Just noticed an article from February’s issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, announcing the formation of the organization’s ad hoc Committee on Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship. Sure, “Making Something Out of Bupkis” is a good title for an article in a professional journal, but more importantly, James Grossman and Seth Denbo here address some of the issues we (I?) raised in Domain of One’s Own regarding the value of digital scholarship–and our concerns about what it contributes to our professional advancement. I think many of us can agree on its value for our professional development, but with the lack of standards in assessing/evaluating that work, I, for one, currently feel more comfortable investing my time and energy in more traditional formats.

The AHA’s stance here is that the lack of standards, and consequent wariness, “robs our discipline of innovative energy…marginalizes scholars who do take the risks…impedes the development of genres that can contribute even more…[and] contributes to a culture that discourages the kinds of collaborative work that are valued–in some cases required–in nearly all other venues of creative enterprise.” To address those concerns, the committee has been tasked with developing guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship and engagement–including publication, collaborative work, public engagement, and teaching.

I think this is a great development, and I am thrilled that the AHA is actively working on issues like these–and that, as we’ve progressed through the DoOOFI, I’m more conversant in these issues.

Darcie is out of town this week, so I’m doing a bit more than usual to take care of the girls (with the invaluable help of Darcie’s parents). This means that rather than staying at my place after my 10am-8:45pm Wednesday teaching marathon, I went to Darcie’s apartment–and encountered the Wednesday-night math homework that I normally miss. This isn’t going to be a math post–I can multiply numbers, and there were only five problems to work on.

However. The sheet also had QR codes that students were supposed to scan to check their answers (incidentally:


I really do enjoy things like this, and for the above you can thank this doohickey.)

I was too tired Wednesday night to get really worked up about this, and maybe I’m insane for getting around to angst by Thursday morning, but this is 3rd-grade math homework. Are we really expecting kids to have access to a QR reader? Maybe we’re expecting parents to all have smartphones that they let their kids use? Or smartphones at all? Isn’t this simply perpetuating educational inequalities that already disproportionately disadvantage kids from certain socioeconomic backgrounds? If it’s classroom work, and there are iPads or whatever for kids to use, that’s fine, but as homework I worry this adds an element that all these kids won’t have equal access to.

And another thing: what value does this actually add? Sure, QR codes aren’t uncommon, and they have their uses, but I don’t see how this helps anyone learn math, or how QR-code-scanner-use is a relevant skill for a 9-year old. I use the things for boarding passes when I travel, and now I have one sending unsuspecting/irresponsible scanners to my website; you can get by without knowing what to do with the things, and by “get by” I mean “experience no real change in your quality of life.” At least using a calculator (slide-rule? Abacus?!) to check your answers requires you to think about what you’re doing, and use a device people frequently encounter in either physical or software form, instead of just pointing a camera phone at a code and seeing a number pop up in response.

Maybe the intent is simply to give students something kind of fun to play with, something interactive, and maybe there is value in that. Personally, I don’t think this particular approach is really all that fun or interactive (especially since I won’t hand the iPhone over for her to use herself), but maybe that was the intent. But frankly, this seems about as passive a way of checking an answer as I can think of, and I tend to think that getting it wrong wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Whatever the case with the QR reader and 3rd-grade math homework, I do think this raises a larger issue in relation to our application of digital technologies in higher ed. We tend to assume that our students do have internet access, and laptops or smartphones or tablets, and that they’ll be able to engage with whatever educational resources we’re developing. I realize these things are relatively standard for many of our students at UMW, and for those without, there are labs in the academic buildings and libraries to provide access. But the basic costs of higher education are already rising to an extent that does exclude many people, and technology is another cost. In my last job, in a county where more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, I did have students without smartphones, and without internet at home because it was unavailable or unaffordable where they lived in rural Minnesota; they could be out of touch for days in severe weather, unable to check the LMS or email (although I also suspect some just used that as an excuse).

