An old talk: Arts ISIT workshop, “Multidimensional Learning through Digital Platforms” (September 2018)

In mid-September last year, four of us UBC faculty were invited to share our experiences with open learning platforms in a UBC Arts ISIT (Instructional Support and Information Technology) workshop. It was fun, and what we’re doing and have done might be useful for other people too. The workshop is archived here and you can watch our presentations here. Our organiser and chair was Meena Kahlon, and my co-presenters were Dr Katherine Bowers (CENES, European Studies, Science & Technology Studies, and one of this year’s Wall Scholars), Dr Tristan Grunow (History, East Asian Studies; and now at Yale), and Dr Jenny Peterson (Political Science, International Relations, and Vantage College).

Here’s the official version of events:


What can open learning platforms do for your courses? How do these technologies fit with classroom learning environments?

This workshop will tackle these questions with a panel of four instructors who have used open learning platforms to bring course material to life in new ways for their students. From digital mapping of stories, geo-mapping history and mapping timelines to blogging and content management systems, these instructors have created valuable opportunities for their students to interact multidimensionally with course materials. Participants in this workshop can look forward to learning about the innovative experiences open digital platforms make possible in Arts and Humanities courses.

  • “Imagining St Petersburg: Digital Mapping in the Literature Classroom”

In this presentation Dr. Katherine Bowers (CENES) will discuss the application of the digital mapping tool StoryMapJS in the literature classroom. StoryMapJS, produced by Knight Lab, was originally intended to aid journalists in mapping narrative, that is, to tell their stories spatially for more impact. Dr. Bowers will discuss her experience using the tool in the context of the literature classroom, the ups and downs of introducing her students to it and the benefits of imagining literary space in this way. She will also be sharing some of her students’ projects.

  • “Geo-mapping with a Historical Twist”

Dr. Tristan Grunow (HIST) will be sharing his experience with the new mapping tool he worked with Arts ISIT to build. This geo-mapping application, delivered through UBC Blogs, allowed students to map images of the locations, people and buildings they researched in class. This gave students the opportunity to visualize spatial relationships which they could not have experienced otherwise, and allowed them to draw new historical conclusions.

  • “Representing Peace Negotiations through Interactive Timelines”

Dr. Jen Peterson (POLI) will discuss her recent collaboration with Arts ISIT which led to the creation of a student-developed academic database. Contributions to the database were made as part of the final assignment for her International Conflict Management course. This assignment saw students completing interactive timelines and compiling comparative data on over a dozen formal peace negotiations, in a format that would be of use to other peace researchers. Dr. Peterson will reflect on the learning outcomes and benefits of the collaboration, barriers to be overcome before its next iteration, and thoughts on the transferability of the model to other courses and disciplines.

  • “The Past, Present, and Future of WordPress Use”

In a sea of social media and its currents of evanescent fashions, blogs have been solid rocky islands. From connections in Web 2.0, to futuristic dreams of a 5.0 symbiotic network, WordPress offers many ways of being and thinking online as intelligent citizens of the past, present, and future. In this workshop, Dr. Juliet O’Brien (FHIS), who works with French language and literature, Medieval Studies, and course coordination, will share some of her early 2008 experiences using WordPress and UBC Blogs for research communities, information, courses, and student projects. She will also be looking at what we can do next with WordPress in Arts innovation.

My contribution took the form of talking through some examples arranged in chronological order. I haven’t watched my own part of the video—I hate watching myself on video—so I don’t know what connection, if any, there is between what I meant to say and what I actually said. (Luckily, or not, there are notes.) That aside, the video is worth watching for Katia and Jenny and Tristan who do all say good, interesting, and valuable things. More from them:

So. In case it might give others some ideas on what one can do with a blog, or indeed just a laugh at what’s been done with them, and how and why, in the past: here are my notes. (I’ve punctuated them by adding some dinosaurs.) I should emphasise that I’m not doing anything very exciting or new, this will all look very familiar to most scholars in the humanities, and it’s the kind of thing that people in Medieval Studies have been doing for decades. We’ve been doing digital humanities for so long that it’s kind of normal: being one of the scholarly areas at its start; and also—the two things are related—being at the start of ideas of interdisciplinary studies back in the previous century, and further before that back when comparative literature started being a thing (late 18th c.), and way back through many centuries’ several branches of the long history of philology and through millennia of the history of translation, a.k.a. storytelling and its transmission.

