Five Digital Tools for Pedagogy and Research

As the academic year tumbles to a close, I would like to use my final blog post to discuss five tools that have made the past semester a little less precarious. Certainly, there are more advanced tools available, and I hope you will share them via the Comments thread. However, for this post, I simply want to focus on tools that I regularly use and rely upon to save time and frustration (if only a little).


ImageA no-nonsense shortcut utility for the Mac, TextExpander ($25 edu) has taught me the virtues of automation. Designed around shortcuts (Abbreviations) and the texts they expand (Snippets), TextExpander allows you to supplement your desktop’s keyboard shortcuts and to build forms using a bevvy of customizable templates. These templates can be as simple as custom email signatures (available system-wide), tools for validating and truncating URLs (Internet Productivity Snippets), or, my favorite, Fill-ins, with which you can create forms around predefined selections (Popups) and open fields (Fill-ins). Fill-ins have already saved me hours in writing midterm and final grade reports. (Thanks to TextExpander’s Statistics feature, which tracks and visualizes usage, I can report that the utility has saved me more than a dozen hours this semester). Once I started thinking about my reports in terms of what could and could not be automated, I realized that much of what I write in my headers and footers can be accomplished using three or four different forms. By creating several such forms, I allow myself more time for rigorous reflections on student work.

ImageWhen it comes to managing that work, TurnItIn (pricing depends upon your institution) has changed the way I evaluate research papers. After discovering that Fordham offers a free license for educators, I decided to use it for my students’ first batch of longer essays. I had noticed that despite our conversations about integrating and introducing research, many of my students were playing it fast and lose with outside sources, and I feared that there might be instances of academic dishonesty. Previously, when I harbored such concerns, I manually searched for phrases that sounded misplaced, a time-consuming and incomplete process. With TurnItIn, you can either ask your students to submit papers through the website or you manually upload files. After a couple of minutes per paper, the site calculates the essay’s originality, providing a deceptively specific percentage of that paper’s derivation (given that it doesn’t parse quotations, it’s advisable that you not take the score too seriously and comb through the document yourself). I found that I could open each essay and see where it might be derivative. TurnItIn annotates the document and provides access to the sources of those annotations. (If the source isn’t available publically, TurnItIn allows you to request access). This semester TurnItIn helped me identify two instances of academic dishonesty, which, on my own, would have required hours of additional searching

ImageMy biggest time saving tool, however, has nothing to do with my teaching. When it comes to tracking, managing, and sharing citations, I cannot sing more loudly my praises of Zotero (free). Zotero lives where most of us begin our research: the web browser. While it was originally designed for Mozilla FireFox (where it still works best), you can also download the standalone application, connectors for Google Chrome and Apple Safari, and word processor plugins (for Microsoft Office and LibreOffice/OpenOffice). With JSTOR and WorldCat, Zotero boasts particularly thorough integration; of search results you can tick off articles whose bibliographic information and content (such as full-text PDFs) you want to save. You can access citations via the Zotero button in your browser, where you can create folder hierarchies, export citations in just about any style, or view downloaded PDFs. If you register for Zotero’s free synchronization service (Zotero Sync), you can even access your citations on other computers. By default, you’ll get one hundred megabytes of storage, more than enough for citations alone, but somewhat miserly for PDFs. (After archiving twenty journal articles with PDFs, I exhausted more than a third of the allotted storage). If, however, you intend to conduct your research from one desktop, however, your machine’s hard drive is your only limitation.

ImageFor stubbornly material resources, the latest version of Delicious Library ($25) tidies up everything on your bookshelf, including books, movies, albums, software, and gadgets. Adding items is easy. If it has a barcode, you can scan it using your desktop’s iSight camera or a barcode reader. I added the vast majority of my books using my MacBook’s webcam, but for editions that predate barcodes, I found that I could add them using keywords, authors, and titles. In addition to acting as my iTunes for everything outside iTunes, Delicious includes a particularly dulcet feature: Loans. You can check out books (or anything else) to anyone in your Contacts, and thanks to the software’s interoperation with Apple Calendar, you set and track due dates. Given that I’m constantly swapping books with friends, this feature applies as much to me as it does my peers. (You don’t keep friends by absconding with their books).