As we assign digital technologies a more central role, students faced with the realities of those limits may be marginalized–despite what some of these approaches offer in terms of useful skills and wide accessibility, and sometimes lower costs in some respects. I’ve had students pull up readings on smartphones in class, and I’ve asked them to form groups around those with laptops on a given day to do some work online, but I’ve also been careful not to assume that everyone had some device they could use, and to form groups around students who had tech in evidence. Online discussions have provided adequate forums for student discussions as we’ve dealt with snow days this semester, but they are qualitatively different than the conversations we have in class (though I think more experience with that format could make my approach and my students’ involvement far more effective), and at least at this point they are a fallback rather than a substitute for seminar meetings (unlike my mother’s community health seminar meetings, in which students doing internships currently meet once a week, but which her department/college has decided will be moved to online-only spaces next year–I tend to think this is the result of a combination of administrative pressure to utilize Blackboard, and full-time faculty working to further minimize their face-to-face instructional time in a department where several “part-time” faculty are teaching higher credit loads than the full-timers).

But I do think most faculty adding digital elements are doing so in thoughtful ways–if nothing else, the fact that it’s rarely the easiest route for our teaching, takes additional work for us to learn and implement, and requires another level of monitoring student work, encourages us to be selective in what we use and how we use it, and to consider what it offers to our students. And I think that careful, conscious approach is important to maintain in the midst of what can sometimes be a rush to add digital elements simply for the sake of having them, to meet administrative mandates, etc. While these digital elements obviously can add tremendous educational value, they don’t necessarily do so, and the value they add may not always balance the costs–financial or educational or social–to our students.


(Nobody yell at me for the length of this post; I’m hiding from Elise’s birthday sleepover–which involves loud and crazy little girls–and feeling pity for Darcie, who’s out there in it [but not enough pity to brave it myself].)

Dash laments the “Web We Lost,” characterized by interoperability, open source, and sharing, but I think quickly skips over some of the advantages that do seem to characterize these closed ecosystems (although I think silo-ing seems like a better term, since it suggests contained boundaries but increasing depth, rather than growing reach; plus I just read Hugh Howey, so I’m receptive to silo metaphors in which some unseen power governs/manipulates entire populations and some renegade elements go rogue and threaten the entire complex). That tight control does seem to produce some stability (albeit with incredible vulnerability if it’s broached once)–apps and content are vetted, and I don’t have to worry too much about what I’m downloading from a curated store; content and activity can easily cross devices (if not platforms), and work I’m doing on my office desktop shows up on my phone and my laptop at home; and for the first time I own a computer and a cell phone with which I never have any major problems (the few minor ones seem to be fixable by a restart, and that’s with a laptop that’s now 6 years old), and which will talk to other hardware. Now, obviously part of the concern is that that all rests with one platform–in my case, Apple–which is uncomfortable if you’re worried about all your information being in one place, all your spending being channeled through one company, and your choices being limited/dictated by what that company chooses to offer (thus no MS Word on iPad, etc). And this is partly why I rarely buy iPhone apps, have an Android tablet, use non-Apple cloud services and email, am comfortable on Windows, etc. We had a Mac Performa when I was in high school, and it had Claris Works, which was not compatible with any other software, and pretty much stunk. Our Performa had a corrupt something or other, and wouldn’t talk to the printer sometimes–mostly when I had stuff I needed to work on at home and then get printed to turn in. But then, of course, I couldn’t move any of my work to another system because nothing would read Claris files. It sucked. I’m obviously talking about hardware and software rather than just the web, and I’m not thinking about social networks in this bit, but I feel like some of the user experiences may make sense across this discussion–especially the convenience and familiarity and safety and comfort aspects. Anyway, I get the concern, especially in terms of the inability to really retain full rights/control over your content on sites like Facebook, to make it portable and see what they’ve retained–and I think some of the solution lies with approaches we’ve discussed in terms of carefully considering what you put there since we do want to use these services, but also in terms of having our own spaces that we do control.

