Reflections on the Fall Semester

It has been a busy and beneficial fall semester as a second-year fellow at CHNM. The time rolled along quickly and throughout I’ve had a number of new opportunities and experiences that have built on the work that we did last year as first-year fellows.

As a second-year fellow in the center, our roles at the center changed considerably. The first year of the fellowship focused on circulating us through each division at the center – a six-week process that exposed us to the various projects and enabled us to work with faculty and staff throughout CHNM. The second year of the fellowship has been much more concentrated. My work in the Education division has afforded me more time on a project and allowed me to work more directly with members of that division. In turn I’ve been able to understand the facets of the project to which I have contributed and have enjoyed greater integration into the division.

Getting Started with Phase 1 of 100 Leaders:

In this case, the majority of the fall semester was spent working on the 100 Leaders in World History project. The site, which I have reviewed here, allows for interaction with historical figures on the subject of leadership and encourages teachers and students to extend these subjects further by rating these figures on particular leadership traits. CHNM was selected by National History Day to develop and design the site last Spring. At the start of the semester the site was still in the first phase of development. I worked to add the content from National History Day to each of the pages and familiarized myself with the back-end structure of Drupal. Throughout this period I had a number of interesting conversations with Jennifer Rosenfeld about the complexities and challenges of creating interactive and educational materials for the web. I learned a good deal about the importance of collaboration on a project of this scale. With over 100 distinct pages on the site, minor edits, like the addition of italicization, called for discussion, notation, and a division of labor to ensure that each page was updated appropriately.

Mentoring and moving into Phase 2:

As the semester rolled on, the first-year fellows circulated into the Education department for a four-week accelerated rotation. Stephanie, Jordan, and Alyssa each completed a blog post that described their experiences. During this period I took on a larger role in mentoring them and organized each of the activities we would undertake. We began with user testing across browsers and devices. At this stage, the 100 Leaders in World History project had entered the second phase of development and this user testing aided in the development and design of the current voting interface and served to test and validate that the underlying voting algorithm was capturing and recording appropriately. We consistently tried our best to break everything and shared our findings with Jennifer and James McCartney for improvement. (Anyone viewing the site on a smartphone will appreciate our feedback as the larger slider buttons were a direct result of these tests!)

Next, we worked to gather image content and citation information for videos on the site. At first, our discussions focused on digital images and copyright, but soon we turned our attention to issues of diversity and representation in terms of time period, geographic region, gender, race, ethnicity, and type of leadership. We tried to be thoughtful in our selections, considering the ability of a single image to convey particular types of information about a leader or juxtaposing images to create alternate or additional meaning about a figure or figures. The final activity undertaken with the help of the first year fellows was the creation of a guidebook that will aid National History Day in modifying and maintaining the 100 Leaders in World History site.

Each of these activities was useful in demonstrating the different complications that accompany large-scale, collaborative, educational websites. User testing encouraged us to deal with the user experience and to gain insight into the processes required to build a site of this size. Contributing images moved us back into our comfort zones as historians doing research on particular subjects- but the added complication of copyright was useful in expanding the Fellows’ thinking about what digital historical research entails. While we each campaigned for our favorite images or leaders, we also took seriously the importance of crafting a meaningful visual narrative that supported the dialogue of each video. Finally, the guidebook allowed an introduction to the back-end of a Drupal site and encouraged us to think through questions about making navigation easier and more efficient to those without experience programming.

Working on 100 Leaders after the launch:

After the first-year fellows completed their rotation in the Education division, my work continued to focus on the completion of the Guidebook as well as video transcription, user testing, data manipulation and a website review. On November 3rd, the voting interface on the 100 Leaders in World History site went live. To aid in marketing the site and to inform teachers about how it could be used in the classroom, I wrote a summary of the site’s features for Teachinghistory.org. This website review encouraged me to revisit my earlier discussions with Jennifer about online learning and to view the 100 Leaders in World History site with fresh eyes. Since then, interest in the site has exploded and we have recorded over 200,000 votes in just over a month. It has been a busy but useful semester for me in Education and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to contribute to a project like 100 Leaders.

