Digital Humanities
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Open Source, Web-Based Teaching and the Digital Humanities: “Critical Approaches to Teaching With Web-based Technologies,” Workshop Provided by CUNY Teaching & Learning Center


The workshop “Critical Approaches to Teaching With Web-based Technologies,” run by Andrew G. McKinney of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Teaching & Learning Center, centered around the exploration and implementation of non-proprietary, web technologies for educational purposes. We discussed important technologies, resources, and concepts such as WordPress, blogs, digital assignment hybridization, educational crowdsourcing, and online community engagement, as well as issues that dealt with digital pedagogy, responsive web design, student privacy and ownership over class materials. Significant for digital humanists and traditional educators alike, the talk engaged the audience on both practical and theoretical levels. Those interested in similar CUNY workshops should follow this link to discover their availability:


As educators are aware, digital technology has embedded itself within both students’ and teachers’ academic lives, across all levels and grades. The E-Learning Market Trends & Forecast 2014 – 2016 Report, published by Docebo in 2014, pegs the industry to reach $51.5 Billion in revenue globally by 2016, with a compounding annual growth rate of 7.9% (8). Indicative of this, proprietary learning management systems (LMS), packaged content, other related services by companies such as Blackboard have become common references both inside and outside classrooms and lecture halls.

In our field, we proudly champion the emergence of the digital within traditional methods of humanistic inquiry, of which education plays a major role. Nevertheless, the question arises if the expansion of industry truly reflects the values of digital humanities, or should digital education more widely adopt methods less constrained by market forces. To this effect, the workshop “Critical Approaches to Teaching With Web-based Technologies,” run by Andrew G. McKinney of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Teaching & Learning Center, introduced alternative, community-based, open source, web platforms for teaching and learning management, with a focus on how to mold these technologies around a teacher’s individual pedagogical outcomes and a student’s critical faculties when dealing with online resources.

With the implementation of such things, we capture the virtues expressed in Lisa Spiro’s “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” As we will see, the evaluation of “Openness,” “Collaboration,” “Collegiality and Connectedness,” “Diversity,” and “Experimentation,” can manifest more purely on a free Web, over one governed by licenses and paywalls.

Hereby, I will devote the rest of this blogpost to the technologies and concepts from the thought provoking and informative CUNY workshop that exemplify these principles, and attempt to expose the current of the Digital Humanities that motivates them.


Perhaps the biggest force in digital humanities that, quite explicitly, aims at openness is the open source movement. Within the workshop, we considered open source as valuable to good digital pedagogy, and spent much of our attention to a discussion of WordPress’s efficacy in practice.

Open source platforms such as WordPress free educators in key areas. While proprietary systems provide limited, if any, ability for the community to build fixes and plug-ins based on individual needs and issues, open source allows skilled users to compensate for gaps in the pre-existing code. For instance, WordPress does not come with any functionality for the display of all activity, blog posts, comments, etc., by a single user within one web page, when requested. You can imagine the importance of such an application when grading a student’s contribution to the class over a semester. To this end, developers at Baruch College created Reckoning (, which does exactly this.

Another benefit of open source is the potential for the reincarnation of abandoned projects by interested parties, unlike closed software that might disappear from existence indefinitely for any number of reasons other than lack of enthusiasm (taking with it every current project based on the platform). In theory, little will die that has an invested community surrounding it.


I mentioned community, without which I doubt any open source project would survive and grow. And, at the heart of the community, collaboration should thrive within digital education on many levels. As a result, a great potential for crowdsourced information exists, especially if one has issues with the implementation of the platform.

But the possibility for collaboration on WordPress does not stop at crowdsourced answers to tech questions. Because of WordPress’s adaptive capacity to serve the needs of the many, if instructors wish to foster “low stakes communities” within their classes, they can furnish communal assignments through the tools available. To see this effect manifest, a CUNY openlab blog for a calculus class ( exhibits excellent communication between students (some posts associated with up to 70-80 comments) in a discipline that traditionally holds little potential for collective engagement.

Collegiality and Connectedness

I have referred to how open source begs for a community to support it through collaboration, and Lisa Spiro mentions how some have seen the digital humanities community as both inherently helpful and nice. Therefore, we must consider what ‘nice’ features web platforms should have in support of education.

Certainly helpful, the ability for students to track their progress over time, maybe even over multiple semesters or years, arises if blogs persist as a ‘record of learning’ in an openly accessible format. This should also imply that students should keep ownership over their work, so that they may edit, hide, protect, or delete at will. In many ways, these ideas has no place in proprietary LMS. Another idea, communal web assignments can also promote a sense of collegiality between students, both current and future. You can find an example here (

Another synonym for connectedness is interoperability, as referred to in the technological sphere. Effective web platforms should work together, so that educators can create hybrid assignments that employ a diverse set of tools in tandem, as a means to scaffold an array of learning outcomes within a single, fluid package. We explored a project for a public speaking class where students were to pick a cultural heritage site, mark that site on google maps through the annotation utility, record a speech on-site, upload that video to youtube, and link it back onto google maps. Here, not only do the students cover public speaking, but video editing, as well as different aspects of online and offline culture. These types of exercises can aim to instill a critical perspective on these technologies, as students start to encounter the uses and limitations of each.

Experimentation and Diversity?

Maybe only in a limited sense, the synthesis of these materials lends itself to diversity. Surely, the vast possibility to combine technologies to suit an educator’s underlying pedagogy has an element of diversity in it; however, this does not necessarily entail diversity in perspective. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that the constructive processes of the former intrinsically lack the potential to accomplish the latter. But it will take the guile of the future experimenter to engage with diversity in the more important sense.

We devoted the last forty minutes of the workshop to a game. We formed groups to create an assignment that cohered to three cards given to us. One card had a game (in our case: monopoly), the next card had a learning outcome (ours dealt with global trends), and the last card had a technology constraint (where we had to model our tech after an extant platform). Ultimately, we conceptualized an exercise that would make students search instagram for pictures that demonstrated gentrification in a particular chosen city from around the world, of which they would then collect and curate. They would then engage classmates’ findings for similarities, in order to discover the commonalities that persist in gentrifying forces transnationally. This project would not only exemplify the values of the digital humanities as expressed, but might also uncover diverse perspectives inherent in public photography, as well as their interrelation.


The key to success with the non-proprietary and the open source is experimentation and an ongoing collection of skills. And while, at least in theory, licensed systems hold the benefit that most of the thought and work done for you, the creativity of the free resources and methods we learned about in the workshop more embody the spirit and the values of the digital humanities.

But I also want to stress that these technologies are not, in themselves, solutions to problems, but adaptive platforms used to exact your particular pedagogical presence online — anything from merely hosting a course syllabus and contact information to establishing a multi-functional community center and hybridized digital assignment bank. If anything we should understand from “Critical Approaches to Teaching With Web-based Technologies,” is that the open web delivers a powerful toolset, but development, especially on the personal level, is still necessary.






Spiro, Lisa. ““This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the digital humanities (2012): 16.


Trends, E-Learning Market. “Forecast 2014-2016 Report.” A report by Docebo. Available online: http://www.docebo. com/landing/contactform/elearning-market-trends-and-forecast-2014-2016-docebo-report. pdf (accessed on 13 April 2016) (2014).


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