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

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Rails Girls Canberra

Hard at wok - Rails Girls Canberra.

Hard at work – Rails Girls Canberra.

Women were programming pioneers. Ada Lovelace is recognised as the world’s first programmer.  In the nineteenth century she wrote the instructions which could activate Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.  Her feat is recognised today through the Ada Lovelace Day which falls on 15th October in 2013.

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that computing really took off.  The ENIAC computer developed during WWII is recognised as the first electronic computer.  The entire ENIAC programming team were women. Grace Hopper wrote the first automatic compiler and led the development of the COBOL programming language which went on to become one of the world’s most popular business programming languages.

Yet the proportion of women programming has declined over the last couple of decades.  Today women are only a small proportion of  software developers.  There has been much wringing of hands about this, but wringing of hands does not achieve anything other than warm up our hands.

One development community is taking action to increase the numbers of women in website development.  I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of their events earlier this month.

Ruby on Rails is a popular development framework that is used to create websites.  The Rails community has supported a training program for women called Rails for Girls.  It started in Finland and is now well established in many countries including Australia.

I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one of their introductory workshops in Canberra recently. 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