Digital Humanities and Educational Technology; Two Perspectives

By Armanda Lewis and Robert L. Squillace


Connecting Digital Humanities Scholarship and Instructional Practice

By Armanda Lewis (Director, FAS Office of Educational Technology, and Adjunct Faculty, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, NYU)

During a keynote address given in 1990, prominent educator and scientist Seymour Papert ruminated on disciplinary innovation (13).  Imagining both a nineteenth-century surgeon and teacher with the ability to time travel, he noted that the surgeon would be completely out of sorts in the world of modern medicine, though the teacher would find the contemporary scene more familiar than not.  While the doctor of the 1800s would be unable to perform procedures and operate tools advanced by digital technologies, the teacher would find the representative instructional practices of the late twentieth century largely routine.  Papert’s main appeal was to harness the power of computers to give students opportunities to create new and deep knowledge, challenge existing ideas, and become critical thinkers.

There are important comparisons to make between this instructional call to action and the promise of the Digital Humanities (DH), which explores how emerging technologies can advance and inform centuries-old humanities research methods and epistemes.  As a literary scholar and educational technologist, I frequently create connections between research practices, and teaching and learning.  Of interest here are the parallel developments that have allowed both traditional humanist scholarship and instruction to advance in a digitally-mediated environment. Though there are many connections to make between these fields, I will highlight three areas: constructionist activities, interdisciplinary collaborations, and multimodality.

A humanist lens involves the scholar’s own systematic reflection on a theme, and rests on rich interpretation, contextualization of arguments, and critical synthesis.  It is a deeply interpretivist approach that relates directly to the main active learning paradigm that has underpinned educational technology theories during the past few decades (Hoover 1). This approach recognizes learning as an ongoing and participatory process transformed by one’s own experiences and perspectives. Humanities thinking has long positioned the researcher as the chief agent through which knowledge building happens and is negotiated. Likewise, active learning reflects the learner’s role in his or her own development.

One trend in both humanities research and teaching practice is the move towards more concrete building (aka constructionist) activities, expanding deep thought processes to include creation practices that are iterative and often technologically mediated (Papert and Harel 3).  Within the teaching and learning space, this has led to maker movements where the active thinking that underpins cognitive theories is extended to include students’ participation in artifact creation.  This includes everything from circuit building, to digital storytelling, to mobile application design.  Within the humanities, the trend towards constructionist practices relates to what Burdick, Drucker, and colleagues term “thinking-through-practice … Digital Humanities is a production-based endeavor in which theoretical issues get tested in the design of implementation, and implementations are loci of theoretical reflection and elaboration” (13).  Humanists now design, prototype, and disseminate applications that facilitate citation management (e.g. Zotero), archival storage (e.g. Omeka), and data visualization (e.g. Voyant). In both scholarly and instructional cases, an entrepreneurial and autodidactic spirit prevail.

Another comparable development between humanities research and instruction is the recognized need for interdisciplinary collaborations to advance theory and practice.  Interdisciplinarity is not new within the humanities, as we have examples of scholars being inspired by and integrating knowledge from other disciplines.  What has emerged is the move from what Ryan Cordell and others have characterized as understanding interdisciplinarity from the perspective of one’s own discipline, to developing competence in diverse epistemological frameworks and accompanying methods.  Humanists, for example, are not necessarily becoming coders, but are developing computational literacies that will unlock new methods and enable them to collaborate with programmers to design new research interfaces and functionality.  One study that reveals new ways of viewing art is only possible through merging neuroscience and aesthetic studies; it asks questions that could not have been posed through mono-disciplinary approaches (Vessel, Starr, and Rubin 258). From the learning side, theory and practice have advanced from learning as conditioned behavior to learning as a complex interplay between the individual and the environment. As such, instructional practice now applies theories from critical studies, design, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

One additional connection is the move towards multimodality, or communication through distinct forms of representation (e.g. textual, spatial, linguistic, aural, etc.).  Multimodality, connects to the two previous points since it is foundational to constructionist knowledge building (i.e. it aggregates the cognitive, the social, and the tactile) and it evokes interdisciplinarity (i.e. different disciplines represent information differently). Increasingly, and to varying degrees of success, humanist argumentation uses evidence delivered through a variety of modes.  At its best, this multimodal argumentation supports claims impossible to address with a single representational form, and contrasts from traditional textual arguments enhanced but not transformed with visual or aural appendices.    Born digital scholarship seeks this transformational quality of communicating claims. Learning scholars recognize the importance of supporting multimodality to accommodate distinct learning styles, and also take advantage of multimodal learning artifacts that can provide a richer understanding of outcomes.

