From Brick to Click, Overnight

Draft version updated, 5 March (1945, GMT +4). Update begun 28 April. I will update this as I think more. The situation seemed to call for publishing it in draft form as I write it.

This semester all of the instruction in all of the institutions of higher education in my country of residence has undergone rapid conversion to online delivery. Not quite overnight as the title of my post suggests. School and university closures were declared necessary by the MoE for combatting the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

I have been teaching with an LMS and online presence for many years, and with student work in digital humanities (DH) done in web hosting for six. It may seem counter-intuitive that teaching digital humanities online would be difficult, but in fact, an undergrad DH class in a liberal arts (LA) environment isn’t a MOOC (Cordell). In a classroom where there is already a convergence of educational technology, we depend a lot on brick-and-mortar infrastructures (projectors/large screens, standalone and web-based platforms, seating configurations, the ability to move around the room) as well as the small classroom environment supporting both discussion and technical problem solving. The immediate switch to a synchronous online course raised so many issues in my mind. I had to think quickly what could be done to make the shift, almost overnight. I have my last face2face course on 5 March, for at least one month. My course is Reading Like a Computer, CDAD UH-1024Q at NYU Abu Dhabi. [note: Soon after this post was begun, the entire NYU system closed its doors to face2face instruction and work for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester.]

Luckily, the students in my course had web hosting set up and they had grown somewhat comfortable in it for course material delivery and the dissemination of their own written work (we also use Drive and an NYU-wide LMS to manage other functionality such as ). The suggestions for creating a rapport with students and setting up expectations that we find in the literature about online teaching are not as crucial since as I am writing this we have arrived at midterm–they will be in what looks probably to be a partially disrupted Fall term.

What follows are some ideas that I have been tossing around about online course delivery and some thoughts on how the complex ecosystem of an undergrad DH class can be merged more seamlessly with online environments, quickly and meaningfully, not to replace in person engagement, but to merge with it. I have been reading about an idea used in digital marketing to discuss the migration of traditional brick-and-mortar industries, not into fully online versions of their original selves) but rather into a hybrid, omnichannel services with a customer at the center. I don’t like to think of myself as particularly fond of business metaphors, nor of thinking about education as a transactional profession, but this metaphor taken from marketing has interesting resonances with student-centered learning within an environment of multiple channels of information in which we all see ourselves today, especially in the DH classroom. It appears to be the extension of blended learning thinking.

Can the combination of Zoom (the video conferencing built into the LMS), web hosting and other media work together to “help mimic the collaborative environment” of yesterday’s classroom (Bidaisee), or as digital marketing puts it, to allow the users to have a seamless experience between online and in person spaces? (Wagner) Right now the Zoom channel does not offer a cool place to hang out like the Apple Store. Instead, its functionality mimics quite limited classroom interactions and generally does not leave us asking for more. I think that the marketing solution of having a somewhat unified “tech backbone” (Wagner) is right, but what would that be? Would something like DHBox provide that? In my classes, we already have computational notebooks published, but they alone cannot be the core of the educational experience? Will Google Colab or something like it be the place of such convergence?

As we are in lockdown, but will no doubt be transitioning out of it, my gut feeling is that I will plan for a somewhat synchronous remote course in the beginning of the upcoming term in order to acquaint students with the tech stack, one that slowly tapers to a asynchronous or quasi asynchronous course. I am aware that these multiple channels are compromises and will never full be seamless, or technology transparent. How is it that I will insert myself inside and between these different channels so that the professor is still present? On the other hand, when classes resume in person, will such hybrid courses still be accepted, or rejected as artifacts of unfortunate times? What is the “architecture of engagement” (McKay) required to transition between channels? Is removing “friction between touchpoints” a dream or a worthwhile aim?” Is it even possible in an open source DH world?

What I would like to suggest here is that we might recuperate something of the idea of the omnichannel from its inherent focus in marketing on consistency, competition and customer loyalty in order to shift it towards the instructor’s goal of unifying a student-centered learning experience (Lynch). Keeping students focused within the field of multiple stimuli that they are working and helping them exist in complex strands of a course could be an interest point of focus in DH education where our workflows can be complex. Of course, we don’t want to collapse theories of consumer behavior (from which the omnichannel notion emerges) and critical pedagogies, and we want to install in students a critical acumen about those environments in which they are working, but there has to be something we can do to smooth out the experiences of a currently multichannel educational environment. How can we think about new forms of post-blended learning for DH pedagogy? Will the classroom instead become an extension of the class’s primary digital touchpoints–much like the browsing stores of today’s e-commerce ? Omnichannel thinking stresses, after all, leveraging digital platforms as a means of enhancing physical brick-and-mortar experiences. These are some of the fragments that have been in my thoughts under lockdown and that I will be thinking about spring and summer 2020.

Some reading I found :

Blankenship, W. 2019. What is Omnichannel Marketing? https://www.omnisend.com/blog/omnichannel-marketing/.

Cordell, R. 2016. 36. How Not to Teach Digital Humanities. In Gold, M. and Klein, L. (Eds.), Debates in Digital Humanities 2016. University of Minnesota Press. https://doi.org/10.5749/9781452963761.

Lynch, L. 2018. What Can E-Learning Industry Learn from Omnichannel? https://www.learndash.com/what-can-the-e-learning-industry-learn-from-omnichannel/.

Research Instructional Technology Services NYU Shanghai. 2002 “Digital Teaching Toolkit” https://wp.nyu.edu/shanghai-online_teaching/.

Spiro, L. 2012. 14. Opening up Digital Humanities Education. In Hirsch, B. D. (Ed.), Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics. Open Book Publishers. Retrieved from http://books.openedition.org/obp/1654.

Wagner, K. 2017. Omnichannel: Retail (r)evolution. TEDxHSG. https://youtu.be/5SAtdSM0Trk.