The Rise of the MOOCs

I really enjoyed this week’s readings and thinking about how digital humanities will shape the ways that we learn and teach in the future. As we’ve discussed in class, incorporating digital tools into our classrooms is now a fun way to try out new learning techniques. But eventually, a non-digital classroom may very well be a thing of the past. As both “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age” and “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy” (in The Future of Learning in the Digital Age) point out, we are doing our students a disservice by not allowing them to take advantage of the myriad resources available online.

In “A Bill of Rights,” Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel discuss MOOCs, which I am familiar with. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time writing articles for a website about online learning opportunities, and many of these articles required me to research and list MOOCs from different disciplines. As a result, I found myself immersed in these classes in my free time, following curriculum in literature courses from Yale Free Courses and MIT’s Open Courseware. I found it amazing that you could access course information, syllabi, quizzes, and lectures (sometimes as videos, sometimes as transcripts) for courses taught by superstar faculty at prestigious universities. Now, of course, this has become more commonplace, as MOOCs are more and more prevalent.

The New York Times called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” and then I remember reading a New Yorker article about how MOOCs are failing. (Google tells me the article was from 2014. Could it have been that long ago??) The argument of The New Yorker, and of many people I’ve spoken to, is that MOOCs are not personal or individualized. Without instructor feedback, learners are largely finding themselves lost, unsure of how to measure their progress, and unsure of what the pay-off is for the time spent. Of course, the most obvious pay-off is a growing knowledge of a subject, but online learners wanted something more…

But MOOCs have been evolving since 2014, and now sites such as edX offer free courses with the added benefit of peer review and collaboration. This not only keeps learners accountable for their work, but it also allows them to receive, and give, valuable feedback. This “networked learning” is an important principle outlined by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg in “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy”. They write that individual learning “leans on a social framework that stresses competition and hierarchy rather than cooperation, partnering, and mediation. . . . The power of ten working interactively will almost invariably outstrip the power of one looking to beat out the other nine” (30). Every online learner brings something new to the course, especially in this global environment, so collaboration among participants can help knowledge scaffolding far beyond the course content itself.

EdX also follows many of Morris and Stommel’s Bills of Rights and Principles. For instance, Morris and Stommel stress the importance of pedagogical transparency: “Students have the right to understand the intended outcomes—educational, vocational, even philosophical—of an online program or initiatives.” And, indeed, EdX explains, “By carefully assessing course data, from mouse clicks to time spent on tasks, to evaluating how students respond to various assessments, researchers hope to shed light on how learners access information and master materials, with the ultimate aim of improving course outcomes.”

So the next question remains: To what end? Is there any real, transferrable benefit to taking these courses? Sites such as edX and Coursera now offer certificates that are issued as you successfully pass courses (but … wait for it … you have to pay for the verified certificate). If MOOCs are the future, these certificates will soon have some bearing. Some people have even begun listing them on their CVs and resumes or posting on their LinkedIn profiles.

I think that MOOCs are a wonderful alternative to a rigid brick-and-mortar educational path, but there still seems to be some work to do, both in examining the true impact on learners and on looking into the real-world benefits down the road.

Digital Tools in the Classroom

As an instructor, I have twice attempted to incorporate digital tools into coursework to varying degrees of success. The first time was a few years ago in an American literature survey course. I created a Twitter account for the course and asked the students to follow me. While there were a few students who did not yet have Twitter, there were other students who simply did not want to follow the class because they didn’t want me to see their accounts. For those who did follow, I would link to relevant articles, remind them about homework assignments, and even tweet a quiz answer right before class. Those who used it seemed to enjoy it, but it certainly did not go as well as I had hoped.

In my Writing about Film class, currently, students are required to begin a WordPress and blog their assignments. As I mentioned in class, my students are adult learners, and there are often problems with setting up a WordPress account, which takes a week or so to deal with. And then there is the plagiarism… Because this project has been a requirement of the course for years, and because their WordPresses are all public, it’s very easy to find and copy and paste someone else’s words. And since WordPress isn’t run through our school’s Turnitin account, it can be difficult to spot that plagiarism.

On the other hand, as a student, I was able to use Juxta in Introduction to the Profession last week. Our assignment was about textual editing, and Dr. Ganter posted some unclean copies of documents, poems, etc. We were asked to choose one and to produce a clean copy, taking some editorial liberties and explaining our rationale and purpose. I chose TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and was able to compare the first, original text from Eliot to the text that Ezra Pound edited, after he removed many words and entire stanzas ( Juxta allowed me to visualize and conceptualize these edits, and I can see how it can really help scholars who are interested in the evolution of a text.

