The Digital Classroom: A Digital Humanities Primer on Tools, Methods, and Resources

1In his 1993 play Arcadia, Tom Stoppard confronts Bernard, a stubborn historian of English literature, with the foray of literary scholarship into digital methods. “One of my colleagues believed he had found an unattributed short story by D. H. Lawrence, and he analyzed it on his home computer,” (19) he explains to Valentine, a mathematician. Bernard belittles the computational analysis, which found a ninety per cent chance that the story is indeed a lost Lawrence text: “To my inexpressible joy, one of your maths mob was able to show that on the same statistical basis there was a ninety percent chance that Lawrence also wrote the Just William books” Bernard’s already low opinion on computational methods mingling with literary analysis worsens throughout the play. To him, the genius of a writer remains forever irreconcilable with the cold, logical world of numbers. In his own words: “Parameters! You can’t stick Byron’s head in your laptop!” (60).

2Bernard’s unabashed attitude towards computational methods represents an opinion towards digital methods in the humanities that has waned in recent years. The application of digital approaches to literary and cultural matters, a method of Digital Humanities (DH, for short), is in high demand. At the same time, many scholars perceive DH as a somewhat exclusive discipline, since self-described digital humanists are equally cooperative within their field and to a certain degree isolationist beyond, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out: “Digital humanities had gone from being a term of convenience used by a group of researchers who had already been working together for years to something like a movement. Individual scholars routinely now self-identify as digital humanists, or ‘DHers’” (199). To subside the apparent apprehension of scholars who are as of yet unacquainted with digital approaches, a guided introduction to digital methods, tools, and repositories is called for. Lisa Spiro aptly sums it up: “Aspiring digital humanists need a flexible, inexpensive way to develop key skills, demonstrate their learning and participate in the digital humanities community” (332).

3Kirschenbaum furthermore hints at the collaborative nature of DH projects. In fact, collaboration and cooperation is one fundamental quality of teaching DH methods in classrooms. McCarthy goes one step further when he argues that DH “is not, on the whole, characterized by the same ‘ethic of radical individualism,’” by which he refers to the tendency of traditional methods to ask for and assess a single individual’s performance. Whether it is conceived as a discipline in its own right or as a set of shared methodologies across a number of disciplines, the digital humanities embrace a “hacker ethos” (15). McCarthy’s reference to “hacker ethos” perhaps describes best the experience of working on a DH project. Such projects consist of cumulative and mutual learning—between teachers and students and between students and students. However, to make DH accessible to all scholars, the Humanities need an array of methods, tools, resources and “frameworks that permit all scholars to take advantage of the available tools in their research fields” (Gardiner and Musto 168).

4To achieve this goal, a question presents itself: How do scholars combine computational methods and teachings with the methods and teachings of the traditional Humanities? Students of English language and literature are usually exposed to books and readers, not to coding and computers. My aim in this article is to show that, as much as digital approaches have the potential to reform the Humanities as a discipline, they also have the potential to reform the teaching of the discipline. Kirschenbaum notes that DH “is also a social undertaking. It harbors networks of people who have been working together, sharing research, arguing, competing, and collaborating for many years” (197). From my own experience teaching DH, I would like to extend (or rather, constrict) this argument to the social environment in EFL (English as a foreign language) classrooms. Linguists have been trained in computational analysis and corpus studies for many years now, and their field of study seems to have adopted DH methodologies to the point that projects on the shape and use of language are incomplete without them. But this methodical repository can be transferred relatively seamlessly to the study of literature as well. With the introduction to challenges and access to DH in Part I, resources and tools in Part II, and a hands-on list of practical methods and services to create a digital classroom in Part III, I hope to clarify that the adoption of quantitative methods is less of a leap than some might expect. I offer insight into how teachers might use quantitative methods to their benefit in their courses.

Part I: Challenges and Access to DH

5Arguably the largest obstacle for teaching DH is the need to adjust expectations towards students. Traditionally, school students are used to applying a variety of cultural theories to isolated pieces of literature. Close reading and discussing individual interpretations in a group makes up a large part of the EFL classroom. By contrast, DH encompasses more wide-ranging kinds of analysis to literature and brings with it a different methodology. Instead of two or three isolated examples, the matter of study expands to entire authors’ works, entire historical movements, or even an entire medium. In many cases, the term distant reading is an appropriate description for these endeavors. The underlying philosophy of this approach can be summarized by taking into account either a larger number of texts and their relationship with each other, or a text’s global features, which scholars would then analyze with specific tools. In order to categorize these approaches, Cohen identifies four different DH domains: electronic imaginative compositions, analytical approaches to digital humanities, archives, and institutional politics (533). I want to focus on the second and third type, two particularly popular—and most readily rewarding—types of access towards DH, which I would like to rebrand: work on digital editions / corpora, and quantitative analysis.

