On teaching a new asynchronous Digital Humanities open course

On-line teaching and learning has already become an integrated part of our professional lives, but we are still experimenting with methods and try to find the best way to accommodate both teachers’ and students’ needs.
In this quest, this spring semester, a digital humanities open course was organized at the Babeș-Bolyai University from Cluj-Napoca (Romania). Fully on-line and taught in English, the course was delivered by Rada Varga and addressed all humanists who wanted to take their first steps into the world of DH, thus developing computational thinking and increasing computer literacy – two sets of skills which become more paramount by the day.
The course was taught asynchronously, with registered lectures and tutorials for each topic; their approximate duration was of 1 hour, generally fragmented in 2-3 parts. The sessions implied individual exercises, team exercises, as well as discussions and individual and group feedback. The participants were encouraged to use their own datasets, so that the results are both familiar and relevant, but in case of need they have been provided with sample spreadsheets. Regarding the employed software, we used open access programs and platforms.
The topics were imagined as following the logics of a normal scientific research, but also progressively increasing as difficulty level on the technical side implied by the used digital tools.

In order to make this presentation comprehensive, here is the course overview (also available http://starubb.institute.ubbcluj.ro/en/open-course-introduction-to-digital-humanities-2/):
Data structuring: focusing on structuring any kind of data (but especially narrative) into a tabular form, as well as on interrogating and identifying the information within structured datasets (spreadsheets, tables). The most accessible data structuring formats were presented (Excel, .csv).
Database building: focusing on the basics of database building. Besides the technical component, it encompassed a methodological side, as the filtering has to answer coherent research questions
Text encoding: teaching the main text encoding norms and TEI standards. Basic encoding and annotation principles were introduced, as well as essential XML.
Visualization: providing a critical analysis of the role of visualization in humanities and social sciences and as an introduction into the most employed visualizing platforms: Tableau Public, Raw Graphs.
Geographical annotations and georeferencing: familiarizing the participants with the most common systems of geographic annotation and visualization – Google MyMaps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with QGIS, the associated platform.
Data analyses (social network analyses): demonstrating how one can achieve scientific insights using their structured data and the platforms presented before. For focusing on network analyses, we showcased both Nodegoat and Gephi.
Project presentation: The final project was a very important phase in the general economy of the course, as it marked the passing from strictly learning notions to using them for research purposes and assessing the freshly gained DH knowledge.

This year the course was undertaken by 18 participants and the results of their work and the progresses they made were remarkable. As formation, they were linguists, philosophers, historians, and artists, ranging from a few MA students to senior researchers. The mixture was a positive factor, as it made input more diverse.
Upon completion of the course, participants presented a small project, using the digital skills acquired throughout the module. Given that each topic was almost a stand-alone, appealing differently to each participant, according to background and research interests (e.g., philologists will be more interested in text encoding, while historians will find GIS and SNA more suited for their researches), we considered that it was fair to evaluate based on a project of each participant’s choosing, where they could show effectively how the methodologies and tools presented can be applied in order to increase the value of a given research, or to create a new, useful tool.

Five of the final projects were situated in the realm of digital classics and archaeology and they were remarkable in the diversity of topics tackled, as well as tools and methods employed. Thus, one project presented an Airtable database registering all inscriptions from an archaeological site in Asia Minor, proving very graphically the necessity of systemizing, cleansing and inter-linking data; the advantages of the tool used were also visible, as the owner would be able to use it in the future collaboratively, with different clearance levels for colleagues and students in training. Two projects focused on geographic annotations in QGIS and ArcGIS, creating a map layer or only personalizing existing maps. One project in particular combined the possibilities offered by visualizing on a map different types of discovered pottery and presenting in parallel the statistical overview. Two other projects were more in the classics sphere and both employed SNA: one focused on visualizing and analysing the gods’ networks from Hesiod’s Theogonia and the other immersed into the networks of the main Augustan poets and their patrons. All these projects, though, of course, incipient, had very good, solid and promising results, underlining the utility of digital tools in classics and the gains of interdisciplinary research.

All in all, the course was a very useful and pleasurable experience, with extremely positive feedback and proof that, at least in DH, online teaching has its merits and benefits.

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