Teaching Heritage Informatics

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This is, as much as anything else, a diary note to myself … but you’re welcome to read it, of course.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (and a little bit of research and reading) over the past 3 or 4 days (yes, the Easter vacation is mercifully upon us at last) with regard to the ‘Culture and Heritage Informatics’ course I’ve designed and (assuming enough punters have the imagination to sign up for it) will be teaching in the academic year from September.

First, the gripe out of the way: I went back to Elgg (now re-christened Eduspaces) to repurpose it specifically for the above course; spent an hour writing an eloquent first blog; clicked ‘Post’, and found myself staring at an ominously sparse white page telling me that there had been a ‘server error’. Had I much hair left, I’d have been tearing it out. I of course did not have the strength of will to spend yet another hour endeavouring to reconstruct my post. Lesson learned: write my posts henceforth in an external text editor, and copy-paste to the blog only when ready to post.

Eduspaces / Elgg still looks brilliant, however, and ideal as part of the suite of tools I plan to use with the ‘Culture and Heritage Informatics’ course. In empowering learners as active participants in a peer-oriented collaborative learning space, it beats the Dickensian Blackboard learning management system hands down, as noted in the following extract from an article in the Curverider blog:

While Elgg is a general social networking framework, it has obtained a large user base within education as it provide an different approach to your top down, institutionally centered content management systems such as Moodle, WebCT and Blackboard; allowing for an open, collaborative space where all users, students and tutors alike, can participate, develop and control their own space.
» http://curverider.co.uk/blog/2007/03/16/presenting-your-activity/

Casey Bisson has been saying pretty much the same thing in a recent podcast. Why, he asks do students who are doggedly unimpressed with Blackboard encourage each other to sign up to Facebook and MySpace? Not just for the fun, it seems: they’re using these more democratic fora as platforms for their collaborative academic work. (And, parenthetically, I can’t wait–but I suppose will have to–to get my hands on Bisson’s WPopac plugin for WordPress.)

The Eduspaces article describes a new ‘presentation plugin’ that “lets users create snapshots of their activity on the social network and present this to interested parties as a coherent package complete with narrative and reflective thought”. Effectively a kind of e-portfolio, the plugin delivers:

a tool that allows students to pick and choose elements of this learning experience, irrespective of the media used, and bring it together in a presentation customised for specific audiences. I n addition, the tool needed to have the facility for tutors and peers to provide commentary on presentation elements both with respect to feedback whilst developing the presentation and also, in terms of tutor comments adding to the learning ‘evidence’ within the presentation.

I’m also looking at the Eduspaces / Elgg Explode widget, “which contains your friends on any network or site. This is a great way to share your network with others regardless of where your friends have their site”. Not much documentation on the web site, and I’ve not yet had the time or opportunity to look at it closer. So this is something I’ll have to blog about at some later time. (But see also my notes below on the Coop.)

There’s a great deal of innovative and exciting thinking going on in the world of e-heritage, much as major projects (I’m thinking of e.g. steve.museum, Flamenco, and Sculpteur), but as much again in the form of museum blogs. Look elsewhere on Attica for a listing. I’ve decided to add blogging to the suite of tools I shall use with students on this course, not simply for collaborative working (in the way it’s used in, for example, Manchester University’s ‘Digital Heritage’ course of the Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA programme) but also as encouragement to students to create and manage their own e-heritage portfolios.

scribefireThere are some pretty amazing Firefox extensions. Right now, I’m using ScribeFire (previously Performancing; see image, right) to write this blog (and shall be recommending it to students … but memo to myself: although ScribeFire has thus far worked like a dream, I might still be best keeping a saved text version on an external text editor … better safe than sorry). ScribeFire (launched from a small icon in the status bar at the bottom of the browser) opens an extended tinyMCE editor in the lower half of a browser window, with a set of nifty little supplementary tools, that enables one to write one’s blog while at the same time, in the upper half of the browser, cruising web pages. Very handy.

A Firefox / Flock extension I’m really looking forward to is The Coop, a kind of live ‘blogroll’ for browers:

The Coop will let users keep track of what their friends are doing online, and share new and interesting content with one or more of those friends. It will integrate with popular web services, using their existing data feeds as a transport mechanism. Users will see their friends’ faces, and by clicking on them will be able to get a list of that person’s recently added Flickr photos, favourite YouTube videos, tagged websites, composed blog posts, updated Facebook status, etc. If a user wants to share something with a friend, they simply drag that thing onto their friend’s face. When they receive something from a friend, that friend’s face glows to get the user’s attention.

… which, I figure, should assist real-time collaborative work immensely.

Another heritage-related site that has fired me with dizzying ideas this past couple of days is Clioaudio, a podcast in the fields of Archaeology, Classics and History. It’s not the only one of its kind (and site owner Alun Salt acknowledges inspiration from, inter alia, the BBC’s In Our Time history podcast), but it’s impressive and inspirational to see individuals taking the initiative in launching such useful sites.

Finally, there’s a great deal of museum-building going on in SecondLife, so I’ll have to twist Tim Ellis’s arm to persuade him to fork out some Faculty money to upgrade my personal account to a Faculty account.

OK, that’s enough for now.

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