Digital Editions and Corpora: Project-Based Learning

6Editions and corpora present a collection of texts under specific topics and delimitations. Editors must thus necessarily confine the collection of these texts to more or less clear parameters. Whether analog or digital, these prerequisites are followed by any corpus. To use an example for a digital corpus, the Graphic Narrative Corpus restricted entries to meet the following qualifications: “book-length comics that exceed 64 pages in length, tell one continuous or closely related stories, are aimed primarily at an adult readership, and form one single volume or a limited series (such as a trilogy)” (cf. Dunst, Laubrock, Hartel). The result is a database with around 240 unique graphic narratives and information about authors, artists, publication details, and other metadata. Digital editions and corpora are projects that set out to collect, digitize, and preserve a portion of human culture; they may vary as wildly as the “Eighteenth-Century Poetry Corpus,” an edition and cartography of the Icelandic sagas, or an edition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to name only a few. The European Association for Digital Humanities, EADH, catalogues a vast number of completed and ongoing editions on their website.

7As for the methodology on how to create such digital editions, Engel and Thain, for instance, designed an interdisciplinary course for students that sought to teach the creation of digital editions. Their course “encouraged students to reflect on all the technical decisions they made in building their sites as themselves potentially acts of interpretation of the text they were representing” (18). To students of literature, this interdisciplinary setup has a two-fold potential. Not only are students able to gain technological expertise in digitization, editing, and computational skills, they also experience “a growth in awareness of textual features through attending to the literature in a new way” (19). Engel and Thain structured their course into four consecutive stages:

  1. Basic Development Skills. An introduction to mark-up language, image file types, and file management;
  2. Content Management System. Students learned how to organize their work on the web;
  3. XML and Text Encoding Initiative. Text digitization requires mark-up of all the text’s features, not mere transcription of the text. The most ubiquitous method to achieve this annotation is Extensible Markup Language (XML) and the Text Encoding Initiative, or TEI (more on this further below in the tools and resources section);
  4. Students learned how to save their work on the web for posterity so that future users have easy access to their digital edition.
8Students chose texts according to their own preferences. As a result, this course’s digital edition does not follow a specific topic of inquiry, historical movement, set of authors, etc. Instead, the edition serves an educational purpose as an example for project-based learning, or PBL for short (6–9). It is certainly beneficial to the usage of DH methods in classrooms if the goal of such courses is not to create content-oriented editions, but rather to teach such methods in the first place. In this sense, the guiding principle for Engel and Thain’s digital edition is less one of medium or historicity, but one of product-orientation—the end product is evidence for skills and knowledge that students gained on its way to completion.

Quantitative Analysis and Reader Comprehension

9In comparison to digital editions and corpora, quantitative analysis is less exploratory and more hypothesis-based. Quantitative analysis of literature may, for example, use a method called stylometry to cluster a corpus of works according to stylistic choices and most frequent words (see Allison et al. Style). These stylometric analyses may even find that a previously unattributed text belongs to a certain author, just like Stoppard’s Bernard bemoans in Arcadia. Other projects involve a comprehensive stylistic overview of certain historical intervals that contains an amount of texts which would simply be impossible to read individually in one’s own lifetime.

10In essence, quantitative analysis looks for trends and/or significance. The former is still somewhat tied to exploratory surveys. In his 2009 article, Moretti discovered that British novels between 1740 and 1850 tend to use more and more women’s first names in their title (196–200). This observation may point towards his interpretation of gender asymmetry and the rise of the historical novel after 1815; it may also not. We don’t know, because Moretti explored his corpus of 7,000 books to see if there were interesting trends. Yet, these trends do not make his observation, at least in statistical terms, significant. This is perfectly fine since finding such trends, and making observations based on cultural and historical knowledge, have long been the basis of studies in the Humanities.

11Another salient example of this quantitative approach can be found in Herrmann’s stylistic analysis of Kafka’s work. By using a mixed-method approach—the combination of several methods both quantitative and qualitative—Herrmann tests her hypothesis that Kafka’s writing style is unique when compared to other German-speaking authors and finds that Kafka’s style actually groups with authors of children’s books, which, according to the paper, is in accordance with Kafka’s own reading preferences. Again, the computed data corroborates historical knowledge about the subject at hand; while not necessarily statistically significant, it points towards trends which scholars have known before, but with a certain degree of mathematical accuracy instead of circumstantial evidence. In Herrmann’s own words: “This is where the analysis of this particular quantitative measure stops, letting the aggregated data speak for itself. However, in the present context, it is not really much it can say, despite a relatively weak corroboration of the reported hypothesis, which originates from rich hermeneutic observations.” If we were to test for statistical significance, we would be able to find out whether our interpretation is logically valid, or whether it is the result of individual sentiment, emotion, attachment, bias—in short, whether it would be the result of chaos.

