15 August 2013
Engaging online education: Mastering digital archives
Presented at "Training in Place: Upgrading Staff Capabilities to Manage and Preserve Electronic Records,"
SAA Annual Meeting (New Orleans 2013)
Clayton State’s archival studies program is relatively new. It started its fourth year this week, and we have nearly forty students in three cohorts. The program is designed to give students a broad education in archival theory and practice, with a strong emphasis on digital archives and electronic records. The program reflects my beliefs that working archivists need strong technical skills to succeed in the digital era. The program also reflects my belief that many practicing archivists need a way to retool their knowledge and skills, and they that education without having to leave their jobs and families if they don’t live near a school that offers coursework.
The first question – before questions of pedagogy and online delivery – is, what do archivists need to know to work with electronic records? That question has no easy answer. Given the wide range of archives and the various jobs archivists do, the skills any given archivists need depend heavily on context. In a large repository with a strong IT staff, archivists may need “soft skills” (in the word of The New Skills colloquium) -- the knowledge and skills to clearly articulate a technical problem to CS/IT professionals for them to implement in code. Those archivists may need project and contract management skills more than “hard” technical skills. But at a small archives, an archivist may have few technical resources. If they want to capture a Twitter feed, install Archivists Toolkit or Archon, or build a digital repository using LOCKSS, Dspace, or something else, they may need to know everything from operating systems, to networking, to scripting.
I’d like to step back from the question of specific knowledge and ask why archivists need technical knowledge in general. First, archivists need fluency. They need to understand and be able to talk about technical concepts as they apply to digital archives. Two years ago, I asked students in the Archives and Technology class if they knew what ASCII was. I was amazed that so few had heard of the term, that only one or two could actually define the concept. In many ways, that they didn’t know ‘ASCII’ is analogous to being able to read and write, but not know the word ‘alphabet’.
These students -- like many archivists -- were all sophisticated consumers of technology. They could use technology to do complicated, useful things -- word processing, spreadsheets, email, browsing. But they didn’t understand how it worked. The CS/IT industry has done a masterful and admirable job of making technology easier to use. They’ve done that by hiding complexity. The students, as consumers of technology, don’t need to know ASCII, any more than they needed to know EBCDIC, the ISO 8859 standards, or Unicode. But as digital archivists, they have to understand the nature of the records in their collections. The need to understand the materiality of records is not new, but it’s often something that archivists learned indirectly. They grew up with paper documents. They appreciate that pencil can be erased, but ink is fixed -- hence, ink is used in records because it resists change. They know that a staple holds a document together, but they’ve probably never considered it to be metadata that describes a document’s boundaries and sequence. And handwriting, the equivalent of character encoding. They don’t think twice about records that are handwritten or printed, but they may be stumped when faced with text in frakture.
Second, many archivists -- those who are working directly with the records, but less so for administrators and manager -- need basic competency to work with records. They need basic skills to do tasks similar to working with non-digital records. They need to be able to transfer records from the creator’s office to the archives, but they won’t be using boxes. They’ll be using tools like BagIt to be able to demonstrate the authenticity and integrity of the records. They’ll want to arrange the records, but they won’t be physically reorganizing files by using commands to sort the records. I continue to believe that what we do remains the same, but how we do it changes.
I’ve often heard archivists say, “I’ll just hire that done.” If that’s an option, great. But for archivists in small archives with limited resources, that may not be possible. Moreover, I think it’s an untenable position. Can you imagine a processing archivist say, “I don’t need to know how to alphabetize. I’ll just contract that out.” If arrangement and description are core to the profession, we must be able to do that work ourselves. Certainly, we may need help. Arranging electronic records is challenging, and some argue that the notion of original order is irrelevant for electronic records. (An opinion I don’t share.) We may need to work with a CS/IT professional to build tools to help us sort complex records in some fashion, but archivists must be masters of those tasks that we’ve identified as core to the profession.
Finally, I hope that at least a few -- ideally many -- archivists will become proficient with technology. I believe the profession needs archivists who are also masters of technology. Only they can fully understand the implication of the tectonic shift triggered by electronic records. As important, we need people who can imagine creative applications of technology. These are the people who will take us beyond “What we do remains the same” to truly innovative approaches and new ways of working.
