Teamwork and humility

Putting together a course like ours poses many challenges, but for online teaching newbies like us the most daunting has been learning to design courses effectively for a new medium. The experience has taken us out of our comfort zone. Neither of us were Luddites – indeed, we liked to think of ourselves as being on top of some technologies. But it’s not technology per se that seems to be the issue for us; it’s the array of tools one must learn. There are so many things we need to learn, so many tools to figure out, and in a relatively short period of time. Never mind course design; never mind best practices in online forums; never mind making (and editing!) videos; never mind appropriate visual layouts; and for that matter never mind tools and applications like Scripto and TimelineJS. None of these are minor; indeed, they all warrant some discussion here. But the truly daunting challenges are coming now with our planned digital transcription assignment.

We mentioned this assignment in another post, but briefly the plan is to create clean versions of OCR’d 18th-century documents. Because so many early modern documents use unusual fonts, the OCRing of them leaves a mess. We were faced with two challenges. First, we wanted to use Voyant Tools in an assignment and realized that most of the documents in archive.org had this limitation. Second, we were faced with the issue of providing access to all students, including of course visually impaired students. We needed cleanly digitalized texts not only for Voyant, but also for the text-to-voice software any visually impaired student might require. Why not, we thought, make that the assignment? That is, why not make the creation of good clean texts the point of one of our assignments?

So, we played around, discovered Scripto – fabulous transcription software from George Mason’s Center for History and New Media – and explored the possibilities of mounting it on an Omeka webpage. Thus, we had to find good texts, learn how to use Scripto, learn how to build an Omeka site, and figure out how to integrate the two. But then we discovered that we couldn’t integrate any of this into our LMS (Sakai). That is, we had no way of mounting our assignment through Sakai, or alternatively of coordinating our students while they worked on another platform.

Fortunately, we’re not alone. We have fabulous technological and pedagogical support from Brock’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation. They’ve worked hand-in-hand with us from the beginning and we can’t say enough about their talents, enthusiasm, and hard work. Every time we have an idea, they tell us how to do it, or they play with it to make it work, or they coax us to come up with another idea. We never leave a meeting with them not knowing where the course is going next.

But there are still challenges. As good as they are, as good as we are, and as much as we share a basic understanding of where this will end, we sometimes think/speak differently, and sometimes confusion comes from this. We’re sure they sometimes think the same of us – everyone has their specialized languages – but take this as an example. Just the other day, an unnamed but vital pedagogical tech-guru-colleague – you know who you are! – sent us an email explaining a proposed fix to our problem. In that email, he says things like “Omeka … appears to be a document viewer and transcription tool that needs a collaboration repository and versioning tool”. He’s become one of our favourite people at Brock, but we had no idea what that meant.

Does that matter? In the end, it probably won’t. After explaining the limitations of Omeka for our idea, our tech-guru-colleague proposed a simple Sakai-based solution. It’s a bit complicated, and while some of the details escape us, we get the basic idea and it seems sound. It will work. But the problem isn’t in the outcome; it’s in the process of our role in creating our own course. Academics like us are used to running our own shows. We’re used to having control over everything, and here we’re ceding some of it others. In the end, we may not even remember this moment (that’s why we’re blogging!). But it does add an element of uncertainty in a process that already has many unknowns, or at least many things to learn (and re-learn). Of course, that means it’s also an excellent exercise in learning to let go, and of working in a team. Academics, or at least those of us in the Humanities and Social Sciences, tend to be control freaks. Building a digital course means working with a team. One of the things we’re really learning is that a little humility goes a long way.

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