The history of educational technology remains a bit of a blind spot for humanists and digital humanists alike. While the subject of digital pedagogy has, in recent years, entered more fully into mainstream DH discourse, the history of educational technology in the humanities classroom has not yet been considered (Hirsh; Cordell; Battershill and Ross). At a time when the digital humanities is trying to recover previously hidden genealogies, the history of educational technology and the role of the humanities within it can help us better understand what is at stake in controlling the technologies we use in our classrooms today. In particular, humanists’ earliest engagements with educational broadcasting and multimedia learning, in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, reveal just how long humanities scholars and educators have maintained a disparity in their technological commitments: they have been more willing to develop resources for and exercise control over the technologies they use for research than those they use in the classroom. Seeing how this lack of control has played out in the long term should compel us to reflect on the choices we make today in the technologies we use and, ultimately, on how best to develop our own ecosystem of humanities-tailored tools for teaching.
The Electronic Humanities
In the 1950s and 1960s, educators, educational researchers, librarians, and members of the electronics industry, among others, proffered a vision in which the transmission of sound and image was essential if humankind was to bring the vast new hordes of knowledge and information under control and leverage it toward greater human achievement. The electronic circulation and display of audiovisual material were consistently offered up as necessary counterparts to the exchange of computational data in the communication and organization of human knowledge. For humanities scholars and educators too, new audiovisual systems were as vital a part of the electronic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s as computers, and humanists wasted no time embracing the affordances of both sets of technologies. We already know that a small but growing cadre of humanists had begun, in these years, to employ computing power as a novel means to generate concordances and conduct large-scale stylistic studies of canonical texts. That history has been detailed by, among others, Dolores Burton, Joseph Raben, and Susan Hockey, starting as early as the 1980s (Burton, “Automated Concordances and Word Indexes: The Early Sixties and the Early Centers,” “The Process, the Programs, and the Products,” and “Machine Decisions and Editorial Revisions”; Raben; Hockey). More extensive work has followed in recent years, particularly on the movement’s earliest figure, Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest dubbed by some the “grandfather of the digital humanities” (Jones; Terras and Nyhan). But the history of humanities computing constitutes our only basis for understanding the aims and interests underlying humanists’ engagements with electronic technologies in the 1950s and 1960s. As Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson have recently observed, it is increasingly important, if we are to truly broaden our conception of contemporary digital humanities, to consider not just past “work in the encoding and marking up of texts” but also to properly grasp “the richly mediated and deeply visual culture in which computation came of age” (xiv). Humanities scholars and educators of the 1950s and 1960s were as intrigued with the immersive, affective, associative, and multisensory aspects of electronic media as they were with the ability to process electronic data. Many began an analogous hands-on effort to employ electronic audiovisual technologies.
Educational television provided one such opportunity. Much like the sudden growth of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the early 2010s, the widespread and rapid rise of educational television in the mid- to late 1950s led many in and out of academia to think that a good deal of educational content might be moving inexorably toward massively broadcast, visually oriented courseware. While “educational television” would, by the late 1960s, come to denote the PBS-style “public television” of today, in the early to late 1950s it, to a large degree, meant instructional television: formal educational programming designed to promote sequential learning. In 1959, for instance, 53 percent of all programming broadcast from educational stations was instructional in nature or lecture oriented, and 41 percent of all programming consisted of for-credit telecourses (Schramm, 28).
Humanists too seemed convinced that this large-scale transformation in the delivery of educational content was imminent. That sense of inevitability was important since many humanities scholars and educators who took to the air did so thinking that educational television could be used to link traditional humanities study to television and, in doing so, permanently alter the way students and others engaged the new medium. The most prominent of these educators was Frank C. Baxter, a professor of literature at the University of Southern California (USC). In 1953, KNXT, the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, offered USC an hour of “public service” each Saturday at 11 a.m. USC filled that hour with a series developed and taught by Baxter, Shakespeare on TV. The series was an instant success in the Los Angeles area and was picked up the following year for national broadcast. In 1954, 332 USC students took Shakespeare on TV, or English 356a, for credit. Nine hundred people audited the course, and a full 400,000 watched it (Los Angeles Times, B1). By 1957, Shakespeare on TV had aired on at least twenty television stations nationwide, and four million course study guides had been mailed to viewers who requested them (Healy, 8).