I have to admit that I am still not entirely comfortable using digital tools in my courses, primarily because I’m not sure how they can fit into our pedagogy, especially first-year writing courses with prescribed texts. But this class has given me many ideas, and I’m excited to try them out as I continue teaching.

Thoughts on Final Project

I’ve honed my project a bit more since last class, so hopefully I can be a bit more cogent here. My intention is to use Wix to create a reference site for the female Beat writers, including Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, and Hettie Jones. I hope to make this site as user-friendly as possible, which seems to be easy via Wix. I’ve never used this site before, and my initial intention was to use WordPress, but Wix seems to create a more visually-appealing site… so far. Has anyone else used Wix before?

Ideally, the homepage will have an overview of the Beat movement and the contribution, and lack of acknowledgement of, the women. Across the top, much like a WordPress site, I’ll include links to pages for individual authors, a timeline of the movement, perhaps a Google map or two, some open-source Beat poetry if I can find any, and then a comprehensive resource list with links to Amazon.

So far, the homepage looks something like this:



I am looking for images to add to the front page, too. Can someone help me by explaining Creative Commons, maybe in class on Thursday? It seems to be searching Google images, so I wonder if I’m using the search function incorrectly, or if it’s actually only pulling open source images?

Then, I’ll start building the ancillary pages, and for many of them, I will be using tools that we’ve discussed in class. I feel like I know the direction that I’m heading in, which is more than I can say for myself last week, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this will all turn out.

I’m also still wondering if this is “enough” to constitute a final project. I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, ideas…

Talking about Open Access


In her article “Giving it Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick posits that open-access represents everything that the humanities stands for: “scholarship is written to be read and to influence more new writing.” Open-access articles, then, are not just free to read, but free to use (with proper citation) to build your own arguments.

The ideal of open-access publishing was not only to grant authors a broader readership to their articles, but also to grant readers access to scholarship to which they would otherwise never be exposed. Fitzpatrick calls for a universal open-access model for the humanities, primarily for the smaller publishing houses to remain relevant and in the game.

She notes that “study after study shows that open-access literature . . . is more cited than is work published in traditional closed venues.” This makes complete sense to me, that students and scholars are more likely to seek out, read, use, and cite free versions of scholarly articles. We are lucky to have the St. John’s library at our disposal, and with that comes many “free” academic journals. But there are researchers with no university backing who are unable, for whatever reason, to access scholarly information.


Another positive effect of open-access publishing is that it widens the audience. Undergraduate institutions that may not pay for access to large journals would now be able to use scholarly articles to teach students how to conduct proper research and build an argument.

Fitzpatrick gives reasons why humanists might be reluctant to make their articles open-access. One reason is that humanists worry about their research not being taken seriously. “The world at times fails to understand what we do, and, because subject matter seems as though it ought to be comprehensible, . . . isn’t inclined to wrestle with the difficulties that our work presents.” So perhaps there is a fear of rejection associated with open-access publishing? Humanists can argue, Fitzpatrick claims, that their work is not for the general public, but only for a small number of professionals who “get it.”

Moreover, scholars often gauge their success by the exclusivity of the journal in which they are published. Open-access removes this determinate, which challenges the nature of publishing itself. And as well all know—and as we’ve discussed in class—change is not comfortable or welcome.

In response to this, Fitzpatrick encourages humanists to become more visible, which can lead to an increase in funds and to a better understanding of the field as a whole: “The more that well-researched, thoughtful scholarship on contemporary cultural issues is available . . . , the richer the discourse in those publications will become—increasing, not incidentally, the visibility of institutions of higher education, and their importance to the culture at large.”

Fitzpatrick calls for a reimagination of how we share information in the humanities, as she calls for us to “give it away.” She explains that we have a duty to share our knowledge and allow others to build upon it as scholarship continues to increase. We are giving to those younger researchers, just as they will give to those who come after them.

This all sounds wonderful, if a bit saccharine. But Fitzpatrick is really relying on humanists to be “good people” (to quote another David Foster Wallace story, as Fitzpatrick quotes Infinite Jest). She is betting on the fact that humanists want everyone to share in their serendipity and to help make the humanities a better field.

What do you all think? Is open-access the future of humanities? Is there a better alternative?

