The digital archive of Japan's 2011 disasters as a teaching tool and laboratory course

Andrew Gordon (FAS), Theodore Bestor (FAS), Kyle Parry (FAS), Jesse Shapins (GSD), James Burns (GSD)

Summary: Awardees plan to further develop the Japan Digital Archive project and design a Fall 2013 lab course that capitalizes on the improved platform. 

"There are people at Harvard in the business of building digital archives and also usage methods of digital archives, and that was a key transforming moment when we . . . brought in this idea of participation, that you need to build something where the user of it is a participant in the making of it." — Andrew Gordon

We unexpectedly developed the grandchild of the HILT grant

Awardees set out to further develop the Japan Digital Archive (JDA) project and design a lab course utilizing the platform. The archive not only preserves the digital record of the disaster; it also behaves like an aggregator, pulling material from all over the web related to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear power plant accident, and allowing users to curate their own collections of materials in the archive. It has achieved great success in the field, as evidenced by it’s average 1,000 unique visits/month with an average length of visit of 10 minutes, as well as it’s growing number of citations. The HILT grant was used to develop the curation function of the archive more fully, and in a way suited to classroom use.

Andy Gordon, Ted Bestor, and Kyle Parry designed a seminar style course utilizing the archive project, meeting once a week for a three-hour session. “Japan’s 2011 Disasters and Their Aftermath: A workshop on digital research,” cross-listed in both the anthropology and history departments, was offered in the Fall of 2013. According to Bestor, “It was the most interesting course we’ve taught in 10 years.” They are hoping to offer it again in either Fall 2015 or Spring 2016.

The 13 enrolled students were a diverse group, comprised of both graduate and undergraduates, some with extensive Japanese language or cultural experience, varying levels of technical expertise, and scholarly representation in the physical sciences, life sciences, humanities and social sciences, and government. The instructors found the group to be very collaborative, frequently messaging each other independently of class-or during it!—to share new resources and ideas. Having the JDA tool also meant that instructors could watch the students’ progress on their final projects in real time and anticipate their questions and issues before class.

They typically led the course meetings in two parts: first, a more traditional instruction portion where the class discussed readings about the disaster or about digital archives and digital presentations, followed by student reports on their project progress. As the course progressed, more and more time was dedicated to the second portion of the class where both instructors and students discussed each individual project. One particularly memorable session, according to Parry, was the “Media Coverage, Research Questions” session. Students were asked to do their own research on media coverage prior to class and upload their findings to a group “collection” in the archive; the class meeting consisted of each student presenting their discoveries and contributions and leading the discussion. He liked that session because it practiced the flipped classroom model, and contributed quite a bit of information that is now forever part of a collection available to other users.

Bestor, Gordon and Parry had to figure out on the fly – how would they assess the students’ final projects? What were the criteria of multimedia assignments? How were they supposed to cite each work? They recognized that it was important they not be swayed by stunning visual and technical mastery, but on the content of the project. Ultimately, each of them reviewed and evaluated each project separately, and came together as a group to compare notes. They found that generally they had consensus. See one example of a final project.

The course was not without some hiccups, both pedagogical and technological. The seminar room turned out to be too small and noisy for the group. The small room did not lend itself to group work, and students regularly availed themselves to the building’s hallway space. The room had one display, but the instructors frequently found themselves wanting multiple displays to allow for comparison making. “It gave us an appreciation for how the classroom can influence the experience,” Gordon said. The instructors regularly prepared for class in the preceding one to two hours. That, coupled with three hours of interactive classroom discussion, was exhilarating but exhausting. They had the sense that the students also felt they were putting in more effort per class than they were accustomed. Occasionally the conversation would come to a halt while the students, sometimes more advanced technologically than their instructors, devised and explained their workarounds to technological difficulties (“a very unusual experience, very humbling”).

Parry found this experience particularly useful in how he thinks about the way that teaching a course can connect to his graduate research, and he used the experience to do research for his dissertation. In addition, he has been collaborating with his colleagues, including Jessica Yurkofsky, at the metaLAB to develop another tool (Curarium). Within Curarium, he is developing Waku, a platform where users can assemble objects, visualizations, text, and annotations into stories. Waku, which will also be integrated this fall into the JDA, has some similarity to the curation tool developed for JDA and this course, but it is more flexible and intuitive. Scheduled for beta release this year, Waku was significantly influenced by Kyle’s experience with JDA. According to the team, it’s a more powerful way to make use of a collection of digital materials, whether for the classroom or for an independent research project. It definitely would not have been the designed as it is going to be without the initial project. “It’s like the grandchild of the HILT grant,” Bestor remarked.

Moving forward, the instructors will teach the course again in AY16 and will utilize a multitude of documentation in their preparation: as individuals, they chronicled their experiences and memories before combining them into one memo; they received an assessment of their pedagogy, authored by a visiting grad student; as well as the student essays and course evaluations. Depending on enrollment, they might choose to assign students to clusters based on their design and technical skills, their Japanese language or cultural experience, as well as their academic level and background.

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