The desire among English educators like Baxter to go on the air was connected to a wave of early optimism regarding the potential for quality cultural TV programming, especially literary dramas. Starting in the late 1940s, television adaptations of contemporary plays formed a ready and convenient supply of compelling dramatic stories. So, too, did adaptations of established literary works. In television’s first decade, works from nearly every playwright in the Western canon were adapted for the new medium. The emergence of instructional television thus dovetailed, quite serendipitously, with what might be considered an early form of humanities-oriented media studies. “Television education,” a new focus in English classrooms in these years, directed students to watch literary adaptations as a supplement to assigned readings and oriented curricula toward the analysis of the form and content of original television dramas. Engaging with both literary adaptations and original television plays was seen as the most compelling way to encourage students to regularly seek out literary experiences via television and, more generally, to start thinking of the electronic apparatus in their family room as a major vehicle for quality narrative culture. Like others in his field, Baxter was motivated by the literary benefits of the twin endeavors of literary and instructional television and found himself in a unique position. As an English teacher at a time of quality literary television, he seized the opportunity to guide his students and others toward a more discriminating set of viewing habits for the new medium. As an English teacher in the era of instructional television, he entered the studio himself, producing quality literary educational broadcasting that, while reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers, would, he hoped, act in cooperation with literary television. Both efforts attempted to transplant the “literary experience” of the theater and the page to the home screen and, as a result, raise the cultural quality of TV programming in America at a time when the meaning of television viewing was, in a significant sense, still up for grabs.
Humanists’ endeavor to intervene in the use habits of television in this way was, regrettably, ill fated. Two states of affairs led to this missed opportunity, both of which still hold true for today’s humanities educators: the shifting nature of institutional commitments to specific educational technologies and humanists’ lack of control over the technologies they used. Just as rapidly as lecture-oriented educational television arose, it began to decline. Teacher shortages of the mid-1950s, to which educational television was a direct response, abated. The FCC bribery scandals of 1959, together with the Senate investigations into television violence in 1961, led a coalition of reformers at key funding agencies, educational television institutions, the FCC, and Congress to reorient educational television from lecture-oriented content toward broader cultural programming. While, in the late 1950s, educational televisions stations were owned almost exclusively by school districts, colleges, and universities, by the late 1960s nearly all had been absorbed into the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For humanists, the outcome was regrettable. When they lost the ability to design and produce content for the screen, they lost a key platform with which to affect larger-scale expectations for the new medium.
The fact that they were only producing content was the problem, however. No matter how ambitious their aims in using instructional television, Baxter and others remained “content providers” for the new medium. Humanists had not, in the short span of time in which they were providing content, established any real control over the technology itself. They had not set up any means to design and produce courses outside the institutional apparatus of their colleges or universities. They had not mastered the methods or practices of broadcasting. And they certainly had not learned to deploy the equipment itself: to work live cameras or create kinescope recordings of live broadcasts. Though they had far-reaching social and theoretical aims for their use of the technology, they had, by and large, counted on those who controlled its infrastructure and means of production to achieve them.
More than a half century later, humanities educators stand in the same relation to much of the technology they use to publish course-related content online. While the tools, platforms, and systems they use to deliver that content may be more varied than they were for humanities educators of the 1950s, the dilemma remains essentially the same: they have limited control over the technologies they use. To deliver fully online courses, colleges and universities typically make compulsory the use of a specific, often commercial platform. But more importantly, even when humanities educators do have choices in the platforms they use to deliver their content, whether through fully online courses or, more likely, in a blended classroom or in simply posting supplementary material online for an otherwise traditional course, their choices are often not made in the interest of long-term control.
