Designing Online Communities: Read My Accepted Dissertation Proposal

Wisdom of the Ancients: the web-comic-epigraph for my dissertation proposal, from XKCD

As of last monday, I have now successfully defended my dissertation proposal. In the context of my doctoral program, that means there is just one more hurdle to climb over to finish. I’m generally rather excited about the project, and would be thrilled to have more input and feedback on it (Designing Online Communities Proposal PDF). I would be happy for any and all comments on it in the comments of this post.

Designing Online Communities: How Designers, Developers, community Managers, And Software Structure Discourse And knowledge Production On The Web

Abstract: Discussion on the web is mediated through layers of software and protocols. As scholars increasingly turn to study communication, learning and knowledge production on the web, it is essential to look below the surface of interaction and consider how site administrators, programmers and designers create interfaces and enable functionality. The managers, administrators and designers of online communities can turn to more than 20 years of technical books for guidance on how to design and structure online communities toward particular objectives. Through analysis of this “how-to” literature, this dissertation intends to offer a point of entry into the discourse of design and configuration that plays an integral role in structuring how learning and knowledge are produced online. The project engages with and interprets “how-to” literature to help study software in a way that respects the tension that exists between the structural affordances of software with the dynamic and social nature of software as a component in social interaction.

What’s Next? 

At some point in the next year I will likely defend a completed dissertation. Places do dissertations differently, in my program the idea is that what I just defended is actually the first three chapters of a five chapter dissertation. So, at this point I need to follow through on what I said I would do in my methods section (to create chapter 4, results) and then write up how it connects with the conceptual context section (to create chapter 5, conclusions). So I should be able to grind this out in relatively short order.

At this point, I think this project should be interesting enough to warrant a book proposal. So I’ll likely start exploring putting together a book proposal for it in the next year as well. With that in mind, any suggestions for who might be interested in receiving a proposal on this topic are welcome.

Why A Public Course Group Blog? Reflections on My Digital History Course

This spring I had the pleasure of teaching a digital history seminar at American University. This post is the first in a multi-post series reflecting on teaching the course. For some context, I have posted the course description bellow. For more on this you can read my initial post about the course and the course syllabus.

This course will explore the  current and potential impact of digital media on the theory and practice of history. We will focus on how digital tools and resources are enabling new methods for analysis in traditional print scholarship and the possibilities for new forms of scholarship. For the former, we will explore tools for text analysis and visualization as well as work on interpreting new media forms as primary sources. For the latter, we will explore a range of production of new media history resources. As part of this process we will read a range of works on designing, interpreting and understanding digital media. Beyond course readings we will also critically engage a range of digital tools and resources.

Group Blogging Digital History on the Public Web

One of my three course goals was for students to “Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history: historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.” Beyond learning about digital history I wanted my students to do digital history. In that capacity I wanted them to engage with the public web and practice public writing. This, in part, meant developing a voice as a blogger and as a blog commenter. I decided to approach this goal through a group blog. I was excited about the prospect us all working and commenting in the same space. My experience participating in PlayThePast over the last six months has opened my eyes to how powerful participating in a group blog can be and I wanted students to get a taste for that.

Beyond meeting this goal I think this approach brought with it a few other benefits.

Blogging enabled an emergent curriculum

A digital history course is fundamentally different from many other kinds of courses. The field is nascent, there are fascinating developments in digital history on the open web that have little to do with the academy, and novel projects, papers, and online resources are appearing almost daily. I was excited to see the blog serve as a mechanism for enabling a more emergent curriculum as students began to wade in the constant stream of new work and ideas in digital history.

I was thrilled to see this emergent curriculum in the first post, which covered content which was nowhere to be found on the syllabus. One of my students stumbled across Youtube Time Machine and blogged about it. Importantly, the brief conversation we had about Youtube Time Machine on the blog, and subsequently in class broached many of the issues I wanted to get into in the course. It provided a point of reflection on armature vs. academic histories online, and more importantly provided a moment to think about how a seemingly technical detail (assigning a datetime to an object) can itself be a sophisticated hermeneutic problem. (Is this the date the thing is about? The date it was recorded? Should this be the date range of the time the creator worked on it? Should this be the date range of the movement the artist was a part of? What do we do with this remix of a video from 1920 that includes a song from 1980 and was clearly remixed in 2007?).

