A Digital Education

Meredith Dabek, Maynooth University

Category: definitions

End of Term Reflections

Well, it’s been four months, and my first semester as a Digital Humanities student is (for all intents and purposes) finished. From my perspective, the last sixteen weeks have been incredibly productive, informative and thought-provoking. I’ve not only learned a great deal, but I’ve also had the opportunity to think critically about what I’ve learned, and how I believe those lessons fit within the overall Digital Humanities field. Below are some of my reflections and thoughts about this past term, and some ideas for the future.

Though my technical and coding skills have vastly improved (especially when compared to the days and months when I was teaching myself), I still believe this is one area where I can do better. I’ve grappled with data modeling, encoding, and metadata schemas, but practice makes perfect, and there is always more to learn. I do wish there had been some follow up to the intensive, pre-term Java course we took; I did well with the module at the time, but feel I’ve lost some of the knowledge since due to non-use.

The intersections between Digital Humanities, media and digital (electronic) literature remains a strong area of interest for me, as one might have guessed based on some of my previous posts. I’ve been attempting to expand my knowledge of this area by reading on my own, and I’m fascinated by the creativity and ingenuity found in some of these new digital literature projects. In looking forward to the future, I’ve started working on a PhD proposal for doctoral-level research specifically addressing digital (electronic) literature. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m passionate about this particular area of study and look forward to what comes next.

My MA program is, as the name implies, Digital Humanities, so many of the readings and lectures have had a literature and/or history focus to them. As a result, I am very curious about what doesn’t come up as often, namely the state of the digital arts, and how that intersects with Digital Humanities. Some colleagues and lecturers are working in the art history and cultural heritage sectors, but I still sense that there is still a huge gap in awareness between Digital Humanities and digital arts (or music or performance). There could be many reasons for this (I have a few theories of my own), but I also believe there’s a world of untapped potential with the digital arts (the What’s the Score? project at the Bodelian Library is one project that immediately comes to mind) and I’d love to know more. I’m very interested in learning more about applying digital ideas and techniques to the art world, which is why I’m especially excited for my upcoming practicum next semester with the Irish Museum of Modern Art. More on that next term!

Similarly, I’m also curious about issues of diversity, race, gender and sex in the Digital Humanities. From my (admittedly somewhat limited) perspective, I see the field as one in which the majority of thought leaders and researchers are still male and overwhelmingly white. I’m interested about that dynamic and what it means both for the DH field and for DH projects and research. To my mind, there is a clear and identifiable need for more diversity within the field. I don’t know that I’m the best person to propose any solutions, but I would love to see a more concerted effort to think critically about expanding DH to include those voices that aren’t necessarily being heard. (Of course, if anyone has suggestions for readings that address this very topic and would like to point me in the right direction, I’d be most appreciative.)

These are just a few thoughts; like so many things in life, learning about Digital Humanities is an ongoing process (especially since it is an evolving field itself) and I know I’ll have much more to stay in 2015.

Until then, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!

Access & Accessibility in Digital Humanities

This year, from October 20th to October 26th, humanities researchers will observe International Open Access Week, a global event designed to celebrate and promote the benefits of open access and to encourage open access as the standard for academic scholarship. The organizers behind International Open Access Week define open access as the “free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need.” Many projects, journals and scholarly resources within Digital Humanities promote themselves as open access, and many digital humanists support an increased commitment to open access research.

There is, however, a key difference between providing access to Digital Humanities research, and making that research accessible to all. While access can refer to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something,” accessibility specifically refers to something “easily obtained or used,” particularly by individuals with a disability (emphasis mine). If Digital Humanities, as a field of study, intends to maintain and perhaps even advance its commitment to access, then digital humanists must also consider accessibility when creating their projects. Far too often, the needs of individuals with disabilities remain neglected in digital spaces. According to George H. Williams, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate:

Many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are – for example – deaf or hard or hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors.

Indeed, despite its widespread use across many demographic groups, the Internet is “inherently unfriendly to many different kinds of disabilities” (Lazar and Jaeger, 70).

Accessibility on the Web

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), tracks how individuals with disabilities use the Internet and develops guidelines and resources to help ensure websites are accessible to everyone. In theory, the Internet is designed to improve communication by removing barriers and obstacles; in practice, however, when websites – or Digital Humanities projects – are badly designed, they can prevent a large subset of the population from accessing information. Furthermore, each individual has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, skills and abilities, all of which can affect how he or she uses the Internet. Digital projects that take a “one way fits all” approach limit their reach and impact when certain groups of people can’t use or access that project.

The WAI offers an overview of the diversity of abilities and disabilities, which can range from auditory, visual, cognitive or physical disabilities to age-related impairments, temporary or situational impairments and health conditions. Each disability may have its own set of barriers to accessibility, requiring different solutions or alternatives. An individual who is hard of hearing, for example, might find it difficult to view audio content presented without captions, while someone with a cognitive disability might react poorly to lots of animation or moving images. Even the computer itself, with its traditional set up with a mouse and keyboard, can become an obstacle to a person with a lost limb or injury that prevents use of his or her hands.