12Tests that deem a hypothesis to be statistically significant show that there is a very high possibility that said hypothesis relates to some meaningful interaction, that is to say, something other than chance. Conducting empirical research dictates the strict following and separation of the following sections: Theory, Hypothesis, Method/Design, Procedure, Results, and Discussion. Another important part of statistical testing is the description of tested groups, which would fall under “Participants” or “Subjects,” but it sometimes merges with Method/Design and/or Procedure. Theory should explain existing conceptions of the topic at hand and present results from previous studies that are relevant to it. A hypothesis should summarize the intention of the study, the necessities prior to the test, and what might prompt falsification. The “Results” section presents only the numbers, visualization of data, and summary of testing, whereas Discussion interprets these data. The last distinction is particularly important to discriminate in order to sustain impartiality and reliability of data. There is some fundamental terminology to statistical hypothesis testing—Null Hypothesis, dependent and independent variable, correlation, p-value, etc.—the explanation of which would skew the purpose of this article and which other sources describe more succinctly. I will point to a few reliable sources for the EFL classroom in the next section.

13As an example, consider the study discussed in Mangen, Walgermo, and Brønnick’s article “Reading Linear”: Their survey found that students scored significantly better with print texts in comparison to digital texts while also distinguishing between narrative texts (fiction) and expository texts (factual). Mangen, Walgermo, and Brønnick first introduce the theoretical background, with a discussion of cognitive differences while reading digital texts, followed by a summary of earlier studies that were conducted with comparable hypotheses (62–63). Their own hypothesis then states that: “We hypothesized (1) that we would find, as in previous research, better reading comprehension when texts were read on paper, and (2) that the expository text would be more affected by reading modality than the narrative, due to the possible higher cognitive load introduced by the topic of the text” (63). The following “Methods” section details experiment design—two groups that read a narrative text and an expository text either on paper or digitally, along with pretests that assess reading comprehension—including number and backgrounds of participants, surveying instruments, and analysis tools. At the end, the authors present their results in two tables. One table shows how each group scored in the pretests, the other table shows each group’s coefficient of determination () for reading comprehension scores (65).

14In this study, represents how well one might predict the outcome of reading comprehension based on whether a student reads a digital text or a text on paper. The results show a statistically significant relationship between reading digital texts and low scores, but no statistically significant relationship between other variables such as texts on paper and scores. The concluding discussion mentions this result as impactful for schools which might consider switching tests and classroom reading to digital media. The authors also acknowledge that they have found no empirical support for the second part of their hypothesis (effects between expository and narrative texts).

15This sample study does not reveal anything sensational, nor does it do so with particularly outstanding statistical results. It does, however, show 1) how statistical hypothesis testing contributes to a better understanding of reader-text relationship, and 2) how this method might both shape and support a classroom environment. It is quite easy to imagine how this test could be replicated with a group of students in order to teach them about statistical methods in a literary environment. Students might learn the impact that DH methods may have qua their own experiences as participants and through actively engaging in these methods. Both approaches are proactive and problem-oriented. I will now move on to a number of tools and resources that ought to help both teachers and students who aim to apply DH methods in the classroom.

Part II: Tools and Resources

16The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) holds an annual DH conference and releases an array of journals. Two of those journals, the Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (DSH) and Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), publish new issues four times a year and introduce readers to latest studies and developments in the DH community. The ADHO website provides readers with a resource page and a Q&A forum that is of special interest for newcomers to DH who have questions about tools, databases, programming, and DH in the classroom.

Digital Editions and Corpora

17The article by Engel and Thain provides a good overview of what a DH classroom should focus on when creating digital editions. First, students ought to learn the basics of HTML and CSS to acquaint themselves with web development. I would like to point out that learning HTML and CSS is less of a daunting task than it might sound—an introduction to the basics should not take more than two sessions. There is a plethora of books that teach web design (one representative introduction is Jon Duckett’s HTML and CSS), but the overabundance of tutorials also extends to the web and students will be thankful to learn hands-on instead of having to transfer their knowledge from books to the computer. For one such helpful interactive experience, the website Codeacademy provides users with an extensive array of courses on virtually any programming and mark-up language.

18Next, coding and actual annotation will most likely require students to become accustomed to XML and TEI. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a markup language that promotes a wide variety of customization and extension. Therefore, XML enables a large variety of formats, one of which is text annotation. The TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) is one such format. TEI’s goal is to conserve analogue text in digital environments beyond mere transcription of text. As such, TEI uses an exhaustive pool of tags that denote paratextual items such as author (docAuthor), text type (type), bibliographical information (bibliogr), specific qualities of the text such as font or typographical emphasis (rendition tag along with individual selectors), and more. The broader the goal of a digital edition is, the more tags users will have to master. As such, it might be beneficial to start small and have students work on a highly specialized task that requires a smaller number of tags.