Jim Groom’s post about the ghettoization of the web, and the role of LMS in establishing that silo effect in universities brings some of this discussion into the realm of higher ed. One of my first thoughts reading this was that of course the LMS made sense as a safe place with a limited set of rules for students and instructors to interact in defined ways (private, limited, etc)–probably a good thing in some situations, though perhaps one that should now be in the process of becoming complementary rather than central to our students’ engagement with the digital. [Incidentally, I was reading all this stuff at the same time as I was noticing the #DML2014 hashtag on Twitter popping up, and putting together the fact that Jim Groom and one of my high school friends–now at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts–were in the same place and doing the same thing. On top of that, grad school colleagues at Chapman University and somewhere in TN follow Jim Groom and Jeff McClurken on Twitter. Just sort of an interesting collapse of time, distance, and my various relations into one Twitterverse, albeit all sitting on one service in a conversation to which I won’t be privy if I drop the Twitter.]

And of course I get that lots of this comes back to cash–targeted ads and otherwise, data collection, app purchases, media content purchases, and in the case of an LMS, presumably the tuition money that maybe seems not so carefully spent if it isn’t supporting something to which students have exclusive access (just a thought). Dash recognizes this economic issue, but also imagines some possible directions that might re-open web use (though I seem to recall something about choosing to be less efficient, which seems idealistic to such a degree that it strikes me as unlikely–though here again, higher ed could conceivably lead the way [something it’s not always good at] into a radically more open model not driven primarily by revenue).

So the web generates cash, but it also apparently creates value? This is where I don’t get Bitcoin (the whole digital currency, transnational, anonymous, etc I follow): where does the actual value come from? How does running the mining apps create money? I wondered this with the video explanation–is it like Office Space (or Superman 3) where bank transactions round off at these crazy decimals and drop the remaining fractions of a cent…into a bank account we opened? I feel like the better way for me to wrap my head around this than listening to Bitcoin promos and reporting that doesn’t seem to actually explain anything is to return to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde (he likes issues around interfaces, digital worlds, and currency–the Baroque Cycle featured Newton and the Mint, plus alchemy), in which a group of hackers released a virus that encrypted user files and held them for ransom in a digital space/role-playing game (in digital currency that functions in the game, but is somehow transferable outside the game), and wound up fighting a battle in that space, against a ton of other players, to protect the cash/cache. In the parallel reality, outside the digital, they were also fighting–each other, a terrorist organization (neighbors in building), and Russian mobsters (who were laundering money through the game, I think, and had it intercepted)–I’m a bit hazy on the details because I didn’t totally follow this angle when I read it, but I feel like I should revisit it. Anyway, I guess it’s interesting, but I don’t know enough to take much of a position here–Bitcoin strikes me as incredibly prone to abuse, and pretty ephemeral (and yes, I know my dollar bills are already primarily electronic and not linen/cotton, but at least when they go wrong I know there is a Federal Reserve and a government attached to them, and an entire country and economy committed to/invested in their continued existence). This was amusing, however.
The net neutrality discussion, especially in its latest manifestation centered on Comcast’s attempt to buy Time-Warner, has also intruded on my peaceful little world (and again centers on money–this time very clearly). Here, let’s challenge the highway analogy. One difference I see is that the majority of those roads are publicly owned and maintained–sure, there’s a monopoly, but it’s government, which is ostensibly a manifestation of “the public,” and isn’t exactly charging people different amounts to access those roads (unless it’s making Virginians pay a personal property tax on cars [and extra for you damn Prius drivers shirking on your responsibilities], rather than adding the taxes to gas prices). Sure, there are the pay-to-access toll roads (I’m sticking with my California terminology), and with web access you have the higher-speed infrastructure (I guess heading towards the fiber-optic networks, but formerly maybe ethernet at universities or the higher-cost broadband hookups, as opposed to the relatively inexpensive but basically functional dial-up option). I have nothing brilliant to say here, other than that the merger seems like a terrible idea, and that’s on top of the crappy cable service model anyway, with terrible bundles of channels and ridiculously high fees to pay for kajillion-dollar contracts to idiot stations like ESPN, blah blah blah. So hey, let’s empower a terrible industry and company to get worse. Yippee!

I’m outta steam. I’m gonna go read about megafauna, Indians, and volcanic activity on the Pacific Rim.