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Clayton State’s program includes fifteen courses. They cover all aspects of archives: general principles, appraisal and records management, arrangement and description, preservation – with a separate course in digital preservation, reference and access, management, law and ethics. All of those courses incorporate discussion of digital archives and technology. For example, the course on appraisal and acquisition discusses the use of BagIt, a tool to ensure the authenticity and integrity of records being transferred to the archives. That course also looks at harvesting websites and capturing Twitter feeds. The processing course uses Archivist’s Toolkit, and the digital preservation course will be incorporating Archivmatica. We’re constantly looking for new ways to give students practical experience with a wide range of tools.
At Clayton, students take several courses that focus on technology. They build a virtual Linux server, install software, explore the network configuration, and -- as important as anything -- learn how to navigate the file system. When the graduates do field work, they’ll be able to survey the digital terrain and have a sense of the lay of the land. The students also take a course in web work. They’ll be able to create a modest website with dynamic webpages using PHP to query a MySQL database, but -- more importantly -- they’ll understand the structure of web content so that they can do a better job capturing it for their collections. The students also take a course in database design so they understand data models.
We’re developing a capstone course that students will take in their last semester. They’re given a collection of electronic records and are expected to demonstrate that they know what to do, starting with developing a collecting policy and applying it to identify permanent records, process the records and produce a finding aid, develop a preservation plan, and more. (That’s more than can be done in a semester; we’re trying to figure out how to scale the course.)
The goal of this technical education is not to make the students system administrators, programmers, or database designers. It is to ensure that they have a firm understanding of the digital ecosystem, so they can communicate with CS/IT folk, and -- I hope -- are sufficiently proficient to be able to continue experimenting through life-long learning.
All that is well and good, but how can archivists in the trenches get that knowledge? How can they overcome three significant barriers: time, place, and money? We are fortunate to have some really amazing graduate programs with great courses in digital archives -- Texas, North Carolina, Michigan immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, not everyone lives near those schools. It’s unrealistic to think that people with jobs in archives, not to mention families and houses, can up and move so they can take courses there.
SAA offers a series of short workshops around the country, but I suspect many of the attendees are from out of town. Traveling to a workshop is easier than a full course (or a full degree) because it’s concentrated into a few days. At the same time, it’s hard to absorb all the information in an intensive workshop. One of the things I value about formal coursework for practicing archivists is that the information is delivered over fifteen weeks. That gives the students time to really think about the material. They may be able to try to apply it at work, then raise real world examples that support in-depth exploration in follow up questions and discussion.
I’m a firm believer in online, distance education. Not only do I think it can be effective and engaging, I think it can address the barriers of time, place, and money. In my instance, I wanted to get a library degree, but -- as I described -- I was one of those who didn’t live near a library school. (The University of Arizona was only a hundred miles, but impractically distant.) Nor could I leave a good job or my partner. Fortunately, I learned about a program offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was a great program, and I learned a lot. Since then, several library programs have come online, including Clayton State’s. UIUC’s program addressed time and place. I didn’t have to take time off from a job to pursue a course elsewhere, nor did I spent lots of time commuting to an on-campus class. The amount of time spent on classwork was spread over a semester, so I could give it appropriate attention. Still money would remain a barrier for many as UIUC charged out-of-state tuition.
Many people are skeptical about the quality of online education. For some, distance education connotes for-profit diploma mills that give students a piece of paper without the benefit of a good education. Many others find it hard to imagine a graduate program without the interaction of face-to-face seminars. Now, MOOCs challenge traditional models of education and the need for interaction with students and professors -- just take a test that demonstrates you know the information, regardless of how you learned it.
To step back, my concern is that students get a good education. How can we help students engage with the material and each other so that they master the content? There’s no one approach that works with all students. Some students need the immediacy of face to face instruction. Some students thrive in asynchronous courses, where others need a sense of community.
To be effective, online faculty need to consider three factors: technology, methodology, and socialization.
At Clayton State, we rely primarily on video conferencing for live lectures and small group discussions. Students see and hear the instructor in real time. They can ask questions, but likewise the instructor can ask the students questions. We use the Desire to Learn (D2L) course management system, although minimally -- access to readings, submitting assignments, and -- in a very limited way -- discussion.