We need to resist, whenever possible, commercial platforms and to use open-source alternatives instead. While that choice may cost us some desired functionality in the short term—for instance, in choosing to use Jitsi over WebEx or Adobe Connect to deliver our lectures online—what we potentially gain in the long term can be vastly more important: the ability to integrate a given platform, in terms of support and even development, into our own network of humanities-tailored pedagogical resources. How often do we choose to use a commercial platform solely because it offers the exact set of features we require or because our college or university makes it readily available through an institutional license? How often do we choose a particular tool or platform, regardless of its origins, simply because it is painlessly on hand? How often can we think of cases in which humanities educators have used, for instance, Genius to mark up course-related material when they could have used Hypothes.is, or 3D Warehouse to immerse students in three-dimensional environments when they could have used VSim? We need to be more discerning and calculating about the broader impact these individual choices have on our collective ability as humanities educators to build out a set of shared platforms and resources. For this same reason, we need to choose platforms already supported and developed by our colleagues in the humanities and related fields over their alternatives. Platforms like these, developed at DH centers or by allied groups, often incorporate values vital to us as humanities scholars and educators, such as the ability to capture or express ambiguity, difference, and relational thinking. These capacities for platforms should be the basic criterion by which we choose among them, whether that means supporting platforms already built in this way or supporting open-source platforms that might one day be integrated into our network and tailored to our needs and interests. Doing so will help ensure that we can continue to use our educational technologies to advance our own humanistic ends, something our predecessors of the 1950s were unable to achieve.
Multimedia learning has a similar origin story in the humanities, first developing as an experimental technique among humanities educators just as educational television began to decline in the early to mid-1960s. As educational television faded from use in formal instruction in the early part of the decade, the electronic revolution in education only intensified when a host of more cutting-edge information technologies arrived on the scene: audio-listening centers; computer-assisted instruction; self-instructional, multimedia study carrels; remote-access programmed instruction; and “electronic classrooms” equipped for sequenced, multiscreen, multimedia presentations. The 1960s thus saw a different, but related, kind of revolution in educational technology, one that sought to bring text together with images, audio, and video into programmed, multimedia instruction.
The capabilities of these new technologies were particularly exhilarating to a group of humanists interested in exploring the relationship between the sensorial affordances of electronic multimedia systems and the immersive nature of humanities content. Humanities educators began quickly to experiment with total-audiovisual systems, testing and then talking about the potentially profitable relationship between electronic and humanistic experiences in the classroom. Mixing media, intermingling multiple senses alongside ideas, and appealing to a complex of cognitive and affective registers created a “total experience,” a phrase regularly employed by humanities educators advocating educational media in these years. One such set of programs, developed for the Edex system by English faculty at both Niles Township High School in Skokie, Illinois, and at Chicago Teachers College in 1965, was used for instruction in both language and poetry. The Edex system equipped a classroom or auditorium with a control console from which one could coordinate the sequenced and/or simultaneous use of a tape recorder, a film projector, and a random-access slide projector, as well as receive input from each student via a four-button response panel. Students experiencing one of the poetry “programs” filed into an auditorium and were met with lively music overhead. As the auditorium dimmed, projectors began to fill the screen with the first stanza of a poem. Stanzas dissolved into one another as the narrator described the literary devices and explored the symbolism used in each. In between sections, students answered multiple-choice questions about the poem by keying their responses into a four-button console built into their desk. Programs on language followed the same structure, but used synchronized sounds—children playing, a radio announcer—alongside text and images (Stowe and Maggio, 410).
As with educational television, designing multimedia systems not only brought the narrative and experiential quality of humanities content to life and in the process took advantage of students’ developed visual sensibilities but it also gave humanities educators the opportunity to help guide the critical uses of those new sensibilities. The evolution from educational television to multimedia systems for humanists was subtle but significant. Educational television, though it was multimedia in nature, still followed a lecture model of instruction. Multimedia instruction, in contrast, allowed humanists to direct more imaginative and critical engagements with multisensory formats. “It is essential for students to become active, intelligent and discriminating consumers of both print and nonprint media,” argued James Bell, an English teacher who in 1968 started requiring his students to construct multimedia presentations of novels in lieu of standard book reports (7). Bell dubbed his method the “Multi-Media Response Process,” and in it, he specifically prohibited students from using any print material in their responses to texts, hoping that this process would force students to think about nonprinted, new media as a semi-direct, translatable analog able to stand on its own terms with a literary text.