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

Accessibility should be an integral part of Digital Humanities projects, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most obviously, there could be legal implications, since many countries have passed laws requiring web accessibility. Digital Humanities projects are also sometimes funded through federal grants and, as Williams points out, digital humanists may lose such funding if they cannot demonstrate accessibility and adherence to federal accessibility laws.

Additionally, despite the existence of accessibility laws, a central administrating organization or group for web and digital accessibility does not. In the United States, for example, there is no one government agency in charge of ensuring compliance with accessibility laws. According to Lazar and Jaeger, this haphazard approach places “the burden on people with disabilities to enforce their own rights” (76).

Of course, accessibility also helps expand the reach of a Digital Humanities project. By taking the needs of the greatest number of people into account when designing a project, digital humanists can ensure the largest audience for their work, which in turn could help further the research or provide new contexts and connections.

Ideas and Recommendations

Improving accessibility in Digital Humanities will require more than one solution, and should include collaboration between those with expertise and those ready to learn. It will also necessitate improved accessibility policies and laws, as well as the enforcement of those laws. Williams proposes a universal design approach, explaining that universal design “is design that involves conscious decisions about accessibility for all.” It’s also efficient, providing websites and digital projects with compatibility for multiple devices and platforms. This would allow a digital humanist to design and create a project just once, then easily adapt it for different audiences or devices.

The WAI also offers suggestions by highlighting some of the tools a disabled person might use to improve his or her Internet experience (for example, hardware or software meant to help bridge the gap between the individual and the website) and the strategies and techniques a person might develop to interact with non-accessible websites. These include voice recognition software to give commands, screen readers for those with poor vision, and alternatives to the keyboard and mouse (touch-screens, joysticks, etc).

Certainly, one important step towards improved Digital Humanities accessibility is awareness within the field. A coalition of American universities and research centers is leading the charge for increased awareness with the Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities project. The Accessible Future partnership, supported in part by the US National Endowment for the Humanities, hosts a series of workshops exploring technologies, design standard and issues with digital projects, all tailored towards securing accessibility’s place in Digital Humanities.

Access has long been an integral part of Digital Humanities, grounded in the idea that digital projects should be available to as many people as possible. If Digital Humanities intends to continue its commitment to open access data and research, then accessibility – and specifically digital accessibility – must also become an integral part of the field. Designing accessible projects may require some rethinking and adjustments, but it won’t be as difficult as one might expect. Lazar and Jaeger remind us “the technical solutions for web accessibility already exist” (80). It’s simply a matter of being mindful of different abilities, considering accessibility issues and concerns from the start of each project, and ensuring that the information, in its many forms, is accessible to the widest possible audience.

Works Cited

About.International Open Access Week. Andrea Higginbotham, nd. Web. 21 October 2014.

“Access.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

“Accessible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary. Version 2.2.1. 2011. Apple, Inc.

Accessible Future. Indiana University Perdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), 2014. Web. 20 October 2014.

How People with Disabilities Use the Web.Web Accessibility Initiative. W3C, 2013. Web. 20 October 2014.

Lazar, Jonathan and Paul Jaeger. “Reducing Barriers to Online Access for People with Disabilities.Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 2011: 69-82. Web. 20 October 2014.

Williams, George H. “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.Debates in Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 202-212. Web. 20 October 2014.

Crowdsourcing in DH, Part 2

When Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson coined the term “crowdsourcing” back in 2005 in an article for Wired magazine, the term referred primarily to practices operated by for-profit businesses, particularly within the tech world, whereby a large group of contributors undertook a number of small, often routine and mundane tasks. Nearly 10 years later, crowdsourcing has changed and evolved to a point where, like Digital Humanities, a standard, agreed-upon definition is difficult to find.

Stuart Dunn, a Digital Humanities lecturer at Kings College London, describes crowdsourcing as a “loaded term,” since the historical definition of the word connotes “the antithesis of what academia understands as public engagement and impact.” Yet, even with a variety of potential definitions and blurred boundaries for what might be considered a crowdsourced project, many Digital Humanities projects still rely on the term, if only because the larger population has developed a collective – if vague and overgeneralized – understanding of what “crowdsourcing” means.

As I mentioned earlier this week, my classmates and I recently presented on a number of crowdsourced projects. Listening to the other presentations and conducting my own research clearly revealed the depth and breadth of just what “the crowd” can accomplish. Below, I’ve shared a selection of some crowdsourced projects I found particularly interesting.

(There are, of course, many more examples than I’ve listed here. On my Links of Interest page, you can find a link to more DH crowdsourcing examples.)

