Studies show data management skills in high demand and low supply at universities

At Coalition for Networked Information conference, presenters show why data management skills are in high demand -- and low supply -- at research universities.

Excelsior aims to help take other nonprofits online


Hoping to attract colleges skittish about partnering with a for-profit company, Excelsior College opens new venture aimed at helping traditional colleges move online.

U.S. Agencies to Launch Research Program on Digital Data

The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies plan to announce today a major new research program focused on big data computing, The New York Times reported. The agencies will pledge $200 million for the effort.

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Open-Source Leaders Who Backed Blackboard's Moodle Move Reassure Advocates

A day after Blackboard announced its acquisition of two prominent Moodle partners and the creation of an open-source services arm, various Web discussion boards were abuzz with chatter about the implications. At's official "Lounge" forum, some open-source advocates lamented what they read as a corporate intrusion on the open-source community -- prompting Martin Dougiamas, the founder and lead developer of Moodle, to defend his decision to lend moral support to Blackboard’s takeovers of Moodlerooms and NetSpot.

“Moodle itself has not, and will not, be purchased by anyone,” Dougiamas wrote to a discussion thread. “I am committed to keeping it independent with exactly the same model it has now.”  While the new Blackboard subsidiaries and their clients have produced many helpful modifications to Moodle’s code, “it's always up to me to include [modifications] in core (after it gets heavily reviewed by our team),” Dougiamas said, “otherwise it goes into Moodle Plugins.” He added that Moodle still has dozens of other partner companies that are not owned by Blackboard.

Charles Severance, another big name in the open-source movement who not only endorsed the deal but has been hired to work with Blackboard’s new open-source services division, expanded on the implications of the move in a post on his own blog. “The notion that we will somehow find the ‘one true LMS’ that will solve all problems is simply crazy talk and has been for quite some time,” Severance wrote. “I am happy to be now working with a group of people at Blackboard that embrace the idea of multiple LMS systems aimed at different market segments.” The watchword of this era of multiple learning platforms per campus, he said, is interoperability, and that will be a priority for him in his new capacity with Blackboard. (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

Severance assured the open-source community that contributions he makes to Sakai on Blackboard company time will remain open, and that he “[doesn’t] expect to become a developer of closed-source applications.”

Essay on the digital humanities' data problem

In 2010, the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts convened a historic workshop -- it was their first jointly funded project. This meeting marked the beginning of a new level of national conversation about how computer science and other STEM disciplines can work productively with arts and design in research, creation, education, and economic development. A number of projects and follow-up workshops resulted in 2011. I was lucky enough to attend three of these events and, in the midst of all the exciting follow-up conversations, I couldn't help but wonder: What about the digital humanities?

After all, the digital humanities have made it now. A recent visualization from University College London shows more than 100 digital humanities centers spread across the globe. There are dedicated digital humanities funding groups within the National Endowment for the Humanities and Microsoft Research. The University of Minnesota Press published a book of Debates in the Digital Humanities in January.

So why doesn't the digital humanities have more of a seat at the table? Why is there the stereotype that, while computer scientists and digital artists have much to discuss, digital humanists only want to talk about data mining with the former and data visualization with the latter? I believe it is because the perception has developed, helped along by many in the field itself, that digital humanities is primarily about data.

Certainly a grasp of data -- the historical record, our cultural heritage -- is a great strength of the humanities. But in the digital world, the storage, mining, and visualization of large amounts of data is just one small corner of the vast space of possibility and consequence opened by new computational processes -- the machines made of software that operate within our phones, laptops, and cloud servers.

A key experience in my journey to understanding this began with a debate about James Meehan's Tale-Spin, the first major story generation system. I had always been basically uninterested in Tale-Spin, though I knew it was considered a landmark on the computer science end of electronic literature. I simply didn't get excited by the stories I had seen reprinted in the many scholarly discussions of the system.

During the debate it became clear that I would have to look a little deeper. When I looked at Tale-Spin's computational processes, what I found was surprising and complex, as evocative and strange as any of Calvino's invisible cities. Tale-Spin operates according to rules constructed as a simulation of human behavior, built according to cognitive science ideas that were current at Yale in the mid-1970s, when it was designed. For example, in this model, when characters interact, they take elaborate psychological actions, projecting multiple possible worlds to see if any course of action might create a world they desire.

