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Collaborative Research in the Digital Domain - A New Era

Written by Jonathan York
April 02, 2011

The following is an excerpt from a blog post by Zahi Hawass:

On Friday, January 28, 2011, when the protest marches began in Cairo, I heard that a curfew had been issued that started at 6.00pm on Friday evening until 7.00am on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, on that day the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, was not well guarded. About a thousand people began to jump over the wall on the eastern side of the museum into the courtyard. On the western side of the museum, we recently finished something I was very proud of, a beautiful gift shop, restaurant and cafeteria. The people entered the gift shop and stole all the jewellery and escaped; they thought the shop was the museum, thank God! However, ten people entered the museum when they found the fire exit stairs located at the back of it.

My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day, but all the inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators, are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities. Many young Egyptians are in the streets trying to stop the criminals. Due to the circumstances, this behaviour is not surprising; criminals and people without a conscience will rob their own country. If the lights went off in New York City, or London, even if only for an hour, criminal behaviour will occur. I am very proud that Egyptians want to stop these criminals to protect Egypt and its heritage.

At this time, the Internet has not been restored in Egypt. I had to fax this statement to my colleagues in Italy for it to be uploaded in London on my website. (Zahi Hawass)

This blog post is a cry for help, and a expression of frustration, but it is also a testament to the power of the digital era to connect us to the voices of individuals anywhere in the world. In the past we could read a reporter’s synopsis of the violence in Egypt, and gain a distanced, historical perspective on the event. Now we can connect directly to the voices of the people involved.

Thinking Global (draft)

Now that digital technology has firmly entrenched itself into all our lives, we are beginning to wonder, explore, and question its implications for how we assess what we know about the world. The promise of the Internet for teachers and students, is—very obviously—the wealth of instantly assessable information that we now have available.

With this available wellspring of knowledge and information we are also faced with a question as to how we are compelled to operate in this new world. This kind of reflective introspection has led to the birth of new phrases and concepts such as “digital citizenship.” In my class I stress this idea for my students. This connectivity carries with it a responsibility to become more aware of our world – to move past thinking of ourselves as isolated or disconnected from the rest of the world, and to begin to think about issues, problems, and solutions in a global context. More than ever, our future leaders—both political and civic—in Washington and our local marketplace – are going to need to think about the implications of their actions in a global context.

In a world where a revolution can be organized solely online (as it have so recently seen in Egypt) – and then realized in reality – we all must not merely access the knowledge available to us, but also embrace the moral responsibility that having that knowledge brings with it. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. argued that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, by which he meant to defend his nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama – despite the fact that he was not a resident of that community. He argued that, morally, all Americans bear a responsibility to fight injustice anywhere within our country. Today we must expand this maxim to include our entire globe. It seems imperative that if we can browse a webpage from south Africa, instant message with a refugee from Tibet, or Skype with a graffiti artist in Iran, then we also must recognize that we have an obligation to not just learn about threats to justice around the world, but to work to rectify them as well.

Ideas from Because Digital Writing Matters (draft)

The book Because Digital Writing Matters makes a passionate argument for the validity and recognition of digital writing as a unique, and intellectually invaluable enterprise. The authors of the book argue that digital writing is both everything that “traditional” writing is, and more—that it is its own unique thing—not less than “traditional” writing, but, in some senses, more.

Now, this is a very lofty goal indeed, but I see part of my job as motivating my students to begin to see themselves as citizens in a larger world. They are not just passive consumers of information, but potential active members of a global community. Whether their actions are great or small, digital connectivity is fostering action of all kinds.

One development of digital writing that is unique is the idea of collaboration. The predominance of collaboration between writers in the digital domain has lead to what the authors term “participatory culture”. This idea captures the essence of what makes digital writing so powerful: the ability to connect one mind to another, and, in particular, to connect students from one corner of the globe to another. As evidence to what is becoming a new norm, they point out: “There are students in China, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, and the USA who collaborate on projects everyday.” As a teacher, this notion presents powerful and very tempting possibilities. I can’t help but want to find ways to take advantage of this new culture with my students.