CHNM Anniversary:

In November, CHNM celebrated its 20th anniversary with a conference held here at George Mason. As I described here, the second-year fellows spent a portion of last spring engaged in a discussion about the history of the center. From that seminar with Dr. Robertson, each of us researched a foundational project in the center’s history and created an archive in Omeka to organize and display our findings. Over the summer I worked to expand our efforts to include the broader range of projects using grant materials, oral histories, and internal communications to trace the development and growth of important projects. As a relative newcomer to the field, this process was particularly meaningful. This work culminated this fall in the release of the RRCHNM20 Collection which made these materials public and invited others to contribute. The RRCHNM20 Collection is an important step toward creating a unified narrative of CHNM’s role through recording and preserving the hidden processes and persons at each phase of CHNM’s history. In fact, a group of us used a portion of our time at the conference to mine the RRCHNM collection and create a visualization that represents some of the connections between projects and people across 20 years.  Furthermore, the conference events brought former and current employees together in a productive and meaningful dialogue about the past, present and future of work at DH centers like CHNM (I live-tweeted these experiences throughout the conference.)

Additional Fellowship Responsibilities and final thoughts:

The additional responsibilities of a second-year fellow include producing a podcast, serving as a mentor to first-year fellows and the operation of the Digital Support Space. It was interesting to be on the other side of the mentorship process this year. Last year, Ben Hurwitz, Spencer Roberts, and Amanda Morton served as mentors to the incoming fellows. They were each very helpful to us and I was excited to provide the same assistance for the new group. Across the semester I’ve made myself available to each of them for support, but my interaction during their rotation in the Education division was particularly significant. During that period I was able to provide direct support and work with each of them individually on a project. Not only do I feel that I got to know them better, but we had a number of useful conversations about the fellowship and the PhD program broadly. I also worked this semester with my mentee, Jordan, to research and produce episode 108 for the Digital Campus podcast. Finally, I also extended time and resources to individuals in Clio I, Clio 3, and Digital Storytelling classes through the Support Space.

Overall, has been a fast and busy semester but a successful one. I’ve learned a good deal about project management and collaboration through my experiences on the 100 Leaders in World History project and I’m pleased to have had the chance to work more closely in the Education division.

 

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!

Planning the Wrap-Up

It’s been a long while since one of the DH Fellows wrote a post here, but I assure our readers that we’re not being lazy. Rather, we are busy with the daily goings-on of the center. Unfortunately, some of those activities are just not as blog-worthy as some of our previous activities. But as the term winds to an end, we’ll have some reflections on our winter term (or is it spring?).

Additionally, Cohort 1 (Amanda M., Ben, and Spencer) will be preparing a final report for their time in the fellowship. All of us will continue at the university and probably in the center, but our classification as DH Fellows officially ends at the close of this term. Our final reflections on the fellowship will help to identify its actual value from the perspective of its participants. Our views are important because the fellowship was proposed and implemented with certain values in mind, but those almost always change when the rubber hits the road. And who better to identify the worth of a training program than those who have been trained?

There is some difficulty, however, in our immediate future. The fellowship was proposed and implemented for three cohorts. In the fall, three new students will take the three final positions. The last cohort of the fellowship is also limited to one year of funding, after which they will depend on the department rather than the provost. It’s an awkward situation because those of us who were here at the beginning won’t officially be present at the end, and those at the end receive only a half portion of the fellowship’s peak output. (See note below)

The difficulty, then, is writing up a report from the perspective of guinea pigs that captures the success of the fellowship before it’s officially over. We all believe it was extremely valuable to the university, to the center, and to us. But how do we make that apparent to others? And how do we convince the new provost that another series of cohorts is a valuable investment? We’ll be tackling those questions in the next few weeks, and posting some of our conclusions here.

Note: I’m not suggesting that the third cohort is being short-changed. One year of funding under this program is better than no years of funding, and that’s just how it was designed. Furthermore, all PhD students in History at Mason receive at least three years of funding from the department. The fellowship is added to those years, so even one year extra is great.

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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Education Reflection

My time in the Education block of the Center for History and New Media as a Digital History Fellow has been quite interesting for me. Previously, my experience with teaching was limited to either working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for introductory-level history courses or teaching fourth graders as a Public History Educator at a museum in Sanford, Florida.  Due to my admittedly limited experience with K-12 education, this experience has been revealing on how technology can accommodate teaching history to students at those levels.

