Thursday, December 15, 2011

Now That Class is Over

Now that class is over, I wanted to share my thoughts about this course, my professor and my latest NOVA experience in general.
1831 Wiehle Avenue, Reston
I've been taking classes at NOVA for a long time and I've had very good experiences there. Seriously, what other community college offers such an amazing selection of classes, like three different archaeology courses, day-long geology field trips to the Shenandoah, homicide seminars, and special topics like the History of Jazz? This semester my class was a special topic in history -- Introduction to Digital History. My professor, Charlie Evans, developed the course and was able to teach it with a very low enrollment. How lucky for me because it turns out that I was the only student.

This was good for obvious reasons but also a little weird because of the dynamics in class and because I really had to be prepared. The latter wasn't hard because I liked the assignments and readings but I do still have that fear of being the unprepared student who is going to say something completely random or not say anything at all. And not that I was going to blow off class but when you're the only one in the class, you pretty much have to show up and participate.

Class itself was intense because most days it was non-stop! It wasn't intense like a three-hour lecture with furious note-taking; it was like a continuous conversation that could make my head spin. No real downtime to contemplate (let alone check my Twitter feed), just a constant flow of conversation and ideas. For real, imagine having a discussion for two or three hours about something you're seriously interested in with someone who is as into it as you are. Good but intense!

Here I got lucky again because Dr. Evans absolutely rocked! Actually liking a professor was not something I considered too much before, but this was different because it was just the two of us. So thankfully, he was cool and easy to like. Even with a strong interest in the subject, I still have a short attention span and can get distracted easily, yet Dr. Evans somehow kept me engaged and on track. On days when I was in a bad mood or just having a crappy morning, he could bring me around within minutes and I could focus on whatever we were working on which was good because I didn't have any classmates to bail me out. Another thing I really liked is I could ask him something and get a candid response, not some hot air you might assume a professor would give.

Not surprisingly, this guy's wicked smart but he's not obnoxious about it or intimidating. He was very easy to communicate with in class and by email outside of class. He is genuinely interested in getting his students to connect with history and eagerly using technology to try to do this. Since this was a digital history class, it was fascinating for me to see how a professor tries to connect students with the past and how digital materials can enhance this.

Dr. Evans had told me at the beginning of the semester that one of the reasons he was teaching this class with only one student was because it was new and I was the guinea pig. He would also be evaluating how the course might work as an online class so that was something I tried to keep in mind during the semester.

Some things in the syllabus changed and some changed quickly. Dr. Evans had said the first syllabus he sent me was tentative so I'm not complaining, just explaining what changed. At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus said to read the textbook right away, in advance of the second class meeting, so I did. But then he changed it so chapter assignments pretty much matched with the weekly topics. This made more sense but since I had already read the book, I just had to review a chapter the week before class.

Another thing that changed were the tests. The first syllabus didn't have any which was fine with me because I get more out of assignments and projects, but then a midterm and a final were added. They were online and Dr. Evans had me take both right around midterm. Good to be the guinea pig because it turns out the final was testing some things that really should be assessed earlier in the semester, long before a final, which I told Dr. Evans. He also asked how long they took and what I thought about them. My only real complaint with them is that I had to do them through Blackboard and I remembered from taking exams in a couple of ELI courses that you can't do certain things, like "save" your work or use a backspace delete, so I wrote my exam in Word and then pasted it into the Blackboard exam fields. Even though it looked like my hyperlinks would work, I found out after that what my professor got was really just text. This would have been good to know before, especially for a digital history class, but if this class is offered online, then there's really no way around having Blackboard exams.

We did have some guest speakers. Andrea Odiorne who now teaches at NOVA came in to discuss Omeka, a free digital archives platform developed by Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. She had worked on Omeka and was extremely helpful in explaining how it worked and how it could be adapted. Dr. Evans had been using some of Omeka plugins for some of his work so he already had a good idea of its capabilities. Originally she was supposed to come in later in the semester but because a big part of my grade would be presenting a history project on the web, he decided to have her come in earlier. This really helped because after that class, I decided to use Omeka to host my project and I could get started using it it right away.