Collaborative Research Projects (drafts)

For this project students are essentially doing the old standard – the argumentative research essay. They will develop a focus, conduct research, find sources, and synthesize those sources within a specific argument. This kind of writing is a mandatory part of our English curriculum at Scarborough for English students each year. We want to make sure that they can craft clear and focused thesis statements, locate and evaluate their own sources, cite those sources accurately using MLA format, and, most importantly, craft logical arguments that take into considerations the arguments, claims, and viewpoints of their sources, while serving to support the student’s over arching argument.

The tweak that I make to this standard essay endeavor is that I ask the students to create web pages as a group. Each webpage will be created around a central theme that is of global significance. Past themes have included poverty in third world nations, capitol punishment, organized crime around the globe, endangered species, and infectious diseases.

You may note that the topics are very broad. The point is for each website to have an umbrella topic. Students then write two research articles underneath that umbrella that are narrow in focus. For example, for the group that focused on endangered species around the world, each student wrote an essay that explored a specific animal species and evaluated the efforts to protect the species. Similarly the group that focused on global organized crime featured essays on Japan’s Yakuzza, The Sicilian Mafia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Reflection (draft)

This year my freshman have by now completed their projects. Students created websites about a variety of topics including endangered species, combating global terrorism, and world health obstacles. Reflecting on the projects, I have to say that I am not wholly satisfied. This year was my second year doing the projects. Last year I was making it up as I went along, and I was just happy to get everyone through to completion. This year, with more time to reflect and think about the activity, I have to say that what I have accomplished is really just a list of desires for next time. I will be doing a similar research based web project soon with my juniors, so I am looking to make some changes there as well. Here’s a list of issues I have with the project:

1. Students don’t put enough energy into the research – many enjoy making website, but not doing research, as a result the essays themselves are of a very mixed quality. This is to be expected, but I’d love to find a way to improve efficacy in terms of actual research rather than just “making websites”.

2. Student’s don’t take risks – many of my students gravitate to topics that they have had experience with in the past, when what I want them to do is explore something totally new and foreign to them. Their motivation is primarily – “how can I get this done easily and get a good grade…” When I want it to be “what can I learn about that is totally new.”

3. What do we do with the websites when we’re done? This is a problem that is on me really. Students spend a lot of time making snazzy websites, I grade them and then we move on. It feels anticlimactic. Realizing this, I have began thinking about students creating a website that they build all year – a site that tracks their progress in the class. Also, from a different angle, I’ve been thinking about continuing the sites and trying to make them into something more than just a destination.

4. The project is rather superficial and doesn’t really achieve any of my “lofty goals” of fostering participation in a global culture. While I realize that this is a “lofty goal” I also feel that I could be doing a lot more than I am right now. I want students chatting with real people in the countries that they are researching. I want them not just reporting on the maltreatment of women in Sudan – I want them – even in a small way – to feel like they have done something about it! This – more than any other – is a daunting task that I have set for myself. I could hole up and teach poetry (which I love) and it would be great, but I feel like I “need” to find ways to connect these kids to the larger world in a more literal way than just reading about it.

Really, what I got from this project is an awareness of what I would like to do. This is less an accomplished finished projects and more of a stepping stone. I hope that, a few years from now I can look back on this and feel good about how far I’ve come in the interim.

The positives:

Now that’s I’ve poked my ship full of holes, I should acknowledge the upside of what we did accomplish. Here’s another list:

1. As research goes, my students have developed competence with the basics.

2. They understand how to cite sources in MLA format,

3. how to integrate quotes either parenthetically or intra-textually into the flow of their writing,

4. and they know how to sustain an argument and support it with the views, criticisms, and arguments of others.

5. According to our syllabus, and the educational goals of our department, the project accomplishes what we need to accomplish with research skill development.

6. The project also, compared with the traditionally methods I’ve used in the past – piles of note cards, paper only essays, has increased efficacy a great deal. In the past my students groaned when the word research was dragged out – now they nag me for extra lab time so that they can upload that video they found last night that could be “so cool” for their website. It’s a good start…

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