According to Bell, television and newer media had become such an integral part of students’ communication environment that their overall creativity hinged on its mastery. For others, like members of the electronics industry, behavioral scientists, and educational technology engineers, educational media was primarily a way to implement more efficient forms of nonprint communication in education. For humanists like Bell, what mattered was not taking in more information so much as a mastery of the media along which that information traveled. Here they called on fellow humanities educators and the chief theorists of the “electronic age,” Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, in making the case that electronic media allowed students to, as McLuhan famously stated in Understanding New Media, better sense “integral patterns,” and to “live mythically and in depth”: essentially electronic media allowed students to better interrogate their environment and reality (vii).
As they had been with educational television, humanists’ interventions with multimedia educational technologies in these earliest years were unsuccessful. Despite the hopes of those like Bell and the many prognostications of those like McLuhan, an electronic, multimedia educational world never materialized in the 1960s; likewise, experimental, multisensory-focused instruction did not become a core part of the humanities classroom. The market for multimedia instructional systems simply never matured. After recording heavy losses, some ventures, like the General Learning Company, only turned a profit after shifting their focus from electronic multimedia systems toward “instructional packages” that mixed together print, photos, and lab equipment. Others abandoned the effort altogether. Raytheon sold its entire “electronic learning systems business” just five years after purchasing several instructional technology firms, including the Edex system used by humanities educators (Raymond, 509). While educators continued to use more modest audiovisual materials to supplement instruction, large-scale experimentation with electronic audiovisual systems dwindled rapidly in the early 1970s.
Humanities educators face a similar set of challenges today. The development and adoption of multimedia educational technologies are, in many ways, as unpredictable now as they were in the 1960s and, indeed, as they have been throughout the twentieth century. The emergence of new multimedia educational technologies has often been subject to boom-and-bust cycles, regularly eliciting a great deal of initial hype followed by fleeting periods of adoption. In the more distant past, these cycles have cut short the opportunities of early adopters using educational film in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and electronic multimedia systems in the 1960s. In more recent times, we have seen this pattern play out for a host of large-scale technological innovations in education such as digital textbooks, the virtual classroom (for instance, Second Life), and MOOCs, as well as more specific technologies like iPads.
The question for us today, given this long-standing pattern, is how can we better weather these cycles? Part of the answer lies, as it does with publishing educational content online, in making the right choices of the specific tools, platforms and systems we use. But using the right tools and platforms out there is simply not enough. If we truly want to control our fates as technology-driven humanities educators, given the long-standing and problematic nature of our relationship to educational technologies, we must build our own network of shared services and infrastructure for digital pedagogy that is commensurate with, and indeed intimately tied to, the already existing ecosystem of resources, tools, and platforms built for DH research and scholarship. Our capacity to resist the long-term pattern described here, of just using what is lying around because it is offered by our college or university or is readily available as a commercial service, lies not just in our choosing to use the right technologies but also in investing in our own.
