The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture

Scalar in the Classroom

Blackboard, Moodle, Prezi … Scalar? More and more, scholars and teachers are turning not just to online tools built specifically for pedagogical purposes, but to wide-ranging digital platforms whose affordances can be leveraged to advance certain skills and competencies in the classroom. Scalar, so says Anita Say Chan and Harriett Green of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is just such a platform. In spring 2014, Anita Say Chan, Assistant Research Professor of Communications and Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies in collaboration with Harriett Green, English and Digital Humanities Librarian and assistant professor of library administration, began integrating Scalar into Anita’s undergraduate media courses. In Anita’s Media and Information Ethics course students were asked to build an archive of their own documentary materials and write their final research papers on Youth Interventions with Media using Scalar. In her course on Food Networks: Media, Technology, Sustainability students were required to construct two Scalar presentations: the first on the sustainability practices and messaging of a major U.S. food brand and the second on those of a major Swedish food brand.

The ANVC team recently got a hold of Anita and Harriett and asked them about their experience working with Scalar in the classroom.

Bios for Anita and Harriett are included just below the interview.

ANVC: In which courses have you used Scalar? And for which types of courses have you found it best suited?

Anita Chan: We’ve used Scalar now in two different undergraduate classes taught in the Media and Cinema Studies Department with the College of Media during the AY 2013-14: the MACS410: Information Ethics class, which looks at contemporary debates in information politics, and the MACS364: Food Networks class, that enables students to explore food production history and politics through the use of online digital and data visualization research tools, including Scalar. For both of these classes, the class site and all resources were hosted on Scalar. And students’ term projects required that they individually build their own Scalar sites that represented their research projects

Harriett Green: Scalar has been best suited for courses that engage with and create notable amounts of multi-media content: The Media Studies courses that we taught had students gather images and YouTube videos, and create audio content of their own via interviews. I can also envision Scalar being used in English and History courses that use video/film clips and multi-media.

Anita Chan: I agree. We were surprised by how quickly the undergraduate students took to the platform. Even when some students missed the class-length Scalar Introduction workshop session that oriented them to site features we hadn’t yet had to use in class together, like building paths and video annotation features – students managed to figure these steps out on their own without having to consult us. It definitely mattered that we built in-class group exercises during the term, so that we could be sure more basic functions (like publishing a page or using media from associated archives) were mastered. But the stats speak for themselves. In the MACS410 class, 24 of the 25 undergrad students in the class completed their own Scalar sites; and in the MACS364 class, all 8 of the undergrads completed 2 Scalar sites each during the course of the semester. And these were classes where, when we polled students at the beginning of the class, NONE reported having published their own blog before.

Landing page for Food Networks: Media, Technology, Sustainability.

ANVC: What do your students get out of composing their term papers in Scalar? What skills or literacies does it develop in your students that writing traditional research papers will not?

AC: The students really seemed to appreciate the multi-media modality of the platform, and that it allowed them to present their analyses in multi-media formats. For instance, in exercises that asked students to analyze the youth-targeted ad campaigns of mega-brands, they were able to post videos, print ads and website content directly within their responses to illustrate their analyses. We were also impressed by the number of students who exceeded the requirements for assignments on Scalar, and on their own, voluntarily engaged more with media production. In both classes, students were asked to include either 1 interview OR vlog post to their Scalar site – and we had many students go over the requirement: 6 interviews in 1 case, 5 in another, an edited comedy video of Man-on-the-Street style interviews with other undergrads on what the internet means to them. It was impressive. That said: students’ proclivity for multi-media production does NOT mean they are well-versed in how to use digital tools for research. And based on past class experiences, it was clear that students needed much more support and guidance in how to use even basic search tools – like Library search tools, EBSCO and JSTOR – and in seeing why getting a Google search result isn’t sufficient for a research project.

HG: Yes, I think that Scalar made the process of searching, finding, and gathering research content a much more visceral experience: The students connected their developing skills in searching research databases like Lexis Nexis and EBSCO Academic Search Premier to the searches they were doing in multi-media archives such as Critical Commons and Internet Archives. Furthermore, the students had to synthesize the multi-media objects with the news articles and scholarly writing they gathered, and this made them critically think about what they were finding and how they could use it on their Scalar sites.

ANVC: New pedagogical tools and/or practices can often reveal students’ latent interests or needs. What have you learned about your students getting them to work with Scalar?

AC: I’ve personally been inspired by the degree of self- and even co-teaching and media production undergrad students in the humanities and social sciences appear prepared for. We had students even running their own workshops for other students in other classes on some of the visualization tools they were introduced to during the course. But much more support for students’ ACADEMIC uses of media and digital platforms needs to be cultivated. Students’ day to day literacies with commercial platforms doesn’t and shouldn’t suffice for academic and scholarly applications. And even students themselves don’t seem to want this to be the case. We’re also glad to see that there are nascent efforts to support more cross-disciplinary and faculty collaborations to support the design of these kinds of course applications. And Harriett has more to say on this.

HG: Scalar has revealed the broad and powerful possibilities of using digital platforms for students’ scholarly work, and how we can incorporate multiple learning goals for information literacy, course-specific learning outcomes, and disciplinary outcomes into the students’ exercises and project work. And as Anita notes, I think Scalar also provides a strong basis for promoting collaborations in the classroom between different campus units, especially between faculty and the library, which is rapidly expanding its services to support digital scholarship by faculty and students. It’s been an extremely educational experience to work with Anita on this initiative, and I do hope that our departments and institution provide increased support in the future for these types of innovative teaching practices that we and many other of our colleagues are trying to implement.

Anita Say Chan

Anita Say Chan is an Assistant Research Professor of Communications and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she co-designed and taught the Food Networks and Information Ethics undergraduate classes in the Spring 2014 using Scalar. Her research and teaching interests include hybrid and interdisciplinary pedagogies, globalization and digital cultures, innovation networks and the “periphery”, and science and technology studies in Latin America. Her book on the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism, was published with MIT Press earlier this year. Her work has been awarded support from the Center for the Study of Law & Culture at Columbia University’s School of Law and the National Science Foundation, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at The CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization & Social Change, and at Stanford University’s Introduction to Humanities Program.

Harriett Green

Harriett Green is the English and Digital Humanities Librarian and assistant professor of library administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include the usability of digital humanities tools and digital collections, research methods of humanities scholars, and humanities data curation.

Her publications include published and forthcoming articles in College & Research Libraries, Literary and Linguistic Computing, Library Quarterly, and portal: Libraries and the Academy. Her research has been supported by grants awarded from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Endownment for the Humanities. Her current research projects include working on the research teams for the HathiTrust Research Center and the Emblematica Online.

She has presented on her work nationally and internationally, including at the conferences of the American Library Association (ALA), Association for College & Research Libraries (ACRL), International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, and Modern Language Association Annual Convention. She is professionally active in the Association for College and Research Libraries, the Association for Computing in the Humanities (ACH), Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC), and the Modern Language Association (MLA). She earned her MSLIS from the University of Illinois, and also holds a MA in Humanities/Creative Writing from the University of Chicago and a BA in History and Literature from Harvard University.

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