ImageI’ve saved my final tool until the end because it is a summer project unto itself. If Apple’s Pages is Microsoft Word with a fresh coat of paint, Literature & Latte’s Scrivener ($45 with a 15% edu) is a gut renovation. Based on the premise that long texts (e.g., chapters, dissertations, monographs) are comprised of short texts, Scrivener allows writers to collect research, write in smaller, modular texts, and to compile fragments into cohesive manuscripts that can be outputted in just about any imaginable format (form Word docs to ePubs). Whether you’re working on a novel or a recipe collection, Scrivener offers a template; alternatively, you can start Blank, just as you would a Word doc. The interface has three main components: the document at the center (Editor); metadata to the right (Inspector); and text hierarchy to the left (Binder). In the Binder, you can store drafts or just about any kind of research (PDFs, images, documents). Everything in Scrivener can be manipulated using drag and drop operations and a host of different views and layouts. What I like about Scrivener is that is meets me where I am. Although my diss chapter will become a single, continuous text (fingers crossed), it doesn’t start that way. Instead, Scrivener allows me to work in small chunks of text (paragraphs, sometimes more), and to synthetize them into a Word doc suitable for my readers.

A Global Voice: The Bronx African American History Project and Digital History

by Jacquelyne Thoni Howard
PhD Student, History Department, Fordham University

       In August 2013, I was assigned as the graduate assistant to The Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). The project provides a digital voice to African Americans who lived and contributed to the Bronx, and it seemed an exciting opportunity to me. After the first meeting with Dr. Mark Naison, Professor of African and African American Studies and founder of the BAAHP, I concluded this was no usual desk job. My project responsibilities include managing the digitalization of the oral history interviews and the student workers who have been hired to help.  Dr. Naison directed me to a cabinet which stored the entire project and suggested I start with an audit.  Keeping this in mind, I created a 10-month project plan, and started the audit. From there, the challenges began.

Finding Solutions to the Challenges

The Media. When conducting the first audit, I found a plethora of media in different formats. This cabinet, a time capsule of the media era, illustrated how the project adapted over time to new media. Thus, VHS, cassette tapes, mini-cassettes, CDs, DVDs and digital media via iTunes housed the approximately 300 interviews of Bronx residents. Many of the interviews existed in different, and duplicate formats. Summaries and transcripts, if they existed, had been saved in different places and formats. I could not begin the digitization until all the material—almost 900 pieces—was first placed in a logical order. I created an organizational system using Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which allowed me to inventory each item and its components (interview, transcript and summary) for future upload into the library’s Digital Commons, a digital research repository. In the past six months, our student workers replaced or created missing summaries and transcripts, and readied over 30 interviews based on establishing and creating missing components.

The Platform
. I worked with Fordham University’s Walsh Library at Rose Hill to set up a space for the collection in Digital Commons. This digital repository stores media and document sources for research purposes. The library staff helped set up the site and customized it with project bios, pictures, folders, and established naming conventions. But herein lies another challenge. Whenever I need to make a change to the project, I have to go to through the library staff. Sometimes it may take weeks to make changes because the staff has many other obligations in addition to managing Digital Commons

Management. A large, digitized project such as The Bronx African American History Project presents the challenge of needing an overseer with both project and people management skills. This project provided opportunities to hone my project management skills, and to improve my people management skills. As a project manager, I ask questions and provide answers, and track benchmarks. As a manager of people, I’m concerned with the daily interactions of the workers. I also conduct meetings, manage work times and assignments in person, via phone, email and Google+.

The Workers. I confront another problem involving the constant rotation of student workers and graduate assistants. A good project plan helps the next group pick up the pieces in an environment with an revolving workforce of people. Therefore, I create clearly defined turnover reports and attempt to organize the project for easier turnaround. However, establishing standard operating procedures and organizational systems takes time away from the actual production of digitalization.