The development of digital technologies has facilitated the advancement of humanities research towards more collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multimodal endeavors. Similarly, deep, contextualized learning that can happen anywhere, anytime, is made possible through networked systems. In thinking about the parallel developments in the humanities and in learning, it is the hope that there be continued input from core participants –researchers and practitioners who span perspectives and fields – to explore new ways to connect, challenge, and adapt technologies for knowledge building. Digitally-enhanced collaborations have the potential to bring about distributed, gestalt knowledge building that not only advances existing understanding, but creates new forms of understanding.

Works Cited

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey

Schnapp. Digital_humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Cordell, Ryan. “DH, Interdicsiplinarity, and Curricular Incursion.” Ryan Cordell

Blog, 20 Feb. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Hoover, Wesley A. “The Practice Implications of Constructivism.” SEDL Letter 9.

3 (1996): 1. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

Papert, Seymour. “Perestroika  and  Epistemological  Politics.” Constructionism.

Eds. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991. 13-28.

Papert, Seymour and Idit Harel. “Situating Constructionism.” Constructionism.

Eds. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991. 1-12.

Vessel, Edward, G. Gabrielle Starr, and Nava Rubin. “Art reaches within:

aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network.” Frontiers of Neuroscience 7 (2013): 258. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.


Epithalamium on the Auspicious Nuptials of Digital Humanities and Educational Technology

By Robert L. Squillace (Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Educational Technology Liaison, Liberal Studies, NYU)

Digital Humanities and Educational Technology have been like two rivers that arose from different sources and, for many years, ran parallel but separate courses, with little traffic between them. Digital Humanities originated (much earlier) in scholarly projects, like Father Busa’s Index Thomisticus, and long seemed but distantly related to undergraduate education, while Educational Technology (beginning much later) focused on the package of digital conveniences for easing the scut-work of an instructor’s life known as the Learning Management System. Workers in DH communicated almost exclusively with other workers in DH; workers in Ed Tech communicated almost exclusively with other workers in Ed Tech. Even the employment structure of the two fields differed radically, with the development of Digital Humanities being driven largely by faculty members (and DH positions often being faculty lines) while Educational Technology was largely the province of IT departments, its agenda driven by developer/designer teams who were not academics or by instructional technology specialists who held degrees in Education and did not have appointments in humanities departments like English or Art History.

But a confluence between these two streams is nearly at hand. The goals of the two have always been consonant with each other. One shared goal is simply the automation of previously time-consuming tasks – compiling a concordance, averaging grades – by transferring resources and operations from the physical world of paper, ink, and binding (whether a scholarly index or a gradebook) to virtual space. The more visionary goal of both remains a paradigm shift regarding the production and dissemination of knowledge that changes the character of the scholarly and pedagogic enterprises themselves. When realized, its consequences will be many. As scholarship relocates to online platforms in which every action leaves a legible trace, peer review can occupy a post facto position: the actual use other scholars make of one’s work, rather than the opinions of a small review panel, can be what credentials it. Similarly, teaching excellence might finally be better credentialed as the artifacts it produces are made visible and shareable. Easy shared access to visual materials also promises to break the hegemony of print in teaching; a course need no longer be built on a reading list simply because books can be reproduced and shared more cheaply than work in any other medium (in turn, disciplinary boundaries are likely to become even more permeable). And, at its most innovative, Digital Humanities promises to open new ways of seeing humanities artifacts that were not conceivable in a pre-digital world, while Educational Technology similarly promises to re-center education on the activity and achievement of the student rather than the transfer of hoarded knowledge from the professor.

