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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

25 August 2012

Making Universities More Open

Sometime I will write a fuller paper on pedagogy in the digital humanities. When I was at Lampeter, I became quite closely involved in a number of e-learning initiatives which seemed to me imaginative and forward-looking, and I was sad that there appeared to be so little contact between the e-learning and digital humanities communities. My colleague Willard McCarty recently made a provocative post to the Humanist online seminar:

Our colleague Jascha Kessler has sent me a letter he wrote to the Editor
of the Financial Times, for Saturday, 18 August 2012, "Brave new world
without teachers, or learning, or thinkers". It concerns dire
predictions of what will happen to higher education as a result of
prominent efforts to teach very large classes by online means. (I send
it along as my first attachment, below.) Perhaps this effort will be as
successful as various tsunamis have been in wiping out costal
settlements. (The metaphor is columnist Christopher Caldwell's, for
which see my second attachment.) But I recall prominent efforts at the
University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s to promote
teaching by television, accompanied at registration by enthusiastic
posters declaring e.g. "See Professor Helson on television!" One can
still find the large, now empty, brackets for the televisions in some

I spit nails, but not here. I think of all my years in classrooms, with
people, face to face. "Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to
face" reversed? I know, Paul's words are more accurately for us
translated "by means of a mirror in an enigma", but the point remains,
does it not?



Here's my response which attempted to indicate some of the ways in which better links between these areas of activity could be built up:

Dear Willard,

It is interesting how this issue which, as you observe has been around in
different forms for many years, is suddenly causing such anxiety in the
United States - concerns about readiness for on-line activities underpinned a
lot of the recent controversy about the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss
the President at the University of Virginia. I assume that the reason this
is causing such concern is what one might call the i-Tunes effect - the
way in which the success of music downloading has heightened awareness of
senior managers in all types of activities of the potential for new
digitally-based business models to cause radical transformation quite
rapidly. It is by no means certain that disruptions (that favourite
neo-liberal idea) evident in one area of activity will necessarily be
replicated in another - indeed, part of the nature of disruptive
tendencies must be their unpredictability, which must include the
possibility that they do not occur. However, in terms of this American
discussion (and it is very much as framed here about the relative
inflexibility of the structures developed by North American Higher
Education over the past fifty years), the following considerations from
the UK might be relevant:

- The first and most important point is I think that there has been a
lamentable rift between much digital humanities work and new developments
in pedagogy over the past ten-fifteen years. In the early 1990s, we
believed that not only would new digital and networked technologies would
transform research and our access to research materials, we also believed
that equally important was the transformation that would occur in
pedagogy. However, much of our effort since then has gone into creating
and financing digital humanities centres which were supported by soft
funding and therefore necessarily concentrated on a series of short-term
research projects. Teaching activity has tended to be rather an
after-thought for most digital humanities centres. However, in the
meantime, e-learning and technology-enhanced learning have made enormous
strides and for many universities in Britain have been a major focus of
activity and funding. The rift is illustrated by the separate professional
organisations that have been established. I am not aware that bodies like
ADHO or ACH have any significant contact with the parallel bodies for
learning technologists, such as the Association for Learning Technology
(http://www.alt.ac.uk/). The ALT conference is at the University of
Manchester from 11-13 September 2013, and looks very interesting. It might
be a good way of starting to explore these links in a better way. Another
organisation which has of course championed the importance of pedagogy in
the digital humanities is HASTAC, and I think this is one reason why
HASTAC is the most exciting and interesting organisational activity in the
digital humanities work at present. There is a great deal of the HASTAC
website which bears closely on the themes you have raised.

- While you shudder at the thought of American experiments in lectures by
television, we should also remember that we have one enormously successful
institution in the UK which sprang from precisely such activities, namely
the Open University. To my mind, the Open University is, after the NHS,
the most important piece of social innovation in Britain in modern times,
and deserved a place in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Open
University has of course long ago moved on from the late night television
lectures on BBC2 which we remember from the 1970s, and Open University is
pioneering new types of online approaches, including a major development
in enhancement of Moodle. A hint of some of the Open University's
initiatives in this field can be gleaned from the Open Learn section of
their website: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/. OU have also been
pioneering work on mobile access, particularly mobile libraries. The OU of
course famously links its distance provision to residential courses, but I
suspect its structures are one that provide a good guide to future
developments. I think it is sad that the antiquated insistence of UK
higher education on educational autonomy prevents a more co-ordinated and
strategic development around the Open University. Given that is quite
probably that new online methods will cause changes, it would make great
sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and
Cambridge Universities, and created a more integrated and strategic
service based around the OU.

