The University of Texas is planning today to officially join edX, which offers massive open online courses or MOOCs. Because the Texas announcement involves an entire system, it represents a major expansion of edX, which was founded by two universities (Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and was later joined by one other (the University of California at Berkeley). Coursera, another major MOOC provider, has been adding universities at a rapid pace. The Texas system plans to focus on general education and introductory-level courses for its MOOC offerings. Bloomberg reported that the University of Texas is paying $5 million to join edX.
Not too long ago, my university, the University of Virginia, along with a dozen or so other schools, entered into an agreement with a company called Coursera to develop Internet-based courses. The issue of Internet learning is especially fraught at Virginia. As just about everyone now knows, our president, Teresa Sullivan, was dismissed not long ago in part because the Board of Visitors thought that she had been lackadaisical in moving Virginia toward Internet-based learning. Though Sullivan was eventually reinstated, the issue of Internet education continues to be a major one at Virginia as it is (or will be) at many ambitious American universities.
What will happen when universities form partnerships with companies like Coursera? How will the coupling of the university with an online distribution company affect the kind of teaching that we do and the kind of learning that students can expect?
Our partnership with Coursera is young: at this point we are developing only a few courses in conjunction with them. But in time we will no doubt develop more, and an ultimate objective for both Coursera and the University of Virginia will be to use those courses to generate revenues.
Right now, it appears that Cousera is the junior partner in our mutual endeavor. Virginia is a large, well-regarded university with a six-billion-dollar endowment. Coursera is a relatively new corporation. For a while, it’s reasonable to imagine that Virginia will call most of the shots.
But what if the partnership works and begins to generate significant revenues? That’s a big if, naturally. So far, no major research university has succeeded in reaping enormous profits selling courses online. Though Harvard and Yale and Stanford have developed Internet-based courses, they do not give credit for them, either to their own students or anyone else.
But suppose Internet courses do begin to bring in revenues. If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.
What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.
And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.
Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all.
And there is this too: the courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale. They will have to wonder if this or that class in religious studies might insult Islam. (A look at this month’s news reminds one that Islam is not terribly hard to insult.)
There will, in other words, be a constant dialogue between professors and the corporation about what kind of content is going to be admissible. There will be disagreements and there will be disputes. Some professors may walk away. But in the end, it is not hard to predict who will win the arguments, provided the online courses are capturing significant revenues.
At a certain point our corporate partners may demand that all of the courses we teach be Internet-friendly. They may want to film each class we give on the chance that it might someday be profitable. And naturally they will want those courses to conform to the standards of the successful online class.
I think that there’s an analogy between what could happen to American university classes in the age of international Internet education and what happened to American movies when Hollywood studios decided that to make the kind of money they wanted, it would be necessary to market their product globally. American movies now are lowest-common-denominator movies, intended to sell in Singapore as much as in Seattle. Where we once had "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville," we now have "Spiderman" and "Batman."
What was most original and lively in mainstream American movies was erased by corporate imperatives, and something similar may become true about American education. To sell broadly, we’re going to have to tone our teaching down — become flatter and more predictable. And we’re going to have to be careful not to offend anyone. We’re going to need to engage in a certain kind of mass pedagogy. Those who don’t will not succeed in the new Internet-based academy— assuming that such an academy really does come into being. And this is, I want to underline, a big assumption.
Another analogy might be helpful. It’s possible that the incursion of the Internet market into the universities will be something like the incursion of big-time college sports. There are any number of American schools that appear now to have been swallowed by their sports programs. They admit anyone who can stand out in football and basketball, no matter how poor a student; they hide the indiscretions and the crimes that athletes and coaches commit; they overpay coaches and elevate them to superstar status; they organize social life around football and basketball games.
These schools are constantly sending out the message that academics don’t matter much and that sports and school spirit and getting drunk on Saturday and staying so until Sunday late at night really do. We can all name a dozen or two schools that because of sports are close to no longer being schools. Penn State seems to have been swallowed by its football program and now is in danger of losing a major quotient of its credibility and standing because of it.
