First Cohort of Faculty Join the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program

This January, Professors Phillip Barnes (Biology), Catherine Benoît (Anthropology), and Sufia Uddin (Religious Studies) became the first Digital Scholarship Fellows in a new program generously funded by the Office of the Dean of Faculty and led by staff members in Information Services.

Building on the success of the Technology Fellows Program (2014-2018), the Digital Scholarship Fellows program supports faculty engaged in digital scholarship projects to scope and design their projects, integrate aspects of the projects into their courses, collaborate with student researchers, acquire new technological skills, and build platforms for sharing their scholarship in innovative ways online. The program works toward the College’s strategic plan objectives to offer new opportunities for student/faculty research and to build a community of practice in digital scholarship.

Catherine Benoît’s project will be a multilingual digital companion to her book, Au coeur des ténèbres de la friendly island: sida, migration et culture à Saint Martin [In the Heart of Darkness of the Friendly Island: Migrations, Culture and AIDS in St. Martin] (2015). Students in Benoît’s Anthropology of the Caribbean course are currently engaged in digitizing a portion of her primary research materials gathered in St. Martin in the 1990s. Across the semester, each student will conduct research on one of the thematic threads of the project—tourism, hurricane Luis (1995), St. Martin as an international tax haven, immigration and undocumented migrants, and the AIDS epidemic—and curate a related collection of images, as well as publish an introductory text for inclusion on the public project website. A project team of faculty, students, and staff from Connecticut College has been accepted to attend the Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship (ILiADS) in June, hosted at Occidental College, to work on the next iteration of the project. At ILiADS, Benoît hopes to build a crowdsourcing feature that allows site visitors to submit documents and oral histories for inclusion on the website. She will also implement assignments in future courses that will add oral histories, maps, multimedia, and new research to this multi-year project.

St Martin Omeka Screenshot
Students in Benoit’s Anthropology of the Caribbean course (ANT260) are building a collection of digitized photographs in Omeka, a web publishing platform for image collection management.

As part of the program, Sufia Uddin will create a multimodal website about the Sundarbans Mangroves to present the forest and its inhabitants in ways that foster broader awareness of deforestation and its effects on indigenous communities and the environment. Uddin translated the Bengali epic poem that tells the story of Bonbibi (Lady of the Forest), which she will publish online as a component of this project. Digital methods of working with the poem, including textual analysis, digital annotations, the addition of images, maps, and related scholarship, will provide the means by which different ways of knowing this forest will emerge. Uddin plans to work with students this summer to build an interactive map of the mangroves using ArcGIS software.

Through digital scholarship, Phil Barnes hopes to discover other colleagues around the world working on experiments similar to his own and potentially develop collaborations by sharing his data online. He plans to digitize drawings of insect wings created by his students over the years and develop a new workflow to capture more visual data through digital imaging of the wings. This digital process will yield richer information that Barnes and his students can use in future studies, expanding the original intent of the experiment and making data available that other researchers may be able to use.

In summer 2018, students working with the faculty fellows will conduct some or all of their work in the library’s Technology Commons, developing aspects of the individual projects in conversation with each other. Students will have access to advanced software, and library staff will be available for advising on project development.

Stay tuned for blog posts from the DS Fellows, as well as information about a digital scholarship symposium on campus in the fall!

A call for proposals to participate in the 2019 cohort of Digital Scholarship Fellows will go out in fall 2018.

Can Virtual Discussions Inform Face-To-Face Discussions?

My Technology Fellows project involved developing a framework for digital discussions. My main goals were to make my classes “snowday-proof” and find a way to hold class if emergency or travel prevented me from getting to campus.

After a lackluster small-group discussion session in one of my courses, I am now thinking about whether it would be worthwhile to use my framework for digital discussions in class. Students were working hard during the class period, but the work was mostly independent — there was minimal discussion and collaboration. Any communication seemed aimed at comparing the answers that they already wrote and making adjustments if needed. My pleas to collaborate and discuss responses seemed to have minimal impact.

