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April 18, 2006

the blackout project: a networked history text


Jim Sparrow, from the University of Chicago who also recently attended our next \ text history meeting, has created an intriguing project on the New York Metropolitan area Blackouts of 1965 and 1977. The Blackout History Project is an ethnographic history repository for the collected experiences of people who lived through either blackouts. A key strength to the site is the depth of layers of information. In addition to personal anecdotes, the Blackout site offers a historical context for these events through timelines and articles written by both historians and experts on the electric utilities. Covering everything from audio clips of interviews of survivors who witnessed the event to technical reports, people can explore the factors that led up to historic moment and its aftermath. The site shows how, what was basically a failure of technology, reveals aspects of modern society as well. Issues that arise range from a city's dependence on electricity to a spectrum of reactions across the city from looting to impromptus street fairs.


Because the blackout are historical events that were directly experienced by millions of people there is a huge pool of potential sources to document. The project capitalizes on its location in the network by displaying information as well as collection survey and interviews via the site. Survivors were able to leave testimonials and then some where contacted for in depth interviews. Therefore, the site embodies not only a vehicle of the research, but the research results as well. This diversity of information reveals new ways this text can be used in the classroom.

As a teaching resource, students from many disciplines can explore and learn from the primary and secondary sources provided. Science and engineering students can gain insight on the technology they build has direct influence on people. For the history student, they have to opportunity to see the impact of technology on history, and how historical events evolve. In the promotion of inquiry based learning of history, students can also gain insight on how ethnography studies of this kind are implemented. Therefore, the Blackout Project makes explicit the processes that historians use. There are many opportunities to have students use these first hand accounts to construct their own ideas concerning the blackouts. (It would be nice if the site is search engine to assist exploration for students and other users.) Also, students can see how history is an ongoing, dynamic phenomena, rather than a static event. In 2003, three years after the launch of the site, the East Coast including New York experienced another blackout. After the Blackout of 2003, the project members built an additional space to share further accounts of this third historic event. Students who lived through the Blackout can now enter their own experiences. In showing how the networked historic document continuously grows over time, it creates new visions of what the born digital textbook can be.

Posted by ray cha at 7:18 PM

April 10, 2006

Cultura: a glimpse at the future of the student generated textbook


Cultura is an methodology for foreign language learning created by Gilberte Furstenberg, Sabine Levet, Shoggy Waryn, and was first implemented at MIT.

The premise of Cultura is to provide an authentic learning experience by supporting student discussion and interaction between two foreign language classes, where each class is studying the other's native tongue in their respective countries. Thus, a french class in the US partners with an English class in France. Although immersion is the best method of learning a foreign language, spending extended time in a foreign country is generally not feasible for the vast majority of students. Offering student authentic experiences in their language of study is a clear second choice to immersion, but can still greatly assist the learning process.

Students first answer a series of questionnaires, which have formats such as word association, sentence completion, and fill in the blank. The students discuss the responses to the questionnaire in bulletin boards. Teachers use both the answered questionnaires and the discussion boards in their classroom. Interestingly, the students are directed to write in their native language. Although this may seems counter intuitive, the creators found through experimentation that the communication was much more meaningful in their own language. Student read in their language of study, and teacher lead in-class discussions in the foreign language. Therefore, Cultura provides ample opportunity for students to practice the other language. The founders allow anyone to use their methodology, however, they do request that teachers contact them so that they may track its usage. They have also made available past examples for teachers who do not have access to partnering schools.

Cultura not only creates motivation for learning, it actually creates an actual text for learning. Further, access to their contemporaries offer an experience of authenticity that is impossible to provide in traditional textbooks learning, partially due to the typical life cycle and generalization nature of textbooks. Further, students have an opportunity to ask questions and explore the culture of their partnering students in a way that was rarely available before now. In the most successful implementations of Cultura, students ask questions about not only language usage, but also on newly perceived understanding of cultural differences.

Cultura, in a way, creates an open source textbook. The students create their own cultural foreign language textbooks with a level of that authenticity that traditional authors cannot match. It transforms the entire idea of what a textbook can be and how it is written. Cultura does not rely on complicated technology. Although Cultura is only feasible with the advent of the web, it is not about the technology. The technology itself is quite simple, online surveys and discussion boards have been used since the early days of the internet. Often, digital textbooks are loaded with technical wizardry that obfuscates the learning, as seen in certain studies. Different technologies can be used from hand coded html pages to CGI scripts. In fact, one could use off the shelf and often free services, such as survey monkey and yahoo groups, or the course management systems, such as Sakai or Blackboard that many institutions now use. Cultura hints that the next generation of textbooks and learning environments that will challenge what the textbook will look like, who will author it, and how it will utilize the network.