In short, I learned that it is Tale-Spin's processes that have the literary value, creating a fictional world that gets its fascinating strangeness from taking a recognizable aspect of human behavior, exaggerating it, and stripping away almost everything else -- answering the question, "What would fiction look like if we accept the model of humanity being proposed by this kind of cognitive science?" More broadly, reading the processes of Tale-Spin also helped me think about the limits of simulations of human behavior, even those informed by the most recent scientific ideas, as well as how ideas and biases can be encoded in software in ways that are invisible to those who only see the output.

Finally, it helped me learn an important lesson about making media: fascinating, successful, hidden processes do little to make the audience experience stronger. As a result of these realizations I had to apologize to colleagues for dismissing Tale-Spin -- and my fascination with the project grew until it became a central object of study for my book Expressive Processing.

Over the years since, it has become clear to me that there are many other processes that cry out for attention. All the tools of our software society, from the document-crafting Microsoft Word to the architecture-designing AutoCAD, are enabled and defined by processes. Software processes operate Walmart's procurement system and Homeland Security's terrorist watch list. The interactivity of mobile apps and websites and video games is created through the design of processes. In other words, it is human-designed and human-interpretable computational processes that enable software to shape our daily work, our homes, our economy, our interpersonal communication, and our new forms of art and media. Processes even enable the data mining that drives much digital humanities work (and Amazon's recommendation system).

For these reasons and more, when computer scientists and digital artists get together, most of what they talk about is novel processes. Why invite digital humanists, if they're going to keep dragging the conversation back to data?

Of course, this stereotype is a distortion of the history and present of humanist engagement with the digital world, but it passes for truth far too often. Something needs to be done to fight it. I believe all of us with a stake in the future of the digital humanities -- and perhaps more of us have a stake than realize it at the moment -- should push for a vision of the field that acknowledges that  it has never simply been about data. Here are two areas where I think pressure is particularly important.

First, the humanities is not simply defined by the data it has mastered. Whether in literature, philosophy, media studies, or some other discipline, humanists understand the data they study through particular methods. Two decades ago Phil Agre powerfully demonstrated that humanities methods could shed important new light on software processes. In his Computation and Human Experience, he performs close readings of computational systems and situates them within histories of thought. His analysis serves a primary humanities mission of helping us understand the world in which we live, while also helping reveal sources of recurring patterns of difficulty for computer scientists working in AI.

It is an early example of what is now increasingly being called "software studies" -- a tradition in which my work on Tale-Spin participates. In software studies, humanities methods and values engage with the specific workings of computational processes. This sort of approach has the potential to become an exciting point of connection between the humanities and computer science, both pedagogically (as a route to the "computational thinking" that is increasingly being put forward as a key component of 21st-century general education) and as a critical and ethical complement to the models of interpreting processes found in most computer science.

The good news is that work of this sort is already becoming more established, with the MIT Press having recently founded both a book series for software studies and one for its sibling "platform studies" (which focuses on the material conditions that shape and inspire the authoring of computational processes). The promise of software studies is that the digital humanities can be central to one of the most pressing issues of our time: helping us both to understand and to live as informed, ethical people within a world increasingly defined and driven by software.

And we can also go further, helping to create this world. More than a quarter-century ago, Brenda Laurel's dissertation established how deep knowledge of subject matter developed within the humanities -- in Laurel's case, classical drama -- could be used to inform the design of new technologies. Laurel became a leading creator and theorist of digital media by adapting insights and models from a long history of humanities scholarship on the arts. Such work is, if anything, even more vital today -- and is the second area of digital humanities which I believe we should press forward. With the rise of computer games as a cultural and educational form (along with other emerging media technologies) computer scientists are increasingly being called, both in universities and industry, to develop computational processes that make new forms of media possible.

But computer science has no knowledge or methods appropriate for guiding or evaluating the primary, media-focused aspects of this work. Computer science's next level of dialogue with the digital arts community is certainly encouraging, but there is also an essential role for the humanities to play in both contributing to innovative media technology projects and helping set the agenda. Unfortunately, unlike software studies, this area of digital humanities work does not yet have a name and is often not even identified as humanities, despite its deep grounding in humanities knowledge and methods (the scholars involved generally also have identities as digital artists/designers or computer scientists).