19The Text Encoding Initiative Consortium’s (TEI-C) website documents a large amount of tutorials to help first-time annotators. Students and teachers will also have to agree on which software to use for their text analysis. Oxygen XML Editor exhibits a design that is very helpful for beginners since its user interface is largely inspired by traditional word processors and it also converts TEI documents into HTML and PDF. Two web-based (and free of charge) alternatives are Voyant Tools and CATMA. Both allow for collaborative work on texts, which is ideal for the DH classroom, and their websites both offer a few tutorials to ease new users into the process. Voyant Tools is particularly tempting to use for newcomers to DH projects. Since Voyant Tools requires no installation and is also able to crawl webpages for text (which creates a text corpus in the process), its web design lets users analyze and visualize within a few clicks.

Quantitative Analysis

20Since the study of literature is traditionally not concerned with quantitative methods, any project on statistical testing should start with a basic introduction to statistics. Just like with HTML and CSS, introductions to statistics from a variety of fields’ perspectives abound, but James et. al’s Introduction to Statistical Learning and Kenny’s Computation of Style tailor their lessons to readers who are unacquainted with mathematics (the former) and to students of literature in particular (the latter). For online resources, the website Statistics How To supplies readers with a comprehensive Wiki that includes easy to understand definitions, uses, and computational examples. Students will become aware of pitfalls and challenges that come with designing experiments and computing data, and these resources also guide through the process of establishing hypotheses, determining dependent and independent variables, and choosing the right kind of statistical analysis for their data.

21In a next step, students should pick the software for computing their data. Statistical analysis staples include Python, R, and SPSS. Python and R are both programming languages, and can seem overwhelming at first as their functionalities go far beyond statistical testing. Still, both languages come with a relatively straightforward learning curve. The website Programming Historian provides a few lessons for statistical analysis with Python (as well as how to code HTML and CSS websites with Python) and the aforementioned Codeacademy contains similar courses. Jockers’ Text Analysis with R comes with supplemental online material that lets students code in R while reading. In contrast to Python and R, SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) is a software which solely focuses on statistical analysis. As such, SPSS requires no programming knowledge and is easy enough to navigate if users know what they are looking for—the resources listed above should give enough guidance in that regard. If SPSS seems too overwhelming to statistics newcomers, the software JASP offers a simplified alternative with a stripped-down interface and reduced options (and no way to manipulate data within the software) in exchange for faster results and a much lower learning curve. All of these programs have built-in visualization options; for more customizable graphs and diagrams, the open-source software Gephi presents a rich tool for designing and modifying data visualization.

Part III: The Digital Classroom

22Having discussed introductory DH methodology and repositories, it now stands to reason to look at how exactly teachers may apply digital approaches to their classrooms. While the methods and case studies I have shown so far are all very valuable examples of DH in literary studies, the argument holds true that they are rather complex undertakings, or at the very least time-intensive to prepare, for the average EFL classroom. By contrast, less intrusive, but equally valuable, methods and tools exist, and they are rather quick to incorporate into one’s own teachings. To do so, I would like to examine the above question from three separate perspectives: Media Didactics, Media Studies, and Media Research, which Hug identifies as three of four main dimensions of Media Pedagogy. While Hug bases his model on a broader understanding of media in a semiotic sense, the same categorization applies seamlessly to a narrower understanding of media as digital media (and methodology connected to such media). Hence, for our purposes, media didactics looks at the utilization of digital media to improve and optimize teaching and learning processes.

23Moving forward from the two DH domains I discussed above, this section will provide hands-on examples and impulses further below that should help EFL teachers decide how exactly they can design their lessons with a DH mindset. Next, media studies covers matters of knowledge and technological competence when it comes to digital media. The availability of digital and online learning tools varies wildly from school to school and the experiences of using them is mostly bound to teachers’ personal preferences and willingness to use such tools. At the same time, 2020’s unprecedented pandemic has forced many teachers and students to rely on digital means in order to successfully conduct a regular classroom situation. The corresponding section below will therefore provide an overview of digital and online learning tools as well as easy solutions for the creation of a digital classroom.

24Lastly, media research entails the analysis and exploration of issues related to media. For our purposes, research of digital media should lead both teachers and students to the conclusion that DH methods and tools do not, by some futurist or technocratic axiom, automatically improve their lessons. Any teaching method is only as good as the goal it can accomplish in a classroom context, which should encourage prospective DH teachers of EFL not to use digital means in their lessons just for the sake of novelty, but for their effective and varied potential in particular didactic contexts. The process of socialization for digital media ranges across schools in which students are proficient enough to run their student representative elections online to schools in which students of a considerable age do not know how to attach a file to an email. Another facet of this incongruency can be found in students’ syllabi, which, for many schools, list Media Studies as their own separate subject with dedicated teaching personnel, whereas other schools have not yet picked up said subject or delegate it to teachers among the faculty regardless of their proficiency with digital media. In short, the prerequisites to study and teach DH at schools is reliant on individual cases. What’s more, both teachers and students cannot be expected to simply switch to the digital classroom without a somewhat transitory period of shorter and more succinct phases within lessons that use DH methods and tools. As such, the following examples will also take into consideration the amount of time that they would require in individual lessons.