Regardless of any future success that I will have with my framework for digital discussions, the whole exercise has forced me to think carefully about what successful collaboration entails. The rubric that I developed establishes aspirational standards for (1) reading, (2) an open-ended initial discussion, (3) a discussion that precedes written collaborative responses and (4) the collaborative responses themselves. Why not broaden my approach and extend my aspirations to discussions in class?

As I think about methods for improving the quality of collaborative work in class, one option would be to present the rubric as a set of best practices that they should emulate as they have face-to-face discussions. A second option, if they have not yet had a digital discussion in the semester, would be to have them actually participate in a digital discussion in class, on their own laptops. In this case, they would be learning how to effectively collaborate by actually doing it — not just reading about it. Additionally, doing it in class would give me the opportunity to comment on successful (or unsuccessful) practices and take advantage of “teachable moments.” Together with the class, we could also troubleshoot in real time the challenges that emerge during typed chat-room discussions. Hopefully the lessons and values can then be internalized and carried forward into future face-to-face discussions.   

WeSpeke Follow-Up

In my last post I talked about using a social media site for my upper level conversation class as a way to connect to native speakers. The main purpose of this experiment was to have access to native speakers for text/video-chat on some of the topics discussed in class. This exercise would give my students the opportunity to hear unfiltered opinions from native speakers beyond the class discussions and ask questions. Topics for the class are drawn from current news articles and are chosen so that they not only generate conversation but also inform on modern Italian society. So, hearing the perspective of Italians directly seems like an excellent exercise for the students both culturally as well as linguistically. For this purpose, I decided to try out WeSpeke, a social media site that connects speakers from all over the world to practice world languages. I chose WeSpeke because of its user-friendly interface and good online reviews.  

After setting up the account in class and restricting the community to Italian-English speakers, the students spent time on their own on the site in multiple occasions. Unfortunately, even with the Italian-English setting, many of the students reported being bombarded by people seeking to learn English and not Italian. These same students also experienced some type of predatory behavior at first. However, once the students figured out how to avoid irrelevant partners, most of them reported establishing at least a couple of connections with which they could engage in a fruitful conversation. Unfortunately the conversations were just limited to text-messaging and didn’t go much beyond first introductions and superficial exchanges. Some of the students responded positively to this exercises, and thought it was an interesting twist for the class.

From my point of view, however, and from what I have read from the students’ reports so far, I have become skeptical about the pedagogical value of this site, or similar ones, in a structured course. Although the site seems to promote “long lasting friendships”, the reality is that most people on sites like this are not reliable, not consistently active, or willing to commit or engage in a meaningful conversation. Even my students reported some sense of discomfort with these interactions and they themselves were not ready for video-chats or discuss more complex topics. Although I asked my students to write reports about their activities as a way of documenting their interactions, I have no way of properly monitoring the exchanges and evaluate their relevance to the topic.  Moreover, and most importantly, very few of the people that post their profiles on this site are college students, which made my students even more uncomfortable to move beyond a text chat.

In conclusion, although these types of sites might have some appeal for teachers and students because they seem to solve the native speaker problem, I would not recommend investing too much time and energy on them. A structured course needs a structured platform whereby both sides are fully engaged and invested, and equally accountable.

Workshop for students at the Walter Commons: Digital Portfolios

Are you teaching a thematic inquiry course, or are otherwise involved in a pathway? If so, encourage your students to attend this workshop being held at the Walter Commons on Thursday, February 22nd (tomorrow!). I will facilitate a discussion of the importance of reflection and integration in the pathways, particularly how that work relates to global-local engagement. We will use Digication as a personal space to record, curate, and archive their work and experiences as they progress through the pathway. See and share the details below.

