Online Exploratory Environment for the Digital Humanities

Online Exploratory Environment for the Digital Humanities

Instructors:  Amir Eshel (German and Comparative Literature), Brian Johnsrud (Modern Thought and Literature)
School of Humanities and Sciences
: Futurity: Why the Past Matters (COMPLIT 271A
Audience: 15 Stanford undergraduate and graduate students
 (Winter 2014)
Teaching and Learning Approaches: Flipped Classroom, Seminar, Blended Online Collaborative Reading

Goals:  Through this course and others using Lacuna Stories, the project team aims to:

  1. Develop interactive, multimedia platforms that support the critical, close reading and theoretical synthesis that is central to humanistic inquiry.
  2. Support instructors in using such platforms to assess students’ reading, engagement, and participation in ‘flipped’ humanities courses.
  3. Research, teach, and assess digital reading, engagement, and annotation practices, how they differ in and out of the classroom, and how these practices influence final work produced by students.
  4. Use the digital humanities to research, teach, and assess new skills and literacies such as poetic thinking; historical thinking; and navigating, interpreting and creating transmediated narratives.

The team seeks to foster academic work related to the goals outlined above, to encourage the teaching of these skills in university classrooms, and to gather quantitative and qualitative data about the use of the platforms and tools they create in order to better inform technology design, pedagogical practice, and theoretical understandings of learning with technology.

Challenges: How can we support students as they interpret complex phenomena as represented in various types of media -- a critical competency for today’s information-rich world? The faculty team uses Lacuna Stories to seek to enhance and evaluate instructional and technology design strategies that create innovative experiences for engaging with texts and other types of media. With platforms and tools that go beyond simply replacing traditional, print-based practices in humanities education to open up new intellectual, cognitive, and pedagogical opportunities.

Though there have been notable advances in integrating technology into humanities education, the two have still not been bridged in a way that allows us to begin answering a set of practical and pedagogical questions regarding instruction and student learning in the humanities, including:

  1. How can we know what required texts students actually read before coming to class?
  2. Which parts of the texts did students particularly engage or struggle with, and how can instructors quickly know this before class in an automated way to prepare a customized lesson to address that week’s unique student needs?
  3. How can we quickly assess baseline student participation and engagement, so that humanities seminars can devote more time to critical analysis and interpretive discussion?
  4. Are the close reading and other skills we model in class actually being adopted in students’ reading practices outside the classroom? If not, how can we foster these skills?
  5. How can we teach and empirically assess humanities skills such as close reading, poetic thinking, and historical thinking, skills that are transferable to other courses and other majors, and which the humanities may be uniquely suited to support.

Teaching & Learning Strategies: “Our goal is to teach students the skills needed to be true comparativists, whether they are comparing different novels, texts, or media on a given topic” says Johnsrud. For example, within the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL), there is a high value placed on comparativism. Comparing different texts, in different languages, perhaps from different periods or regions, and even different media, are skills essential for students in the DLCL, as well as students engaging in comparative media studies (Communication) or inherently trans- or interdisciplinary work (American Studies; Modern Thought and Literature; and Science, Technology, and Society).

For Eshel and Johnsrud, the challenge of teaching comparative skills included creating a multimedia platform that presents an “archive” of various media that is diverse enough to encourage exploration skills, yet cohesive enough to support directed learning. These skills are modeled during class, as instructors encourage students through their questions to follow up with other resources already at hand, as well as responding to annotations, forum questions, and blog posts with resources already on Lacuna Stories and just “a click away,” to begin a comparative analysis.

In-class Strategies: Discussion, Collaborative Learning, Just-in-time Teaching, Think-Pair-Share, Send-A-Problem

Online or out-of-class strategies: Students used the online platform for reading texts and materials on the Lacuna Stories platform, and share their annotations and highlights, pose reading questions in the forum, and post longer responses and coursework on the Lacuna Stories blog and writing section.

Annotation Tool

Out-of-class Activities: To promote critical reflection and synthesis, the Lacuna Stories Project draws on the extensive body of work in history education and cognitive psychology fostered by Stanford’s History Education Group and their online assessments that encourage “historical thinking.” We apply these goals to an open-source platform with the potential to target the general public alongside academic researchers, educators, and students. Building on the belief that students and citizens should be encouraged to “go beyond factual recall to apply information in a specific historical context” and that “historical thinking is about cultivating habits of mind, ways of thinking that become habitual [to] think about when a source was produced, who wrote it, and for what purpose,” (Wineburg 2001, 2012), our platform facilitates three central approaches to the critical assessment of historical sources:

  • Sourcing asks students to consider who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Who authored a given document? When? For what purpose?
  • Contextualization asks students to understand how a document’s time and place shape its context
  • Corroboration asks students to consider points of agreement and disagreement across multiple sources

Each of these ways of framing a particular part of a text are represented in the taxonomy of categories for annotations on documents; a fourth category, Close Reading, is also included as an option.

