The Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio show Spark has included an interview with me about Lying About the Past. The podcast of the show is here and the full interview is here. It was a lot of fun speaking with host Nora Young and I like the lead in to the segment…using an urban legend story was a nice touch. Give it a listen when you have a chance.
This is the third in a series of posts designed to capture and preserve the activity and conversation at the Playing With Technology in History conference. After the morning break we shifted from gaming to making.
[11:00] How can making or remaking things from the past help us to understand the past? What do the tactile experiences intrinsic to making objects or handling/manipulating objects have to do with thinking about the past? A number of the papers/projects here are about making and how the act of making opens up new ways to understand the past. As new and entrepreneurial as the games are, my own sense is that the work of the “makers” here is closer to something we might call the bleeding edge of digital humanities. In particular, I like the way using digital tools to make analog objects, thereby making the intangible tangible holds some real promise for finding new ways for our students to think about the past. How we might measure that, however, is the big issue all the “makers” are facing. We don’t yet know how to measure such things, but measure them we will.
[11:45] For the various authors one of the issues we need to confront is the degree to which the papers are analytical or encouraging. If they are only encouraging, then they aren’t scholarship (in my view anyway), but if they are only analytical, they will both be more than a little boring and will appeal less to the intended audience for the book, namely those who are both interested in the work we’re doing and in possibly doing something similar themselves. By being both encouraging and analytical we will help others see that this kind of fun/work is possible, but also — and I think this is critical — that it is scholarly work, not just fun.
[12:30] A theme that emerged during the two days is how much of this sort of techno-play in history requires the historian to be a technical expert (or semi-expert) and how much can be done with simple to use, off the shelf products like Google Earth, Google Sketchup, etc.? The more the latter are useful for this kind of work, the more likely we’ll be to find a wider audience.
[2:00] In the context of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History site, we spent some time discussing the ways that really worthy projects like this one sustain themselves over time. This conversation, well known to everyone working in digital humanities, was not about play, making, or any of the other conversations in the conference, but still we needed to have it.
[2:30] How do you work with a million books? How do you teach students to think differently with such an embarrassment of riches? See Steve Ramsey’s paper (a Digital Campus Irregular) on the conference website. Steve makes some very important points about the value of teaching students to screw around as a research methodology. I like the fact that this idea is so completely the opposite of the standard notion of teaching students to be overly structured in their approach to browsing and searching. His conclusion is great: “There are so many books. There is so little time. Your ethical obligation is neither to read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all, but to understand each path through the vast archive as an important moment in the world’s duration—as an invitation to community, relationship, and play.” Read the paper when it comes out in the book. If you teach, you need to.
[3:00] What are the ethics of using “casual games” to get museum or archive visitors to help you classify materials in their collections (in the model of Recaptcha)?
[3:20] Another advantage of the small, informal, but still structured conference format is that we’ve formed a community of practice that is already interconnected in a whole variety of ways — digital and analog. The book project will keep us glued together for a while, but the links we’ve forged here the past two days will outlast that project. That these links are both transdisciplinary and transnational makes the experience that much more powerful. More unconferences please…
[4:10] A nice moment when we discussed Stephane Levesque’s paper in which he described students complaining about having to use a digital history module in a course — one of them said “Why can’t you just tell us?” — instead of just being lectured at. To what degree is that schoolish behavior? Are they just unhappy that they can’t use the techniques they’ve mastered already, i.e., taking notes, memorizing facts, passing tests? Or is there something about the digital that they don’t like. For a book like the one we’re envisioning, it’s important to keep in mind that digital doesn’t always work.
[8:30] Today’s session at the Playing With Technology in History conference was devoted to the paper draft we all wrote prior to the conference. Unlike the typical academic conference, where someone (or several people) read their papers, listen to a discussant, and then answering a few questions from the audience, we threw out that model. Instead, we were all expected to have read all of the papers and each of us was to prepare comments/questions for one paper. The goal is to pull the papers together into a volume of essays that can be submitted to a press no later than early July.
Therefore, our process was to tease out those things that need to be done with the paper before it will be ready for publication. Each “presenter” was allocated seven minutes — no more — to offer comments/questions/suggestions on the paper. Then the audience got ten minutes for additional suggestions/questions. As you might imagine, the authors of each paper walked away from the sessions with concrete ideas for what they need to do in the next two months to get their papers ready to submit.