Work Cited

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Giving It Away: Sharing and the Future of Scholarly Communication.” Planned Obsolescence, 12 Jan. 2012,

Class Presentation and Questions

This week, I’d like to discuss Tara Zepel’s “Visualization as a Digital Humanities…” (2013). In this article presentation, Zepel questions not why we use visualization, but how we use it.

What visualization is allowing us to do is to:

  • extend our conceptual scope and reach
  • create and discover new knowledge
  • and then also represent this process (Zepel)

She uses the example of “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” which is a visualization of the Electronic Enlightenment Database. Let us consider the two sites:

The Electronic Enlightenment Database lists letter writers. Users can sort by last name, nationality, and occupation. So if you wanted to view letters from theater critics only, this is the place to go.

Mapping the Republic of Letters” presents this data a bit differently. It claims to be not just a repository, as the Electronic Enlightenment Database is, but it also allows users to view these extensive networks of correspondence.

  • Which do you think is “better,” or more useful? Why?
  • How do the purposes of each site differ?

Let’s look at the Voltaire entry from each site:

EE: Voltaire
“Mapping”: Voltaire

  • How do these sites differ?
  • Which is “better,” or more useful?

Note that neither of these sites provide the letters for free. There is an institutional fee, and, in fact, “Mapping” redirects back to EE when a user wants to view a letter.

  • Does this change your opinion of “Mapping the Republic of Letters”? Why or why not?

By “mapping out” geographic and related data for senders and receivers of letters from the early modern period, it allows researchers to perceive larger patterns of intellectual exchange.” (Zepel)

Zepel reminds us that visualization is not just “a graphical or cognitive aid to thinking. It is thought itself.” That is, we can go beyond simply using these visualizations to analyze data and make a move towards creating these visualizations on our own as a means of processing information.

  • Does this require a certain amount of computer-savvy? How comfortable are you with this?
  • How could these and other visualization techniques be useful to you as you work towards your degree and beyond?

I’d also like to mention one of the excerpts I read from Debates in the Digital Humanities: “Messy Data and Faulty Tools.” Author Joanna Swafford explains that while humanists have become accustomed to collecting data on their own, the digital humanities allows for researchers to use someone else’s data collection—a collection that is often not monitored.

  • What are some of the dangers of using digital tools for scholarly research?
  • Should there be some type of peer review system for digital humanity tools? What would that look like? Is it even possible?

Oddly enough, two interesting articles about mapping came up on my Feedly this week, so I thought I’d throw them in here, too:

– This week’s New Yorker features an article by Rebecca Solnit about her newly released “Nonstop Metropolis,” a creative atlas of New York City. In the article, she shares a fictional rendering of an NYC subway map, had the stops been named after great women rather than great men:city-of-women.jpg

–, a blog by an English lecturer at Northeastern, posted an interactive map about the economic impact of certain U.S. colleges and universities. You can use the map to see how much revenue a college generates for their state. Pretty cool!

Mapping the Past

I regularly use Google Maps or Waze for directions. Even when I know exactly where I’m going, I’ll turn it on because it directs me around traffic. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that there was more you could do with Google Maps, like plotting a road trip. I just never knew exactly how to do it.

After watching Kathryn Shaughnessy’s Seminar, viewing the campus guides, and doing some of my own research, I began my attempt to plot each of the four trips that Jack Kerouac, as Sal Paradise, takes around the United States and Mexico in On the Road. Here’s what I ended up with:

The cool thing about Google Maps is that I was able to create each of his four trips as a different layer, so you can click each one and on off. I also color-coded each trip and was able to present the stops as numbers, rather than just as points. (Click on the button with the arrow on the top left to see each point individually and to turn layers on and off.)

I initially wanted to connect each point with a line, and I completed the entire first trip before I realized that as you zoom in or out, the lines disconnect from the points. As was pointed out in the video, the draw line function is pretty finicky and doesn’t seem to work properly. I tried to search around to find an automatic way to connect the points, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

The possibilities for this map are pretty intriguing. You can create one for a wedding website or out-of-town guests who are interesting in sight-seeing, you can plot out scenes from a book or play, or you can note the best restaurants or parks in an area. Google Maps also allows you to include photos, metadata, descriptions, and more, so one plot can lead viewers in many different directions. On my map, I simply included the city, and when you click on each one, photos of that city from Google Maps pop up, which is pretty cool.

Often what is missing in the digital humanities is a connection to the real, outside world, and I think Google Maps is a great opportunity to merge those realms.