Digital Learning in the Humanities, at Stanford and Beyond

Digital Learning in the Humanities, at Stanford and Beyond

Photo: Elaine Treharne / Digging Deeper Project


Online learning in the humanities is alive and well at Stanford, and it continues to grow.  Towards the end of the Spring Quarter, dozens of faculty, staff, administrators, and students had the opportunity to hear about exciting ventures in this field. The event—held on May 27 and sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL)—began not with speeches or presentations but with an interactive walk-through of digital learning initiatives. This “gallery” consisted of six displays showing everything from digital versions of medieval manuscripts to filmed performance art.

The guests strolled through the exhibits, examining the projects closely and asking questions of the presenters. After a light lunch, attendees settled into chairs and began the formal portion of the program. Amy Collier, the director of digital learning initiatives at VPOL, facilitated a conversation among five instructors in the humanities at Stanford, all of whom have recently pioneered work in digital learning.


Dan Edelstein, Professor of French, spoke about his work with Mapping the Republic of Letters, which was originally funded as part of a Thinking Matters class. Students in the course enjoyed using the program to visualize connections between authors and literary texts covered in Edelstein’s class. He has since incorporated the digital platform into his own research and writing—indeed, several of the panelists articulated links between new trends in digital research and innovations in their teaching.

Another course-related initiative is Lacuna Stories, the brainchild of Professor Amir Eshel, of the German Studies and Comparative Literature departments, and Ph.D. student Brian Johnsrud of the program in Modern Thought and Literature. Johnsrud noted that students in his and Eshel’s class “were stitching together larger conversations about the course”—which looks at significant contemporary cultural moments like September 11, 2001—on a “broader canvas” than the syllabus and a seminar meeting could accommodate. Lacuna Stories allows students to contribute their own ideas to course readings by commenting on existing class materials and linking to other sources, including government documents, film and television, and news articles.

Professors Leslie Hill and Helen Paris of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) discussed their pathbreaking work using online learning to facilitate practice-based doctoral programs in performance studies. Their recent course, based at Stanford, enrolled over 5,000 students, thereby creating a worldwide community of scholars and artists. Their students formed teams and worked across national and continental divides to devise, produce, and share pieces of performance art. A handout accompanying Hill and Paris’s display emphasized that the multi-platform website spotlighted “the intersections of creative and critical methodologies,” and Paris suggested that this “online artists’ community eases the transition into the academy” for many students.

Finally, Elaine Treharne, Professor of English, introduced the group to Digging Deeper: How to Interpret Manuscript Technologies, an “augmented learning course” that is being developed by Treharne in cooperation with colleagues at Stanford and Cambridge University. The course will allow the public—“all kinds of students,” in Treharne’s words—to view and interpret manuscripts from the medieval period. A series of online videos will walk participants through the history of early manuscripts, and then provide a tutorial in how they are read by professional scholars. By training the public to “talk about old texts in a professional way,” Treharne hopes the course might function as a “mini MOOC.” She noted that Digging Deeper “has a real place in the Stanford quarter system” in that the online program can supplement the work done in a ten-week course.


Johnsrud, of Lacuna Stories, believes that online initiatives like his “make contributing to discussion less daunting.” By annotating sources online, students “flip” the classroom and come prepared with insights and questions. Lacuna Stories has been so successful, in fact, that next year it will be used in courses from eight Stanford departments, as well as in community college classes.

For Leslie Hill, of Stanford TAPS, online learning works best in collaborative groups; her course required students to work together to set deadlines, create pieces of performance art, and comment on each other’s work. It is precisely this autonomy, though, that leads Edelstein to caution against using online learning too heavily with introductory courses: undergraduates need some structure in their academic lives, and so “this kind of online work probably works better on a graduate level.”


One of the joys and challenges of creating digital learning projects, according to Treharne, is that it encourages developers to learn from their mistakes. “Making mistakes is productive,” she said, adding that generous support from the VPOL office enables her team to fine-tune their video tutorials so that they are increasingly more accessible to users.

Edelstein, of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project, noted that online learning is, ideally, a way to enrich the educational experiences that happen in the classroom. “These new tools are not panaceas, and they don’t always work out,” he warned; “they don’t replace reading books, or the seminars. Students still have to do a lot of traditional work.”

Still, Edelstein and the other panelists—as well many faculty and staff attending the forum—believe that digital learning opportunities should not be limited to the science and engineering fields (which are more well-known for innovating in online projects). Students in humanities courses can benefit from these initiatives, and others to come, by combining traditional methods of study (seminar discussions, reading assignments, and research papers) with digital tools. Many undergraduates these days arrive with great fluency in a wide range of online learning platforms—why shouldn’t we make the most of these skills?

Do you have questions about incorporating online learning into your humanities (or social science, or natural science) courses? Are you curious about turning your seminars and lectures into “flipped” or “blended” classrooms? Would you like to know more about resources available at Stanford for these innovative ventures? Contact the author or the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning for more information.

Allen Frost is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Stanford, where he's also served as an instructor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and as a writing tutor at the Hume Center.

See Also

Lacuna Stories Case Study