Not surprisingly, everyone at this meeting spent some time wishing all academic conferences could be so productive. As I’ve written previously, I don’t think all academic conferences should adopt this model, but I do think that (a) we need many more conferences like this one — a day of unconference, a day of productive intellectual work — and (b) the big conferences like the AHA annual meeting need to set aside time in their programs for smaller, more creative collaborative opportunities.
Themes emerging from today’s conversations include:
[9:00] A number of the papers concerned games — augmented reality games, “serious” games, and simple analog games for history. There is a productive tension, it seems to me, between “history play” for its own sake, and measurable learning gains. How to find the sweet spot between these two is something a number of people came back to more than once. Also for the gamers, I raised the point of how someone could begin to build games like these without local infrastructure support? I’m completely ignorant about how one might do this sort of work, but I’m betting that it’s very difficult to do in isolation. Lacking good local support, anyone trying to build history games needs a community of practice to make the work possible.
[9:45] Another issue that arose among the game developers was a new one to me — the “creepy tree house” effect. I’ll bet you probably hadn’t heard that one either. The basic idea is that kids can identify a creepy tree house built by adults to lure them in and so they avoid it. When a professor builds a game for students, will they consider it a creepy tree house — a place they are going to be lured into not for bad things, but to fail. I like this term, because when we think about things we design for our students I’ll bet they often think there’s a creepy tree house or two in that syllabus. But, as one of the participants pointed out, there is a tension between the guided learner (whose professor is peering at the student from the window of his tree house) and the unguided learner who we hope will learn things if we create the right environment and turn them loose. I don’t think we know the answer to this problem yet.
[9:30] Today and tomorrow I’m at the conference Playing With Technology in History at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Day one is an unconference focused on the edges of the envelope in humanities computing. The sessions during the day include things like wearable computers, serious games, MakerBots and CraftRobo, barely games, walkabout applications for phones, along with good old fashioned issues like metrics for assessing student learning.
[11:00] I spent the first morning session in a session on making (see post on conference website). I’m particularly interested in this approach to history both because of what I’m writing in my book on teaching history in the digital age and because my teaching is more and more emphasizing turning my students loose on the past to create history in ways we haven’t thought through.
[12:00] In a session on the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History project. This is a project I’ve been using for years in my introductory history courses — the Who Killed William Robinson case — as a way of introducing my students to historical research in an engaging and rigorous way. Even though the Robinson case has nothing to do with Western Civ (the course I use it in), it introduces students to the difficulties of historical research, particularly working with documents that just aren’t very clear as to what they mean or don’t mean. We did an exercise where we did what I ask my students to do and then discussed what that meant to us as educators–what we learned from trying to learn like our students and how our expert knowledge about history, as opposed to these particular moments in history, helped us with the exercise. For me it was a lot of fun to spend some time working through a digital resource I have been using for so many years.
[12:20] Why I don’t tweet…The previous paragraph is 958 characters.
[1:30] Went on walkabout around Niagara-on-the-Lake with an iPhone researching a mystery from the war of 1812. This application (still in beta), created by our conference host Kevin Kee, is just the sort of thing Tom Scheinfeldt, Josh Greenburg, and I envisioned something like four years ago in the days before the new generation of smart phones. Ours was going to be “Stop Booth” and would give you a chance to traverse the historical/geographical space of D.C. in an quest to save President Lincoln from his assassin, but a combination of technological limitations and a lack of funding kept us from ever pursuing this idea. It was really exciting to see Kevin’s history quest through town on an iPhone and to imagine all the ways we’re going to be able to take advantage of this platform as humanists.
[3:00] Sat with Bill Turkel to see how RFID tags could be used in humanities applications. He demonstrated a simple (for him) program that would allow an RFID reader to gather data from a tag, then link it to a database of historical information. One idea I had from that demonstration would be to create a “magic wand” that had a reader in the tip that would allow students to wave the wand over an artifact or a bank of photographs to gather information about the thing being examined. If the readers had a greater range, something similar could be done with historic sites–students could wander through the site and as they passed tags, historical content could pop up on their phones. What makes this different from just having a GPS application is that they would have to actually pass close to the object with the RFID reader to get credit for completing some sort of quest in the site.
The big question for all of us at this conference is how all the “play” we are talking about can be connected to the serious purposes of teaching and learning. I’m a believer that there are direct connections, but I also am hard headed enough to insist that those connections be made explicit through data (qualitative or quantitative) that demonstrate how certain kinds of learning takes place during or as a result of play.