On Digital Literacies and Digital Pedagogy. Some Reflections.

I would like to use this post to reflect on some of the topics address in a series of articles that we read for today’s class. I will be briefly discussing Johanna Drucker’s Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display, John Theibault’s Visualizations and Historical Arguments, John Rosinbum’s Teaching with #DigHist and Teaching the Slave Trade with Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database and Elijah Meeks Infoviz and New Literacies. I am interested in Digital Pedagogy and I am in the process of creating a project for a course that will include the application of digital tools to the learning of a foreign language, so I would like to use this space to reflect on some of this authors’ ideas and to consider them in the light of my own work.

Visualizations and how do we use our data.

Drucker’s article argues that a humanities approach to the graphical expression of interpretation is needed. She argues that the concept of data as a given needs to be rethought and than rather than characterizing this data as objective, it is important to understand it as taken and constructed. Moreover, she considers that graphics do not need to be thought as manifestations of this data but as part of an interpretative activity. She claims the possibility of displaying the ambiguities, assumptions and nuances that exist in the construction of any visualization. In this sense, she says that what is needed is not a set of applications to display humanities “data” but a new approach that uses humanities principles to constitute “data” (here not as a given but as a taken and constructed process) and its display.

Drucker’s arguments lead us to consider the role that the scholar has in the production of knowledge, and the tools that are used to that extend. Nevertheless, whereas I agree with her claims I do think that not only when we are working with computational techniques our data and methods need to be thought as constructed and biased, but in every work we are doing, even under traditional scholarship. I have referred to this point in a previous post, Digital versus Traditional Scholarship? The Dilemmas of Critiquing Digital History Projects . Although I understand that quantitative information seems to be objective, transparent and unbiased at a first sight, when it is actually selected and constructed, the way we use our qualitative data goes under the same process, in spite of some works that aim to show definitive interpretations of it. What I am trying to point out here is that a constant reflection of the work that we do, what do we do it for, under which assumptions and privileging what type of information and methods over the other needs to be present either if we are working in digital humanities or not. Interpretation is always present, and this needs to be our starting point.

Theibault is also concerned with visualizations but in his case he questions the capacity of visual information to communicate an historical argument. I his own words:

“When designing graphics, authors have to consider how much background information the reader brings to the visualization. The development of more complex visualizations has increased the gaps between expert and novice interpreters, which raises challenges for historians who seek the most effective visual approach.”

Elijah Meeks makes a similar claim when he writes:

“As it stands, a “good” visualization is one that is seductive, immediately comprehensible to a wide audience, requires little explanation and takes barely any time to absorb.  These are, not coincidentally, the same standards one has for a good newspaper article.  Another definition of good needs to be developed for sophisticated visual communication that gains its inspiration not from newspaper articles but from monographs and journal articles.”  

This is a really interesting point, as it is pointing out the necessity to be mindful of the digital literacy of the readers, and what is needed to be present in a visualization to be able to successfully communicate what we are trying to say, in this case, by other means that are not the written word. I do often consider that when I read articles with complex and full of data graphs that pretend to show connections between different sets of data. Going back to thinking quantitative data as a given, do we just think that because it is in the form of a graph and generated by quantitative methods its information is objective, clear and authoritative? And I am thinking here in the both sides, that is, scholars that pretend to close interpretation just because they are using quantitative data and displaying it nicely and readers that see a graph and automatically think, it is proved and here is the result. Again, our role, our actions, what do we do with our quantitative or qualitative data and to what purpose is a task that must no be forgotten.

Teaching with Digital Tools

Rosinbum’s article is an interesting one in the way he discusses the purposes of teaching with digital history. He writes:

“It powerfully engages students by building on their experience in the digital world. It can reinforce, and often broaden, their understanding of a concept. When used properly, digital history can decenter the classroom and shift focus away from the instructor and onto the material. It can provide novel ways for students to interact with a host of primary sources and expose them to voices not heard in their textbooks or source readers. Critically examining digital projects can also teach students the critical thinking and interpretation skills they need to succeed in a digital age.”

Nevertheless, and here is the interesting aspect of the article, he warns not to make assumptions about the familiarity that students may have with digital tools, with their access to technology, or even with their comfort level with mapping, graphing and basic data analysis skills. I agree with him, specially because of the common idea that current students are techie born and raised so therefore any digital work will be easy to tackle and do with them. Whereas the knowledge of technology use is true among the most part of the students, that doesn’t mean that by knowing how to use Twitter or Facebook they will quickly engage with the nuances of creating a network graph. Previous generations were born and raised with written texts and that didn’t mean that everybody knew how to read or interpret a book.

Could that work?

I would like to take this last section to talk a bit about a set of ideas that I have for developing a project for a language teaching course. I would live to hear some feedback about it, the same as if you have gone under similar experiences and how they went. Having teaching elementary language for a while I see how the textbooks that are used generally depict other cultures in very stereotypical ways. Within the course, you always have the cultural section in which you present some traditions, costumes, activities of different countries or places that speak the language. These sections are in most of the cases ahistorical, stereotypical and far from what really happens in the reality. Therefore, i would like to build a project to challenge this vision and try to bring more accurate and on the ground cultural experiences to the leaners of a foreign language. Some time ago, I was introduced to the MBira platform. It is still under development by the Matrix group at the Michigan State University and it is expected to be launched anytime soon. MBira is a platform that works as a blog but it is space based, meaning that its main purpose is to allow the creation of projects that have a geographical location as the starting point. After creating a project for a certain place, you can start uploading pictures and different media and to write descriptions about it, the same as to chat with other users and comment on the material. Parallel, for some time to now I’ve been using Hypothes.is which is an application that allows you to annotate, highlight, comment webpages. My idea is to use different material available online as the starting point for creating depictions about the culture of different cities of Latin America and Spain in which Spanish is the main language. The students will need to do some research in a couple of websites (official tourism sites, informal sites such as blogs about travels, among others) and to extract meaningful information about these places. For this initial step, the students will use Hypothes.is to annotate, comment and discuss the material found online. The second step will be organizing this data and create the projects in MBira. These will be collective projects that will allow students to decide which data to use, how to display and to communicate it to a potential broader audience. A last step will be presenting these projects to the rest of the class, and discuss them collectively. This is a brief summary of the project that I have in mind. I believe that presenting this project for the students of elementary language could allow a different approach to the study of the culture, under a sight that avoids stereotypic or ahistoric portraits of the life and customer of different societies, the same as will promote students’ collaboration, self-awareness and a hands on experience.

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