Features of the Future Digital Textbook

Standard

In lieu of writing, we drew things…

Overview

Overview

Intro to learning node: in this case a class on Shakespeare

Intro to learning node: in this case a class on Shakespeare

Provides historical context. Features include chat, place for notes, student directed content (student can choose which area(s) to explore)

Provides historical context. Features include chat, place for notes, student directed content (student can choose which area(s) to explore)

The play. Features include chat, video, AI scaffolding

The play. Features include chat, video, AI scaffolding

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students watch the scene they just read.

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students watch the scene they just read.

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students discuss the scene with their peers.

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students discuss the scene with their peers.

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students write an essay about the scene they just read.

One of 3 cognitive engagement activities: Here, students write an essay about the scene they just read.

One of three assessment activities: writing assignment

One of three assessment activities: writing assignment

One of 3 assessment activities: Students do a performance

One of 3 assessment activities: Students do a performance

One of 3 assessment activities: Students do a creative writing activity

One of 3 assessment activities: Students do a creative writing activity

Finished product

Finished product

New Modes of Knowledge Production and the Book

c.o.  Cubosh
Standard

It goes without saying that digital technologies have lowered the bar to writing, printing, and publishing books. And, yet, when we think about the future of the book, too often we (historians especially) imagine the book in terms of the large commercial or academic press that follows an age-old process through which authors sit down at a typewriter and peck away at the keyboard, filling page after page of text. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that I’ve come to these problems of the future of the book from a quite different point, a roundabout journey that began without much consideration of either platform or press.

The particular questions that I am presently exploring are specific. How do we deploy an e-publishing solution for mobile interpretive projects powered by Curatescape (+ Omeka)?  That problem has transformed my colleagues and partners into publishers, revealing a convergence between public humanities projects and traditional scholarly endeavors. This convergence suggests that as we sprint beyond the book, we should appreciate both the importance of the book’s unique presence as well as the ways in which the book can become enriched by new approaches to the production of knowledge.

Curatescape, the framework for mobile publishing developed by my research lab, emerged from several professional practices that have converged in the digital age.

Urban and public historians have long been curating landscape, well before the term “curation” was applied as widely as it has been in the digital age. Often emerging out of innovative community-driven teaching, these “local” historians and their students and collaborators studied neighborhoods, communities, and civic spaces. The outcomes of those works—papers, presentations, walking tours, and public history projects—frequently made their way back to the community through interactive projects, featuring dialogues between students and their key informants. That dialogue, framed by historical scholarship and primary source documents, yielded remarkable experiential learning, of the sort that produced civic engagement. This approach has become a standard feature on many university campuses through service learning and experientially-based classroom assignments. The digital age has yielded new ways to feature that work, ranging from blogs to digital archival platforms. Suddenly, we’ve moved from one-off projects to those that can (potentially) build upon one another.

The ability to create shared learning environments led innovators to create standards-based platforms and tools for publishing on the Internet. WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr are the best-known present surviving tools from this moment, becoming common blogging (or microblogging) software. In the archival world, open-source archival content management systems emerged to help librarians and curators document and share their collections—books, material culture, and photographs. In academic and library settings, tools like Collective Access or Omeka have become commonly used archival systems, emulating blogging platforms in their approach to allowing heritage professionals to engage publics about their important cultural collections.

At the turn of the century, Oral History practice underwent dramatic transformation, driven by the emergence of digital tools for collecting, processing, and archiving oral history. The results accelerated trends underway in the field, away from reliance on written transcripts to mediate what is a deeply human and aural experience. Digital collection of stories democratized oral history by allowing anyone to record narratives.  And it made those sound files more sharable than they’d ever been. Coupled with easier indexing, annotating, and archiving, oral history became malleable and could be included easily in the emerging ecosystem of digital humanities projects. Setting aside the work of filmmakers, these trends allowed scholars and documentarians for the first time to widely share human voices as part of their interpretive work. As part of a broader proliferation of interpretive multimedia, the very nature of storytelling has shifted toward layered multimedia presentation.

In 2005, as these trends emerged and I engaged them with students, teachers, and colleagues, I was asked to produce content for history kiosks that would be located along a rapid bus route in Cleveland, Ohio. Our team built elaborate multimedia stories for these kiosks, which appeared on the streets at the very moment of the emergence of the iPhone. Recognizing that such locative technologies promised to transform cities into living museums, our team adapted the kiosk project to mobile devices. Bringing together a series of convergences—in engaged-student learning, open-source content management systems, and digital oral history—our first project, Cleveland Historical, developed as a web-based mobile interpretive project that allowed our team to curate the city through interpretive, layered multimedia stories. Cleveland Historical became the first iteration of Curatescape, a broader framework for mobile curation that uses the Omeka content management system as its core archive. Importantly, we don’t call our work a “platform” but a framework that uses multiple digital tools, content management systems, and standards. We exist within a broader system of knowledge production that is both technical and conceptual.

