Category: Open Learning

Why Domain

As part of his work in introducing Domain of One’s Own at Ontario Extend, Alan Levine posted the questions that I answer below. I haven’t been blogging enough recently, so I thought this was a good chance to document some of my own DoOO thoughts and kickstart my writing.

What is your domain name and what is the story, meaning behind your choice of that as a name?

My domain name is https://johnastewart.org. From front to back, the difference between https and http is a security certificate. Our partners at Reclaim Hosting make it dead easy to get an SSL certificate, and I think all of the internet search engines are going to increasingly favor sites with security certificates over the next few years.

My domain name itself is just my name. John Stewart is an incredibly common name, so I threw in my middle initial for some small degree of disambiguation.

I chose .org rather than .com because of their historical significance. Originally, .com meant that you were visiting a commercial website, and .org signified a non-profit organizational site. I work for a university, and when I set up my site, I was an adjunct lecturer, which is about as non-profit as it gets. I still advocate open pedagogy, OER, open note-taking, open coding, and a general distrust of capitalism, so I think it fits.

What was your understanding, experience with domains before you got one? Where were you publishing online before having one of your own?

I had been trying to set up a couple of .php based websites for a few years before I started this domain. Early in my grad career, I tried to start an online, open journal for publishing work by graduate students studying the History of Science. At the time, my university only offered 5MB of webspace and only supported HTML in that space. Eventually, I registered both that journal and a separate Digital Humanities project (situatingchemistry.org) with a corporate web host.

In 2013, the University of Oklahoma launched the pilot for OU Create, a Domain of One’s Own initiative. I went to the initial pitch by Jim Groom and Adam Croom, and was user number #13 with this domain.

What was a compelling feature, reason, motivation for you to get and use a domain? When you started what did you think you would put there?

I really wanted to be able to run modern CMS apps, particularly Drupal. Both my Situating Chemistry site and the Open Journal System I built are built on Drupal and require a LAMP environment. With this site, I wanted to start blogging – or thinking out loud as Laura Gogia and others in the DoOO community call(ed) it.

What kinds of sites have you set up one your domain since then? How are you using them? Please share URLs!

I’m currently the project manager for OU Create. We have about 5000 users and 6000 websites, so I feel like all of them are part of my current work on domains. You can see recent posts on our Feed WordPress site, community.oucreate.com/activity and you can get a sense of what type of sites people are using at community.oucreate.com/sites.

I have about 30 sites up and running on my domain. Most are demonstration sites that I use when introducing DoOO to either classes or faculty development groups. My larger projects include the Situating Chemistry site and subdomains like my Wiki faculty development workshop: flc.johnastewart.org. I also have designed sites for faculty projects on the history of education in Oklahoma (docnarr.oucreate.com):

Screen shot of docnarr.oucreate.com

and progettovitaliano.com:

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 of progettovitaliano.com

What helped you or would have helped you more when you started using your domain? What do you still struggle with?

I really like sites like cog.dog. I think these simple sites built in HTML are faster and more elegant than most WordPress based sites. If I had to do it over again, I’d build my main site using an HTML5up.net landing page with lots of other projects in subdomains.

What kind of future plans to you have for your domain?

I think I will probably do what I said above. I think I can move the blog feed into a subdirectory (johnastewart.org/blog), leave all the posts where they are, and create a space for a nice landing site.

For OU Create more broadly, we are playing with what DoOO v2 looks like. We are trying to figure out how to help people get into the apps they want to use more quickly, how to support non-SQL based systems (MongoDB, node.js, etc), and how to keep costs as low as possible.

What would you say to other educators about the value, reason why to have a domain of your own? What will it take them to get going with their own domain?

My usual pitch centers on the superabundance of information available to us now. When I start a research project or try to figure out some new system, I search the  internet. There’s a cornucopia of resources, so I generally find a ton of great information, and I quickly start working through my project. If you’re not on the internet, if you don’t have a website, there’s a roughly 0% chance I will come across your work. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written 5 books and 20 great articles, if you and they are not online, I’m not going out of my way to find them. But if I come across one of your articles, and I can look you up and find your other work, I will do a deep dive into everything you’ve ever said. Your discoverability as a teacher is also vital to attracting grad students who want to know what you’re researching.

I am Open (and so can you!)

The book cover for Stephen Colbert's book I am America and so Can YouFor the next few weeks, I will be taking a history course, something I thought I would never do again after I finished my dissertation. Shawn Graham is teaching an online digital history course at Carleton University and has opened it up for non-matriculating students.

The entire design of the course is fantastic for open learners. Rather than just allowing us to watch from the rafters, Shawn has set up a Slack team and is active in the channels. Shawn asks that students blog for the course and use github to keep a record of their progress in the coding exercises. The course readings are all openly accessible and Shawn has asked that the students use Hypothes.is so that their reading notes are open (you can find them in the Hypothes.is stream with the tag hist3814o).

For the first week, Shawn has assigned a set of readings on the concept of open notes research within history and the humanities more broadly. Open notes research is more commonly practiced in the sciences. Jean Claude-Bradley was advocating for the concept in chemistry as early as 2006. Open notes science improves reproducibility and verifiability of results, and it also opens up the vast array of information that is gained during research but never published.