But common goals do not a community make. A community grows out of shared use; the imminent confluence between the DH and Ed Tech streams will come about when the two more fully share the same digital tools. And that integration is beginning to happen. In teaching a humanities course, for instance, an instructor might use a blogging platform like WordPress to develop an off-site dialogue on the major themes of the class while at the same time using the platform as a CMS for disseminating and gathering comment on his or her scholarly work. A curation platform like Omeka has equal application in scholarly work and in courses. The MLA’s nascent Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities (https://digitalpedagogy.commons.mla.org/) platform demonstrates this growing confluence, showing a very widespread use of platforms like WordPress for the presentation of course content, and a smaller but significant attempt to teach students the humanities applications of such platforms.

As these examples multiply, the use of educational technology for humanities courses will focus increasingly on acquainting students with whatever emerge as the standard platforms for creating and sharing scholarly work, rather than on facilitating management functions like keeping track of grades. In particular, the tools that emerge as leaders in the confluence between DH and Ed Tech will share three characteristics:

  • They will be web-delivered (I imagine they will also be mobile-responsive, but that almost goes without saying now)
  • They will be LTI-compliant
  • They will support multiple levels of sophistication in their use, so that both students and scholars can fruitfully employ them

The Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) standard is breaking the strangle-hold of the Learning Management System on large-scale educational technology initiatives, allowing for a new level of integration of the same tools that Humanities professors use in their scholarship into their teaching; indeed, DH tools that meet the LTI standard will have a considerable advantage in gaining adoption and are likely to emerge as the heretofore elusive “industry standards” for digital scholarship. A recent Google Group query(https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/omeka-dev/scsQNp7QskA) regarding the LTI-compliance of Omeka illustrates the point. While educational technology developers have not always been terribly imaginative in the uses they have made of the special capabilities of digital platforms, the developers of DH tools can take at least one cue from them. Educational technologists have always conceived their work in relationship to the course – a common space shared by students and faculty (and populated automatically from a Student Information System). Their development of a standard that allows tools to be integrated in a single, course-based learning platform is a logical extension of that focus. Indeed, it is a practical necessity if a tool is going to scale up for use by many instructors across many sections.

On the other hand, Digital Humanities tools, while often open source, have not always been built with an eye to use in the context of a course shell. That a tool like Gephi, for instance, is not web-delivered complicates its use in pedagogical contexts – it stands alone and outside, while for any wide adoption it would need to be able to stand within some kind of course site, congregated with other tools that serve different pedagogical needs than network mapping. Gephi is ill-designed for scalable use; it requires download to one’s own device, it is not LTI-compliant, and it supports only sophisticated users, its settings options being couched in a highly technical vocabulary. Were one to use Gephi in a humanities course, one would need to spend a great deal of time on teaching students to use Gephi, at the expense of the humanities artifacts it was meant to illuminate. But if the larger claims of DH are valid, the best way to teach students humanities ought to be by teaching them to employ digital practices that illuminate humanities artifacts, which means developing tools that can fit more seamlessly into the educational technology environment. The measure of any tool, after all, is how much easier it makes the task it was designed to perform.

At the same time, for those DH practitioners who use digital means to explore digital artifacts themselves (coding languages, network structures, etc.) from a humanistic perspective, the tool itself becomes the object of study, rather than a neutral implement. But tools, by the very fact that they aim to facilitate and simplify, tend to close off exactly what humanistic inquiry seeks to open up – the assumptions and choices that make an instrumentality work the way it does. A watch is a tool to tell time, but a watch-smith’s tools do not facilitate the telling of time; they facilitate opening the watch to see its workings and to manipulate its parts. Tools for bringing that effort into the classroom, for helping students to see the watch from the perspective of the watchsmith, should accompany the development of first-order tools, if the marriage of DH and Ed Tech is not to result in the same mystification of the assumptions behind the inquiry that has so often been criticized in DH.