Something similar may happen with Internet education. Certain colleges may become addicted to the revenue that Internet courses draw and they will deform themselves in the attempt to make more and more money. They will adulterate their intellectual goods for the marketplace and perhaps those goods will sell briskly. We now speak of football factories. In not too long we may be speaking of academic Internet factories. This is especially distressing, now that some of our best universities have jumped aggressively into the distance learning game. It would be sad if Harvard or Yale — two schools that lately seem gung-ho for money raising by almost any means — were deformed even slightly by the hunger to make money selling courses online.
But not every school that has a big-time football team has become a football factory. Stanford University retains its academic reputation despite having a first-rate team. Last year that team included Andrew Luck, the NFL’s top draft choice. Just so, it’s probable that even if Internet education does take off, not every school will be swallowed by it. Some will push back against the corporate types who want to dumb down their work to create profits.
But this is the first time in my memory when our leaders — presidents and deans and boards of trustees -- have so energetically opened the doors of the house of learning to commerce. It is the first time that they’ve shown willingness to insert the entrepreneurs directly into our day-to-day teaching lives. In the past they have stood between us and the market. Though the members of American boards of trustees often come from business, they have understood that the hunger for wealth is not compatible with genuine intellectual life.
The quest for truth will always collide in time with the quest for profits. If Internet entrepreneurs forge a strong alliance with the governors of universities, converting them to the pursuit of gain, teachers and students who want a university based on the disinterested pursuit of truth will be hard-pressed to fight back and to win.
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia.
Are you a faculty member or administrator who thinks that the latest technologies are finally going to enable us to teach our students well, or do you at least hope that’s the case? If so, you should reconsider, because the vaunted elements of the latest technologies have been around for some 100 years. It isn’t having the technology, but using the technology that is key to helping students learn well.
For at least the past decade there has been much talk about the advantages of highly sophisticated online courses and the use of online tools in traditional courses. One of the significant advantages of technology-enhanced courses, it is said, is that they can be tailored to individual students’ needs, and thus achieve desired learning outcomes for each student better and faster.
Consider for example, this quote from the website of the Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix: "Based upon the belief that learning is not a one-size-fits-all experience, Apollo Technology developed the technology to deliver data-driven, personalized education tailored to the individual. Apollo Technology’s unique student data system collects and analyzes individual student data, and delivers automatic just-in-time guidance that can significantly improve student outcomes." In 2010, the University of Phoenix announced a new Learning Management System, the Learning Genome Project, that "gets to know each of its 400,000 students personally and adapts to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of their 'learning DNA.'" Similarly, a recent article in The New York Times stated: "Because of technological advances — among them, the greatly improved quality of online delivery platforms, the ability to personalize material … MOOCs [massive open online courses] are likely to be a game changer."
These statements are evidence of the general belief that now, using technology, we can achieve all sorts of personalized instruction, which constitutes a revolution in how we can help students learn.
But using technology to individualize student learning is not at all a new idea — it does not originate with online courses or with the technology developments of the past decade, or two, or even three. Using technology to individualize student learning is an idea going back at least 100 years. One of the original learning theorists of the modern era, Edward Thorndike, stated in his 1912 book: "If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print."
A couple of World Wars later, one of Thorndike’s intellectual descendants, B.F. Skinner, recognized as the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, was developing and crystallizing the field of operant conditioning, the form of learning in which so-called voluntary behavior changes as a result of its consequences. In the third and final volume of his autobiography, Skinner relates that in 1953, in seeing how his daughters were being educated at the Shady Hill School, "I suddenly realized that something had to be done. Possibly through no fault of her own, the teacher was violating two fundamental principles: the students were not being told at once whether their work was right or wrong (a corrected paper seen 24 hours later could not act as a reinforcer), and they were all moving at the same pace regardless of preparation or ability. But how could a teacher reinforce the behavior of each of 20 or 30 students at the right time and on the material for which he or she was just then ready?.... A few days later I built a primitive teaching machine."
Skinner later developed more sophisticated versions of teaching machines, demonstrating one at the University of Pittsburgh in 1954. These machines presented math problems one at a time, with students having to solve each problem before being able to go on to the next.
In 1961 Skinner took a somewhat different approach to personalized instruction when he published, with Holland, the programmed textbook The Analysis of Behavior. This book focused on the principles of learning, more specifically, the principles of classical (Pavlovian) and operant conditioning, with an emphasis on the latter. The introductory pages of the book, echoing Thorndike in 1912, state that "the material was designed for use in a teaching machine…. Where machines are not available, a programmed textbook such as this may be used. The correct response to each item appears on the following page, along with the next item in the sequence."
