What versus How: teaching Digital Humanities after COVID-19

It will take a very long time for us to fully understand the long-term impact of the current COVID-19 crisis, and all the horrors it has bought to the world. By “us” I mean Higher Education, but of course this applies globally. Last month, in the space of a week many universities (including of course my own)  underwent the kinds of changes that would normally take five years or more to effect; and it is unclear when any kind of “normality”, as visible in the familiar processes of face to face Higher Education, will return. Given the great dependence of the global HE sector on academic and student mobility, and (some argue), the generally disorganized nature of many Western governments’ initial responses to suppressing the outbreak, some predictions estimate that it may be March 2021, or even later in Western Europe, before such normality can resume.

As the next academic year approaches – and its potential timing is discussed – we need to consider online teaching as a matter of resilience. After all proto-Internet itself emerged in the 1960s and 1970s partly as a response to the shadow of Cold War, providing a means of channelling executive command decisions through “distributed networks” which could survive nuclear attack. Given that COVID-19 and/or other pandemics may well recur, we have responsibility to our students, and each other, to consider how we might weather such storms in the future.  

More importantly though, it is a matter of pedagogy. One thing to say at the start, which is extremely obvious within the DH community, but which still perhaps needs re-stating, is that moving teaching normally done face to face online at a time of emergency is not the same thing as online pedagogy, never mind good online pedagogy. No one – academics, students, management – should expect it to be. Once this fundamental truth is acknowledged, there opens up a range of important and self-reflective questions that DH as a field needs to ask about what good online pedagogy is. This post attempts to pose – if not answer – some of these questions. 

 Most importantly, the COVID-19 crisis throws into relief the distinction between what we teach online (in DH, and everywhere else) and how we teach it. Flurries of discussion about the how of online education – the relative merits of Skype, MS Teams, Zoom, institutional VLE platforms – have proliferated. Against the background of crisis, our “how” has changed (literally) overnight, driven by the need to deliver what we had already promised to our students. Despite this, the creativity and innovation of DH has been much in evidence. It comes through in the always-excellent Digital Humanities Now’s roundup of COVID-19 think-pieces and other contributions here.  I have seen stories of many colleagues in DH who have risen magnificently to the challenges involved (these abound in my own Department), and I have been truly inspired by the stories they have told me of compromise, improvisation, imagination, and the challenges of the digitalization of content and delivery (these are exactly the stories that I have also seen echoing all around academic trade and social media – we are most certainly, to employ another over-used phrase all in this together). 

However, in the longer term the question of what we teach online, and how this differs from in-person degree programmes will need to be addressed. What kinds of learning can best be imparted remotely? Thinking of this in terms of what, as well as how, allows us to think of online teaching in terms of its opportunities, and not just as a palliative for the pain that recovering from COVID-19 will cause us all (which we will have to address in other ways – that is another story entirely). This, I think, is really important. It will also take time, resources, effort and imagination beyond the teaching we already do, and the efforts that we have all made to salvage our existing teaching tasks.

We can begin by asking if it is even possible to deliver the same learning outcomes from our homes as we do from the lectern. Should we even try? If not, what should we be doing instead? These are fundamental questions that have been bubbling under the surface of DH pedagogy for years.  Many current debates in the newer forms of DH embrace “the digital” as its own theoretical construct. They argue that “the digital” has its own modes of production and interpretation that are separate from (for example) printed materials or physical image media (this idea permeates much our teaching and research in DDH at King’s, and one of our core aim remains to build and contribute to the global body of that theory, as driven by the humanities).  It follows that “digital methods” should be seen as a body of methodology distinct from other types of method, particularly the discursive means used by humanities researchers to reach and understand the human record. If this is true, then we will have to accept that delivering “the digital” and “digital methods” online to students means that the fundamental building block of HE programmes, the learning outcome, will have to be re-thought for online delivery. What are learning outcomes even for in the digital age, when students are, as part of their everyday lives, connected with networks of knowledge, information, ways of doing things, cultures and economies that have only ever been “digital”?

Learning outcomes, defined as the skills and knowledge that a student has on completing a course that they did not have before, are inevitably tied to the types of material we teach. In the kind of humanities-driven learning of and about “the digital” that we pursue in DDH, the origins of such material may lie in the physical world (such as manuscripts, artworks, photographs etc) or the digital world (content created purely online). For reasons set out in more detail below, I believe that online teaching, in particular, gives us incredible opportunities to question this distinction in new ways, for all kinds of material in the Digital Humanities.

We can tease out these opportunities by taking an historic perspective; by looking back at assumptions which were common in the pre-digital world.  In World Brain (1938), H. G. Wells predicted that in the future

[a]ny student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica.

This view of the world runs gloriously roughshod over any idea that “the digital” actually changes our interpretive relationship with our material in any way, rather it asserts that an “an exact replica” can be easily delivered to any student, anywhere. The medium will never be the message in such a world: rather it is value-free, lacking in any phenomenological significance, and contributing nothing to the interpretive process. If our studies of Digital Culture and its related fields have taught us anything, it is that this is manifestly not true. Of course digital transmission changes our perception and reception of cultural material. Try writing a tweet with a fountain pen and posting it through the mail, or opening a text file in MS Word 95. The digital is a prism through which we see and experience the human record past and present, not a window. Online teaching needs to embrace this, and this is very much a matter of “what”, as well as “how”.