But the importance of addressing this lack is becoming clear. In fact, I am happy to announce that an unprecedented group of partners (including the NSF, NEH, NEA, and Microsoft) have stepped forward to help convene a workshop on this topic that Michael Mateas, Chaim Gingold, and I will host at UC Santa Cruz later this year. Our planned outcomes range from developing a greater understanding of this area of digital humanities to matchmaking a set of projects that are explicitly at the intersection of computer science, digital arts, and digital humanities.

Now for the bad news. Unfortunately, as digital humanities is coming to public consciousness, the vision of the field being put forth in the most high-profile venues leaves out entirely such possibilities as these. In January, Stanley Fish wrote in The New York Times that digital humanities is concerned with "matters of statistical frequency and pattern," and summarized digital humanities methodology as "first you run the numbers, and then you see if they prompt an interpretive hypothesis." Earlier in January, at the Modern Language Association mega-conference, a workshop on Getting Started in Digital Humanities suggested that the field's promise lies in the fact that "Scholars can now computationally analyze entire corpora of texts or preserve and share materials through digital archives."

How will digital humanities ever come to be something more diverse and relevant if both detractors and supporters seem to agree that its sole focus is storing and analyzing data? I believe digital humanists must begin by recognizing and developing important areas of work, already part of the field's history, that such conceptions marginalize. And those in the field must see these areas as important places for digital humanities to grow, even if they lie beyond the narrow confines of the wall digital humanists are inadvertently helping build around themselves.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is associate professor of computer science and co-director of the Expressive Intelligence Studio at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His most recent book, Expressive Processing, has just been published in paperback.

Academic Minute: Wireless Technology

In today’s Academic Minute, J. Nicholas Laneman of the University of Notre Dame explains the technology behind the expanding use of wireless networks. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

Student Tablet Use Is Up, Survey Finds

Tablet ownership is increasing among college students and high school seniors, according to a survey released by the Pearson Foundation. Among college students, ownership is now 25 percent, up from 7 percent a year ago. Among high school seniors, the figure is now 17 percent, up from 4 percent. A majority of college students (63 percent) and high school seniors (69 percent) believe that tablets will effectively replace textbooks within five years. The survey was conducted in January by Harris Interactive. More than 1,200 college students and 200 college-bound high school seniors responded.

Foundation Helps Private Colleges Share Faculty

Five private colleges in West Virginia and Virginia are sharing some faculty slots, courtesy of a grant from the Teagle Foundation, The Charleston Gazette reported. Bethany, Davis & Elkins, Emory & Henry and West Virginia Wesleyan Colleges and the University of Charleston will share a single position for a professor to use distance education to teach remedial mathematics at all the campuses, with in-person assistance available at each college. Further, West Virginia Wesleyan and the University of Charleston will share an American history professor. Officials described the arrangements as a way to offer good instruction, while recognizing the financial pressures on small private colleges.

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Pulse Podcast examines uses of TaskStream

This month's edition of The Pulse podcast features a conversation with Courtney Peagler, vice president of strategic and business development at TaskStream.

Publishers Oppose Bill on Scholarly Open Access

A group of 81 scholarly journal publishers on Monday came out against the latest iteration of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) -- a bill that would require federal research grantees to make their resulting academic papers freely available to the public no more than six months after publication in a scholarly journal. The bill, introduced last month in both the House and the Senate, is the third iteration of FRPAA to be introduced since 2006; two previous versions failed to make it to a vote.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) sent letters to prominent legislators in both chambers criticizing the bill for seeking to apply a “one-size-fits-all” deadline of six months before publishers, many of which charge for access to articles, must compete with a free version in a government database. In many disciplines, publishers retain the exclusive right to sell access to the peer-reviewed article for “several years before costs are recovered,” according to the AAP. Among the 81 signatories to the letters was Elsevier, a major journal publisher that last month withdrew its support for (and effectively nixed) the Research Works Act -- a bill that would have preemptively killed FRPAA -- after facing a boycott from frustrated scholars.

The American Anthropological Association, which caught flak last month from some of its members after its executive director wrote a note to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy criticizing public access mandates, did not sign on to either letter.

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