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—I’m just going to talk you through some sites and how I started using WordPress, and what I used before and why (I should add that I don’t just use WP, not here to be an orthodox cultist missionary, I also use other things like Blogger)

—prehistory: geocities, live journal, movable type [resist urge to make cheesy pun about “In The Beginning Was The Command Line” and deeper digs into media archaeology] + wikis + chatrooms and fora including academic / research discussion groups and listserves

—the first sites I built in 2003: collections of links, annotated bibliography, sharing resources, plus the exercise of doing that publicly, organising and thinking through and explaining your selection (at that stage in PhD, to prune but preserve doctoral reading and research tangents); student projects in recent courses often do this too. Back in the day of hand-crafted bare bones HTML, FTPing files, Dreamweaver, and hosting on university Unix drives and with telecoms companies … a very static kind of site, by 2018 standards, but with opportunity for organic changeable design and reorganisation; liberating and easy compared to older kinds of website design

1. Dinosaurs and ancient history, 2008-09 before UBC

A scholarly organisation:
Forum for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Ireland
+ attached journal Oenach (blogs move and grow into constellations)

A university research centre:
Trinity College Dublin, Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies


—adapting WordPress to other kinds of site in 2008-09 before UBC: a first site, for the FMRSI, using PHP and MySQL, made to look like a website: it had emphatically to NOT look like a blog. I used the date-stamping feature of posts to have a list of members that would change as new people joined and had what looked like profile pages built for them, moving from one to the next via “next/back” navigation at the foot of a post that I’d rewritten to look like you were moving around in an alphabetical list. (You can do more sophisticated things now, plus CSS, but even back in dinosaur days blogs were a whole new world of imaginative possibility.) This site could not, politically or practically, be hosted at one single university or indeed one country (as it included scholars from both sides of the border and others not on the island of Ireland). And aesthetics was an important criterion.

—[by this time I’d moved my old personal site from university space to hosting via our telephone company, and while making the FMRSI blog-site-chimera in 2008 I also moved and rebuilt my own site on WordPress too; that’s this present site]

The CMS is an example from around the same time of a simple site; the TCD site was copied over from the WordPress blog-cum-pseudo-site, and still looks very similar to its original. Similarly, UBC department websites are on a sort of version of WordPress; it’s been put to other uses besides “just blogging” since it started. The more you look out for it, the more you’ll see WordPress around: things get more interesting when sites become interactive and are inter-related, including tools working with other tools. Plugins exemplify this; and the more people work with them, the more we all see how to use these existing tools, often intended for a single purpose that’s different—for shopping, for example— and adapt them to a new purpose—they’re just tools, after all, like any other; that’s all “technology” is and has been since the dawn of time (though not dinosaurs, as far as I know). This in turn opens up the tools themselves to further new uses. This, in the actual sense of the word, is what “innovation” means.

2. Scholarly community & research at UBC

A research cluster:
UBC FHIS Early Romance Studies

A conference:
2012 UBC Medieval Workshop (for Blogger etc. examples, see Œecologies)


—Moving from the other side of the world and abstractions to UBC now, and scholarly community & research here, two examples from 2009 and 2012; still just information.

3. Simpler course sites, just information

The Joys Of Old French
FREN 220 – Introduction to Early French Literature (up to the 17th c.) and to Textual Analysis
RMST 221 – Romance Studies: Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern


—like the previous set of blog-site hybrids, these are just information (or, blogging as monologuing):
 The Joys is the 2009 version, its predecessor was a traditional website attached to our telephone account

—two more recent ones: FREN 220 and RMST 221
(the latter is an example of a site being able to be reused, and by others)

—as with any course, portability and exportability becomes second nature if your work involves creating IP materials and if it also means that you may be moving (institutions, countries, continents); such is the academic life

—I first started using UBC Blogs for teaching because compared to WebCT Vista and Connect (Blackboard), it was faster to use and less painful on the eyes (aesthetics, plus eye strain), fingers, hands, wrists and everything else up to your neck and back. Uploading files was very slow, as was creating and editing HTML content, and the clicks were numerous, and the structure was overly rigid. A nightmare for making any changes to organisation and structure. And with no searchability. The slowness and ugliness alone were horrors. (Canvas, to its credit, is much better.)

4. Multi-section course coordination

FREN 101 (2013-18, the matching FREN 102 one is similar)
FREN 101 & 102 (2018-)


—UBC Blog (open) integrated with and complementary to Canvas LMS (closed), useful to have both:

—course coordination can use WordPress in what looks to you the viewer as static monologue mode; useful here for multiple sections, instructors, and years

—one way (there are others, and I prefer to have as many as possible and of different kinds) to ensure that a repository can be shared with another course coordinator in the future if need be, be that in co-coordination or passing it on to a successor; for continuity and preventing loss of knowledge; plus, in addition, cloud shared folders

—centralised information for students who haven’t registered (yet), or who took the course previously, or others not at UBC and on Canvas (placement reasons etc. from when I was doing undergraduate French advising). This helps when, before and around the start of term, there is a lot of movement across courses (5-10 levels) and sections (10-15) while students decide on courses, degree programs, and so on.

—for archiving and continued open public access for past and future potential students: losing access to Canvas course sites after they finish a course and finish here (worse if it’s longer ago and a previous now-discontinued LMS). I’d also like to think that access to free open resources might encourage a student to keep learning French or to return to it later. But I am naïve and soppy.

