A Digital Research Project Outline

After an interesting conference panel on digital teaching ideas, discussion turned into a gripe-fest against giant corporate owners of journals and software and certain textbook companies, which then led to discussion of who owns online content created by professors, the professor who created it or the school (the answer is often the school). Intellectual property rights sound complex, and given how important such things are becoming, I was a little surprised at how little I knew.

The professional development workshop I went to a while back focusing on copyrights ended up being more on using digital sources (and citing them), not as much on creating your own; I admit, I may have dozed and thus could have missed something. While I recognize the importance of that aspect of law, I ended up mentally going back to students, and how much they might know or understand on the subject.

I ended up thinking back to the history professor who’d presented on the panel, talking about how to teach basic research techniques in an online class. The assignment he described that he’d developed to help students work with primary sources sounds like it would be easily adaptable to other subjects, like literature, especially the medieval. I’m not sure exactly when or how I’ll use this, but I do think this assignment would be really useful for helping students learn about primary sources, and some basic research techniques. NB: The following is based on a presentation titled “”Defining Good Research: Using Digital Resources in British and European History Surveys” by Dr. John Krenke, presented at the 64th Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies.

Step 1: Assign students a primary document. Have them analyze who the author was and consider any bias on the author’s part towards his or her subject.

Step 2: Have students consider the author’s goal and maybe do some general rhetorical analysis.

Step 3: Link the document and its details to the macro-context of the time, place, and situation of the subject. This final step would likely require students to do some research using tools provided by the instructor, including databases or textbooks or other reference sources pertinent to the subject.

This assignment would work with documents on a subject that covers multiple sides, such as the slave trade. Sources for documents include places like the Internet History Sourcebook, or on the literary side, any number of library digitization projects and Early English Books Online (if your institution has access- the free version only allows access to some documents).

In a more medieval option, questions like ‘should the Bible be translated into the vernacular?’ or ‘should women be allowed to own property?’ might work well.

Assignments like this have several benefits to my mind. First, they help students learn about digital resources. During that panel’s discussion segment, it was observed and universally agreed upon that most students, being of the Millenial generation, are perceived as tech-savvy, but really are not when it comes to learning how to navigate new (academic) tools, sites, and systems. I can personally attest to this. Not only does every fall involve a 2 week learning curve as new students learn how to navigate the D2L/Brightspace system, but even more advanced students can struggle with more specialized tools. For example, the online Middle English Dictionary requires some fairly detailed search knowledge to be able to navigate easily and efficiently. Boolean operators are a must-know, as are the different places one can search (head-words as opposed to entries, etc). The irony of all this is that while data suggest that online and technology based classes are where enrollment is keeping steady or rising in general, it’s harder for students and professors both to engage with each other and with the material.

Another benefit of this type of assignment is that it breaks down the process of primary based research into manageable pieces: focused background information research, close reading, and secondary research on the broader issue or context.

This assignment also presents the opportunity to blend digital tools and techniques with more traditional library and literary (or historical) methods. I maintain that no matter how good the digital catalogue of a library may be, it still can’t beat browsing the shelves of a decently-stocked research library for finding potential sources. That said, if students don’t have easy access to such a library then it’s all the more important for them to learn how to conduct focused and broad searches using digital resources with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible.

Going back to the original thought about intellectual property in the digital world, breaking down the assignment like this also makes it easier for students to keep track of their sources and citations in a way that makes sense. Students can get the idea that smaller assignments, like homework, don’t need the kind of attention to citation that larger, longer written work like essays require, and an assignment like this could be used to highlight the need to always cite any source that is outside of your own head..

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Researching w/ Digital vs Paper: Advantage Paper

Just over a week ago, I went to a day-long seminar about the potential for free/low cost textbook options. All of them were digital. A low-cost alternative for instructor copies offered by a textbook company I happen to like is also digital. I own an e-reader which I use mostly for graphic novels due to the lesser cost and space required of the digital versions. Nevertheless, I still prefer a physical paper book (magazines too, but that’s another rant).

For academic uses, I find that paper books are superior in enough ways to be worth some extra cost. Granted these are books that I know I will be using, and that I can afford. Flipping between work and a source has to happen with both screen and paper, so there’s no advantage there. However, without greater technological resources than I have, it is not possible to split a screen between work and several sources, and keep everything in the same view and same focus while continuing to work However, this is possible with paper or/and a screen and paper combination. Advantage:  paper.

I don’t mind digital sources for browsing purposes, but for sustained work, I don’t think I will ever prefer digital to a paper option. Especially since paper is not susceptible to running out of power and needing to be plugged in, nor is it as worry-some to have out in public. I have no problem leaving a pile of books and notebooks on a table in a coffee shop while I get up and go to the bathroom. They’ll still be there when I get back. However, would I do that with a laptop or tablet? Not likely. This simple fact is also the reason why I don’t buy the portability argument in favor of digital texts. Sure they might be easier to carry, but then you’re stuck carrying them everywhere. I can leave a bag of books in the car to go into a grocery store; not so with a computer or other digital device (heat and theft both being possible concerns).

I was in college when digital resources were still being integrated into standard academic study, so I learned how to use paper catalogues and journal indices, but also how to use online search engines and bibliographies. While I can appreciate the speed of the digital version, I think that’s the biggest problem with current academic study now. Because the digital is so much faster, people are prone to expect automatic results, and give up immediately if the search does not instantly yield the ideal matches. This is one of my biggest irritations with teaching academic research.

There are plenty of studies that say students today are digitally literate, and plenty more that say that digitalization has ruined at least two generations for serious academic study thanks to decreased attention spans etc. Personal experience suggests that the latter is more accurate.  I have been in a variety of classrooms for a total of 7 years with 100s of students, and I can count on 1 hand the number who would probably have the patience to go through 100 hits of a search to find the best results. Granted that level of tenacity and thoroughness isn’t usually required until late career undergraduate projects and beyond, but patience and the willingness to spend time focusing and working through a range of sources is a good general skill to have.

Back to the textbooks scenario I opened with. There is another disadvantage to digital textbooks that often seems to  go unstated. If students have to use their digital devices (laptop, smart phone, tablet), then they will have the devices out in class in order to discuss or work with the texts. This means that the temptation to check email, social media, text a friend, etc. will be staring them in the face. My experience again suggests that the number of students who might have the patience to go beyond the first 3 search engine hits is probably pretty similar to the number who can resists the urge to check something not class related.