Also, workers and assistants need to be trained on how to utilize the technology to load the media sources consistently. In other words, I need to determine beforehand within the system how and where to place digitalized information so that it is coherent. I train students to place information in specific, though sometimes illogical places (For example, we place the full name in the First Name data field box. By manipulating data fields to meet a certain criteria, our project achieves a certain look. However, this approach challenges the accuracy of the project now and in the future.) To ensure quality, after students load the interview into Digital Commons, I check it before publishing to the web.

Additionally, each of the student workers possesses different strengths and interests. I provide them with additional responsibilities to keep their motivation up, which sometimes ends up stalling the project. This experience, however, reaffirms that it is okay to take risks to empower workers, and to refocus the project when the risks do not take the intended path. Whenever I refocus, I propel the project forward by revising my project plan and in the process created a better organizational system for the next graduate assistant.

Other Challenges. Other challenges include departmental researchers, such as faculty and graduate students, who place holds on interviews they do not want published. This presents additional questions regarding how to organize this additional data set. The volume of the interviews and corresponding media makes these holds difficult to honor. This makes organizing media more challenging, considering that many media components, such as transcripts, summaries and the actual interviews, are missing. To combat this problem, the student workers load everything that is ready, regardless of its “hold” status, but we do not publish it until the hold is lifted. This approach allows for the time-consuming work to be completed upfront even though the students’ labors are not seen right away.

The last challenge deals with advertising the repository for future researchers. The answer lies with social media, Google and the BAAHP website. By posting strategic messages within these media formats, we connect followers to the repository. Additionally, googling The Bronx African American History Project, or specific interviewees’ names, also provide access. I am still considering other ways to communicate the repository beyond these outlets. Promotion suggests a common problem in digital archiving. How do institutions with digital collections indicate what they have available so that researchers have access to ongoing digital additions? Is posting a catalog on the institution’s website enough?

Linking Challenges to a Larger Discourse in Digital History

     For digital history projects, careful planning such as creating project plans, entrenching organizational systems, and authoring current and future communication strategies, are essential. However, student workers need proper management from the graduate assistants, by providing them with smaller chunks of information and directions, and taking risks in order to motivate and empower them.

Using the BAAHP as a case study, digital archiving emerges as an important field. While it is true that research methods change as researchers bring the digital age to the field of history, the actual logistics of creating access to research materials also need to adapt. Archivists and institutions must force this change through careful planning. Digital archiving means housing sources so that materials are more accessible, providing tools that makes research more efficient, less costly and time-consuming, and keeping history meaningful in a world where values are changing.

The BAAHP provides an accessible voice to a group of people who might not possess other communication outlets within a historical context. It provides valuable research information to researchers. Additionally, this project provides an example of how to manage a large-scale digitization project. Lastly, it also contributes to the on-going discourse questioning the challenges, goals, risks, rewards and ethics of digital history.

digital humanities + pedagogy: a companion

Imagevisualization: a glossary

  • metadata: information about information. You’ll use metadata to describe attributes of your items, like their dates of creatine, sizes, etc.
  • Dublin Core: a specific kind of metadata used by Omeka. Dublin Core keeps descriptions consistent.
  • omeka.net (compared to Omeka.org): there are two kinds of Omeka sites. Omeka.net is already hosted, meaning that you don’t have to install anything. Omeka.org is customizable, but you have to be comfortable installing Omeka on a server.
  • GIS (Geographic Information System): an integration of hardware, software, and data designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of geographical data.  GIS is a “tool-centric” approach to digital mapping.
  • neogeography: combines the complex techniques of cartography and GIS and places them within reach of users. Neogeography is a “user-centric” approach to digital mapping.

