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Humanities in a Digital World

Humanities in a Digital World

Duke faculty, staff and students rethinking teaching and learning in a digital age

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in This Month at Duke.

WildLab sends out teams of students in New York City with iPhones and binoculars to track birds seen in city parks and streets.
WildLab sends out teams of students in New York City with iPhones and binoculars to track birds seen in city parks and streets. Photo credit: Lara Kohl, The WildLab

A professor stands at the front of class, reading aloud from a passage in the assigned work. He looks up to find his students deeply engrossed -- not with him, but with their laptops.

The professor now has a choice, according to Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson. He can either ban laptops from his class, or he can reconsider why he is standing at the front of class, reading aloud in the first place.

It's a scenario Davidson describes with David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, in their forthcoming book, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (MIT Press).

They use the scenario to illustrate the challenges of teaching and learning in a digital era, with a generation of students that grew up texting, playing video games and forming relationships online.

Should the professor embrace digital tools and social networking, he may appear less like an expert in front of the classroom and more like a conductor facilitating learning. But although that approach makes some traditional scholars uncomfortable, according to Goldberg, it needs to become more common.

"It's not just a case of staying abreast of current [technological] developments, it's putting these developments to work in a way that can best serve the humanities rather than being swept up in the current," he says.

Davidson and Goldberg have been thinking for the past decade about how technology is changing teaching and learning in higher education.
They co-founded the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory or HASTAC (pronounced "haystack") in 2002 with the goal of convening a virtual network of people and institutions interested in how technology is reshaping learning, teaching and collaboration across disciplines.

"No discipline, no department could comprehend the ways lives had changed, were changing or would change," says Davidson of HASTAC's beginnings. "As educators we had to find a way to talk across disciplines and find a way people could break out and bring the most rigorous, specialized ideas to the table to think about the important changes happening in the world."

Since its inception, HASTAC has grown to include a lively website and several thousand members from hundreds of institutions around the world. Its network supports a scholars program that brings students together across disciplines to address the implications and applications of new media. It also administers an annual competition funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that supports novel uses of new media in support of learning.

Winners from the 2009 competition are promoting learning through games, mobile phone applications, virtual worlds, wikis and blogs. One of the winners, WildLab, sends out teams of students in New York City with an iPhone and binoculars to identify and log birds seen in city parks and streets. The students analyze data and submit their findings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird sightings are also "tweeted" to the WildLab's Twitter account, creating a real-time, searchable database.

Jared Lamenzo, director of WildLab, says the technology not only facilitates learning but also promotes birding and citizen science to a wider community.

"Essentially, we want the technology to disappear," he says. "What is left is the data -- more accurate, published instantaneously -- and the students' new set of eyes for their local environment."

Second-year Duke student Matt Straus says being a HASTAC scholar allows him to connect with and learn from peers who have their fingers on the pulse of the latest technologies and innovations.

"It's really shown me what's out there," he says, explaining that HASTAC acts as a support group for innovators who are thinking about topics such as artificial intelligence and video gaming applications.

Tim Lenoir, the Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair of New Technologies and Society at Duke, won a 2008 MacArthur competition grant for the virtual humanitarian assistance simulation game, "Virtual Conflict Resolution: Turning Swords to Ploughshares." He recently worked with colleagues at Duke to create a new game called "Emergence" that uses massively-multiplayer gaming technology to solve problems using non-violence.

While Lenoir still sees a place for traditional lecture-style teaching in the humanities classroom, he says educators should be open to new technologies.

"What the new digital technologies show us is that there's a lot more opportunity for collaborative work than we ever imagined," he says. "We still have a very traditional notion of the humanities and increasingly the world we live in is one that is deeply social in so many ways."

Duke Provost Peter Lange adds that Duke's support for institutions like HASTAC is part of a culture that fosters a community of diverse learning and teaching styles.

"We want to make sure that our faculty and our students can find the mode that's best for their particular subject matter," he says.

For Davidson and Goldberg, their passion for helping educators and students meet the challenges of the digital age keeps them focused on sustaining HASTAC's work into the future.

"We're not just teaching about technology, but how to think," Davidson says. "It's an exercise in engaged learning where the terms of engagement are just about anything."

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