Reflect, Integrate, Demonstrate: Portfolios to Support Global-Local Engagement in Pathways
Thursday, February 22 | 1:00 – 2:00 PM
Walter Commons, Global Learning Lab

Integrated Pathways ask you to intentionally select a course of study, regularly reflect on your curricular and co-curricular activities, global-local engagement, and integrate these learning experiences. Digital portfolios are an easy tool for you to practice these activities regularly, document your progress, archive important work, and make connections. In short, a portfolio can capture the magical moments, the defining moments, of your education. Come learn about how you can use Digication, a multimedia-friendly, easy-to-use, digital portfolio platform, to create a personal space that supports your work in the Pathways!

Searching for native speakers for video-chats with students: Free and risky or costly and safe?

Previous posts in this blog have reported on the use of videoconferencing in foreign language classes in order to provide students with authentic experiences that can bring a completely new dimension to the language learning process. See my previous post  and Luis Gonzalez’s post for details.

When video-conferencing is used with the main purpose of providing out-of-class opportunities for the students to practice the target language, one of the main issues and challenges we face is finding native speakers who will engage with our students in a meaningful way.

For my elementary class project in Spring 2017 I used Talkabroad. Although this platform comes with a cost, I highly recommend it with elementary level students. The platform itself is very user-friendly both for the instructor as well as for the students. The instructor can create a classroom where students register, and design one or more assignments for the students to complete within a set deadline. The instructor can track the assignments and review the students’ performance as it records the audio of the video-chat. The technology is quite reliable and good quality, out of 25 conversations only 2 were cut off after 15 minutes (each conversation lasts 30 minutes), which was more due to the partner’s connection than to the technology itself. The conversation partners are all native speakers residing in the foreign country and are trained to be kind, patient and to never use English when talking to the students. My experience with this platform has been very positive and has resulted in a successful final project last spring. One complaint I have, though, is that the pool of native speakers for Italian is a little small. There were only 5 partners to choose from and my students ended up interviewing mostly 3 of them based on their profiles. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend it for elementary level students because the sheltered experience guarantees success, necessary to boost their confidence at this stage of their language learning process and increase motivation toward the language.  

For intermediate students I think this type of hand-holding is no longer necessary. These more mature language learners can safely venture into one of the free online language exchange communities that connect people all over the world to practice language with native speakers.  Years ago, I tried to direct my students to using The Mixxer, a free site hosted by Dickinson College, but the technology at the time was not well developed and the community of Italian speakers was extremely small and unreliable.

Next Spring, I am planning on incorporating video-conferencing with native speakers in my upper level conversation class again as I find it an invaluable tool, and I am optimistic that this time around things will work better.  I did a quick Google search to see what other language communities are available, besides The Mixxer, and I found quite a few. Of the many that came up, WeSpeke seemed the most promising of all. I decided therefore to test its reliability and the community that uses it.

First step to access a language community in WeSpeke is to create a profile and specify your native language and the language that you want to practice. You can also write a little bio for other people to read. Based on your preference it will match you with a community of speakers that have similar preferences. You can always reset your filters so that it will narrow down the community even further. Once in a community you can then directly message people that you want to establish a friendship with. I must admit that this is an extremely active community, as soon as I signed up people started messaging me and had 4 friendship requests in the matter of a few minutes. I had to switch my profile to offline because I couldn’t keep up with the messages. I, however, didn’t go past a few introductory greetings with other people as my focus was to just test the platform for future use.

The messaging system is not perfect. Some chats are saved but they do not show up in the chat window for some reason. There is also the possibility of doing audio and video chats once you have established friendship with your language partner. The bar at the bottom of the screen has a number of interesting features. There is a quick dictionary feature, and you can also send an image or URL. The community seems quite active but, I was told by one of my new acquaintances, it is also a little volatile. Establishing a contact is extremely easy as the community is very large, but maintaining the contact and laying down the grounds for a video-chat is a little harder, according to some.

With this in mind, I have, nevertheless decided, to give WeSpeke a try for my intermediate conversation class for next semester and see how it will work in the context of the assignment that I will design over the winter break. 

2018 Digital Scholarship Fellows Program: Call for Proposals

Have you been thinking about creating a digital companion for your book project? Do you have collections of research materials collecting dust or physically degrading in your office, or large datasets you’d like to develop into a digital archive, maps, or visualizations to accompany your written scholarship? Would you like your students to actively engage with Special Collections & Archives materials to create a digital project?

