The Problem with the Call to Code

Further to my recent blog post on the Code Year (and Codeacademy’s efforts to get us all coding) take a look at this blog post from Michael Widner, who asks us to proceed with caution:

“… the call to code is also a problem. It suggests that coding is just another skill, like riding a bicycle or sewing, that you can learn easily and then put to use. Among humanities scholars, the first model we often think of is learning a foreign language, which for many of us is a fairly trivial task: learn the grammar, then memorize the vocabulary. Yes, coding requires learning different ‘languages,’ but those languages are not human. This model of coding-as-language-learning fails.”

I understand completely what Widner is suggesting, because it is something that I know myself to be true, despite the fact I have no experience at all of coding. I know it to be true because I have long been acquainted with coders who have themselves struggled with learning the concepts of a new coding language. We return to my mate Dave, alternately strumming a mournful Spanish refrain on his acoustic guitar and screaming obscenities at his Java textbook, or throwing it (the textbook, not the guitar – he was very protective of the guitar) at an innocent wall.

There is nothing wrong with bringing coding to a new audience but as Widner says, we need to bear in mind that it is not simply a case of learning a new language – it is developing a “new mode of thinking”.

You can read the full blog post here.


This is an absolutely brilliant video from Ben Drew, aka Plan B, the rap artist who has recently received much acclaim with the excellent The Defamation of Strickland Banks. This video discusses the demonisation of youth in this country as perpetuated by the tabloid press, and how he hopes to reach out to them through his music.

The Guardian music journalist Dorian Lynskey has written a brilliant article on how, to his mind, Plan B’s recent single Ill Manors is “the greatest British protest song in years”.

Drew seems really determined to put something back into society. He is eloquent and passionate in the TED video and, most importantly of all, he makes us take a look at ourselves and at a society within which certain sections are marginalised. 

Flavorwire’s “10 of the Most Powerful Female Characters in Literature”

The Wife of Bath, The Canterbury Tales

“Chaucer didn’t mean to make the Wife of Bath as big of a character as he did. Early drafts show that her role was meant to be much smaller and more one-dimensional, but somewhere along the line, Chaucer became enamored of his female creation, and eventually her prologue ended up twice as long as her tale. The Wife of Bath is lewd and lascivious — but behind all the dirty jokes, she’s making an argument for female dominance and a woman’s right to control her body, using her considerable rhetorical skill to simultaneously underscore and attack the anti-feminist traditions of the time. Not too shabby for 14th century literature.”

For the full list (and other reader choices) click here

End user studies…

It has been a difficult few weeks, however my third written piece of work has finally been submitted and please find below an extract from it. Whilst I’ve no doubt that within a week or so I will read over this and cringe at its lack of insight and poor writing, as of now it is as good as I can make it (that’s sold it to you, I’m sure!). I am committed to keeping an electronic record of all my writing, for good and for ill. Feel free to comment via my Twitter feed should you have any desire to do so: feedback and collaboration are the way forward, after all! And as ever, I have attempted to hyperlink any references or terms in order to take your forward should you be interested in anything mentioned here. 


“As part of my research thus far I have attempted to examine the history of the digital humanities and some important projects within the field that can be said to epitomise its aims and objectives. It is difficult to ignore the fact, however passionate one is about the digital humanities, that large-scale acceptance of digital resources within the academic community is not apparent at present, and whilst many universities (Glasgow, Kings College London, Oxford and Sheffield to name but a few) are enthusiastically embracing the benefits that the digital humanities can bring to teaching and research, there is still much suspicion surrounding the field.

There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the simple fact that we have no real idea as to what makes a successful resource. Although Hockey suggests that “…much research has been devoted to establishing what makes a high quality and multipurpose scholarly electronic text” [p.3, 2004] the research into what happens to a digital resource after its creation is lacking, and it is this lack of understanding of the needs of the user, how digital resources are used and why successful digital assets are chosen above others which is leading to the creation of “data silos” [Ell, 2011], “digital objects marooned within a set of static HTML Web pages…highly localised and idiosyncratic” [Bradley, 2009] that absorb vast amounts of research time and funding but are ultimately underused and eventually abandoned.

Why do users prefer some resources to others? What is the rationale behind a user’s decision-making? Once we have established the preferences that drive a user’s decision-making, we can use that information to create our own successful resource.