In building our Cleveland project, as well as working with more than 30 partners to launch their projects, we’ve realized that our teams of students, communities, and scholars are curating landscape through interpretive stories. They’re also publishing rich collections of multimedia stories that engage the landscape in remarkable ways. These projects transform how we experience place, and also provide an avenue for shaping conversations about place.

Critically, our audiences and interpreters also have challenged the boundaries of our community, urging us to produce information feeds to a variety of different formats, including e-books, and even real books. They want to read our interpretive historical stories as collectives, with different sorts of connections to other interpretive projects (both inside and outside the Curatescape system).

Quite suddenly, we’ve found ourselves asking what these travelogues should look like. We’re asking about the role of multimedia, the formats, and the outputs (e-books, print, how to format the RSS feed). We’re just as interested in the use cases: is this for local urban walking tours, thematic books that feature the apps’ tours, aggregations of stories across space—about parks or Civil Rights? The questions of what this might look like, and of what it means to write a book, have challenged our sense of the book itself. What is it that we’re publishing? If it is not a book, what is it? Critically, the convergence of tools, approaches, and materials suggests to me that whatever forms emerge should reflect emerging approaches to systems of knowledge production. Hearkening back to a mythic book as a standard and goal may be the wrong question to ask as we sprint toward the future of the book.

Skeptics Online

Skeptics Stack Exchange screenshot
Standard

For about a year now I’ve been an active member on the Skeptics forum within the Stack Exchange (SE) network. Stack Exchange bills itself as “a fast-growing network of 114 question and answer sites on diverse topics from software programming to cooking to photography and gaming.” Many of my readers will be familiar with Stack Overflow, the site for professional and enthusiast programmers. Stack Overflow shows up frequently in search results about various software- and programming-related queries. The other sites in the network are less popular by several degrees of magnitude, but they also have more of a community feel. On Skeptics, the core group is small enough to recognize its members by name.

My purpose here is to describe this little corner of the Internet, both as an ethnographic exercise and as a moment of self-reflection. At the very least, I hope to capture a snapshot of the quickly evolving life of an online forum. All Stack Exchange sites look and work the same way, using the same underlying software service. The idea of question and answer forums has been around since the early pre-Internet days of bulletin boards: you visit, write a post that asks a question, and hope someone answers. SE improved on that model by seeking not just an answer, but the definitive answer. Where general forums encourage open-ended discussion, SE is set up to finish the conversation. In a perfect world, a question should have one succinct answer. That is what makes SE so popular. Where, on other forums, the answer is hidden in a long string of replies, SE prominently features the definitive answer on top of the pile of responses.

Like many other social web sites, SE is heavily “gamified.” Active users get points for good questions/answers and badges for various achievements (like answering a particularly old question, for example). A registered user is able to vote on the quality of the post (in a binary way, either up or down), adding to the total count of the author’s reputation points. The end effect is a system of social filtration. Poorly-received posts “sink” to the bottom of the pile. Quality content “floats” to the top.

Points and badges (which are the essence of gamification) can feel infantilizing sometimes, but in this case the achievements are tied to real editorial privileges. It takes roughly 125 points (at 10 points per upvote) to be able to downvote someone, for example. At 2,000 points, a member can start editing all questions and answers (and not just her own). The ability to vote to delete posts from the site entirely kicks in at 3,000 points. 20,000 points grant further editorial privileges. Interestingly enough, the community moderators are elected in an open election that does not require a reputation threshold. Of course most moderators (who can do things like change the look and feel of the site) tend to be long-time contributors to the community. This model of governance rewards stable identities and active, high-quality participation. (The quality part is an important piece here. Other reward systems encourage quantity over quality, which can result in the frequent appearance of repeated “meme” content. At SE, such posts would be voted down and some effort is taken to remove duplicate content).

The Skeptics forum has high evidential standards. Questions must present a notable claim—something that appears in popular media, for example. Similar to the Wikipedia policy, SE answers should not contain popular research, relying rather on peer-reviewed scholarship and other reputable sources. When the answer is good, other members of the community may ask for further clarification, better source material, or offer other editorial suggestions. And, although it is not required, the person asking the question is encouraged to accept the correct answer, which brings a few extra points to the answerer.

SE sites tend to cluster around communities of expertise, like programming, physics, photography, and English language usage. The Skeptics community differs slightly from these in that it is a forum for applying the general principles of scientific skepticism. The site specializes in debunking notable bogus claims, popular misconceptions, pseudo science, and superstition of all kind. Medicine comprises the most popular category by far, with nutrition and history following close behind. My most popular answers on the site include “Do wild dogs use trains to commute to and from Moscow?” (yes they do),1 “Did only a handful of people in Europe know how to do division before the 13th century?” (no, long for division was widely known at the time),2 and “Did the Ancient Egyptians use twenty-sided dice?” (yes!).3

Writing these posts is time consuming, taking anywhere between a few hours (when the answer is limited to simple citation) and a few days (when it requires extensive synthesis). Why do I contribute?