- Finally, it is worth noting that concerns about the mechanisation of
learning are not new. The use of numerical grades for assessment began in
Cambridge in the 1790s in direct response to an increase in the number of
students, and may be considered at a number of levels a response to the
increasingly industrialisation of society. When marked examinations for
school children were introduced in the 1850s, there were many concerns
that it privileged repetitive learning, short term memory and the
retention of conventional knowledge. As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s,
I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many
educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and
measurement and try new methods of learning. And of course our excitement
about digital technologies is that they open up precisely such
possibilities. Maybe our aim should be to try and bring that kind of
pedagogic liberalism to the new learning environments which are emerging?
Here's the response from Professor Kessler:
I do appreciate the earnestness revealed in Prof. Prescott's comments.  I
do think he rather misses what is the point of the present discussions.  He
concentrates on "learning." Viz., *"** As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s,
I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many
educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and
measurement and try new methods of learning..."*

*Methods of learning? * What does that mean, exactly?  I was a schoolchild
in the 1930s-40s.  I dont think there was or is a method of learning,
unless it is taught somehow.  By digitized instructors?  Kids learn, Homo
sapiens learns as it learns, sans "method" or methodologies concocted
by...whom?  A robot might learn by implantation of code.  Okay, we stick
silicon chips in newborn heads?  But then the chips learn, and what does
each unique individual brain make of it all internally?   There may be
methods to teach say violin technique, but they are applied and tested one
on one: teacher and pupil. Results vary by talents.  Apart from all that,
what I questioned in my letter to the FT was the costs of teachers vs.
internet teaching. The learning part requires foot soldiers, future
teachers in higher Ed, what schools have been and been about since Sumeria, 
to test what has been learned,  grade and tutor or instruct it.
When the Univ of California at Santa Cruz was inaugurated, Prof C Page
Smith [in my letter] went up to organize it.  It was all Pass/Fail...no
grades.  Assuming perhaps Humanists and Historians and Lit and the rest
reviewed the written work, not multiple choice Xses, of students.  It took
but a few years until the scientists rebelled at the lack of grading for
qualifications in hard subjects, not philosophical or literary chatter. And
grading was back, and how, even for a largely pothead and hippy university
student body in the 70s and 80s and perhaps beyond, up in the Redwoods

Even with an Open University scheme, Lenin's question remains: *WHO, WHOM?*
All may enter and study... but what has been learned by each individual?
That costs, and doing away with the absurdity of OxBridge doesn't solve the
question of judgments by individuals, referees.  You cannot get away with
anything in competitive sports.  Some are better than others, as in horse
and dog racing, and judging there is easy: whoever finishes first second
third, etc.  Not including Lance Armstrong, et alia, as it turns out.
Then, too, we are advised:  "It would make great
sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and
Cambridge Universities, and created *a more integrated and strategic**
**service based around* the OU."  What, it may be asked, is meant by that
phrase in italics?  More integration of what?  Service meaning...teachers?
Who, Whom? what qualifies?  Integrated whos? Serviced by Whoms? * O,
Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!*

I take Prescott to be serious, but the questions I raised about Humanities
and the Internet remain.  It is *not* a matter of tv lectures.  When the
few expert lecturers have retired, who takes their place?  Who has learned
what from the medium?  I like documentary films, How it is made, where the
penguins walk? but then all that may be teaching me what is out there.
Still, what goes on, how and why, stanza by stanza in the Divine Comedy?
Who will learn or teach what the Divine is, the Commedia means?  Or even
says?  E=MC2 says what it means, and means what it says, and a digitized
quiz can locate my grasp of those letters.

However,  and for example, I offer an Honors Seminar for Frosh, first year
students, pass/fail, just show up, and select one assignment.  I provide
100 pages of poems; I lay out the fundamental 3 modes of poems written from
history. I require each to pick a poem, read it aloud and deliver orally 1 written 
page that tells the rest what the poem says.  I forbid students
to say what anything, lines, stanzas, whatever *means*.  *Meanings are
idiosyncratic and arbitrary.  If anyone imagines  contemporary student of
19-20 can write one double-spaced page of sentences stating what the poem
says, lines say, that one is mistaken.  These University of California
youth are admitted as of the top 17-19% of high school graduates. We have 2
dozen State Universities for the lower tiers; and many community, 2 year
colleges for all the rest who want something after high school and need a
lot for work and life and career.  A sort of Open system a la UK.
But...there is hardly any system to integrate persons tomorrow who have
not studied and learned and been graded.  Quality is quality.

Finally re my Honors Seminar: I attach Plato's Symposium, and tell them to
read that short work.  As all will recall, each principal vocation speaks
in turn all that night, and each man speaks only of what he knows from his
craft or profession.  Not a one is able to tell the group what it is that
the god Eros does to discipline or inspire or create their work[s].  They
are all good and educated senior Athenians.  But as for understanding the
matter of daily life and work's structures and statements, let alone
meaning...*nada, nada e pues nada.  *In the end, Socrates overturns the
evening, although what he has to say remains a mystery, clearly presented.
And he got it all from some old Sybil in the mountains. The SYMPOSIUM, in
short, remains exemplary regarding this problem.  The scientists and
technologists are crystal clear about what things say, not what they [might
or could] mean; they measure, and measure has always been, or measuring,
the foundation effort of civilization: Tekne, the Greeks called it. But I
am sure it was known to the painters of Paleolithic caves. That is clear
enough, or should be.  As for *meaning?* Alas, that is the burden of
would be Humanists, digital, digitized, or whatever.