Media Didactics

25As mentioned above, digital methods and DH content for the classroom may range from such complex projects such as a digital editions or even a corpus of several works to very granular phases within a lesson. Naturally, newcomers to DH would not want to start off with a vast, sequence-spanning plan that incorporates hitherto unknown methods. The following suggestions for digital methods are thus listed in order from least to most-time consuming. Note also that I restrict myself (here as much as with further examples) to didactic methodology that I have applied to my own school teaching and that this list is therefore not only subjective, but of course incomplete. For more comprehensive lists, readers may consult the following introductions, which are excellent, but mostly tailored to tertiary education, so individual methods might be in need of accommodation for schools contexts: Burdick et al. Digital_Humanities (2012) and Honn “Guide to Digital Humanities” (2014). If we follow the above examples for digital editions and quantitative analysis, a few effective teaching methods for schools emerge in accordance with their principles:

26For Digital Editions:

    • Short vocabulary quizzes: The traditional vocabulary test would ask students to either translate or explain single vocabulary items in a list. Teachers can easily transfer this process online with quiz websites such as

Kahoot

    • , which lets users design and save a collection of quizzes. The layout follows a classic TV show approach with one correct answer and a freely customizable number of distractor items. Teachers may also opt to acquire physical buzzers that they then use in-class. These quizzes can either follow specific word fields or certain teaching sequences. Students can then participate in the quiz all at once if they use their phones, open the website, and put in a code that the teacher displays. The quiz then takes place live with a number of points calculated by validity of answer and speed of response. The end result shows a ranking of highest-scoring participants. Since the question-answer design follows a simple right/wrong dichotomy, Kahoot and other such quiz apps are suitable for declarative knowledge, but does not come recommended for complex assignments. An online quiz of this nature may take up to ten minutes in-class and may become a ritualized method of testing students’ lexical acquisition processes.

 

  • Annotation work and aesthetic reading: As mentioned before, one of the primary DH methods for digital work is the annotation of data. Granted, teachers might abstain from entire annotation languages such as TEI (which is not to say that they are impossible to use in the EFL classroom), but more hands-on tools do exist. For example, the website Padlet enables teachers to create a digital notice board for which students can post texts and upload documents, images, presentations, and links. Both directions (TEI and digital pads) allow the class to cooperatively share work and results. One viable field of application for this method is aesthetic reading: Instead of keeping a personal (analog) reading diary, students are able to jot down favorite quotes, passages, ask comprehension questions, and discuss reactions to literature. The nature of this method goes back to DH’s tenet of collaborative work and collective processes instead of individual engagement with a literary work. On the one hand, students compare and evaluate fellow students’ assessments; on the other hand, teachers receive an overview of a class’s global opinion on a literary piece. This method serves itself especially well as homework for students after in-class discussions as students are able to upload their homework to the used app (such as Padlet) or to a shared cloud folder.
  • Wiki projects: Perhaps the most familiar item on this list to English teachers, wiki projects have not only become a well-researched learning tool for the EFL classroom, they are also a formidable example for integrating digital editions and DH learning into the curriculum. As such, the medium as well as its potential for and application to the English classroom has been discussed at length elsewhere (see Cummings and Barton; Edmondson; Ruth and Houghton). Projects on literature are the general field that popularized the use of wikis in the classroom. Teachers usually assign certain roles to individual students, which then work together for the duration of the literature sequence. Wiki projects are hence heavily reliant on collaborative social forms and demand a more process-oriented approach towards evaluation. What’s more, creating a wiki, just like the previously mentioned websites such as Padlet, mostly do away with the programming and code-based annotation process, making wikis a very entrance level-friendly DH method for both teachers and students.
27For Quantitative Analysis:

  • Assessment and Diagnostics: Similar to quizzes, several websites offer a digital approach to testing and evaluation, for example Mentimeter or SurveyMonkey. Both websites have a wide array of survey tools, but while Mentimeter works more like a Powerpoint presentation with the option to create wordclouds, diagrams, and feedback live, SurveyMonkey allows teachers to create online questionnaires, which they may also use for testing or for receiving feedback. Another difference is Mentimeter’s instant analytics: Teachers can project their presentations and students’ answers show up live on the screen as soon as they have answered them. SurveyMonkey provides more detailed results, but they are only visible to the creator of the questionnaire. Participation from the students’ side is done in both cases with either a link or a code that participants put into the respective website. It should also be noted that, just like Kahoot, these websites offer a free, but limited version; for example, the free version of SurveyMonkey allows ten question items per survey. What’s more, none of these websites collect private data nor do they require participants to sign up—all they need is the code provided by the teacher. Such surveys take up approximately five to twenty minutes of individual lessons.
  • Visualization of data: The curriculum for higher-level school students contains the accurate description and interpretation of visualized data such as diagrams, bar charts, etc., but neglects the relevance for students to visualize their own data in such ways. As with most others DH methods, working with data this way propagates a hands-on approach towards issues and topics, and students might as well learn how to analyze statistics by creating their own dataset. The practicability of this method ranges from creating their own surveys—for example an in-school election, modeling a questionnaire on regional topics, or the preferences on the canteen menu—to literary and linguistic analysis: word frequencies in literary texts, representation of gender in students’ favorite books, amount of vocabulary items acquired over time, and the subsequent visualization of such data. Teachers who would like to go beyond the data visualization capabilities of spreadsheet applications such as Microsoft Excel or online wordcloud creators (among many others) may start working with Gephi, a free open-source software with a powerful range of features for both small- and large-scale data sets that not only enables users to explore their own data in a wide array of visualizations, but also allows them to create posters for their visualizations in order to present their results.As concerns output-orientation, both curricular and extracurricular projects that gather and analyze data this way are not simply there for the sake of letting students work with statistics, but empower them to think about the world they inhabit in terms of quantifiable expressions. Quantitative analysis enriches an EFL classroom that is otherwise dependent on qualitative discussion, and while these methods are certainly not there to replace the traditional style of teaching English, they certainly add yet another mode of communication that students may make their own. This method may take up anything from twenty minutes (if data has been collected beforehand) to the entirety of the lesson or even entire teaching sequences.
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  • Analysis of literary style: Stylistic analysis through distant reading is a staple of DH methodology. Teachers may find this approach useful to show students that linguistic acumen of literary pieces is governed by more than the traditional analysis of rhetoric devices, whether a narrator is omniscient or not, and other such hermeneutic exercises. Instead, distant reading looks for the global features of a text, compares them to other texts, and clusters for similarities and differences. In fact, the tools used for this method do not search for words and phrases that one might look for in close reading, but instead comes to conclusions by calculating the frequency of function words, for example. To apply this method in a school context, teachers need to acquire a machine-readable version of the text they want to analyze—literary classics whose copyright has expired are easily found online as pdfs or, preferably, as a simple txt document—and a tool for stylometry.One such tool is the package stylo for the programming language R developed by Eder, Rybicki and Kestemont. In order to use it, first download the R programming language and then install RStudio (the free version is on the left hand side). RStudio is a graphic interface program that lets users access R beyond just typing commands in a text editor. Then, install stylo, following the setup process described on the page. Once done, RStudio requires a working directory from which it can access files, which should be the same directory where the literature text files are stored. Setting the working directory works by clicking on the appropriate button in RStudio or by typing set followed by the file path to the folder that contains the text files, into the command prompt. Finally, the documentation on the stylo website presents its functions and respective commands. For example, students may discover stylistic similarities across a corpus (i.e. a collection of texts) to the point that there is a reasonable chance that they were written by the same author. They might explore which authors are stylistically similar to others, or which authors veer far away from the style of others. While setting up the tool may seem unusual to students unfamiliar with DH methods, the results can be highly motivating to students. As distant reading does, per definition, not dive into a text’s intricacies, but observes surface level features across a large number of texts, students might realize that not only does literature have inherent observable features; there is also a greater number of approaches to literature than looking for the next metaphor on any given page. From this perspective, DH in the English classroom also carries the potential to motivate students who would otherwise not be interested in any form of literary analysis.

Media Studies

28The well-known adage that technology develops faster than anyone would ever be able to keep up with finds a bizarre validation in 2020’s educational landscape. As a pandemic ravages people’s wellbeing and financial safety, it also attacks education, specifically, the question how to teach a large number of students when they cannot be allowed to stay in the same room at the same time. While some schools have long heeded the call of digitization, others are still on the same level of technological advancement as they were thirty years prior. Some teachers are content (albeit exhausted) by keeping up communication with their students via mail, sending or receiving documents on a weekly basis, but others have taken up the idea of a digital classroom and put that idea into practice. At the same time, digital learning comes with a slew of new problems, led at the forefront by concerns about students’ data protection.

29This section introduces a number of digital communication tools that teachers may use to establish a live digital learning environment and how exactly they empower teachers with tools to manage classroom situations from the relatively arbitrary comfort of their computer screens. Special emphasis will be put on data protection since these concerns can be the sole factor that make or break the application of these services in an institutional context. As before, the list is not exhaustive, but stems from the author’s personal experience of using these services in a teaching context; for more recent comprehensive analyses of the digital classroom concept and its practicabilities, see Blake; Vermette et al.; and Sofkova Hashemi and Cederlund.