—separate areas with different levels of access for each: (a) fully public, (b) password-protected for students registered in the course, for an area that may include other materials such as slides from class in a shared Dropbox (which I’m not making public; and yes, I trust students with a password; they’re responsible adults like anyone else, with the same responsibility for consequences of actions as moral agents), and (c) password-protected for instructors (ditto)

—I’ve also used it, and other UBC blogs, again with password protection in some areas, as a Plan B when Canvas (or, previously here, WebCTVista and Connect; and Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT earlier when working elsewhere) crashed, broke, etc. This has happened when an LMS is new, has just been adopted, is overloaded at the beginning of term, is being updated, though so far—touch wood—not usually more than two of these at once. I built the first FREN 101 UBC Blogs site (2013) in a fit of rage, which dissipated once I had done more in an hour than would have been possible on our university’s then LMS in days. (I don’t have spare days. I’m already working 40+ hours per week.) And I have saved files of sites and mirror sites elsewhere, amongst other fall-backs set up just in case (based on “just in case” being what does in fact happen at some point). If you’re dealing with hundreds of students and a dozen or so people teaching, you need to do this. What you don’t see here: temporary areas and posts (password-protected and now archived elsewhere) for students. These contain an approximate copy of what they’d otherwise see on Canvas.

—Next up: adding more in some more structurally complex kinds of course.

5. + weekly commentary, portfolios, projects

FREN 320 – Advanced Studies in Literature from 1000 to 1700
FREN 420 – “Éducations sentimentales : Perceptions masculines du féminin dans la littérature française des 18e et 19e siècles”


—adding in weekly commentary, portfolios, projects

—moving into dialogic mode:
student interaction, voice, participation
commentary and criticism
a move from monologue, to dialogic exchanges [which can all too often be exchanges of monologues; see for example administrative executive abuse of the words “dialogue” and “conversation”; more on which in The C-Word / The Consent Project]; to interchanges where people listen and think and change their minds, change knowledge, changing people; and from interchanges thus, through that live engagement, to transformative learning

6. + the idea (medieval and other) of the apprentice-piece and the masterwork

RMST 221 in 2009 – “Adventure”
MDVL 302 – “Criticism”
MDVL 301A – “The Liberal Arts”
MDVL 310D – “Marvels”
FREN 336 – “Qu’est-ce que la bande dessinée ?”


—(plus what was added in (5) above)

—RMST 221, even the first time I taught it in 2009-10: adding in the idea (medieval and other) of the apprentice-piece and masterwork
(that site is also an example of exportability: after the end of a course, making another site for archiving on UBC BLOGS or on WordPress proper and exporting your old course there; useful for courses that are taught by different people in different years, and for anyone who isn’t necessarily going to be in the same institution for life; you can see how this would be useful for students)

—including, getting more meta, a course on criticism and commentary (MDVL302) and one about a liberal arts education (MDVL301A); more about the latter in this pair of posts from another talk (2017)

—adding in student presentations (many shared materials with fellow students), final festive fair of learning poster presentation of projects + photos on site + students comment and vote), and talking about their projects in the final exam if there was one (projects of many forms, including making physical objects)

Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria

7. Curated collections as knowledge creation and preservation

FREN 333 : Civilisation française I (des débuts à 1875)
A History Of The World In 100 Objects
(see also, for exemplary use of public-service blogging:
 the British Library blogs )


—(plus what was added in (5) and (6) above)

—bridge from previous item: knowledge production in knowledge-centred learning; and also learning-centred learning, that’s both centred on the continuing activity of learning and thinking about it while doing so (questioning, commentating), and on learning itself: and the ideas of the portfolio and the masterpiece that can carry through a whole degree, with e-portfolios (= the new UBC Arts e-Portfolios)

[adding this note, a year later in September 2019, see also: “Savoir-vivre plurilingual intercultural learning portfolios” (October 2018), the three-part series on medievalising beginners’ French assignments & assessment in 2018 (summer 2019), and more about learning-centred learning]

—curated collections as knowledge creation and preservation: FREN 333 was directly inspired by a British Museum multimedia exhibition of “a history of the world in 100 objects”: free museum exhibition, catalogue, free online exhibition, free radio series (BBC, public service), a CD thereof, and a book

—part of open free public knowledge network ecosystems and constellations:
exemplary public-service use, opening up and sharing knowledge and making it together.
Some examples:
British Library blogs
MLA Commons
open education in BC
… and intersections of networks: scholarly Twitter, for example #MedievalTwitter
… and crowdsourcing collaborative research projects worldwide ex. palaeography and translation; here’s a sample list of medievalist collectives. We’re at the stage of making networks of networks, and beyond. [What next? For more innovation and imagineering, keep reading SF, including medieval speculative fictions. And, as the saying goes, “#🦄”]

dinosaur technology

dinosaur technology

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