first cohort of DH Fellows spent the first semester meeting with Dan Cohen, learning the history of the center, discussing current projects, and thinking about how digital history is practiced. We spent our second semester working in each of the divisions for five weeks, and then decided in which division we would like to work in the second year. Although there was no specific requirement that we take positions spread across the three divisions, we were drawn in different directions. From the first days of the fellowship, Ben Hurwitz was most comfortable in Education and quickly entrenched himself at their community table. He now works on various educational projects, including the Popular Romance Project. Amanda Morton worked closely with Fred Gibbs before he relocated to New Mexico, which helped her transition into Research, where she works on Digital Humanities Now and related PressForward projects. Spencer Roberts was drifting toward Public Projects before the summer started, and settled in once the center received a grant to work with the National Park Service to revamp their War of 1812 site.

This year we welcomed three new members into the fellowship, bringing our total number to six. The second cohort follows a different schedule in their first year, so Amanda Regan, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, and Jannelle Legg stepped directly into the mix at RRCHNM, splitting their semester into seven-week blocks in Education and Public Projects. During those weeks, they have written reflective posts about the projects to which they’ve contributed, all of which can be found here. Next term, they will spend a block in Research before moving into a final seminar with Stephen Robertson.

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Wanted Now: Training for our Future

The Digital History Fellowship is situated at the convergence of three separate goals for graduate students at George Mason University. First, all graduate students in the Department of History and Art History are required to take courses in digital history, usually consisting of one class in theory or study and another in practice (collectively referred to as Clio I and II). These classes are designed to give graduate students an introduction to the concepts and practices of digital history and new media that are increasingly important for scholars in all disciplines. Although experiences in the classes are widely varied, the skills introduced in the courses are common throughout digital humanities and form the backbone of the work done here at the RRCHNM. Because DH Fellows work in the center while learning new skills, they benefit ongoing research and grow their own capabilities.

Second, each DH Fellow is pursuing a minor field in digital history, which can take the form of study for teaching, application, or research. Some of us have studied how to use digital tools and media in the classroom, while others have examined the methods used in digital public history. Because the fellowship is technically a practicum course, it qualifies as a component of our minor fields, which removes some of the difficulty in assembling the required classes. Some of our colleagues in the program who are also completing digital history minor fields often struggle to scrape together a handful of classes that are offered infrequently (due to scarcity of instructors). Although the program and the center are working to resolve the problem, the fellowship sidesteps the issue by allowing us to work as DH researchers in return for class credit.

Finally, the fellowship fulfills a new goal for the history program: to train graduate students in digital history methods and skills through practical training alongside senior researchers, and to engage those students in the production of new digital history projects. Generally, our experiences are directed toward increasing our abilities while also contributing to the field. Though other graduate students have worked as research assistants in the center, acquiring valuable skills and experience as they work on projects, the fellowship is somewhat unique in its clear, mutually beneficial goals. And that’s exactly the problem.

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