Category Archives: Technology

Crowdsourcing the Humanities: Chris Lintott speaks at the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford 2012.

While attending the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford university this summer, I had the chance to see a variety of lectures. The first of these was by Chris Lintott (Department of Physics, University of Oxford). Chris Lintott has been involved in the development of what has been termed Citizen Science – the communal engagement with science research – and runs one of the most notable of these projects, Zooniverse. My apologies if this is somewhat after the event, but here is the gist of Chris’s talk.

Chris started with the example the data produced by astrophysical research: CERN, for example, produces hundreds of terabytes of data per second during its experiments (Terabyte = c.1000 Gb). This is ‘Big Data’ indeed and pushes at both the limits of computing and the funding of such research. As an answer to the processing and the funding of digging such large amounts of data, crowdsourcing produces a very rich dataset. Involving multiple readers of data, crowdsourcing enables a high level of crosschecking and has been generating original knowledge and insight.

Chris then enumerated a number of examples of science-related projects that use communal collaboration to dig data; the first of which was Galaxy Zoo which analyses data from the Hubble space telescope. Galaxy Zoo makes it easy for non-academics to take part: as you can see on the page that asks for your help classifying types of galaxies, it is as easy as clicking a button. This is a very important feature of getting communal participation: make it too difficult at the first step and you’ve lost your potential researcher. Chris argued that the key to people’s participation in crowdsourcing research like this was motivation: after a motivation survey was conducted that asked what kind of involvement people preferred the largest proportion voted to ‘contribute’. It reflected, he suggested, a powerful desire for people to own their research. Indeed, that first step led on to people producing their own specialised communities (and their own online forums) within the larger Galaxy Zoo community. In most areas of new research there are typically a number of known unknowns, so it was also key to produce task-specific fields of enquiry, managing the kind of questions you want crowdsourced.

The extension of Galaxy Zoo to encompass a number of new areas of large-scale projects resulted in the umbrella project Zooniverse. Chris warned not to ignore the problems of scale and specifically not to underestimate the potential numbers of contributors: across its various projects Zooniverse currently has 666,074 people taking part (Galaxy Zoo on its own has had around 250,000 people involved so far). While the project is dominated by astrophysics (five  projects based on data supplied by space telescopes and satellites) it also includes humanities-orientated projects: transcribing papyrus documents in Ancient Lives, interpreting whale song Whalefm (‘Whalefm’), and analysing historical climate data Old Weather. Old Weather uses the meticulously recorded weather data contained in Royal Navy ships’ logs dating back to the eighteenth century. What’s particularly interesting in this project is that the ships’ logs also include a huge variety of the day-to-day details of shipboard life – anything, in fact, that particular duty officer chose to write down. This data is also included in the project’s database and is fully searchable, so the community is engaging with research well beyond the confines of climatology.

Chris then moved on to discuss a variety of other humanities-focused crowdsourced projects, including the Bodleian library’s project on musical scores What’s the Score. Commenting again on the issue of building motivation, Chris commented that the most successful crowdsourcing projects do not face users with tutorials but use mini-help boxes supplying context as they go long: ‘dump them into the deep end’ he suggested! Indeed, the New York Public library’s project to transcribe thousands of restaurant dishes on its huge collection of historical menus is a good example. Participation in the What’s on the Menu project starts with just the click on one button (they’re up to over a million of dishes). Crucial, then, it to ensure that results are immediately obvious and tangible and that engagement with the wider community is easy. The Ancient Lives project (under the Zooniverse umbrella) involves transcribing ancient papyrus and uses a basic on-screen interface like a transcribing keyboard. It also includes a feature called ‘Talk’ – one click from the interface to engage in immediate responses to a particular image one is working on.

This lead Chris to argue that perhaps ‘crowdsourcing’ may not be the right way of conceptualising the kind of work done by such communal research and suggested that gaming theory might be more applicable to certain projects: an alternative way to imagine the motivation and rewards of crowdsourcing. Examples here include Fold it: a game to research protein molecular structures, which is, it has to be said, complex and expensive. Similar, but much more user-friendly and addictive looking, is DigitalKoot. At first glance this involves two games, ‘Mole Bridge’ and ‘Mole Hunt’, but they are in fact programs designed by the National Library of Finland to transcribe 19th Finnish-language newspapers: as you play you transcribe. Turning analysis into gaming is obviously attractive and involves a shift in motivation. Similarly, the communal engagement with the SETI project (the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) offers various badges depending on what you have found, from interesting signal to an actual alien. However, this exemplifies the potential problems in gaming and motivation: unsurprisingly no one has yet got the top badge in SETI. In short, Chris argued, don’t replace authentic experience and meaningful participation with goals. Instead, if we wanted to design projects around crowdsourcing, he reminded us that the people who want to get involved in such communal research are specialists in something: build on that.

CMS and VLEs vs … something else

Increasingly, I’ve become frustrated by the VLEs I’ve seen in the various institutions I’ve taught in (‘Virtual Learning Environment’: what in the US is more likely to be called CMS). Regardless of the provider, the VLE belies what its utopian name implies. I remember in the late 1990s doing a workshop at Leeds University on what I later realised was a VLE. I remember the language very clearly: that we would create virtual ‘spaces’ that students would ‘enter’ to work ‘in’. Looking at what is now standard across many HE institutions, it is far from a virtual environment that is truly interactive; the US acronym is much closer to what the software feels like – a ‘Course Management System’. It’s also closer to what students perceive it as. It might well be the digital face of a tutor’s module, but it still feels very much like the institutional face of that teaching; and it feels that way to students and tutors alike. Having an interface that tries to combine ‘hard’ features (institutional information, assessment portals – including plagiarism detection software – grading systems) with the other ‘soft’ features (such as resources and links attuned to the ethos of the tutor and their specific module) creates an odd and unappealing amalgam that does not best enable – from the student – a productive engagement with the module. I have seen wonderful things provided on the VLE pages of some my colleagues’ modules: but even at its best, it can still tend to be a rather one-sided digital conversation.