Lacuna Stories’ inclusion of tasks requiring the development of these crucial skills allows instructors to assess student engagement and skills acquisition, rather than merely inferring them from the end products students produce. By focusing on skill-based learning, we also create powerful incentives for instructors to adopt the platform to be able to assess humanistic thinking skills, rather than mere factual recall.

Lessons Learned:  A 3-hour, weekly humanities seminar often includes a full hour dedicated to summarizing the reading and giving everyone a chance to speak, an opportunity students often use regardless of the relevance of their comment to the broader discussion. From the instructor’s perspective, this has been the method for assessing 1) whether students did the reading (instructor asks plot questions), and 2) whether students, at least minimally, engaged with the reading (student questions and comments).

In the first Lacuna Stories pilot course, “Futurity,” the project team has been able to recuperate this hour by logging on to Lacuna Stories in advance of class and seeing the texts students read and the annotations they made, which allows them to identify “hot spots” in the text that are ripe for discussion. This has freed them from previously experienced pedagogical mysteries such as “I wonder why that question flopped?” or “I had no idea they would be so interested in that part of the reading!” Similarly, as instructors they have highlighted and annotated sections of the texts they would like students to focus on, or take special notice of, in the course readings. By allowing instructors and students to collectively share what parts of the readings are particularly rich, problematic, or relevant to the course goals, the humanities classroom can immediately begin tackling shared questions and themes. Work is currently underway to build informative instructor and student dashboards for visualizing this data in an even more easily digestible way—for examples of the tools we and other collaborators are developing.

Plans for Next Iteration of CourseBy the end of the 2015 academic year, the Digital Humanities Faculty Team will have completed a working, open source annotation prototype freely available for university courses in the humanities at Stanford and beyond. The platform will host accompanying unit and lesson plans, pedagogical materials, suggested activities for integrating the digital tools into the classroom, outlines of best practices for use in the classroom based on our prototype uses, and a series of customizable assessment options. All of these resources will be adapted for the following types of classrooms: single instructor, dual-instructor, with or without a teaching assistant, and for courses with less or greater than fifteen students. Accompanying materials online will also include guidelines, and technical support for using Lacuna Stories as a platform to investigate major historical events or research topics. Finally, they will also offer an assessment report of the levels of success and potential challenges we observed teaching with these new tools, supplemented by our current qualitative methodology applied to Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud’s “Futurity” course, which includes student surveys, interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic classroom observation.

About the Teaching and Assessment Team

Amir Eshel

Amir Eshel is Professor of Humanistic Studies, German Studies, and Comparative Literature and affiliated faculty at The Europe Center and Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His research focuses on the literary and cultural imagination as it addresses modernity’s traumatic past for its contemporary philosophical, political and ethical implications. He is a distinguished and award-winning teacher, and The Lacuna Stories platform was used to host course materials and facilitate student engagement and learning-outcome assessments in a course taught by Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud, “Futurity: Why the Past Matters” (Winter 2014). Eshel will be teaching a course “Poetic Thinking Across Media” in Fall 2014 using Lacuna Stories, and Eshel and Johnsrud will co-teach “Futurity” again in Winter 2015.

Brian Johnsrud

Brian Johnsrud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. He has a M.A. in anthropology and is trained in conducting semi-focused interviews and evaluative focus groups; received an M.A. in medieval literature and taught high school for three years; and he has a third M.A. in Library and Media Science, and will be coordinating our design and assessment. His Ph.D. research is on cultural relations between the U.S. and the Middle East, focusing on 9/11. He is also the CESTA Poetic Media Project lab manager and project manager for Lacuna Stories.

Emily Schneider

Emily Schneider is a Ph.D. student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.  Her research focuses on the design and evaluation of socio-technical systems to support community building and collective intelligence. She is particularly interested in distributed and networked cognition, and sees the use of annotations and hypermedia knowledge mapping as central to this contemporary mode of learning. Her training is in learning analytics, qualitative methods, and design-based research, and she will be drawing on these areas to model learners’ usage of the Lacuna Stories platform. Schneider coordinates Stanford’s Lytics Lab (, which works on a variety of research related to online learning. She has been the key coordinator for qualitative assessment of learning in our pilot course “Futurity,” managing surveys, interviews, and ethnographic classroom observation.

Michael Widner

Michael Widner is the Lacuna Stories Project Technical Director. He works in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and the Stanford University Libraries as an Academic Technology Specialist. He works with faculty and their research assistants as consultant or collaborator in DLCL-based digital humanities and instructional technology projects. He also helps organize and present events for the Digital Humanities Focal Group.



This project was funded in part by a Faculty Seed Grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning (VPTL).