  • What’s the Score at the Bodleian? – The Bodleian Library at Oxford University launched this project in collaboration with Zooniverse (a larger crowdsourcing project), to increase access to the library’s music collection and collection of printed musical scores. Volunteers transcribe the scores and add metadata tags to help categorize each score. The project initially attracted my attention as I’m a music fan and one-time musician myself, but further thought has me wondering: most online crowdsourcing projects are geared towards sighted volunteers – that is, volunteers need to be able to see something on a website. With What’s the Score?, there’s the potential for the Bodleian to add an audio component, allowing sight-impaired volunteers to offer tags or transcribe based on what they hear. Currently, the Bodleian does have some audio files uploaded, though these appear to be examples of the collection, rather than opportunities. I’d love to see the Bodleian – and other DH crowdsourcing projects – expand their accessibility so that more volunteers could contribute.
  • Reverse the Odds! – Another Zooniverse-affiliated program, Reverse the Odds! is a mobile game developed by Cancer Research UK. While the game is designed with bright colors and an easy-to-use interface, it also incorporates real cancer research data. By playing the game, participants help researchers recognize the patterns of various cancer cells, which, in turn, is used to find real solutions to cancer and cancer symptoms. There are other citizen science projects that have created games to further research; Reverse the Odds! is just one such example.
  • Tag! You’re It! and Freeze Tag! at the Brooklyn Museum – Though now retired, these two projects intertwined games with crowdsourcing in a new way. The Tag! game had volunteers providing collection tags to items in the Brooklyn Museums’ collections, with an interface that volunteers “playing” against each other for points. The Freeze Tag! component then gave volunteers the ability to revise and correct others’ tags, ensuring a built-in verification and moderation process. The project was a success for the museum and the use of game names that referenced clear childhood memories (at least for those of us who played the school yard game Tag) no doubt helped draw more volunteers to the project.
  • What Was There – Finally, a project not associated with an academic or nonprofit institution. What Was There was created by Enlighten Ventures, LLC, a digital marketing agency. The platform invites participants to upload old photos of their local community, then tag those photos with location and year. Once uploaded, the photos can then be overlaid with Google Maps Street View, providing a real-time visual example of how cityscapes and landscapes have changed over time. According to the website, the project hopes to “weave together a photographic history of the world (or at least any place covered by Google Maps).” That’s a fine goal, but there’s the potential for historians, architects, urban planners and conservationists to use the data gathered by the project for further research. Enlighten doesn’t (yet) mention what is done with the tags gathered, nor make it available to the public, but should they decide to open up the data, there are possibilities here.

What is Digital Humanities Anyway?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, that is indeed the question.

It’s a question I heard quite often after informing family and friends I would be moving to Ireland to undertake a Digital Humanities degree. At the time, I usually described it as “the intersection of computing and technology with the humanities,” which, while technically correct, doesn’t fully capture the range and diversity in this field and its tools.

In April 2011, at the Defining Digital Humanities program at Columbia University, Dan Cohen (then Professor of History and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, presently founding Executive Director of the Digital Library of America) presented his own definition of Digital Humanities:

Digital Humanities is the use of digital media and technology to advance the full range of thought and practice in the humanities, from the creation of scholarly resources to research on those resources to the communication of results to colleagues and students.

While there isn’t, as of yet, any one standard definition of Digital Humanities, I quite like Cohen’s definition for a few reasons. Coming from a communications background and having a great deal of interest in media, I appreciate his inclusion of “media and technology” (emphasis mine). Many digital humanists tend to focus on the computing technology aspects of Digital Humanities, for good reason, but I believe media (particularly digital and social media) have an equally important role to play. Cohen’s definition also emphasizes “the full range of thought and practice” in the humanities. Digital Humanities is not limited to one particular area of research; indeed, the diversity and broad reach of Digital Humanities projects are part of why it is difficult to define the field.

Most importantly, though, by specifically highlighting communication with colleagues and students, Cohen has, in my opinion, narrowed in on two of the most essential components of Digital Humanities. At its core, Digital Humanities is a collaborative process, much more so than any other humanities area. Ongoing communication and collaboration with other researchers and academics is what helps drive Digital Humanities forward, as does the continued education of the next generation of digital humanists, those who will build upon the foundation laid by present-day collaborations.

In that same speech, Cohen also refers to Digital Humanities as “a moving target.” It’s an apt description of a field in constant motion, evolving with each new project. Digital Humanities is a field that will continue to change, just as the technologies used now won’t be the same in five, 10 or 15 years. As a result, a standard definition might remain elusive.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is a definition of Digital Humanities as it stands now, with the understanding that any definition is a fluid idea bound to change. I plan to revisit my idea of a Digital Humanities definition towards the end of the semester and the end of the year. We’ll see how my ideas (and Cohen’s, too!) hold up over time.

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