Posted by ray cha at 5:04 PM

April 4, 2006

learning from our next \ text history meeting

We recently held the first of a series of discipline specific meetings with higher education teachers who use new media in their teaching and scholarship. We invited leading American History scholars to share their thoughts and experiences with history and new media. What is most exciting is that after listening to the group for the day, that we left an idea of what the next generation history textbook could be.

Some background findings.

1. teachers / scholar
We spent much on the day talking about applications of new media to this areas of study, however, we always circled back to the fundamentals of teaching (with or without technology), as it soon became apparent that these scholars viewed their teaching as equally important as their research. Many of them first discovered the potential uses of technology with their teaching through using these tools in their scholarship.

2. access to historical documents
In the area of American History, teachers have access to vast array of primary historical documents that have been digitalized and made easily available. Access to these documents changed their teaching, which lead to attendee's John McClymer's idea of a "pedagogy of abundance."

3. "pedagogy of abundance" and inquiry-based learning,
We found that this group belonged to the higher echelon of teachers who limit the use of traditional textbooks, and place less importance on the rote memorization of historical facts. They encouraged an environment of inquiry and focused on the teaching objective of getting students to learn how historians think through a structured exploration of documents.

4. the spectrum of teaching approaches / needs.
This group acknowledged that there is a range of history teaching. Although they prefer the limited use of traditional textbooks, many still teachers adhere the traditional "march through" of the American History textbook. Inquiry-based learning shifts some of the authority of the classroom to the student, which challenges the idea of the traditional lecturer's role of the interpreter of history.

What's next?

We envision the next \ text American History survey textbook to be a curricula which integrates teaching guides with digital archives of primary historical documents. The teaching guides would address the teaching requirements of the spectrum of styles from the "march through" history lecturer to the independent instructor who wants to design her own course. We are excited by support the transformation of how American History is taught.

Of course, much work still needs to be done. Active learning through student inquiry is a direct challenge to the entrenched lecture/ textbook teaching style. We foresee sponsoring one or several master teachers to create and teach a digital primary document based curricula for a history survey course. These curricula and experiences would be used to create guides for future teachers to use. Over time, existing guides for the same course could be refined and new guides developed to address the varying needs of the diverse landscape of higher education (from the large public university to the small liberal arts college to the community college.) For example, the nomadic and resource strapped adjunct teacher, who often relies the traditional narratives and exercises, would also have access to guides or pieces of guides that could be applied on an ad-hoc basis. By offering a breathe of material, we acknowledge that radical changes in curricula cannot happen instantaneously.

To support these efforts, the coverage of the next \ text site will expand to address that teaching tools and resources are equally important to the creative teacher. Since launching the next \ text project, we have been collecting exemplary works in education technology. They span various media and hardware from CD-ROMs to websites to augmented reality goggles. However, we have come to realize that many examples are not available to the general public and only show a portion of the changes occurring with teaching with new media. Due to technological obsolescence, institutional firewalls, password protected Course Management Systems, subscription fees and limits of fair use, important and innovative applications of new media to education have limited accessibility. The issues reveal larger underlying factors which influence the creation and sharing of syllabi and learning material, including the economics of textbook publication, educational use of copyrighted material, and privacy. Further, these factors limit our ability to how they are being used in the classroom. However, we clearly see from our history meeting that digital technology is changing the classroom.

While CD-ROM have revealed the possibilities of adding interactive multimedia in teaching and learning, they are still bounded education texts. Similarly, online textbooks are often self-contained websites which do not utilize the potential of the being located on a network. In that, the network allows the opportunity for social computing and collaborative learning is a new way, that challenges the traditional lecture-based learning. We found that the our collection of best practices was weighted toward work that was still bounded, and had limited acknowledgment of the importance of the teacher. In the case of American History, we have only begun to think about what tools would assist the exploration of the digital archives for both students and teachers. Therefore, we share on the next\text site our investigation of the new processes and forms of learning in a networked and open source environment. In addition to reviewing examples of successful uses of new media with textbooks, we will also address teaching using educational technology. If you just want to view the gallery of showcase of best practices of next \ text, click on the "gallery" in the categories section.

The mission of next \ text is to encourage the next generation of textbooks which will fully utilize the potentialities of the digital technology. We realized early in the project that the future of the textbook will look quite different from the traditional textbook, but we now clearly see how the it will be taught in a very different way. In the case of the history classroom, the networked textbook allows for an active learning experience, which moves away from the "covering" of history to the "uncovering" of history.

Posted by ray cha at 6:31 PM