Liveblogging NITLE, “Scholarly Collaboration and Small Colleges in the Digital Age”, 5th panel

Dan Schnaidt, Wesleyan University, “Repositioning the Academic Media Studio”.

Building infrastructure of faculty collaboration in digital contexts at Wesleyan, “back-end engine”, since 2000.

Focus on creating “learning objects”: usable anytime, reusable content, cost-effective.

Schnaidt notes that the term is kind of technical and doesn’t connect well to humanists in particular. “Institutional depository” is an alternative, but doesn’t work very well either.

The more raw the media elements are, the more reusable; the more fully assembled, the less so.

Wesleyan did this with soft money, grant support.

Learning objects created range from $5-50K in total cost. (Not cheap!) Faculty were not paid to participate.

No tenure-track faculty participated, tenured faculty did.

Objects they made: simulations, interactive game (Ricardian Explorer), tools (Lightbox), collections (Virtual Instrument Museum, Scroll Singers of Naya, Ukiyo-e Technique), field research (Palenque, Afghan North, Virtual Village)

People with a fieldwork component to their work really found the learning objects approach potentially useful

Learning Objects Studio

Personal note: really impressive range of projects, very professional looking. I’m really envious.

Overall assessment:

Poor faculty response, significant external use, weak internal use. Faculty motivation is a key issue.

Upshot: internal funding isn’t going to happen, because it’s expensive and isn’t used heavily internally.

The Learning Group project coordinators realized they’d become a publishing unit and didn’t have: editors, peer review, permissions, or distribution channels beyond Merlot/search/word of mouth

Personal comment: here we’re seeing the heart of the dilemma around faculty culture and digital resources. The fact is that most faculty teaching in elite institutions, including small colleges, are sufficient in their teaching practices and their information use. They don’t need to use digital resources, or the really interesting kinds of objects this group was designing. Not because their teaching wouldn’t benefit from or be enhanced by these kinds of objects, but because the students don’t know what they’re missing and have no way to find out what they’re missing. If you make the objects and don’t have the pedagogy, it goes nowhere. So if you build this stuff, you’re really building it for external use, as a gift to the world, and usually a gift specifically to institutions and users who are asymmetrically related to the faculty and institutions involved in building digital resources. E.g., to K-12 students, to community colleges, to universities in the developing world, to underresourced colleges. And no matter how much some of my colleagues in history and anthropology may talk the talk of social justice and digital divide, when it gets down to being involved in giving a digital gift, they ask: what’s the incentive? Why should I, if that means I won’t publish my next monograph in a timely fashion? Who will notice or care if I give a gift of this kind? (The Ithaka Report was mentioned several times during the presentation, it gets at some of these issues.)

Another thing to consider, however: we’re also not pedagogically literate about how to use this kind of material and we don’t often create them to be used as the center piece of a small liberal arts class. Suppose I had students look at the Palenque learning object. It’s great for giving the students a vivid visual and experiential feel for the place. But ok: it’s thus just a supplement to something else that’s being used to create discussion-based learning for that session. That’s part of the problem with some of these objects: they’re supplemental, optional, not just because faculty don’t work to enhance their teaching but because that’s how they cast themselves. At least some of these objects have to have the character of scholarship, e.g., to have an argument, to enter into the conversation about a particular area of knowledge forcefully, to be knowledge rather than a supplement to knowledge.

They tried to solve some of this by moving to smaller projects, tying themselves to Wesleyan University Press, charging accurately for the labor of creating the projects, looking to revenue streams that will compensate for the publication of these objects. WUP brings reputation capital, market discipline, editorial support, relationship to authors (they hope).

Library as another key partner.

Academic Media Studio: charging for services, capturing overhead. Scholarly collaboration is not free, costs money, build that in.

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2 Responses to Liveblogging NITLE, “Scholarly Collaboration and Small Colleges in the Digital Age”, 5th panel

  1. Sdorn says:

    I’ve been having many similar thoughts about the professional and institutional issues involved and a leisurely conversation with one of the more thoughtful academic librarians I know, and I think you hit on all three of the key questions (what is the relationship of objects to pedagogy/intellectual argument, how to give/create academic credibility, and how to structure the institutional environment to support the activities appropriately).

    And I think I could figure out some solutions, but I need a grant, I need to write a few grants this semester, and I haven’t figured out how it would translate into … oh. Right. 😉

  2. Western Dave says:

    As you point out, many of these objects seem supremely useful for Upper School uses because they allow students to engage directly with historical sources. They fit in with what we call “history labs” in my school. Here is a set of documents, images, web sites, etc. Go tool around and figure out what you can learn while answering a set of guided questions. Usually there is some sort of culminating question at the end. It’s the kind of basic skills work that is really basic but generally gets sacrificed for learning “stuff.” As my own school has its eyes on becoming a technological leader, I think we need to pursue this stuff for both internal and external use.

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