If any of these questions resonate with you, and you would like to involve students in the processes of digitization, analysis, and online publishing, please see the Call for Proposals and consider applying for the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program. As a 2018 Digital Scholarship Fellow, you would have the opportunity to work with Information Services staff members and other faculty fellows to 1) gain new technological skills to support the development and broad dissemination of your research; 2) scaffold research projects that involve digital technologies and collaboration with students and other partners; and 3) present the results of your participation in the program at speaking engagements at both Connecticut College and other institutions engaging in creative digital scholarship.

Digital scholarship offers liberal arts colleges opportunities to leverage the close working relationship between students and faculty and develop students’ research and technology skill sets through experiential learning. Digital scholarship tools and methodologies reflect a changing landscape in both teaching and scholarship, including innovations in instructional technology, content management platforms, computational analysis, and open-access publishing. Building upon the successes of the Technology Fellows Program (2014-2018), the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program invests resources in faculty who want to both model these changes and help build a foundation of best practices for the campus. In support of the College’s commitment to enhancing academic distinction, the DSF Program will promote the research objectives outlined in the College’s Strategic Plan.

Participation in the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program provides up to $2000 to be used toward expenses related to a project (e.g. software, hardware, data storage, student labor), funding to present at a digital scholarship conference, and a stipend of $1000.

Proposals of no longer than 1000 words should be submitted to Lyndsay Bratton (lbratton@conncoll.edu) by Sunday, December 3, 2017. All proposals will be reviewed by the Office of the Dean of Faculty, the Vice President of Information Services, the Digital Scholarship Faculty Advisory Board, and the staff who lead the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program. Fellows will be announced by December 15, 2017.

Not sure if your project ideas are a good fit for the Digital Scholarship Fellows Program? Contact Digital Scholarship Librarian Lyndsay Bratton to talk about your ideas and hear more about the program.

A virtual field trip through the streets of Rome via Google Satellite View

Screenshot from student assignment

Learning a foreign language in a classroom setting outside of the cultural context in which the language is spoken often poses a number of challenges for the learner. One, in particular, is the lack of familiarity with the foreign country’s physical space and urban landscapes. I usually complement classes and activities with pictures and videos representing such landscapes in order to help the students visualize them. However, although valuable, pictures and videos are filtered through someone else’s eyes, are static and do not easily translate into a simulated real life experience. For this reason, I decided to design an assignment with Google Satellite View and let students in my elementary Italian class take a virtual tour of Rome.

The purpose of the class assignment was both cultural and linguistic. I wanted to engage students in the exploration of the Italian urban landscapes and let them familiarize themselves with popular touristic and typical residential areas of Rome. I also wanted to provide opportunities for meaningful connections and a first-hand experience that would simulate a real life experience and foster acquisition of basic vocabulary, as well as practice writing sentences.

Students were asked to work in groups, use the 3D Satellite View in Google Maps and “walk” around a few important landmarks of the city of Rome as well as a typical residential neighborhood. They were asked to take snapshots of those sites, of the details of the surroundings and of the people they encountered. They were then asked to create Google Slides to post their shots, label items in the pictures and write sentences for what they saw. They engaged in a virtual exploration of parts of Rome I wanted them to experience “first hand” and use the language learned so far to describe that experience.

Screenshot of student work

The assignment was a success as all students found it useful, interesting, and fun. There were no issues with the technology as students were quite proficient in the use of Google Maps and Google Slides, as well as taking screenshots. One thing they learned, though, was that it only takes a .it as opposed to .com to switch from the American to the Italian version of Google Maps.

On the basis of students’ exit feedback, I can happily say that the goals of the assignments were met. Here are some comments from the students:

  1. It was really cool almost like being there in person
  2. Residential areas are really different from tourist areas
  3. Getting to explore the country of the language we are trying to learn always makes what we are learning seem more real
  4. Effective way to practice vocabulary and writing sentences

In general, comments were highly positive and these, in particular, testify to the effectiveness of the assignment. Overall a good use of a class period!