Committing to such a network of humanities-tailored teaching tools will, however, require us to overcome another long-standing pattern; namely, an imbalance in the amount of resources humanities scholars and educators have been willing to devote to infrastructure for their research and scholarship, on the one hand, and their pedagogical practices, on the other. Part of the reason humanities computing has been so well documented as a line of descent for the contemporary digital humanities is that its earliest practitioners, unlike those experimenting with educational technologies in the same years, left behind a durable set of resources. From the early to the late 1960s, humanists and others established the first lines of communication and shared services and infrastructure devoted to humanities-oriented computational research. The first center dedicated to humanities computing in the United States, the Institute for Computer Research in the Humanities at New York University, was established in 1966 offering, among other key resources, the first humanities programming classes in 1967 (ICRH Newsletter, 1966–1969). The first set of national conferences on literary data processing ran from 1964 to 1970, several of which published subsequent reports or proceedings. The first fellowships for computer-oriented research in the humanities were offered by the American Council of Learned Societies and funded by IBM, starting in 1964 (Lieb). Finally, the first journal, Computers and the Humanities, started publishing in 1966 with annual directories of active scholars in the field, humanities-designed computer programs, and literary works in machine-readable form. With the aid of these resources, humanists began to construct machine-readable texts and concordances of more and more canonical texts and to code and deploy an increasing number of humanities-tailored computer programs, improving on their efforts year after year. From these foundations, humanists were able to build out a resilient network of resources and support, allowing them to have a good measure of control over the direction of humanities computing. By comparison, humanists engaged with educational technologies in these same years were largely using what had been handed to them. When institutional commitments shifted or corporations pulled out, they faltered.
The situation is not altogether different today: the level of control and direction we have over our technologies in the areas of research and scholarship, on the one hand, and education, on the other, is as uneven now as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Every year, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Mellon Foundation, foremost among others, award funds for the development of digital tools, platforms, and projects in the humanities. Only a small portion of that funding goes to DH pedagogy or to the development of humanities-oriented educational technologies. Forty-four (15%) of the 295 Digital Humanities Start-Up grants funded by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) since 2007 mention “teaching,” “classroom” or “pedagogy” in their title or abstract. That percentage holds as well for the ODH’s Digital Humanities Implementation grants awarded since 2012. When it comes to scholarly activities—research, authoring, and publishing, for instance—we seem to have decided it is worthwhile to build out a robust network of digital tools and platforms specifically geared toward humanities work. But when it comes to educational technology, we are much more willing to just use what is on hand. We rely on large-scale learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard and Google Classroom) or cobble together open-source and commercial platforms and services (e.g., blogs, wikis, timelines, and video-sharing websites) to manage our courses and deliver our content.
We need, most obviously, to devote more money and resources to building and maintaining our own set of humanities-tailored educational tools and platforms. We have a responsibility to better serve our students, specifically as humanities learners, with such tailored technologies. For their sake, we cannot continue to just use what is lying around.
However, if we truly want to promote and establish an ecosystem of custom humanities educational tools and platforms, we must closely link the needs of that ecosystem to our more mature efforts in DH research, writing, and publishing. We must take the needs of that new ecosystem into consideration in all our decisions regarding the support and development of all digital tools and platforms, including those that traditionally support digital research and scholarship. First, we need to consider what we are supporting and the consequences of that support for educational technology in the humanities, even in building digital projects that are not necessarily educational in nature. For instance, if in building out a born-digital scholarly publication, we have the choice between using a commercial platform or one built by and for humanists—between CartoDB and Neatline, or between YouTube and Critical Commons—our choice should be guided not just by the features or services we require for our publication but also by the role that each platform plays in our lives as humanities educators. Second, we need to think broadly about how we can leverage more platforms built by and for humanists to educational ends and how we can make greater use of assets we already control. This could be as simple as repurposing the features and functionality of existing platforms. But if we are serious about taking control of the educational technologies we use, our work should also involve forking and building plug-ins for already existing humanities-developed platforms to make them better fit our educational purposes.
Finally, we need to think more about these kinds of cross-purposes—teaching and learning, on the one hand, and research and scholarship, on the other—not only in using already existing platforms but also in proposing, funding, and building new ones. As others have rightly noted, digital humanists have a unique opportunity to bridge the gap between our research, scholarship, and teaching (Hirsh). But in the use and development of humanities-tailored platforms, in particular, we have a chance that none others do: to enable new modes of research and scholarship for ourselves while at the same time modeling and fostering new forms of scholarly practices and workflows for our students. We have the opportunity, in influencing our students’ practices on the vernacular web, not just to offer up new scholarly genres—the database documentary, the video essay, or the annotated mini-archive, for instance—but the very platforms we develop to enable those genres. Funding agencies could easily incentivize such cross-purpose platform development by giving preference to applications for research and scholarly platforms that also explicitly address educational uses.