Therefore, the challenge for DH pedagogical theory and practice as it approaches both the how and the what of online learning is to construct new forms of learning outcome which enable students to embrace that prism: the teaching of digital methods, digital citizenship and digital ways of being, rather than just digital content not, as per Wells, as simply an exactly replica of what we get in the library or the archive. There is much one could draw on from other DH discourses: for example, much is made in library and archive studies of the truth that preservation (e.g. the creation of exact replicas of content) is not sustainability (which is the ability to use those replicas in some way).  I make no claim that this is a new idea in DH pedagogy (it is certainly very present in DDH), but it shows that DH has many rich and deep seams to draw in in understanding the key “how” versus “what” difference for online teaching (and research).

There follows some areas which I think we need to consider when building learning outcomes for online courses. I do not purport to offer any answers here, these are merely very initial and high-level ideas to act as way-markers to help kick off conversations that many of us will be having over the next months and, probably years. No doubt they will be changed, deleted, re-organized, re-ordered and added to, but for teaching which approaches “the digital” in a humanities driven way – which, for me is the essence of DH pedagogy – then these represent the starting points as I see them.

Participation and placemaking

Teaching is not something that happens only in the classroom or instructor’s office. As I point out in one of the early lectures of my Maps, Apps and the GeoWeb module, the classroom or lecture hall is a “place” that we all contribute to by the medium of our presence. It is more than walls, floor and a ceiling; its function channels Heidegger’s Being of Dasein: of physical presence. Place is a human construct which we create collectively and socially through processes of actually being there and, as in the world outside the academy, this has been disrupted by the digital.

In DH we have – slowly – learned to teach and develop bodies of theory with our students in the framework of “traditional” face to face teaching in the classroom and the lecture hall. Consequently the act of speaking in, and to, a group in the same physical location is a staple of the traditional seminar. However, for many of our students, physical place has already been collapsed. The channels of Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat etc may connect to the physical world through geolocation, but they “exist” aspatially. We must find ways to enable synchronous contribution to online discourse which encourages critical reflection of the nature of that “place”, that meaningfully separates formal educational channels from social ones.

Embracing asynchronous conversation

Closely related to the need to embrace asynchronicity, especially given that the seminar – small-group teaching of students co-located in time and place – is one of the key planks of humanities pedagogy. Like many of my colleagues, I make use of group work in seminars to maintain focus, but also to ensure that students who may be more introverted, and thus less inclined to contribute to a larger group discussion (despite the value of any contributions they have to make) feel able to contribute. We will need mechanisms online which facilitate such inclusivity online, and which not only facilitate one to many conversations, but also many to many discussions. These in turn need to respect, and work alongside, and not impinge on, students’ existing many to many digital lives.    

New kinds of assessment

The essay is as much an artefact of conventional teaching in the humanities as the seminar; however the limitations of the essay format for assessing who students have learned and how well they have learned it in DH have long been apparent. Whilst they will also have a role in assessing discursive understanding of the core modules, however there is a general assumption across the arts and humanities that assessment will always be by essay, unless there is a reason for it to be otherwise. In DH, I would suggest the opposite should be true, especially for online teaching:  essay-based assessment should have to be justified by the impracticability of shorter, practice-focused evaluation. For example, one of the learning outcomes of my own optional module is:

[The student should] be able to demonstrate knowledge of fundamental web standards for geospatial data, with a primary focus on KML, but with a broader appreciation of how these standards relate to generic frameworks, including most importantly the World Geodectic Data system. They will also be able to discuss the limitations these impose on the expression of information in the digital humanities, and discourses built around it.

Currently my assumption is that this outcome will be assessed discursively by a 4000 word essay, structured across 4-6 examples, or 4-6 arguments focused on a single case study. There is no reason at all why this assessment could not be broken down instead into 4-6 web-mounted exercises based on real-world problems based on humanities materials (in the best world of all, students could be given a list of 10+ mini-cases to select from, and then explain the methodological link between them). I think this would, in any case, get them much closer to the technical core of the problem described.

The importance of Open Access and Open Data

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted many publishers and content providers to make materials related to coronavirus research that would otherwise have been paid for freely available, for example Cambridge University Press , Wiley and Taylor and Francis.  This is excellent news for sure, but we need to capture this opportunity to think in more detail about the place of Open Access and Open Data in our research and teaching.  

In theory of course, online teaching can continue to be done behind institutional VPNs, subscriptions to Shibboleth and Athens, and to publishers; although some such resources are not available to students accessing content from certain regulatory regimes, which is another key factor. A move to online teaching must include promoting critical assessment of reflection on open data and open resources; to extend the principle of encouraging students to explore further reading in trusted environments (i.e. libraries) to the “wild west” of the WWW. Teaching that happens in the online “place” (see first point) must include methodological skill-building in how the features of that “place” – datasets, articles inside and outside peer-review, formal and informal research outputs, content produced by other students function, and how they can best be evaluated and navigated.

To conclude: the what and the how of online teaching are the axes on which all these considerations need to be plotted. Reconciling them will require resources, imaginative thinking, a range of theories, ideas and resources that DH has been experimenting with already for years and, above all, skillful and creative people to put them in to practice.  In all these things, I think DH has a good start.

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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