The more interesting question is methodology: how can we use that technology effectively? Realistically, what’s the difference between a live lecture and a recording if students sit and watch both passively? Early classes were primarily lectures, far from an ideal seminar based on Socratic dialog. Students might ask an occasional question via chat, but there was little participation. Without queues from body language, it was impossible for instructors to see students’ epiphanies or confusion to know who to call on. Instructors had to learn to be comfortable with silence, to give students an obvious opening to ask questions or offer comments. And, isolated from each other, they didn’t feel any social pressure from the group, motivating someone to respond.
The final factor, socialization, is intimately tied to technology and methodology. How can we make students comfortable enough with the technology and the methodology so that they become active, engaged participants? Many students have not participated in live, online courses, so they have to learn how to be online students. Students that have been in asynchronous courses find they have to come to terms with live participation. (I’ll add that the instructors also have to go through a similar process to become comfortable.)
Over time, and with a bit of serendipity, we’ve found a few ways to engage the students more effectively.
First, we use video conferencing for small group discussion. In some cases, the students meet for about an hour separate from class, although we’re not moving towards small group discussions during class time as a break from lecture. Students may talk about the week’s readings or a case study. The success of these discussions is largely a result of social aspects. In addition to the assigned tasks, students spend time talking about what students talk about -- the instructor, the amount of work. In the process, they get to know each other and become more comfortable with each other. Because the instructor isn’t present, there’s less intimidation: students are less afraid to say something “stupid” and be embarrassed. Finally, the students are responsible for the success of the group.
Second, we’ve discovered that the students need help being prepared to participate. In part, this echoes the notion that students have to learn to learn online. Students often didn’t know what to say when discussing the readings. To get them engaged with the readings, students have to respond to an assigned question: What is the author’s thesis? What is the exposition? What is the conclusion, and how does it relate to the thesis? How can context help us better understand the article? How does the article related to other archival domains? Students must write up their response and post it to the shared discussion boards the day before class. Students have let me know that they tend to read the article they’ve been assigned very closely and skim the others. (Something no instructor should find surprising.) However, reading the other students’ reports on the articles gives them different perspectives that didn’t occur to them.
Third, to help them explore ideas in greater depth, we have begun using writers groups based on Tara Gray’s Publish and Flourish. Students are expected to write at least fifteen minutes a day, to report the time they spent writing, and to share their writing with the group. We hope that students will continue these groups in all their courses, helping each other learn to write better – but more importantly building a community that explores the ideas in depth.
Fourth, we’re using more case studies. Giving students a real world scenario helps them see the practical implications of abstract theory. During class, students break into small groups during class, then report back. The groups come up with different approaches, which prompts discussion. As important, because the reporter is speaking for the group there’s less risk.
In all these methods, we pay attention to socialization, to the human factor. In addition to learning the disciplinary knowledge, students need to learn to be online learners. Lessons they learned starting in primary school through their undergraduate degrees – how to sit in class and pay attention, how to ask questions, how to interact with our students – are all different in an online environment.
Because the students are physically separate, they certainly feel some level of isolation. Unlike students in face-to-face program, they have little chance to get to know each other and bond hanging out before class, during breaks, or other social functions. In some ways, the students remain strangers to each other, with an understandable measure of restraint. (Although, many students have built relationships over a couple of semesters.)
The program seeks to find ways to make students more comfortable and to take risks. Small group discussions are less intimidating because the instructor is not present, so students may be more willing to venture ideas. And, when reporting back to the class, students are speaking as a representative of a group, further reducing personal risk. At the same time, because students take the lead, they have greater responsibility – to themselves and to others in their groups.
To conclude, briefly, I mentioned one other barrier that practitioners face: money. I’m very happy that we’ve been able to move Clayton’s program to an e-Tuition rate. All students – in-state and out – are charged the same rate. Course cost about $1300 for tuition and fees. When developing the program, the needs of practitioners who couldn’t leave their jobs were forefront in my mind. We welcome those who want a master’s, but we also welcome those who would like to take select courses that address specific needs.
I firmly believe that Clayton’s program fills an important gap in archival education by addressing the barriers of time, place, and money. If you’re interested – in pursuing a degree or in taking specific courses to refresh your knowledge – please contact me.