    gamification: a glossary

  • achievements: accomplishments such as exemplary performance on specific assignments
  • add-ons: expansion packs that adds new material, such as additional stories, new areas of exploration, new items, or more levels.
  • avatar: the character a player directs through a game.
  • dungeons: complex spaces that must be explored before they can be unlocked.
  • Easter egg: a hidden feature of a game
  • extrinsic motivation: motivation by means of tangible rewards or pressures, rather than pleasure (e.g. intrinsic motivation).
  • game choice: the pedagogical model. Justin Hodgson argues that, more than course readings, game choice shapes “content, structure, assignments, [and] activities” (50). Hodgson borrowed his Quest Line structure from World of Warcraft, whereas Benjamin Miller modeled his class on the gameplay of Legend of Zelda.
  • Game Master: the person who acts as an organizer, authority of rules, arbitrator, and moderator for a multiplayer game. Lee Sheldon discusses how a Game Master isn’t necessarily synonymous with a Game Designer: “A teacher need not be a game designer to be a Game Master, but, in most case, must be the Game Master. Just as you are in charge of the development, you continue to be in charge of the classroom” (220).
  • gamification: the application of game mechanics to non-game activities.
  • gild: a community in a role-playing game. Guilds can be comprised of any number of players, depending upon common goals and play style of the game.
  • hack: a clever or quick fix to a problem. It can also refer to a modification that allows users access to otherwise unavailable features (which might give the player an unfair advantage over opponents). McKenzie Wark wrote the book (A Hacker Manifesto) on it.
  • level chart: allows players to see one another’s scores. Scores are sometimes posted anonymously; other times, Game Masters use avatars to induce competition.
  • postmortem: a game development term, borrowed from medical examiners. In the game development, a game’s features, design, and development are autopsied. In a class, the corpse is the class itself. Teachers often schedule a postmortem for the last session to create a space for conversation about what worked and what didn’t.
  • quest: the levels through which players acquire skills.
  • random factor: ensures that the outcomes of player choices are not always predictable. Some teachers integrate dice to randomize groupings of students into GILDS, for example.
  • scaffolded instruction: guides students from smaller, simpler skills, to larger, more complicated ones.
  • stuckpoints: a term coined by Peter Elbow as a way of recasting failures as essential to writing development.
  • walkthrough: a step-by-step guide to obstacles, puzzles, or bosses. Players create walkthroughs for other players.

    gamification: related concepts

  • active learning: “experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning” (Gee 23).
  • critical learning: “learning to thinking of semiotic domains as design spaces that manipulate us in certain ways and that we can manipulate in certain ways” (Gee 43).
  • semiotic domains: “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities to communicate distinctive types of meaning” (Gee 18).
  • multimodality: “In multimodal texts (texts that mix words and images), the images often communicate different things from the words. And the combination of the two modes communicates things that neither of the modes does separately. Thus, the idea of different sorts of multimodal literacy seems an important one. Both modes and multimodality go far beyond images and words to include sounds, music, movement, bodily sensations, and smells” (Gee 14).
  • disruption: somewhere between intervention and subversion, a “creative act that shifts the way a particular logic or paradigm is operating” (Flanagan12)
  • intervention: a specific types of subversion that relies upon direct action and engagement with political or social issues, a “‘stepping in,’ or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue’” (Flanagan 11).
  • subversion: “the turning of a thing upside down or uprooting it from its position; overturning, upsetting; overthrow of a law, rule, system, condition” (OED).

    gamification: a bibliography

  • Alberti, John. “The Game of Reading and Writing: How Video Games. Reframe Our Understanding of Literacy.” Computers and Composition 25.3 (2008): 258–269. Print.
  • Bogost, Ian. “Gamification Is Bullshit.” Ian Bogost. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  • Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.
  • Colby, Richard and Rebekah Shultz Colby. “A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating Computer Games into the Writing Classroom.” Computers and Composition 25.3 (2008): 300-312. Print.
  • Dignan, Aaron. Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success. New York: Free Press, 2011. Print.
  • Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
  • Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. Print.
  • Hodgson, Justin. “Developing and Extending Gaming Pedagogy: Designing a Course as Game.” Eds. Colby, Richard, and John Alberti. Rhetoric/ Composition/play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 45-62. Print.
  • Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
  • Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013. Print.
  • McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Group, 2011. Print.
  • Miller, Benjamin. “Metaphor, Writer’s Block, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Writing Process.” Eds. Colby, Richard, and John Alberti. Rhetoric/ Composition/play through Video Games: Reshaping Theory and Practice of Writing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 99-112. Print.
  • Sheldon, Lee. The Multiplayer Classroom Designing Coursework as a Game. Boston: Course Technology/Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
  • Kapp, Karl M. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2012. Print.
  • Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.