One of the very cool things was getting to hear Rob Nelson from the University of Richmond speak on Digital Humanities. So this was actually part of the course schedule but I can't remember ever having a professor in college have me attend something like this where audience was otherwise all faculty. Earlier in the semester we had looked at what universities were doing with digital humanities, like UVa's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, UMd's Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Mason's Center for History and New Media, and Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab. I especially liked what Richmond was doing because of the focus on Virginia history, so getting to hear Rob Nelson discuss some of those projects was a wonderful opportunity for me. A few concepts he introduced, like topic modeling and algorithms, were intriguing but beyond me, yet it was still exciting to see what they're doing and I marveled at the resources and support they have there.

Dr. Evans encouraged me to try things like Google Analytics and Zotero and I used both with my project. I tried to be aware of new digital tools and use those that I could. My iPhone was great because not only could I take photos and notes but I used a GPS app to photograph and map the surviving schoolhouses. I already posted about a couple other things I tried, like using Facebook and a digital microfilm reader, and I even tweeted a few discoveries and observations during the semester.

But I looked at technology as a tool and still relied on my  research abilities to gather and evaluate information for my project. I had used the local history libraries and the Library of Virginia before so I was comfortable knowing where to go and what to look for, whether to a library or a website. Talking to people -- longtime residents of Northern Virginia who remembered now demolished schoolhouses, a descendant and major researcher of the architect I was studying, a librarian who immediately recognized the architectural style and pointed me to other schools -- was invaluable and could never be replaced by a website.

So would this class work as an online course? I'm not sure that I can fairly judge that. Though I did a lot of work on my own and and the assignments were based on the web, I got so much out of the classroom time and interaction with Dr. Evans that I can't imagine it being entirely online. To be able to look at the same site or tool at the same time and actually see what the other was demonstrating or explaining was a major plus. I could ask questions right away and also share things I thought were relevant. He was just so great to work with! I didn't have any classmates to interact with and I didn't have the benefit or distraction of their questions and observations either so that's hard to judge, although if we could follow classmates' blogs, then we would still get a sense of their ideas. Maybe a combination of some class meetings and some online would work, if that's an option.

Well, time to wrap up this wrap-up and give a huge thank you to Dr. Evans who made driving to Reston every Wednesday morning at rush hour so worthwhile.
Morning rush, 7 December 2011, westbound Dulles Toll Road

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Project Update: Content Complete

So after organizing the exhibit with pages and sections, I was pretty much all set to add copy and I had started to do that when some more photos came through. I had really needed images showing the Ballston and Franklin Sherman schools as schools. The only images I had showed them as they were used after the schools had closed.

A couple weeks ago I sent a message to the Arlington Historical Society and we had exchanged emails but I didn't think I would hear back in time. Then late Sunday night, they came through. One great thing about this being a web project is that I didn't have to wait for a high-res file because the image I had found online was adequate and I just needed their permission.

I also reached out to Bob Stoy, a genealogist with a great website about his family from Northern Virginia. He had an excellent photo of Franklin Sherman when it first opened and not only did he let me use it, but he sent two other images of the school.

But, because there's always a "but" with my school projects, I couldn't find the documentation I thought I had identifying Robinson as the Franklin Sherman architect. I was sure I had it but when I searched through my notes, I couldn't find anything. I'm still convinced it's his work. It just kills me not to be able to have the paper trail.

Probably shouldn't admit this here but my notes were sort of a mess. I'm used to taking notes and getting photocopies and with this project I was also taking photos of the subjects, taking photos of source materials, and using Zotero. So I had to search four or five different places for every fact. I thought I was on top of it and I guess I was because I did have a lot of good documentation, but not being able to find what I needed for that one school seriously pissed me off. Maybe I never had it but that's so not like me.

So the only thing left to do is send thank you messages and links to all who shared photos.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Project Update: Virtual Distraction

When I was in college, I could never go to the library to study. I tried a few times but sitting in the stacks with my still-in-mint-condition textbook, I was still surrounded by hundreds of volumes that had other information I might want to know. I couldn't concentrate on my textbook when I knew there were so many other books begging to be looked at. It didn't matter where I sat, I would find something more interesting, more appealing to read. Welsh mythology, bridge engineering, whatever -- nothing was off limits!

So having to do a project on the web is like sitting in the stacks the night before an exam. And I'm interested in my project, I like my project but there are so many distractions just a click away. Parental controls could keep me off Twitter and ESPN 3, but they don't protect me from the Library of Virginia, historical newspaper collections, and other sites I legitimately need to use for my project. Once I get into one, I start thinking of all the other things I want to look up or could learn. I'm back in the stacks at WVU.