THE BLOG
09/03/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Digital Scholarship at a Distance

Over the past decade, colleges and universities have invested in the development and staffing of digital scholarship centers, library-based labs and archives, and curricular concentrations, all in an effort to advance new forms of student research, publishing and broad dissemination through online projects and exhibits.

Understandably, many of the digitized scholarly projects involving student researchers focus on historical topics and contemporary issues related to the community or wider region of which the campus is a part. Special collections librarians often work closely with faculty and students to create digitized placed-based projects that bring valuable archived materials to a wider public.

The University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab, for example, has completed a number of outstanding projects related to Civil War Richmond, while at Towson University near Baltimore, a project titled "Medieval Baltimore" challenges students to identify and document traces of medieval architectural forms in both public and private buildings. The list of such worthwhile, campus-based student research projects is expanding at a remarkable rate.

More recently, the Teagle Foundation of New York has stepped forward to support a new "distance" model of teaching undergraduates the theory and technique of digital scholarship in the humanities. Under the direction of two historians, Jeffrey McClurken from the University of Mary Washington in Virginia and Ellen Pearson from the University of North Carolina Asheville, the "Century America" distance seminar involves student researchers from nine different member campuses of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. The first edition of the ongoing project is available here.

"Century America" marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in Europe and the War's impact on campuses and local communities in the United States. Students join a multi-campus team and integrate research about their own campuses during the period 1914-1918 with the findings of other student scholars to produce an overarching digital portrait of the War on the home front. The inaugural seminar took place during Spring semester 2014 and a second is being planned for early 2015.

The seminar combines the traditional benefits of a liberal arts classroom, high-impact undergraduate research, online teaching of digital skills, and the creation, sharing, and preservation of new knowledge in a digital environment. The faculty lead a weekly distance seminar and mentor the undergraduate researchers using state-of-the-art videoconferencing technology, online office hours, review of student blogs, and traditional email. Although he could not physically drop by the faculty offices, one student wrote of the distance mentors: "I felt I could go to them anytime with any questions." Because the seminar takes place in an atypical distance environment, it develops in student researchers both independence and collaborative instincts (not to mention technical abilities) that are highly valued in a wide range of professional areas.

The student researchers involved in "Century America" work with special collections librarians on their home campuses to digitize primary source materials for the project website, create interactive maps and timelines, incorporate video and audio clips, and consult and offer advice to one another through blog comments and via Twitter. Another student from the first seminar remarked that working with peers from different campuses was one of the highlights of the project: "The encouragement, helpful hints, and feedback that I received from the other students was invaluable."

In addition to each student's research into her/his home campus and local community, the team builds the overarching site where common themes and features are agreed and illustrated in narrative and photographic text. This blending of the particular with the more general was enriched by the distance format of the seminar, allowing students to refine their abilities to synthesize disparate information from multiple sources and geographical settings.

At the close of the first semester, the student researchers enjoyed an opportunity to meet their classmates in person, with one half of the team introducing the "Century America" project at COPLAC's Annual Meeting in Durango, Colorado, while another team presented their work at the Annual Meeting of the Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington, D.C. Future seminars will follow this precedent, bringing the distance scholars together to share the results of their work at appropriate academic workshops and conferences.

The "Century America" digital scholarship project, in combining the virtual and the local, distance teaching and personalized mentoring, single campus resources with consortium-wide faculty expertise, allows undergraduate researchers opportunities to engage in collaborative research with peers and faculty experts from across the country.

The distance model's potential for expanding theme-based undergraduate research opportunities in the area of digital scholarship is enormous, especially at small to medium-sized colleges that can leverage their membership to advance inter-institutional learning opportunities. As technology-driven digital scholarship takes its place among the major forms of actively engaged or "hands on" learning, distance mentoring of multi-campus collaborative projects opens up exciting possibilities for the creation and publication of student work on global issues with important, but often overlooked, local dimensions.