This site, and our discussion of it, ended up serving as a invaluable point of reference for our later discussions. In future versions of the course I think I am going to plan on building in this kind of “show and tell” component into a formal assignment and require all of the students to, at some point, interject their thoughts on some found content into the curriculum.

Posts as conversation starters and sustainers

Every week we had between 2-5 blog posts reacting to course content. Each of those posts would have 1-4 comments. Students who blogged about a piece of writing were supposed to use their post as a means to kick off discussion of the text. Students who blogged about a piece of software were supposed to demo the software and engage the class in a discussion of the implications of the software for the study and practice of history.  This worked quite well. In particular, it meant there were already lively discussions going on around the texts and tools and that anyone giving a presentation absolutely could not wing it.

Everyone had at least the prop of their post to refer to as they lead discussion or demoed a tool. When I woke up Wednesday mornings and reviewed all of the posts and comments they would generally fit together quite nicely, further if we hit a lul in the conversation I had a list of comments to pull from. Lastly, as I picked all of these tools and texts for a reason, I was able to hit home points that appeared in student posts and bring up  issues I thought were critical that had not emerged in the discussions. In short, the kind of externalized thought embodied in the posts and comments was invaluable for allowing me to start, sustain, and have a sense of what students were taking away from our work.

Class Blogging Brought Out Different Voices

Some of my students talked a lot in class, some of them talked a lot on the blog. By making part of our weekly discussions occur asynchronously online I was able to hear different voices and fold those into our in class discussions. Beyond this, it became clear that some students were developing different voices in their public writing on the blog. Specifically, students were assuming familiarity in class that they were not assuming on the blog. I was particularly happy about this as it represented students embracing the notion of writing and speaking to different audiences.

My course was of a bit of an awkward size and makeup and we met in a bit of an awkward space. I had 20 students, which is a too large for my tastes for a seminar style class. Further, ten of them were undergraduate students and ten were graduate students. The student distribution was a more or less statistically normal distribution (a few PhD students, a good number of MA students, a good amount of advanced undergraduates and a few freshmen). Lastly, our class met in a computer lab, one of those spaces set up for traditional instruction where everyone sits at their computer in rows facing toward a screen. Having students use the blog as another communication channel helped make these classroom discussions work. Further, providing the course blog as another communication channel meant that I heard from everyone, not just the most talkative.

In future versions of this course I think I will make this lesson a bit more clear. First, I will require more commenting. This time around I required everyone to write at least six substantive comments. In the future I think I will require everyone to write a substantive comment on at least one post a week. Beyond that, I intend to make clear in the participation section that talking in class and talking on the blog are both very valuable ways to participate in the course. If students tend to be shy in class I still would encourage them to talk more, but I would also make it clear that they can also put more energy into communicating on the blog.

Note to self: Put more of this on the web

I am feeling that in the future it might be better to explicitly plan the class to generate a certain level of content on an ongoing basis. I would like the class to be generating enough content to not only sustain our conversation with each other but also invite conversation with the broader digital history community. In this framework I would try to schedule this a bit more tightly, having different students stagger posting their project proposals so that everyone could agree to review each other’s work.

Going to the Library of Congress

For just about the last four years I have had the distinct pleasure to work on Zotero and a range of other projects at the Center for History and New Media. It has been an amazing experience and opportunity, and I am grateful to CHNM’s senior staff for all the opportunities they have provided me to hone my skills related to this thing we now call the digital humanities. My time at the Center has shaped the way I think about software and scholarship.

I am very excited to bring this experience into my new position as an information technology specialist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP) in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress. I will be specifically working with the technical architecture team. I have been following NDIIP for a while, and not only are they working an array of important and fascinating projects, but everyone I have met who is associated with the program is fantastic.