Answers, however, are made all the more difficult to acquire due to the differing needs of the various branches of the humanities. For example, whilst historians require large quantities of information from which they can glean particular pieces of information, the literary scholar is more concerned with the detailed exploration of a text [Prescott, 2008, p.10]. This means, of course, that a digital resource attractive to one user will not be as attractive to another. Hockey tells us that it is:

“…impossible to avoid the question ‘How do I go about doing it?’ when embarking on a computer project. To answer the question ‘How?’ it is necessary first to address ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘Why am I doing it?’ and thus to articulate in detail the intellectual rationale for the project.” [Hockey, 2004, p.3]

There is an obvious need to “articulate in detail the intellectual rationale” [Hockey, 2004] of what is happening to a resource after publication, by taking Hockey’s “What” and “Why” and asking: ‘What have we created?’ and ‘Why are they using it?’.

The best way forward is to look at what research has already been conducted and what we can perhaps add to the information already gathered, in order to gain insight into the reasons why some resources achieve immediate success and others do not. End user research is integral to this process.

Despite the fact that the digital humanities have been with us now for many decades in a variety of guises, and used to varying degrees within academic research and practice, we are still “living in a time of transition”, where the printed page and the digital item co-exist [Darnton, 2011]. This is not a harmonious existence, however; in spite of the fact that the digital humanities has evolved to compliment and assist its older sibling, many academics see it as a usurper; a cuckoo in the humanities nest. This is not only unfortunate because the two should, and do, compliment one another, it is unfortunate because as Meg Twycross points out: “…digital…seem[s] set to become a normally accepted research tool for amateurs as well as professional scholars” [p.23, 2008]. The message is: they are here to stay, they are becoming more prevalent, and academics need to get used to it.

The reluctance and often outright aggression against the increasing use of digital resources becomes ever-more apparent in the case of born-digital research articles: “Scholars, it seems, tend not to read, or at least cite, work published under the heading of humanities computing” [Juola, 2008]. There is still the sense that a piece of work is only valid when it has appeared in print, or that research should be conducted with print items and not based on information gleaned from the Web. Juola cites Warwick [2004a] and the issues involved with the Oxford University Humanities Computing Unit:

“…it was extremely hard to convince traditional scholars in Oxford of the value of humanities computing research. This is partly because so few Oxford academics were involved in any of the work the HCU carried out, and had little knowledge of, or respect for, humanities computing research…the HCU could have become a valued part of the humanities division. That it did not, demonstrates the consequences of a lack of respect for digital scholarship amongst the mainstream.” [p.75, 2008]

The argument often is that the digital humanities don’t actually add anything to humanities research, or as Tom Scheinfeldt clarified in his blog Found History:

“The criticism most frequently levelled at digital humanities is what I like to call the ‘Where’s the beef?’ question, that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?” [Scheinfeldt, 2010]

Of course, the poor opinion of the digital humanities could be said to be a defence mechanism; Helen Burgess suggests that academics are “seeing the emergence of scholarly multimedia as challenging the primacy of traditional humanities scholarship” [Burgess, 2011]. The assumption could therefore be made that their disdain for the digital is born of a fear of the unknown: the Luddite sense that man will eventually be replaced by technology.” 

Now reading: Splashes & Ripples- Synthesising the Evidence on the Impacts of Digital Resources, by Dr Eric T Meyer

“Digitised materials representing the world’s cultural heritage are part of a growing trend towards a world in which knowledge is digitally stored, available on demand, and constantly growing. As the world becomes digital and the globally connected “digital brain” holds the shared knowledge of the world, the materials of the past need to be included in order to ensure that our collective memory online encompasses not just the present and the future, but also the past.

This report is an effort to begin to synthesize the evidence available under the JISC digitisation and eContent programmes to better understand the patterns of usage of digitised collections in research and teaching, in the UK and beyond. JISC has invested heavily in eContent and digitisation, funding dozens of projects of varying size since 2004. However, until recently, the value of these efforts has been mostly either taken as given, or asserted via anecdote. By drawing on evidence of the various impacts of twelve digitised resources, we can begin to build a base of evidence that moves beyond anecdotal evidence to a more empirically-based understanding on a variety of impacts that have been measured by qualitative and quantitative methods.

These impacts are both big and small – the splashes and ripples in the title of this report. Some collections have made big splashes, such as The University of Oxford on iTunes U, which sees 1-2 million accesses per day from people interested in hearing lectures delivered by world experts in their fields. Others have generated smaller ripples that are nevertheless important within specialty areas, such as the Siobhan Davies RePlay dance resource, which is one of the few digital collections in the world that allows students of dance to see the whole process of choreographing and creating innovative dance.

The data was collected by eight teams, seven of which were funded in 2010 under JISC Grant Call 7/10: Digitisation programmes: Impact & embedding of digitised resourcesThe eighth team was previously funded in 2009 as the Usage and Impact Study of JISC‐funded Phase 1 Digitisation Projectsand gathered data on five digitisation projects. In addition, the 2009 team created the Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Scholarly Resources (TIDSR) which documented a variety of methods for measuring impact. The TIDSR resource was used as a methodological reference by the 2010 projects, and the final reports have been included in TIDSR as case studies.