  • Zoom: The Zoom web conference service by US company Zoom Video Communications has been taking a stronghold over most online meetings during the Coronavirus pandemic. The service features video and audio conferencing for up to 40 minutes for free and a basic text chat box for all participants or for 1-to-1 communication. Users can upload files and share screens and admins have the opportunity to create break-out rooms to separate participants into smaller groups. The service is free, but offers a paid subscription with unlimited conference call time. Participants can enter the conference call with a link and do not need to sign up. Zoom has been subject to criticism for selling their user’s data to third parties and for hosting video conferences on servers which are located in countries with less than reputable data protection policies. The company reacted by enabling paying users to choose their server hosting region.
  • Jitsi Meet: Jitsi is an open-source software that can host as many as 75 participants in one conference call, although quality of transmission can be somewhat reliant on server host region and bandwidth. Jitsi Meet offers video and audio conferencing for an unlimited amount of time and a basic text chat box. Being open-source, users can access all Jitsi Meet features for free and participants may enter conference calls with a link and without signing. As of the time of writing, Jitsi offers no break-out rooms. Jitsi also enables users to customize their own servers if they so wish and encrypts participants’ data, making the service viable for use in schools if the server admin makes adjustments to a custom server that complies with their school’s or school district’s data protection laws.
  • Google Meet: Google has opened its business conference call service to all users; the similar sevice Google Hangouts was restricted to ten participants per call. Google Meet offers video and audio conferencing, but the service as of the time of this writing is restricted to the in-house Chrome browser. What’s more, Meet is tailored more towards businesses and not education. Consequently, the service offers screensharing, but no digital whiteboard function. Users who also keep their schedule in Google Calendar can synchronize meetings with that application. Since Google Meet is owned by a private company, prospective users should be aware that despite numerous encryption services, Google may use the data for their own purposes, although no major data violations have been made public as has been the case with Zoom.
  • BigBlueButton: In contrast with Zoom and Google Meet, BigBlueButton was created specifically for the educational sector. It thus offers numerous features that help create a digital classroom that acts in a similar fashion to a traditional classroom: break-out rooms for group work, a digital whiteboard, screensharing, co-browsing, an extended text chat, and more. BigBlueButton is a free software like Jitsi and allows administrators to customize servers, making it the ideal choice for teachers with data protection concerns.
  • Discord: The most unusual entry on this list, Discord has only recently begun to advertise its services towards the business and education sector. The service is best known for its emphasis on gaming culture, although its highly customizable features make it another ideal choice for education. Admins can create so-called servers and compartmentalize workflow by adding specific channels to that server, for example a channel dedicated to homework discussion, a channel that serves as a digital whiteboard, a channel where students can look for help with technical issues, and so on. Admins can also customize these channels communication-wise: Discord offers audio and video conferencing and the most advanced text chat functions on this list, including file uploads and instant public and private messaging. Users may also combine any of these three modes, which helps students with bandwidth problems who might only be able to communicate via audio. Other features include screensharing or break-out rooms in the form of dedicated voice/audio/text channels. The service is free and students may enter a server with a link and without signing up. Discord has the major disadvantage in direct comparison to BigBlueButton or Jitsi that admins can not customize the server host, although they may change the general region (for example, to Europe or to the US). Teachers with data protection concerns might thus be wary of the possibility of data security issues, or at the very least, non-disclosure of where exactly their students’ data are hosted.

In Summary: Opportunities and Challenges in the DH Classroom

30Critics of DH approaches might argue, and justifiably so, why EFL classes should take over the responsibility to teach digital methods in a language acquisition context. Are students, after all, not taught in Computational Sciences in a separate subject? And do EFL teachers not juggle enough curricula—grammar, literature, trans- and interculturalism, to only name a few—as is? It is perhaps best at this point, as with all matters DH, to reassess the importance of foreign language teaching in the 21st century.

31Studying and acquiring a language requires to also study and acquire a certain level of literacy of the media through which this language is communicated. The consequence for modern English classrooms is the simple fact that students are exposed to English in their daily lives not by reading English-language books, or being penpals with an English-speaking native; but by engaging with the Internet, whose lingua franca is English, and all its diverse forums. Social media, online gaming, Internet resources on any given topic require nearly exclusively a proficient command of the English language. The latest JIM study (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest) not only shows the overwhelming degree to which young people engage with all manners of entertainment and research through digital channelsthe study is even biased towards certain means of interaction with digital modes of communication in favor of analogue ones insofar as it surveys students’ preferred YouTube channels, for example.