I am still going to be around George Mason University. Over the years at CHNM I have been thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with so many of the folks in the History and Art History program, both through projects at CHNM and through my coursework in the MA program. While I won’t be on campus every day, I will still be around once a week for courses as I continue to work on my doctoral studies in the College of Education and Human Development.

I have a few weeks before I start my new position, and I find I have to pinch myself every once and a while. Growing up just outside of Milwaukee, I never imagined that I could end up working at a place like the Library of Congress. I couldn’t be more excited about the future.

Distributed Research Tool Instruction: Think Interlibrary Loan for Training

The ever growing heap of neat digital research tools is simultaneously fascinating and problematic. Some of this stuff really has the potential to be transformational, to provide new avenues for scholarship, and teaching,  but the sheer quantity of tools makes it a bit difficult for scholars and teachers to know where to start from, and what to do when they have started. I am excited to see some of these research tools, like Zotero, becoming part of library instruction on various campuses, but the ever increasing quantity of tools suggests that the possibilities for the few instruction folks at any institution to inform their users about these tools is outpacing the ability for instruction folks to fold them into their offerings. While there are many other avenues for learning about these tools, documentation, screencasts, etc. there is a lot to be said about the sort of hands on instruction and thoughtfulness you get from instruction folks.

With just a little creative thinking I think we could work this out. By pooling instructional resources together much the same way that libraries pool their collections, we could develop a rich collective distributed instruction network that could function alongside existing instruction networks.  If folks are interested please leave comments. It’s also entirely possible that this sort of thing already exists, if so please take a moment to point me to it. Here are what I see as the potential advantages.

alarm-clizockMore Flexible Scheduling:

By pooling resources folks at libraries and other parts of schools involved in instruction can offer users a much more flexible schedule of instruction. If 15 campuses each offer 5 sessions on Zotero in this sort of pool students and faculty at each of their institutions now have access to 75 different sessions on Zotero instead of 5.

evil-geniusShare Exotic and Esoteric Research Tools:

Every instructional tech person I’ve met has a specialty. If there was this sort of distributed instruction network a Librarian in Kansas with an amazing way to use del.ico.us for immunology research who might not be able to fill a class on his campus could probably fill out the session with folks from a larger pool of students and researchers.

wireframe-draft-whateverConnect Existing Instruction Networks:

Even at individual campuses instruction on tools tends to crop up in all sorts of unexpected places. For example, at GMU the Center for Teaching Excellence, Writing Center, Campus Libraries, Instructional Technology Services alongside individual departments all offer different sorts of training. Beyond these differences GMU is spread across three different campuses, meaning that face to face classes in each of these cases are distributed across each campus.

So what would this Distributed Digital Tool Instruction Thingy Look Like?

I don’t have a clear vision here. I think there are several different directions something like this could develop. Here are three options as I see it.

Piggy Back on An Existing Service: There are now a multitude of free enough platforms for screensharing, live chat, sharing slides, and video conferencing. A system for this could simply piggy back on a service like WiZiQ, or DimDim. This senario would have zero upfront investment, and folks could just start this network inside one of these tools.

Stitch together a much more flexible network: Another approach would be to be to stitch together small tool agnostic set up. Everyone uses the system they are comfortable with and then just aggregates info on what sorts of instruction going on and then everyone posts what they are teaching on a collaborative calender.

Build Something More Coherent: Work up a more coherent custom platform for pulling all of this together. There are a lot of neat, more complicated, possibilities. For example a system could keep track of karma points for users from an institution and classes offered by folks from that institution.

Creating History In New Media

Word cloud for the Creating History With New Media course website

I am excited to taking Jeremy Boggs course “Creating History In New Media” to round out my MA in American History. The syllabus is pretty exciting, if a bit overwhelming, mix of tech skills (HTML, CSS and using WordPress and Omeka) with readings in project management and process for web design. If your into this sort of thing take a look at his syllabus.