Videoconferencing for students in the elementary language classes

Image of students with conversation partner.

Videoconferencing is becoming an increasingly popular tool used by many instructors to enrich foreign language classrooms with authentic experiences. In his post, Luis Gonzales, for example, reports on the advantage and success of using videoconferencing in his 200-level course SPA 250, Spain: A journey through history and culture.

Spring semester 2017, I also decide to explore the benefits of using videoconferencing in my language classes in order to increase confidence and motivation towards Italian. Previous research has, in fact, shown that for language learners a positive experience associated with computer-mediated communication in general, and videoconferencing in particular, can increase students’ motivation. Unlike Prof. Gonzales’s students, my students were all elementary students with less than 50 contact hours in the language. Their task was to complete a 30 minute exchange with a native speaker on a topic of their choice about Italian culture.  In order to assure that they would be ready to undertake this challenging task successfully,  I scaffolded the project throughout the semester with each step intended to build a layer of support that would provide the proper background for the exchange. These steps included a number of writing assignments that were corrected for grammar and content (the main one being a report on the topic they wanted to discuss),  semantic word maps for vocabulary, questions that they wanted to ask and possible answers. Another important aspect  was also the choice of a reliable technology and conversation partners who would be patient and amicable. I decided to use Talkabroad, a videconferencing platform  which provides a reliable technology, trained native speakers, and  recordings of the conversations for later review. This was possible through a grant from the Student-faculty Engagement Fund and turned out to the perfect choice with my elementary language students.

At the end of the project, students completed a questionnaire to reflect on the experience. They were asked about their perspective on perceived success of the exchange, adequacy of preparation, and effects on motivation. 46 out of 52 students responded to the questionnaire as follows:

  • 91% had a positive experience and perceived the exchange as successful; only 9% of the students reported a negative experience due either to problems with the technology or inadequate language abilities for the task.
  • 55% felt adequately prepared; 32% somewhat prepared; 13% felt unprepared.
  • 71% reported  feeling more motivated because the positive experience made them more aware of their own abilities and boosted their confidence; 28% reported no change even if they had a positive experience; finally only 1% reported a decrease in motivation due to the inability to carry out the conversation.

From my point of view, this was a very successful and energizing project. I saw many students come to life both while preparing for it as well as while teleconferencing with the native speakers. Many students expressed excitement directly to me, and, although it was challenging for them, I was extremely pleased with their performances. I will definitely do this again next year, and I would encourage other colleagues teaching elementary language classes to include some type of computer-mediated  authentic experience for the students.

Digital Storytelling on and for the Environment


Recently I met with Siri Colom, C3 Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies, to discuss an interesting project she incorporates into SOC/ES 329: Sociology of the Wild. Students are asked to critically think about what “nature” is, and how “our conception of it is socially and culturally based, and how it might preclude us from understanding the world around us.”

To demonstrate that they are engaging with these themes and to connect philosophical and theoretical reading to lived experience, Siri developed a series of digital story projects for students. Pedagogically, the goal is to get students interacting outside of the classroom using multiple senses and to think about audio literacy as they pull their pieces together. She employs podcasts as the medium for storytelling, an interesting juxtaposition of nature and technology.  

The three podcasts projects are scaffolded and build in complexity – both in content and technology – over the course of the semester. The first requires students to make a two minute recording that includes one sound and explains a personal connection to the environment. The second requires two sounds and students describe a historical example. The final podcast is 10 minutes or less, requires interviews with two experts, and includes sociological analysis. The podcasts are shared publicly through a website Siri created in WordPress for the class.

With several semesters of the class creating podcasts, Siri now asks students to record 30-second summaries of the class readings so that they are engaging with audio in all aspects of the class. In addition, one student enjoyed this medium so much that she is creating a series of podcasts for an independent study with Joyce Bennett.