Students wrote down their answers before turning the page, and repeated a section if more than 10 percent of the answers in that section were incorrect. I first encountered this book in the summer of 1968, as a 15-year-old student in a psychology course taught under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. Similar to other students in my group that summer, I finished this text within weeks and loved it. In 1964, in seventh grade, I had been the beneficiary of another programmed textbook, English 3200. This book was part of a very successful series that taught English grammar.
Another well-known figure in the origins of operant conditioning, Fred Keller, published his iconic article, "Good-bye Teacher…" in 1968. In this article he essentially advocates breaking down the entire teaching process to its elements, and conducting each of those elements more efficiently. The prime function of the teacher becomes, not to lecture, which is best left to automated means, but to engage in direct interaction with students in support of their individualized instruction. More specifically, Keller points out as important the following teaching elements:
1. Highly individualized instruction that allows students to progress at their own speed.
2. Clear specification of learning outcomes (the specific skills to be achieved).
3. Clear specification of the steps needed to achieve these learning outcomes.
4. A goal of perfection for each student and for each stage in the learning process.
5. Two types of teachers: Classroom teachers whose duties include "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and other teachers who deal with "course logistics, the interpretation of training manuals, the construction of lesson plans and guides, the evaluation of student progress, the selection of [classroom teachers], and the writing of reports for superiors."
6. Using lectures as little as possible — more as a way to motivate students, and using student participation as much as possible.
7. Lots of testing, all with immediate feedback to students, which helps to ensure student learning.
This breakdown of the learning process makes large parts of that process, parts that are ordinarily done in classrooms involving direct human interaction, well suited for being done by technology. However, humans are clearly still needed for specifying the learning outcomes and the steps required to reach them, as well as other tasks involving analysis and creativity and complex interactions with students.
Just a few years later, in the fall of 1972, I took an undergraduate course on learning at Harvard University, taught by William Baum, that followed the "Keller plan." The work was divided into 26 units, each requiring some reading, some questions to which answers had to be found and learned (50 to 80 such questions per unit, some of which would require an essay to really answer properly), and a written and an oral quiz. Students were not allowed to progress to the next unit until they had passed the written and oral quizzes for the preceding unit, and individual instruction with Baum or his graduate teaching assistant was always available. However, due to the large number of units in this 14-week course, and the difficulty of the quizzes, which students often did not pass, very few students finished the entire sequence and so very few students received an A. Thus using the Keller method does not automatically result in students doing well. The application of such teaching techniques is critical.
Lest anyone think that visions of improving learning by the use of technology are limited to psychologists, 1995 saw the publication of an outstanding work of science fiction by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age. A central theme in this work is an interactive book, owned by a small girl, that greatly facilitates her learning, development, and upbringing. We cannot yet achieve the degree of device interactivity that Stephenson describes, but we can achieve elements of that interactivity, and Stephenson gives us a vision of the possibilities.
In 1998, Frank Mayadas, then a program director at the Sloan Foundation, gave the keynote address at the City University of New York’s Baruch College’s first annual Teaching and Technology Conference. In this address he pointed out that all forms of college learning have three elements in common: an expert, who oversees the process; information sources; and colleagues, with whom a student learns. All three are important in the learning process, and all three may be instantiated in different ways depending on the modality of instruction. Although current technology cannot by itself design a new course, it can serve well as an information source, and it can assume some of the functions of colleagues. As technology continues to develop, the functions that it can serve will increasingly closely resemble those that have traditionally been served by humans.
The more recent past, 2010, saw the publication of DIY U by Anya Kamenetz. Consistent with Keller in 1968 and Mayadas in 1998, Kamenetz also would separate the components of the learning process, instead of concentrating them all in a course’s single professor as has been largely the case until now. In her vision of the future, individualized instruction is assumed, with technology playing a significant role, including by taking over those parts of teaching that can be automated.