32As such, English teachers ought to stay vigilant how exactly their students become exposed to the English language in their everyday lives in direct relation to how the cultural context of a language shapes the understanding of that knowledge. In other words: It is becoming more and more strenuous to disregard the importance of digital media for the acquisition of communicative competence. Leading by example, but not going far enough, textbooks for the EFL classroom provide resources on how to read online Wikis, create online ratings, and how to do reliable research on the Internet, but the medium more or less stays the same in the form of a book in front of one’s table. The above study by Mangen, Walgermo, and Brønnick make a case for the negligible effect on digital literacy that e-book versions of such textbooks have on the classroom.

33By the same token, teachers might want to create cooperative teaching modules with teachers of Computational Science in order to facilitate a hybridized subject approach and to mitigate the focus on digital methods that might possibly take away from EFL’s paradigm, which is: to progress students’ communicative competences. A CLIL (Content Language/Integrated Learning) project would certainly benefit both subjects and interweave each other’s desired competence output without demanding too much preparation of previously unknown disciplines for either teaching personnel. But, as I hope to have shown here, DH methods and tools should be inaugurated, rather than integrated, into the individual teacher’s English lesson plan. A CLIL approach towards teaching digital methods bears with it the danger that students think of EFL and DH as a one-off junction, much like other such projects between English and Economical Studies or English and History, for example. If teachers of English are interested in making their classroom digital, they should do so with a long-term goal and commitment, and it is certainly impossible to do that in tandem with another subject at school for an entire school year, or even longer. This hypothesis certainly does not argue against CLIL as a valuable method; it simply warns against treating digital access to English as a ‘special occurrence,’ as it has quickly become the default interaction with English outside of the English classroom for most of our students.

34Scholars and teachers of English literature should find that digital methods are by no means inaccessible or more difficult to learn than their analog counterparts. I hope to have shown that acquiring skills to apply and teach DH methods is a process indistinguishable from acquiring well-established qualitative literary skills. By the same token, prospective DH teachers should be aware that they, as with all classroom situations, ought to have a firm understanding of the methodology before extending their knowledge to their students. The tools and resources I introduced in this article present many opportunities to prepare anyone who plans to teach a course in this regard. And yet, the difference between traditional methods in the Humanities, and DH methods, emerges when we consider the democratizing effect of a DH classroom. Both teachers and students work with the same tools and resources; both teachers and students might decide on the parameters and delineations of an archival project; both teachers and students challenge existing terminology by putting it under empirical scrutiny.

35This teaching method also shows potential for an original approach towards theoretical concepts in the classroom. Active engagement with and critical thinking about theory in a proactive digital environment seems to have a more sustainable effect on students than passive understanding. Students are evidently more engaged in literary theory and interpretation when their assignments are tied to a project that embeds their close reading tasks into numerical data rather than unquantifiable exercises—traditional practices would include comparatively nebulous assignments such as ‘Characterize the protagonist’ or ‘Analyze how this text uses stylistic devices.’

36Seen this way, DH follows the paradigm shift that schools experience in the 21st century: Changing the classroom from process-oriented courses to product-oriented courses; from teacher-centered classes to student-centered classes; from textbook-driven material to multimodal material, from focusing on one perspective to enabling multiple perspectives. It is especially this last direction that should encourage teachers who are sceptical of DH methods and tools: Advocates of digital learning have no intent (nor does DH have the capability) to replace traditional teaching methodology, but it does offer a new perspective and a valuable counterbalance to these traditional methodologies.

37In conclusion, this new approach brings with it several challenges, first and foremost one of attitude. The recent introduction of digital means of communication due to schools being closed as most of students are teaching staff stay in quarantine  brings to mind a false positive that to a new generation of students, the DH approach might be second nature: “We’d probably all agree that the ‘digital’ in digital humanities may soon seem redundant to our students” (Cohen 532). The results from the above study clearly show that the opposite is evident. Digital navigation skills are separate from a digital pedagogical methodology. There is no correlation between students’ proficiency who in social media networks, blogs, and digital media, and students’ proficiency with digital methods in the classroom. A student who knows how to navigate social media or edit photographs on their phone does not progress in the analytical competence of language and literature with digital means. It is not enough to assume that students ‘grow up’ as digital natives and, by virtue, internalize the skills and tools of DH, tools which for the longest time have been disregarded in the EFL classroom.

38Skills such as text encoding, hypertext reading (hypertext “literacy”), empirical testing and experiment design, need expertise and, just like any other teaching subject, intrinsic motivation. It is thus imperative that teachers always motivate students to wonder what it exactly is that they are doing with these skills, in which ways they differ from traditional engagements with literature, and why they are being taught these skills. To abandon the Digital in “Digital Humanities Pedagogy” because of redundancy would effectively also make Pedagogy redundant, as students would be left to their own devices without guidance or instilment of significance.

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Suggested Citation

Moisich, Oliver. “The Digital Classroom: A Digital Humanities Primer on Tools, Methods, and Resources.” American Studies Journal 70 (2020). Web. 25 Sep. 2021. DOI 10.18422/70-03.

 

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