Although historians always analyze information and primary documents, it is a lot more difficult to determine the best way for students to utilize those resources for learning. For example, while writing reviews for Teaching History, I had to consider the typical things for historians, such as bias, type of information, and quality and quantity of the primary documents. What is new to me is that I also had to think of how these items could potentially enhance a lesson plan for a teacher for their class. In addition, I also had to consider the usability of these websites and tools. If a website is too difficult or confusing for a student to use, then it is problematic to consider it a valuable teaching resource, even if the information is good.

I have previously mentioned the challenges of thinking as an educator, and these challenges continue to be something that I must tackle as I continue in the educational portion of CHNM, as well as my future as a historian. I believe that these are some of the valuable lessons that I can take form working at a Digital History Fellow at CHNM, because I will be able to utilize the skills that I have obtained from working on these projects in future endeavors.

Reflections on the Education Division

On Monday the first year fellows leave the Education Division and move to Public Projects for the remainder of our first semester.  Over the last seven weeks, I have learned a lot about the projects in the education division, the project and tools within the division, and the division’s goals of providing teachers with skills and tool to teach historical thinking to students.  I’ve come away from this rotation with a better understanding of not only the role of the education division but also with a new appreciation for the challenge of using and creating tools that encourage students to think critically about history.

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Education Dept. Reflection

My time in the education department at CHNM has passed quickly, but it has also been deeply enriching. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of creating historical scholarship geared toward K-12 students and have come to appreciate the importance of integrating digital media in the classroom. As one can imagine, coming into the Center with limited technical skills can be intimidating, but in these seven weeks the combination of course content and fellowship activities has greatly reduced my concerns.

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The Challenges of Making a Challenge

For the past few weeks at the Center for History and New Media, my fellow first year Digital History Fellows and myself were assigned to work in the Education division, which produces projects that are designed to teach history to a wide scope of people through various educational resources. While in the Education division, we have been working with a new web project meant to engage and educate the audience by allowing them to examine liberty in the United States in a new and interesting way. This is achieved by incorporating age and ability-appropriate “challenges” and access to primary documents and images. This project seeks an audience of teachers, K-12 students, as well as the general public.

There are intriguing methods in creating a challenge for students. While creating our own challenge for the project, there were multiple questions that we had to ask ourselves. First, what was the goal of the project? What did we want the students to achieve from doing the challenge? What skills would they use? In terms of examining the sources, we attempted to view them in an analytic manner, but with a basic guided direction so that the students do not get overwhelmed. We wanted the students to come away with an understanding of the importance of understanding not only the document itself, but also their context. By giving the students a choice of what documents they could utilize for their own project, it allows them to view our examples and use the skills they gained to create an interesting project from their understanding.

 
Although this project has yet to publicly launch, I have been testing the website from multiple angles to ensure that it will work properly for the end users. This has certainly been a fun process for me, as I have had to work as both a teacher and a student! This meant that I had to get myself into a mindset of, “if I were in tenth grade, how would I have completed this assignment? What did I know? What did I not know?” It was also quite engaging to utilize the primary documents and photographs in conjunction with the provided tools to create interesting projects with the website. I would imagine that K-12 aged students would also find this to be quite exciting, but I also think that it would be a fun experience for teachers who are designing challenges for their students, as well. I know all of the DH Fellows that worked on this project took our assignments very seriously beyond just the testing phase, as we worked for hours to perfect our challenge assignments!

Originally posted on Center for History and New Media Blog

Educational Design and Function

As Spencer and Ben have discussed, we spent the first part of this semester reviewing the educational sites constructed at CHNM, from the most dated to the most current, in a way that clearly demonstrated the effort that the Center has put into creating useful sites for educators. What this exploration of the Center’s past has also revealed, however, is the purpose of many of the tools we’ve begun to explore in the second half of the semester. The development of the education department has been an evolutionary process, one that not only streamlined the user interfaces and content presentation on these sites, but also led to the creation of tools that make the construction and use of educational sites more accessible to institutions and even individuals who need to design interactive and intelligent experiences for their members and students without access to the resources and resourceful individuals of CHNM.

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