Kamenetz’s vision is not far away given what is already happening on today’s campuses. As stated in a 2012 report from the Ithaka organization, "Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education": "Literally for the first time in centuries, faculty and administrators are questioning their basic approach to educating students. The traditional model of lectures coupled with smaller recitation sections (sometimes characterized as 'the sage on the stage') is yielding to a dizzying array of technology-enabled pedagogical innovations." One primary use of technology is to deliver lecture material outside of class, while class time is used for discussion and other active interactions involving the instructor and the students. This is known as the flipped classroom, which turns "traditional education on its head." But recall Keller’s 1968 suggestions about how teachers should be used for "guiding, clarifying, demonstrating, testing, grading," and that lectures should be "used as little as possible … and student participation as much as possible." It seems that the new invention of the flipped classroom is not so new at all.
What encourages these recent statements about the benefits of technology for learning is a worldwide recognition that what is important in higher education is the achievement of specific, agreed-upon learning outcomes. Although this emphasis was present at least from 1912 in the work of learning theorists such as Thorndike, who emphasize the end result — the behavioral goal — in their approach to changing behavior, it has only been in the past few decades that such recognition has become prominent in higher education.
One example is contained within what is known as the Spellings Report (the 2006 report of the commission that was appointed by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings). A major point of this report was that "[a]ccreditation agencies should make performance outcomes, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessment as a priority over inputs or processes." It is this emphasis on learning outcomes that, in part, enables the use of technology in the learning process. Once the learning outcomes are specified, the process of helping students to achieve them can be programmed, using increasingly sophisticated technology.
Many of the elements of good teaching discussed here — for example, individualized instruction, frequent testing, focus on outcomes, immediate feedback — now have sound laboratory evidence to support their use (see a comprehensive survey here). We seem to have forgotten their behavioral psychology origins and history, yet it is their effectiveness that is important in the end. Perhaps there are additional lessons to be learned from behavioral scientists, however, in the use of technology to facilitate instruction. We have only to look at casino attendees, particularly the users of slot machines, to see evidence of what Skinner and Keller knew firsthand in the laboratory with rats, that animals (including humans) respond at a high, continuous, persistent rate on variable ratio schedules (situations in which each reward arrives after a variable number of responses). Using such knowledge, in addition to knowledge from cognitive psychology about how best to structure concepts, can result in online courses that not only make concepts easy to learn and remember but, similar to slot machines, are almost irresistibly attractive.
Keller in 1968 summed up his position on teaching with the following:
Twenty-odd years ago, when white rats were first used as laboratory subjects in the introductory course, a student would sometimes complain about his animal’s behavior. The beast couldn’t learn, he was asleep, he wasn’t hungry, he was sick, and so forth. With a little time and a handful of pellets, we could usually show that this was wrong. All that one needed to do was follow the rules. “The rat,” we used to say, “is always right.”
My days of teaching are over. But … I learned one very important thing: the student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.
Although we can all agree that college students are certainly not the same as casino attendees or lab rats, we can also all agree that technology, designed and used correctly, can facilitate instruction through personalization as well as through motivation. (The popular appeal of many online role-playing games is one example of that.)
The teaching techniques and tools discussed here have been promoted by behavioral psychologists for the past century. What lessons can we learn from this? One is that it is possible to facilitate learning using the techniques discussed here, such as personalized instruction, without ever having to use the latest (very expensive) technology. There are times when a relatively cheap programmed textbook will help someone learn, perhaps not as well as the best online programs, but very well.
A related lesson is that it is not the existence of the latest technology or its potential uses that will help us to maximize student learning, but using what we know and have. Faculty must be both aware of the techniques and tools at their disposal, and want to use them. This requires proper training during graduate school, professional development later on, and appropriate college and university incentive structures (all of which have been too often missing if the repeated rediscovery of these techniques and tools during the past century is any indication).
The sorts of tools that we have needed to help students learn have been around for 100 years, albeit continuously improved. It is our job to — finally — use those tools.
Alexandra W. Logue is executive vice chancellor and provost of the City University of New York.
Since the 2008 Great Recession, American higher education has experienced a new round of uncertainties and reductions -- especially, but not only, in public institutions. British academics refer to the current season of top-down austerity as "the cuts," but in the U.S., we might speak of lingchi, "death by a thousand cuts." Faculty lines slashed, programs eliminated, course seats lowered, graduate student aid reduced, the decentralized U.S. higher education system has struggled to maintain quality across the disciplines. Humanities programs, in particular, have appeared threatened.