Research excellence is a key measure in the Higher Education sector. Publications, patents, datasets, tools, and resources are all measured, compared, and examined for evidence of research excellence. The twelve resources examined in this report all strive for research excellence, but achieve it in different ways. For instance, British History Online and the Old Bailey Proceedings Online are among the resources mostly heavily cited in academic publications, while Histpop and the Stormont Parliamentary Hansards are allowing for broader use of publications that would otherwise only be available in a limited number of libraries and archives.

Teaching and learning excellence are also important cornerstones of effective digital resources. The University of Oxford’s podcasting site which distributes lectures, interviews, discussions, and workshops is an excellent example of the way in which world-class institutions such as Oxford can extend their influence even further by sharing the knowledge and teaching skills of their scholars with the rest of the world. Siobhan Davies RePlay appeals to a smaller audience, but is designed to support the national UK Personal Development Planning (PDP) scheme for dance. The scheme allows students to develop portfolios of their dance training and development by using the digital resource to learn how professionals document their professional careers using the same methods asked of the students.

One measure of excellence is the enthusiasm with which users respond to a resource, as demonstrated by the following pair of quotes:

British History Online is my favourite and first source for primary sources in British history. As a student of history, librarian, and writer, I return again and again. Even when I’m not researching, I often visit BHO for the sheer fun of what I might learn and discover. The site is easy to navigate, convenient, and its offerings thorough and accessible. Where else online can I find such a bounty of Britain’s heritage? It is a generous endeavour and an absolute goldmine. (Blaney & Webster, 2010, p. 7)

I’m not joking but [the University of Oxford podcast site] has become my favourite site in ten seconds flat – can’t stop downloading! Where has this been all my life?????? This is ridiculous! (Wilson, Marshall, & Geng, 2010, p. 7)

Many other examples of impacts on research, teaching, and learning are available in the full text of the report. The evidence ranges from broad-based quantitative measures (number of visitors, number of links to the resource, frequency of being mentioned in the mainstream and non-traditional media, etc.) to more richly-detailed qualitative measures (gathered via focus groups, interviews, user feedback, etc.). No single measure reflects “the impact” of a digital resource; instead the combination of empirical evidence can be used to provide a broader idea of the various types of impacts these resources are having as a collection of collections.

At the end of the report, 15 recommendations for digital resource providers are presented, which were drawn from the evidence presented in the report. In addition, 10 additional recommendations for improving measurement and sustainability are offered. These 25 recommendations suggest ways to potentially increase the size of the splashes emanating from a digital resource, and to turn some ripples into splashes.

For Digital Resource Providers

1. Plan ahead to measure impact.

2.Use the media to your advantage.

3. The media and the public are influenced by numbers and metrics.

4. Make your resource easy to find.

5. Give your resource an unambiguous name and acronym/initials.

6. Create quick wins.

7. Leverage your wins.

8. Make resources easy to navigate without sacrificing functionality.

9. Adopt Cool URIs (i.e., human-readable web addresses).

10. Provide automatic citations that are easy to copy or download.

11. Provide the ability to export citations.

12. Create training materials using examples from real research.

13. Make teaching materials available.

14. Consider allowing users to comment on or modify items (with care).

15. APIs are the future.

For Improved Measurement

16. Remember in advance that you will want to contact your users.

17. Develop webometric tools that scale for larger collections.

18. Develop analytic tools that scale for larger collections.

19. Develop methods to better accommodate collections that are distributed via multiple channels.

20. Develop strategies for archiving log file data and analytics.

21. Centralize hosting.

22. Develop standardized measures.

For Future Sustainability

23. Innovative revenue models should be explored.

24. Develop Cool URI standards.

25. Maintain active sites to attract users in the long term.

These recommendations are just one step along the road toward increasing the impact of the digitised collections that are part of Britain’s rich cultural heritage. As Tanner and Deegan (2011) argue in their recent evaluation of the broad social benefits of digitisation, the challenges for digital resources are even greater in the future. They describe a utopian view of the future world, in which connected citizens engage with digital content via ubiquitous devices that allow them to learn about Britain’s heritage as they move through the places where history occurred. These citizens of Digital Britain are engaged with educational, entertaining, and enlightening content, built on a rich and deep set of digitised content.

To achieve such an enlightened digital future will not be easy – it will take imagination, work, cooperation, funding, and dedication. Done correctly, however, the citizens of the future will thank us, as the splashes and ripples from today propagate into the future to shape and reshape the boundaries of knowledge. For, as Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” (1995).”

The full report can be found here