You Can Do It Too!

People are excited by how history can be presented online and the insights that can be revealed by innovative use of digital tools. While many say “wow!” they often follow it up with “but I can’t do that”. I started Stumbling Through the Future because I realised that there was a shortage of online digital history tutorials and blogs aimed at the beginner in digital history. We know that teaching a skill is the best way of cementing what we have learned. I knew that if I could explain how to do things in clear and simple steps to others I had developed the level of competency I desired.

At the recent ‘Working History’ conference organised by the Professional Historians Association of Victoria I presented a paper about how I use digital tools in the research process. This conference focused on our professional practice rather than the outcomes of our work. I titled my paper ‘Life of a Fragment of a History’, but really I could have named it ‘You Can Do It Too’. In this post I will write about the paper and some of the thinking behind it rather than replicating it. As it turns out, this post has taken a rather different track to my presentation. Rather than tracing the life of a fragment of history as I capture it, process it and file it, this post is largely about the IT learning process. If you are interested, you can flick through my presentation slides (spot the unintended steam punk and a cultural reference courtesy of some back-channel fun):

Earlier in the conference digital historian Tim Sherratt delivered a keynote presentation about ‘Telling Stories with Data’. I owe Tim a great deal as I have learned so much from him. He is very generous as can be seen by him making his paper freely available online. Continue reading

Barriers to IT Education in Australian Universities Must Go

The Scenario

A first year Arts student turns up for enrolment.  She wants to enrol in three units offered by the Arts faculty but she also wants to exercise her option under the rules of her degree to enrol in a unit offered by another faculty.  She wants to learn website design in a unit offered by the computer science department in the Faculty of Engineering.

The person handling her enrolment says he can’t process her enrolment in the Information Technology (IT) unit.  The student has to fill in a form, get someone else to sign it and then hand it in – but she is not told where to hand the form in, she has to work this out herself.  New to the university she feels frustrated and a little weird because she is clearly doing something that few Arts students do.

There is an added complication.  Two of the IT lectures clash with two other lectures she is supposed to attend.  Never mind, the university’s website says that the lectures of both these units are recorded.  Knowing that it is important to listen to all lectures, she plans to attend one set of lectures and listen to the recordings of the lectures she misses each week.

There have already been two obstacles set in her path deterring her from enrolling in the IT unit but she has worked out how to overcome them and persists.  However, a third obstacle crosses her path.  Even though the university has said on their website that the lectures of the two units that clash are recorded, she is told they are not.  Recognising the importance of lectures and the fact that she will be at a disadvantage if she cannot attend, she finally gives up on her ambition of including some IT in her degree.

One more young person has been denied the opportunity to improve their IT skills.  One more woman is prevented from gaining the technical skills necessary to fully participate in the world of technology.

The Underlying Issues

The ability to engage with information technology and use it to create is a fundamental skill in this era – for everyone.  It is a tool that is useful for every discipline.  It is a vital medium of communication, of information dissemination and acquisition, a means of discovery and creativity. Continue reading

THAT Camp for Digital Humanities Beginners

If you are new to digital humanities and want to learn more you definitely should attend a THAT Camp!  I travelled to Canberra to attend a THAT Camp for the first time on the weekend.  It was a wonderful weekend meeting people who I follow on Twitter, learning sooo much new stuff, being involved in stimulating conversations about issues in digital humanities and socialising.  I have much to follow up, a ton of new things to learn.  As one of the participants, Abigail Belfrage, so aptly observed on Twitter, “still in anaconda state after ingesting the goat that was #thatcamp canberra. will digest over the next few months…”

Will you feel out of your depth at times being a newbie at a THAT Camp?  Yes you will, but how can you learn if you are not stretched?  We had a boot camp the day before the conference started and it was well worth investing the extra day to learn new tools and consolidate previous learning.  I have lots of things to follow up, but the thing that really excited me was discovering Google Fusion Tables for the first time.  I don’t have access to GIS software at the moment but through Google Fusion Tables I can now create maps of data.  Mmmm, the possibilities….  A big thanks to Paul Hagon for taking many of the sessions I attended – I learned heaps!

THAT Camp Canberra was all that it claimed to be – collaborative, participatory, free of ego, a place to learn, friendly and fun.  These qualities were encouraged because THAT Camp is an ‘unconference’.  How did the ‘unconference’ model work at THAT Camp Canberra?  Firstly unconferences do not have a call for papers or a pre-determined programme.  Participants were asked to propose session ideas before the conference via the conference website.  At the first session of the conference the people who proposed the sessions gave a brief overview of what their topic was about.  There was also room for people to propose new ideas for sessions.  The conference organisers scheduled the topics, assigned rooms to them and wrote it all up on a whiteboard in the foyer of the venue.  We were all set to go!

Skills for Digital Humanities

I’ll cover the details of the sessions that I attended in other posts, but it is relevant in this introductory post to share what was said at the session looking at the skills required for digital humanities.  Suse Cairns summed up what we need to equip us in the field of digital humanities when she tweeted, “Attitude is a hugely important part in digital humanities upskilling. Willingness to experiment, play and get hands dirty.” (Of course an important feature of the conference was the #THATCamp backchannel on Twitter.)  As Tim Sherratt said, “show your working, share, be prepared to fail, display your thinking process”.  Digital Humanities is about experimentation and everyone, from beginners to leaders in the world of digital humanities, have to be prepared to confront what they don’t know, to make mistakes, to shout out for help.  Collaboration, learning and creativity is what it is about.  When we embark on the digital humanities journey we don’t have to have the skills, we have to have the right attitude.  This fits into the current employment market where increasingly people are not hired for specific skills, they are hired because they are trainable and can fit into a team. Continue reading

Digital Humanities – the First Steps

After I finished my thesis at the end of last year, I used my free time to start exploring the world of digital humanities.  I started out my professional life as an accountant and as part of our university degree back in the 1980s we were required to do programming in COBOL, dabble with databases (structured, not relational!) and we were exposed to spreadsheets in the days before excel.  In year 12 at school I did computer studies which included a fair amount of programming in Basic.  Throughout my career in accounting and later working in public relations, I have had to work with spreadsheets, databases etc, but I have not done any programming since the 1980s.

Then I went back to university and studied history.  I was astonished. Continue reading