Yet, in this same time we are in the first phase of a digital revolution in higher education. Much of the teaching and learning apparatus has moved online. Computational technologies and methodologies have transformed research practices in every discipline, leading to exciting discoveries and tools. New interdisciplinary initiatives, exploiting the digital, such as bioinformatics, human cognition, and digital humanities, are bringing faculty members together in ways never before attempted.
For the humanities, the threat of diminished resources has appeared hand-in-glove with the digital turn. The recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate just how influential the digital paradigm has become, but also how unevenly applied its pressures can be. The university's board members seemed to be swayed by the model of massive open online courses (MOOCs) under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, among other institutions, most of the key instances of which have been in the STEM fields. Meanwhile, some board members proposed to eliminate classics and German to save money in the face of the university's massive structural budget deficit. They apparently did not realize how many students actually take these subjects (a lot) or that the subjects have been required in state codes chartering the university.
As humanities chairs with a long involvement in digital issues, we have seen clearly that top-down budget cuts are often justified with arguments about how digital technologies are driving change in higher education. Just as the MOOC course model played a signature role in the University of Virginia saga, so one of the most visible controversies in the University of California system at the onset of the epic California budget crisis occurred when Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr. proposed an all-digital UC campus.
So we believe that humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators right now have a choice. One option is to take no systematic action on the digital humanities (DH) front and thus let the long-term digital future be built for them. By taking "no systematic action," we mean the present practices of many of us in the humanities who automatically denounce university ambitions for digital education without looking into the issues, allow digital humanities to be the special province of "power" users, and treat digital humanities as a discretionary field. The results of this course have been anemic: settling the responsibility for leading the humanities into the digital age on adjunct faculty or library staff, ignoring the mismatch between digital humanities and established ways of measuring academic performance, and quarantining digital humanities in a project. We have too often outsourced digital humanities to a special center on campus or tiptoed into digital humanities by advertising for faculty in established fields but adding wistfully that "digital proficiency is a plus."
The other option is for humanities faculty, chairs, and administrators to plan how to integrate the digital humanities systematically through our departments -- to infuse departments with digital technologies and practices so as to create models of organically interrelated humanities digital research, teaching, administration and staff work. Of course, we have no proof that this will "save the humanities," a goal we share but that we fear is counterproductive when posed as an all-or-nothing proposition. Good strategy requires picking some point on the line to apply leverage. The leverage point in the policies now shaping the future university is the digital, and we feel that it is crucial that the humanities try for well-conceived, humanities-friendly models of digital work that are institutionally cohesive enough to influence policy.
How can we change the dynamic and create new structures for the humanities to flourish in the digital age? We recommend the following four principles for faculty members, department chairs and administrators to follow in integrating the digital humanities in the humanities.
It all starts with where scholars live and work natively: in their departments (or similar units). Currently, digital initiatives are predominantly institutionalized in campus units, library annex programs, or interdisciplinary entities; whereas in departments themselves they spring up accidentally like weeds around particular faculty, areas, or projects. We propose an organic strategy for integrating digital initiatives into core departmental research, teaching, administration, and staff work.
Departments should help spread digital methods and tools across the curriculum, for example, by sponsoring graduate students to research digital pedagogies and promoting their cross-adoption or engaging students and faculty to build websites for best practices. Departments might cultivate DH across a larger span of faculty research and craft job searches that alternate between prioritizing established fields, with digital expertise a "plus," and prioritizing digital expertise, with an established field a "plus."
Chairs and faculty should consider adopting new guidelines for tenure and promotion reviews that value such activities as writing grant proposals, collaborating on projects, creating digital archives, building cyberinfrastructure, or contributing influential non-refereed articles or blog posts (starting with steps as simple as standardizing categories for these activities in C.V.s). We have worked in our own departments to explicitly include digital scholarship expectations in letters of offer to digital humanities scholars; to train graduate students in DH (e.g., through an introduction to digital humanities course); and to work with office staff to improve administrative and clerical support of research and teaching through digital methods that meet campus standards, where they exist, of accessibility, preservation, privacy, and security.
Think collaboratively (across departments and divisions).
