In the summer and autumn of 2020, Dr Naomi Wells (Institute of Modern Languages Research), Dr Christopher Ohge (Institute of English Studies), Dr Gabriel Bodard (Institute of Classical Studies) and Jonathan Blaney (Institute of Historical Research) ran a series of digital humanities (DH) research training workshops on text encoding and data visualisation. Here, they explain the practicalities for extending digital skills and understanding to researchers.
The workshops were arranged due to the cancellation of in-person research training after the national lockdown, and the ongoing need and demonstrable demand for interdisciplinary training and DH collaboration methods in the UK academic community. Principally, we wanted to pilot the use of e-learning methods, and in particular asynchronous methods, for research training, working on the assumption that the use of (at least partially) online training was likely to be a necessity for the long haul. At the same time, we have found it productive to reflect on how some of the principles of effective online learning may or may not be applicable to the specific requirements of DH research training.
These sessions were delivered via a mix of online asynchronous video tutorials and lectures, forum discussions, collaborative exercises, with Zoom sessions for summary, feedback and further discussions. We used a combination of standard e-learning methods – with generous advice from colleagues at the Centre for Distance Education and UoL Worldwide – such as the flipped classroom and asynchronous discussion, alongside DH tools including videos from the Sunoikisis Digital Classics programmes, wiki and issue tracker features in Github.
This change in format led to a huge increase in audience (the initial workshops had nearly 200 sign-ups, and so were roughly 400 per cent over-subscribed), and a more diverse and worldwide body of participants. They included people who, due to geographical, financial, or time constraints, had been unable to attend in-person training in London. Online, remote and asynchronous teaching methods are not just a ‘second best’ approach because we cannot be in a classroom this year – they affect and sometimes even improve learning outcomes.
The asynchronous format of the course had the advantage that we would do nothing technical live, and thus we could avoid the derailing of live sessions by connection problems or our own clumsiness. It also enabled us to maximise discussion and feedback in the live sessions.
In some cases we were able to re-use videos that had been recorded for other purposes, and we were unabashed at simply pointing attendees at video tutorials produced by others where they contained all of the necessary information. However, we were obliged to produce a few new bespoke videos for the courses and these took up a great deal of time.
We used the School’s Panopto account to record screencasts and to-camera material. This worked reasonably well but the home environment meant that our efforts were often interrupted by sirens, drilling or other features of the urban environment. We quickly learned not to be perfectionist about delivery or live typing on a screen. Panopto has basic editing features where stumbles or mistakes can simply be followed by a pause followed by a restart, and then edited out later. It is also easier to record short snippets and combine them than to try to do a 15-minute video straight through. Unfortunately Panopto failed for us in combining these smaller videos into one, but the ability to export from Panopto to MP3 meant that we could download and combine the snippets using our own tools (such as the excellent and free FFmpeg).
Despite the somewhat disproportionate effort that went into these initial videos, we have now created a cache of videos which can be, and have been, re-used in further courses. In the re-run of both activities in autumn 2020, we further experimented with an (even more) asynchronous format, which allowed us to open the courses to more than a hundred students. The unsupervised nature of one of these latter workshops led to a somewhat steeper fall-off in participation over time, as compared to the workshops with live sessions. Zoom sessions have been extremely valuable for facilitating whole-group reflections and discussions, as also confirmed in student feedback.
Particularly as our training does not involve the incentive of a formal qualification, the live sessions were important for ensuring a level of accountability between participants and a meaningful deadline by which to complete asynchronous learning tasks. As others have demonstrated, it is certainly possible to build an effective learning community that is entirely asynchronous and there are important practical reasons for doing so, such as incompatible time zones. Nevertheless, we personally found that maintaining opportunities for ‘live’ interaction was the more effective route to fostering a sense of ‘social presence’.
Asynchronous learning activities are extremely valuable for encouraging more collaborative learning, and give students the space and time to reflect on and formulate their ideas and approaches. While we assigned the students to groups for asynchronous tasks, we asked them to decide for themselves whether to use email, Zoom or more chat-based tools to communicate and collaborate. We never asked them what they chose but the evidence of their presentations in the live sessions was that their choices were effective. We also created discussion boards for technical issues that hampered progress, and which we undertook to answer as quickly as possible. This approach maximised the benefit of the live sessions to be solely focused on more in-depth and critical discussions of research applications of the technologies.
Disciplinary and research context
One challenge of our efforts was how to convey postgraduate-level research training in a digital medium that requires brevity and constraint. In-person teaching tends to dwell on discursive material such as lectures or demonstrations, but the online format requires less emphasis on lecturing and philosophising, and more on practice. Practice requires some fundamental understanding of the range and functions of the tools available, and the bases upon which further digital research could be conducted in any field of expertise.
For example, a simple markup language such as Markdown (covered in text encoding) demonstrates the value of the idea of markup languages in various domains, and the Recogito tool makes annotation and linked open data much easier. The web-based text visualisation tools Voyant Tools and Tableau Public show how text-based and quantitative projects would begin to create visualisations, and under what principles one might need to create them.
The aim of teaching such fundamentals is to show a range of options that are conducive to projects across disciplines, and to provide enough technical knowledge to get started with meaningful results. Yet we also encourage them to think about the affordances of these tools and methods – ultimately they come to understand, through working with these tools on their own and within their groups, the thinking processes that are necessary for digital research in any discipline: investigating your data provenance, understanding the value of data cleanup and manipulation, and recognising the layers of interpretation that are required to produce encoded texts or visualisations.
Teaching general principles – as against nuanced technical subjects – to a larger, more diverse group online comes with some disadvantages. We are not teaching coding. We are not teaching graphic design. We are offering a broad range of disciplinary examples and not focusing on a particular time period. We are using computer-assisted (so-called ‘black box’) tools to introduce the methods and principles of text encoding and visualisation.
Some participants noticed (rightly) the shortcomings of these tools and expressed a desire for more control to accomplish their goals. Others questioned whether the digital results covered in the workshop were meaningful without greater familiarity with the data we provided. These shortcomings notwithstanding, it is still effective for most people to be introduced to intuitive tools as a gateway to learning more complicated ones later, should the need arise. In this respect we are erring on the side of demystifying DH research, showing that a little bit of digital savvy can complement their research to great effect.
Equally, by choosing to introduce a limited set of tools and approaches, we were able to focus instead on fostering collaborative forms of learning where participants worked through the challenges of using these tools together. A useful concept here is Cormier’s idea of the ‘community as curriculum’, which shifted our emphasis away from the delivery of ‘authoritative’ content to focusing on designing learning activities which encouraged interaction and collaboration. This less hierarchical approach to collaborative learning aligns with the skills and professional practices of DH researchers, who typically work through problems together, rather than expecting ‘ready-made’ or authoritative solutions which rarely exist for digital tools or platforms that are constantly evolving.
In sum, while evidently challenging in many respects, this period of partly enforced adaptation has encouraged a greater receptiveness to the benefits of online research training. The potential to deliver effective training to those able to join us remotely from locations across the world means that we will undoubtedly find ourselves practising more hybrid teaching and training methods after the pandemic.
There are, of course, aspects that remain hard to replicate online, such as the informal one-to-one discussion spaces after sessions or during coffee breaks. Equally, while the multidisciplinary approach worked well for introductory courses, a more in-depth course might raise questions better discussed among domain specialists. These are issues we will continue to explore as we reflect and further expand on our digital training activities to ensure they respond to the evolving and future needs of the humanities research community.
Cover image courtesy of @brunocervera