First, I find it relaxing. There is great pleasure in using my research skills in areas which I don’t normally encounter in my professional life. Second, I believe in the cause of tough-minded skepticism. It is the sort of thing that often goes by the name of “critical thinking,” even though few are willing to apply it to all aspects of their belief. Third, I feel compelled to do it as a small measure of civic duty or citizen scholarship. I have easy access to university resources like PubMed and JSTOR, which are closed to the rest of the world. It takes me just a few minutes to answer questions like “Do girls mature more quickly than boys?”4 or “Is the value of a tree $193,250?”5 using fairly reliable, state-of-the-art sources. Finally, I find in Stack Exchange a powerful model for academic publishing (or publishing of any kind for that matter). Running a journal requires an enormous amount of work (by editors, managing editors, and reviewers). Most of this labor is invisible and, for the most part, unrewarded. We could learn a lot about streamlining the peer-review process from communities like SE. Imagine, for example, accruing reputation points for being an active reviewer (or being on time with your comments), and then trading those points for expanded editorial privileges or for faster turn-around times when submitting your own articles for publication.

1: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15910/do-wild-dogs-use-trains-to-commute-to-and-from-moscow/15918#15918
2: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15130/did-only-a-handful-of-people-in-europe-know-how-to-do-division-before-the-13th-c/1513815138
3: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/16578/did-the-ancient-egyptians-use-twenty-sided-dice/16579#16579
4: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/14736/do-girls-mature-more-quickly-than-boys/14771#14771
5: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/16007/is-the-value-of-a-tree-193-250/16009#16009

Materiality: Rectangles, Accordions

c.o. niznoz
Standard

In the science fiction part of our conversations here, we’ve inched toward imagining books once they stop looking like books, or like rectangles. What will it be like when we “read” via a chip in our parietal lobes? I just reread (the old-fashioned way) Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012) and that novel’s deliberate banalities and its querying of how fiction interacts with reality, or with autobiography—and with beauty, how it stakes a claim for genius in part by being ugly!—remind me of Conceptual Poetry. Heti’s book is both a story we may or may not fall into and an argument with storytelling, with novels; in that way it’s quite similar to Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, his printing out the Internet, or Joseph K(aplan)’s making his own name by listing the names of, and arbitrarily (or not?) identifying the socio-economic status of, other poets in a long “poem” (Note: Kaplan’s Kill List was published online in 2013 by an independent press, Cars Are Real. The Poetry Foundation’s blog about the book helped facilitate explosions of condemnation and defense).

Goldsmith says in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them” (2011). I imagine the paperless book will often have additional ambitions, but I think our embrace of conceptual lit, our genial welcome of high jinks and provocation and contentlessness (or content overload, or content disingenuousness) to the conversation (Goldsmith is featured on the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites, the grand dames of contemporary American poetics, both of which over the last fifteen years have become increasingly open to experiment and avants of various kinds) signals something about how ready we are to consider books in new ways.

Two areas of book-change stand out to me: first, the relationship of the book to whatever paratextual material accrues around it. As writers reconstrue (for better or worse) the way they allocate time and energy between making novels or poems and making a context for those novels and poems to find readers via, usually, social media, they either generate such paratextual material, or permit it to be generated via interviews, audio recordings, etc., and as they also help disseminate it, the book is increasingly likely to be encountered inside the nest of all this other stuff. As, for example, book trailers grow more beautiful, or more funny, or more engaging in any of a range of ways, or as other kinds of video are linked to books, as the ruminations of writers about their work or the work of others are easier to find and read before, during, after reading the referenced literary work…has that started to create a new conglomerate book, the sum of these many parts? Already some books seem to want to house more and more within their covers or their e-carnations of whatever kind.

And here is one example, Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ visual poem based on Victoria Redel’s Woman Without Umbrella (2012), of why that’s potentially so appealing:

Second, there are a plethora of wonders now being produced for large audiences: Anne Carson’s Nox (2010), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), the new collection of Dickinson’s envelope poems, Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb (2011), Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006) (thanks to the poet Erika Meitner, (Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (2011), Ideal Cities (2010)), for helping me think of some of these; she also mentioned Daphne Gottlieb (a performance poet) who used to give out little eight-page chapbooks of new poems to people she met and liked, chapbooks hand-bound with ribbon—a smaller instance of tenderness toward the book’s richness as an art object…). Some of this may derive from the nostalgia Amaranth Borsuk is writing about. In any case, as we perceive the traditional book to be threatened, we seem to become wistful about its physicality, its capacity to be both a container of consciousness and a joy forever…. When Richard Nash started Cursor and Red Lemonade, part of the idea was to make books widely available as e-books and also beautifully available in limited editions, the best of both worlds. So as books grow increasingly ephemeral, we’ve embraced their materiality anew.

Conceptualism may facilitate the deletion of materiality from our list of expectations of “literature,” from even the book itself. If you don’t have to read it, you don’t need to hold it in your hands! Your experience may be enhanced—or muted, mitigated, alloyed—by reading while also (or instead?!) consuming the paratextual stuff. And then, too, the opportunity to unfold the accordion of Carson’s paintings and notes and collagings and to read her poems and translations surrounded by that colorful, unwieldy, gorgeous origami text—even if that’s driven by future-of-the-book anxiety of some kind, it’s pretty glorious to do.