In our personal experience, the digital humanities are not just a field but a conduit. Digital technologies and media typically require a broad set of methods and skills to carry out -- as in computational or archival projects that require the combined expertise of computer-science engineers, social scientists, artists, and humanists. Digital methods can thus be the common link across departments or divisions collaborating on shared grants, research projects, and curricular initiatives that strengthen the humanities with partners and make them magnets for cost-share and other funding. We have personally benefited from collaborating with other departments and divisions on digital projects, and correlatively we have seen impressive results in our campus administrations' encouragement and cost-share support.
In teaching, the need for partnership is especially acute. For example, the humanities could play an important role in helping to develop innovative digital alternatives to the thrice-weekly 50- or 75-minute large lecture course. Such alternatives could better-serve their own university's students (augmented, perhaps, with instructors and students elsewhere chosen to enhance the educational experience) than astronomically supersized MOOC courses distributed worldwide to ill-defined masses.
In general, departments could expand the collaborative reach of the humanities by taking such steps as: meeting with other departments (and deans) to explore how multiple departments might co-develop a digital course, project, or administrative tool; providing incentives to faculty to try for collaborative grants (e.g., by offering course release for grant writing that, if successful, would repay the lost teaching through curricular development or a course buyout); and creating lecture series and workshops that expose faculty to digital research and pedagogy elsewhere on campus.
Humanities departments need more intensive computing power to conduct research in today's era of large-scale text and data sets, distributed archival resources, and multi-modal (including visual, aural, and cartographic) materials. Yet they often lag in both simple and complex technology. This has spillover effects on teaching as well. Though universities and colleges often furnish classroom technology through central campus agencies, we believe that boosting department-specific technology for the humanities could lead to curricular gains.
The fact is that the latest technology improves humanities research and teaching together, affecting the way our faculty offer their classes by interweaving research and teaching to the benefit of both. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) project in the University of California at Santa Barbara's English department and the Digital History Project at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's history department have driven the adoption of higher grades of department technology (workstations, servers, backup systems, remote conferencing tools, text-encoding and image handling tools), all of which has created a thriving digital environment (and busy shared physical space) where undergraduate and graduate students work directly on the project as part of their learning in courses. In general, the humanities are now at a point where we cannot settle for the minimal provision of one aging workstation in each faculty office plus a computer with digital projector in each classroom.
Departments and chairs should seek larger start-up packages for all new hires (and, opportunistically, larger retention packages for faculty with offers elsewhere) to encourage the adoption of powerful computational technologies; initiate a replacement cycle for faculty computers; explore creating a shared department computational research facility (or at least a grouped set of research workstations) if none exist; provide at least one departmentally controlled server for project development or collaborative experimentation that would not be possible on mission-critical university servers; boost large-scale faculty data storage and backup facilities; create remote conferencing facilities to accommodate the increasing number of online meetings and job interviews; and sponsor workshops to keep faculty current on new technologies and methods.
Humanities fields have enjoyed immense cultural authority and interest in every state and community. But they have organized few systematic efforts to maintain, renew, and update these associations in the digital age -- a task that is especially vital when austerity makes some leaders discount the value of the humanities on the basis of misinformed cost-benefit calculations.
The coin of the realm in the digital age, we predict, will be service to society. On the one hand, crowdsourcing and other partnerships with "citizen scholars" will increasingly contribute to humanities scholarship. On the other hand, the humanities must continue to develop their expertise as differentiated from the new, networked public knowledge. The trick will be to evolve the roles of the humanities faculty both in, and distinct from, digital public knowledge so that they will be valued as a necessary instrument in the orchestra.
While the established humanities model of research followed by presentation of finished results in scholarly lectures and publications will continue to be important, that model can no longer stand by itself. Digital technologies allow and, indeed, encourage humanities scholars to engage in open discourse about unfinished research; and they also drive them to "publish" in a wider range of socially visible venues and formats.
Humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators should start by doing what likely has not been done in recent institutional memory: review what is meant by "service" (typically denoting committee work, supplemented by ill-defined "community" or "other" work). The goal is not to take faculty time away from research and teaching, as if academic work were a zero-sum game, but instead to explore ways to integrate service with everything else for the gain of all. We know ourselves that the simple act of creating a webpage for a project that addresses the public enriches our understanding of the project's research and teaching potential.