Implementing these recommendations would help us close the gap between our research and teaching by fostering cross-purpose humanities platform development. It would also help guarantee us more control over the direction we take our technologies as humanities educators—giving us more control than we currently have and certainly more control than our predecessors had in the 1950s and 1960s. As their story makes clear, that control is important because we want to safeguard not only the work we do but also our collective effort over time.
1. If one looks at historical scholarship, the intersection of the humanities and educational technology also remains largely absent. Works dedicated to the history of educational technology are rarely discipline specific, and none focus on the history of educational technology as it relates to the humanities specifically (Cuban; Saettler; Reiser; Cassidy). Likewise, recent work in the history of the humanities has overlooked the role that technology played in shifting the boundaries of humanities pedagogy and curricula in the last half-century (Bender and Schorske; Hollinger; “On the Humanities”; “Reflecting on the Humanities”).
2. Among the many examples here, see for instance, plans for some of the first electronic educational networks, Intrex and Edunet (Brown, Miller, and Keenan; Overhage and Harman).
3. In the 1955–1956 season alone, one could regularly see works by Sophocles, Euripides, Shaw, Ibsen, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Henry James, and, of course, Shakespeare. When NBC presented a three-hour version of Richard III on March 11, 1956, it was viewed by one of the largest television audiences yet: 25 million. Alongside these adaptations, one could tune in each week to a host of anthology drama programs featuring the works of critically acclaimed television playwrights: Rod Serling, Tad Mosel, Gore Vidal, and Paddy Chayefsky, among others.
4. It’s important to understand, as Lisa Gitelman, Jussi Parikka, and others in the media archeological tradition have recently shown, that practices that evolve around new media are not as overdetermined as we like to imagine (Gitelman and Pingree; Parikka). Rather, a given medium is brought forth into a state of “identity crisis” within which “its meaning—its potential, its limitations, the publicly agreed upon sense of what it does, and for whom—has not yet been pinned down” (Gitelman and Pingree, xv).
5. Hypothes.is is a bookmarklet for scholarly and educational web annotations funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (see https://web.hypothes.is/). VSim is an NEH-funded platform developed at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education for the “real-time exploration of highly detailed, three-dimensional computer models in both formal and informal educational settings” (see https://idre.ucla.edu/research/active-research/vsim).
6. The circumstances surrounding the development of multimedia, electronic educational technologies in the 1960s were in many ways analogous to the production of digital textbooks today. Like digital textbooks, the hype surrounding 1960s educational technologies centered on the advantages of multimedia content, student interactivity, and personalized learning. What is more, just as digital textbooks today are the product of strategic mergers between publishers and software companies, in the 1960s, “electronic education” was promoted most heavily by a series of new corporations and partnerships formed between major electronics firms and publishers specializing in educational content (Young). The largest of these mergers included RCA and Random House, General Electric and Time Inc., IBM and Science Research Associates, and Xerox and American Educational Publications (Sharpes, 135).
7. In 1965, James Collier, Raytheon’s director of corporate planning, predicted the market for instructional technology would reach $2 billion in 1970 and $3 billion by 1975 (White, A33). In reality, that market peaked in 1970 at $650 million (Keppel, 75).
8. These cycles have been the subject of many histories of educational technology, including Cuban, Cassidy, and Saettler.
9. See Bessinger, Parrish, and Arader; Conference on the Use of Computers in Humanistic Research; Conference on Computers for the Humanities; IBM Symposium; Ohle; and Proceedings.
10. Stephen Brier has also written about the inclusion of pedagogy and teaching in NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants (392).
11. I suspect that these numbers reveal more about the focus of the applications that the ODH receives and less about their funding priorities, as their grant guidelines are always framed broadly.
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