Jascha Kessler
And my reaction:
Professor Kessler is right that I did not address the main point in his 
letter, which is that the use of new technologies in learning does not 
automatically mean that the academic profession is doomed. He is right 
on this. What I wanted to point out is that we have over forty years of 
experience in Britain of providing university education through a 
mixture of television, radio, internet, radio cassette and other media, 
and it seems to me very strange that the current fevered discussion in 
the United States does not ever refer to this experience which provides 
very clear pointers for future development.

The idea of a 'university of the air' was proposed in Britain as early 
as 1926 when a historian working for the BBC suggested the development 
of a 'wireless university'. The idea of a 'university of the air' 
gathered momentum in the early 1960s, and the creation of an 
experimental university using television and radio was a prominent part 
of the Labour Party's manifesto when it was elected to government in 
1964. The intention was to offer university education without the 
requirement for any prior educational qualification. That seems to me 
one important difference between the discussions in the 1960s and the 
debates on which Professor Kessler comments - in Britain, we have always 
seen new technologies as providing a key to offering wider access to 
education; the current discussions in America seem to focus almost 
entirely on technology as a cost-saving option.

The Open University was established at Milton Keynes in 1969. The Tory 
minister Iain McLeod called the idea of a 'university of the air' 
'blithering nonsense' and threatened to abolish it if the Conservatives 
formed the next government, but fortunately Margaret Thatcher, the new 
Education Secretary, decided to allow the experiment to go ahead and the 
first 25,000 students were admitted in 1971 to be taught by a mixture of 
television, audio cassette, home science kits, course packs and 
residential courses. Today, the Open University is the largest single 
university in Britain with more than 260,000 current students. Since 
1969, over 1.5 million students, many without previous formal 
educational qualifications, have graduated from the Open University. As 
I mentioned in my previous post, the Open University is pioneering 
on-line methods of teaching. But, above all, I think the most important 
achievement of the Open University was that (in the words of its 
website)'The Open University was the first institution to break the 
insidious link between exclusivity and excellence'.

The Open University has been revolutionary in many of its pedagogical 
methods and many of these have been since adopted by conventional 
British universities. But, to support Professor Kessler's key 
contention, what the Open University demonstrates above all is that such 
innovative educational achievement depends on first-rate academic staff. 
The Open University currently employs more than more than 1,200 
full-time academic staff and more than 3,500 support and administrative 
staff. Above all, it has a network of 7,000 tutors locally based (as 
famously depicted in 'Educating Rita'). The chief lesson of the Open 
University experience supports Professor Kessler's argument - to 
successfully use new media to widen access to higher education then you 
need committed and inspirational academic staff. I think this alone 
shows why current discussions about the use of new technologies in 
teaching should take the experience of the Open University in Britain as 
a starting point. 
Much more information about the Open University can be found on its 

I suggested in my previous post that the Open University stands 
comparison within the National Health Service as one of the greatest 
social achievements of Britain in modern times. On reflection, I wonder 
if the Open University isn't the greater of the two achievements. To 
create a collectivised medical system chiefly requires a society with a 
strong sense of a social justice and a political and administrative 
determination to put a fairer and more civilised system in place - it 
wasn't necessary to do much new in terms of the medicine. The creation 
of the Open University required an equally strong social sense of social 
justice but also needed to develop completely new ways of providing a 
university education which didn't compromise on standards. We need a 
similar set of values in approaching the pedagogical possibilities 
provided by new technologies.

For further reflections on some of these themes, I would recommend the 
blog on the history of the Open University maintained by my friend Dan 

A recent post by Dan is pertinent to these discussions: 
"Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to go away 
The idea that technology can be deployed to support learners isn’t new 
to those who work at the OU. Suddenly, however, it is in the headlines 
because Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have 
formed a $60m (£38m) alliance to launch edX, a platform to deliver 
courses online – with the modest ambition of ‘revolutionising education 
around the world’. 
Paying relatively little attention to the decades-long history of 
sophisticated use of television, radio, video and the internet that has 
occurred at the OU the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial 
Intelligence Laboratory and one of the pioneers of the MITx online 
prototype. Anant Agarwal said ‘This could be the end of the two-hour 
lecture…You can’t hit the pause button on a lecturer, you can’t fast 
forward’. While MIT might be struggling to catch up pedagogically this 
development could be a challenge to the OU, as well as an opportunity 
for it to demonstrate its experience in the field of supported open 
learning. As Dr Anka Mulder, head of Delft University in the Netherlands 
and President of the OpenCourseWare group which advocates free online 
course materials, said ‘Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to 
go away’".


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