In all this, digital technologies are a catalyst for change. Already, digital humanists are exploring methods for publishing in open, crowd-reviewed, blog-based ways. Indeed, there is an incentive for the humanities to ask digital humanists to go even further to create next-generation scholarly platforms that integrate public engagement seamlessly with core research and teaching. For example, online journals could employ text-mining, topic-modeling, linked-data, visualization, and other tools to create on-demand summaries or "WorldCat Identities"-like pages--to be used directly by the public or by scholars for easy import into public websites or course pages.
Humanities departments can take such initial, imaginative steps as conducting a department-wide exercise in revising the departmental web site. Tomorrow's departmental site must go beyond presenting people, courses, and events just one level deep to exposing to public view some of the real content and activity streams of all these (e.g., through interviews with faculty, showcases of student projects, or excerpts from faculty lectures and articles). Other initial steps might include organizing online events that allow faculty and students to share their research with alumni or the community or creating a new service role in the department for an annual "public faculty member" charged with cultivating public engagement, agreeing to meet with members of the community, working on collaboration with local public libraries and museums, and keeping a blog or creating an online showcase for it all.
We are aware that there are valid concerns by many of our colleagues that signing on to the digital revolution in higher education in any systematic way is tantamount to undermining some of the core principles and strengths of the humanities. After all, leading philanthropists have suggested that the World Wide Web will soon eclipse all "place-based institutions" of higher education, and enormous sums of venture capital funding have moved into "for profit" higher ed. Faculty could reasonably conclude that the digital project means participating in the eclipse of their field, ceding even more influence to the oligarchy of elite, private universities with the resources and cachet to start online course consortiums, detracting from the humanistic ideal of close inquiry carried out in intimate conversation, and -- it must also be said -- eroding the need for as many faculty and instructor positions as now exist.
What the current climate tells us, however, is something quite different: that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to reframe the humanities for the digital age. We also see in our respective institutions that administrators, many colleagues, students, and the public are eager to help. The questions and concerns of the humanities continue to speak to and inspire these constituencies, and we should enlist them in our efforts. The reframing project that humanities leaders face will require imagination, leadership, and experimentation. The work we propose is to adopt the necessary level of organizational vision to systematically harness the digital age for the humanities.
William G. Thomas III is chair of the Department of History and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is a faculty fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at his university; and formerly he was founding director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.
Alan Liu was chair of the Department of English from 2008-12 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he founded several digital initiatives, including the English department's transcriptions center (for research and teaching on "literature and the culture of information") and the University of California multicampus research group Transliteracies (focused on online reading technologies and practices).
Saylor.org, a clearinghouse for open educational resources (OER), announced on Thursday that it has teamed up with Google to offer its recently unveiled line of free online courses through Google's new massive open online course (MOOC) platform. Google leaped into the MOOC fray earlier this month with Course Builder, which it has pitched as an "open-source," do-it-yourself platform for colleges and individuals that want to adapt their courses to the trendy MOOC format.
Saylor.org, which is run by the nonprofit Saylor Foundation, recently announced it will be opening 240 peer-reviewed courses. It also announced partnerships with Excelsior College and StraighterLine that could give learners who take those courses pathways to formal college credit. Right now the Saylor courses live on their own website; the organization has not yet promised to migrate the lot of them to Google's platform -- just one for now, an introductory course in mechanics.
Google is not the only MOOC platform provider that has expressed an interest in letting other developers and course designers build freely on its code. edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider funded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been talking about making its own software platform similarly "open source."
Google's arrival in the fray has produced some unusual bedfellows. Peter Norvig, the company's director of research, has been involved with Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider that grew out of an open teaching experiment Norvig led last year with Sebastian Thrun, a colleague of Norvig's at both Google and Stanford. Google has now made Norvig a figurehead for Course Builder, and he has been talking up a potential collaboration with edX. "edX shares in the open source vision for online learning platforms, and Google and the edX team are in discussions about open standards and technology sharing for course platforms," wrote Norvig in a blog post for Google.
"We're all still experimenting to find the most effective ways to offer education online," he says in a video introducing Course Builder. "And that's why we're so excited to be offering this initial set of tools: so that there will be more of us trying different approaches and learning what works."