If we want to create a parallel learning space (and I use the spatial metaphor advisedly) to the space of the lecture or seminar or tutorial – and I think we should – then I’ve come to conclusion that we should move away from, or provide something else other than, the VLE / CMS. I’m perfectly aware that the major providers have been adding a huge variety of platforms to mirror the direction of web 2.0, but mine and my colleagues’ attempts to use the in-built blogs or the wiki packs have not been successful. This is partly to do with the clunkiness of the interface: it’s not intuitive, so students get caught up in the mechanics at the expense of the purpose of the exercise. But it’s also to do with the institutional effect of the VLE. I recently asked my class on eighteenth-century fiction about what kind of digital / online forum they would prefer if they wanted a ‘space’ parallel to the seminar and they overwhelmingly voted for something outside the VLE (they actually voted for Facebook because it was something most were familiar with). Recently, Carrie Shanafelt posted an adroit series of observations on using wikis in the classroom and, in particular, the negative effects of compulsion which I think my own observation on the institutional effect of the VLE / CMS parallels.

My thoughts have been also catalysed by an ongoing experiment to develop (with the help of Gavin Wilshen – thanks!) a blog-site for an MA programme. The potential opportunities for a properly interactive interface between students and tutor are underlined by the ability for tutors and students to post a continuous series of news and commentary and links to create an ongoing conversation around the topics of the course that is parallel to – and to an important extent – outside the space of the institutional face of the VLE.

I certainly thinking that some form of free blogging software is the way forward. So, right now I’m considering what particular platform might best enable a more intuitive way for my undergraduate students to interact with the materials and the topics of my modules in an online space outside or parallel to the classroom, but perhaps also outside the VLE. TBC …

The present and future of digitisation projects: an interview with George Williams and Seth Denbo

I was very lucky to have the chance to talk to two of the leading voices on digital humanities when they very kindly agreed to take part in a filmed discussion at ASECS annual meeting, in San Antonio, March 2012. George Williams is an associate professor of English (specialising in the 18thC) at the University of South Carolina and will be familiar to many from the ProfHacker pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education; Seth Denbo is a historian of eighteenth-century England and involved with MITH, Project Bamboo, the IHR Seminar in Digital History and is on the faculty of the Maryland Institue for Technology in the Humanities. (Using iMovie to film the discussion in my hotel room was a bit of an experiment – which is by way of an apology for any impairment in sound and /or visual quality. The interview is split into two parts).

Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy ASECS panel 2012

“This is the future. Oops – that’s now!” Lisa Maruca’s phrase that emphasised the immediacy – necessity, even – of our students’ engagement with digital technology made the point well. The panelists – Tonya-Marie Howe (Marymount), Kate Parker (Bucknell), David Slade (Berry) and Lisa Maruca (Wayne State) – presented their experiences of using digital technology in their teaching. Actually ‘teaching’ is perhaps the wrong word, since the key-note of the panel was ‘research’ – digital technology in the service of student-led research, either as individuals or collaboratively.

Tonya-Marie Howe, in ‘Student-created web archives and the practice of public scholarship’, detailed her experiences using Omeka. As an open-source software designed with archives in mind, Tonya argued that it was particularly useful to enable students to create collaborative (and, indeed, impressive-looking) digital archives, focused on the digitisation of around 200 pages of an eighteenth-century text. The course involved collaboration with other faculty members and support for digitisation and an essay (to be incorporated into the final archive) that reflected on the processes and creation of the archives. Kate Parker, in ‘Reconstructing literary ephemera in the classroom’, asked what it would be like to teach a course formed solely around digital texts and detailed her experiences of leading a module on eighteenth-century ephemera, what she termed the “literary dregs” of eighteenth-century literary history. Ephemera, Kate argued, posed especially productive challenges and questions regarding literary value. Getting students to engage with digital resources such as ECCO, EBBO and English Broadside Ballads was the first step in a collaborative production of an online anthology of ephemera. David Slade’s paper on ‘Teaching and building the digital archive in eighteenth-century Spanish-American studies’, examined his students’ engagement with the varied – and it seemed, neglected – digital archives of Spanish-American history including those from Columbia, Guatemala, Spain and Mexico. His aim as for students to create their own critical editions, thesis-driven archives, lists and compilations. Lisa Maruca, in ‘Re-thinking Web 1.0, or, low-skillz digital humanities for Newbies’, directly addressed the myth of the so-called ‘digital native’ by encouraging students to use easy to manipulate software such as Weebly to create their projects. Students were required to write a rationale for their resource and all projects were peer reviewed  – arguably very appropriate for the openess at the heart of online resources.

Significantly, all the papers underlined that the engagement with, and creation of, digital resources means that students are, as David Slade pointed out, “participants in the production of knowledge”. But all the panelists also agreed that one of the most important aspects of such courses was that they, as Tonya Howe said, make the processes of the production of knowledge visible. This, I think, was the most impressive potential in these courses. Even in the traditional written dissertation, for example, we hope that students are self-conscious about the decisions they make; yet the creation of original archives of various sorts involves a much more conscious set of decisions in which students become, in effect, curators, editors and scholars.