Over the course of the semester each class member, ideally working in groups, will work a digital history site from bar napkin sketch to launch. I am lucky to have teamed up with Jim Safley, CHNM’s Web Programmer and Digital Archivist,  to work on putting together a smaller scope version of the Playing History project. (If you don’t feel like clicking the link Playing History will be a collaborative directory for educators to find, review, and post lesson plans relating to freely available history games they can use in their classrooms.) Jim and I will be using Omeka as our CMS.

Blogging is a big part of this course. Most of my classmates will be putting together class specific blogs that assume a considerable amount of shared classroom experience. That’s great.  I plan to take a slightly different tack.

While I will be participating in that community, I also want this blog to continue to serve a more general audience of folks interested in my particular take on digital history/humanities stuff. I have two primary reasons for doing this, the first of which is altruistic, and the second of which is a bit more self serving.

(1) I don’t think many history programs offer this kind of course. So if anyone wants to virtually audit it: grab a copy of the syllabus, and subscribe my RSS feed to follow along as we work through it together. I intend to post general class reactions to projects and readings alongside my own reactions, as well as, general information about how our class sessions worked. I think this, in conjunction with the course site, should also provide fruitful food for thought for educators interested in developing similar kinds of courses.

(2) I really think the Playing History project Jim and I are working on is a valuable endeavor and the more folks we can get to react to our planing documents (sitemaps, wireframes, photoshop mockups, HTML mockups, and final product) the more likely we will be able to launch a compelling first iteration of the Playing History idea.

Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing

hip twotone nixon pictureEarlier this week Tom Scheinfeldt, of Found History suggested that the historical profession could well be moving in a new direction. For quite sometime historians have been concerned with questions of ideology, arguments about which historical-isms are the best for a given task. Tom, suggests that new media tools (like text mining) challenge historians to consider methodological questions anew.

I think there is a great example of one of these new methodological conversations that could be emerging in the way we work with source material. Consider historian Jeremy Suri‘s article in this months Wired magazine, a brief 4 page adaptation of a paper he coauthored with political scientist Scott Sagan. Beyond being a bit pithier and coming with hip twotone images of Nixon I would imagine that most historians would suspect that the brief wired article is simply a derivative from the original 33 page article published in International Security. But Suri’s article in Wired gives the historian something very valuable that the original paper does not.

When you read the Wired article online you are only a click away from scans of many of the declassified primary sources Suri used to develop his argument. This gives the reader a radically transparent view into the source material supporting the case Suri argues. Imagine what this kind of source transparency could do if it became standard practice for historical journals.

As a thought experiment consider the implications of the David Abraham Affair. When several historians rigorously fact checked Abraham’s footnotes and turned up a host of inconsistencies he was drummed out of the historical profession. In analysis of the incident in That Noble Dream Peter Novik suggested that Abraham’s sloppiness was not a isolated case, but instead one of the only times a historians footnotes were so rigorously fact checked. This kind of double checking doesn’t happen that often largely because it is so time consuming. How many people would retrace a historians footsteps through archives scattered around the world to double check each citation? But when checking sources becomes as simple as clicking a link what do we think will turn up everyone else’s footnotes?

You might think the linked citations I just mentioned are something that will never happen. Or that this kind of change is twenty years out. But, just last week Jstor started to implement new features that bring this kind of linked connection to secondary literature and <shamelessplug> on a very basic level our work on Zotero’s ability to create smart bibliographies allows authors the ability to put their bibliographies upfront for others to quickly grab. Beyond these two projects however, our plan for the Zotero Commons will facilitate exactly this kind of radical transparency for primary source material in historical scholarship. Through a collaboration with the internet archive any author will be able to stick permanent URI’s on their cache of scanned source material. Allowing anyone to link out to an author’s primary sources.</shamelessplug>

With the commons, every professional and amature historian will be able to end their papers with. “You can find the documents cited in this paper @ Zotero Commons.” So, the question is, when it takes 15 seconds instead of 15 hours to fact check a source do we think historians will start to write differently, or otherwise change how they do their work?