Open notes research has been slow to catch on, and it doesn’t take long to brainstorm possible objections. Publications are the coin of the realm in academia, and sharing your research notes could possibly allow someone to scoop your ideas. However, I agree with the readings that Shawn has curated and his push during this week of the course that open notes research is the best practice. Clearly, as I am writing this blog, I feel that sharing my thought processes helps me to clarify my thoughts and develop my understanding of my research. Sharing our reading notes with Hypothes.is and collecting our code in GitHub take this a step further. We’re thinking, reading, and experimenting (coding) out loud.

I am taking Shawn’s course, because I want to see how he uses Slack, and because I think the course design is fantastic. I’m already a convert for open notes research and have blogged about it repeatedly hereherehere and in many other posts. This site as a whole is an argument for open notes research and the related ideas of getting rid of disposable assignments and empowering students to contribute to a broader knowledge community. However, I did enjoy the week’s readings, especially Caleb McDaniel’s post that turned me on to open notes research a few years ago. I look forward to joining in for the exercises next week (this week everyone was learning MarkDown and Git). Most of all, I want to encourage any readers in the ed tech world who have not taken a digital history or digital humanities course to at least poke around Shawn’s course to see the wonderful overlap between that knowledge domain and the current ed tech focus on digital literacy and citizenship.

Open Note Databases & the Promise of the Memex

Vannevar Bush’s Memex

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote a now famous piece for The Atlantic called “As We May Think.” In it, he proposed the development of a machine called the Memex. This desk shaped machine would be able to display printed and handwritten texts and would be able to record notes made with a special stylus. The machine would be able to record meta-data noting connections between various sources and all of this information could be stored on removable cards.

The Memex served as inspiration in the development of the modern personal computer. Hundreds of articles in the 1990s pointed to the invention of the World Wide Web as the culmination of Bush’s vision, and those comparisons have continued into the new millennium with the modern Internet. But while the stylus-touch interfaces of modern tablets and the proliferation of online media do fulfill much of Bush’s technological vision, the key underlying epistemic concept put forth by Bush has been largely neglected.

The rapid sharing of ideas was an obvious use of the Memex, but Bush proposed that the educational value of the tool would be the ability to retrace the thought processes and connective strands that others had made through the ever growing sea of data. Bush said, “The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.” While academia is slowly moving towards open access models of publication, this deeper level of sharing the cognitive “scaffolding” of our theories has received far less consideration.

On Wednesday, Jeremy Dean and Jon Udell of Hypothes.is joined with Gardner Campbell as part of #openlearning17 to discuss how web annotation is allowing us to record and retrace our thoughts as we move from one website to the next. The collective pooling of reading notes, along with the ability to retrace the steps of an individual go a long way to fulfilling the epistemological vision of Bush’s Memex.

Here though I want to propose a different kind of database as an alternative and complimentary implementation of Bush’s vision. I have been working on an open note database called Situating Chemistry for a couple of years now. The concept is that researchers interested in the history of chemistry (don’t laugh, we exist) can come together to share a wide variety of notes. In addition to reading notes, the system can be used to create a profile of a historical person to record biographical notes compiled from both archival and secondary sources. These people can then be linked to each other to show familial, business, educational or any other type of relationship. Users can also record notes on the places that chemistry was done. A record can be created for a paritcular factory site, a university lab or lecture hall, or the site of an important conference. These sites can be linked back to the people who used them and mapped. Here we see a map from the 18th century of Paris with clustered pins representing the sites in our database:

A screen shot of the world map in the Situating Chemistry database featuring data about 18th century Paris

In addition to people and places, users can use the system to record notes on organizations, events, courses, sources, objects, collections, processes, and theories. The key is that researchers can use the database to take notes on any facet of their studies and then connect that facet to both its particular context and the broader population of notes within the system. Users can choose to put a password on their records, but the default and usual practice is to leave the note sets open to all users so that we can extend each others’ individual records and pool our collective research.

Designing an Open-Notes Database

Web-based databases of historical people like the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) and the Prosopography of the Byzantine World were produced as conclusive publications of completed research. As such, the developers could accommodate, truncate, or omit problematic pieces of data. Published databases can also choose data visualizations that best highlight key records or insights. Researchers with Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, put together this beautiful dashboard to explore the correspondence of Enlightenment thinkers.

Screenshot of the Republic of Letters Visualization dashboard

Unlike these published databases, an open note system is designed to accommodate active note taking. Rather than structuring database fields to best present the data already collected, Situating Chemistry was built to be flexible. Because a researcher will more often than not have incomplete data, the only required field is the title of the record. The fields to record dates of birth and death can be partially filled out when only a year or year and month are known. They can also be marked approximate to indicate ambiguity in the historical record. Similarly, visualizations are employed to bring the researcher’s attention to interesting data and suggest new pathways for research.

Within any prosopographical project, the amount of biographical information available for the research subjects can vary widely. One project in Situating Chemistry focuses on the students of the noted Scottish professor William Cullen (1710-1790). In 1756, fifty-nine students attended Cullen’s chemistry course at the University of Edinburgh. Amongst them was George Fordyce (1736-1802) of Aberdeen who would go on to earn his medical degree from Edinburgh and become a lecturer of chemistry and medicine in London. Although there is no monograph length biography of Fordyce, he has entries in the Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and is a relatively well-documented individual.

The other fifty-eight attendees of the course are less known. We know from Cullen’s notes that Robert Cumming was from Edinburgh, that John Richardson was from Northumberland, and that Henry Dunston was from some unspecified part of England. More surprisingly, at least two of the attendees were from Virginia—Thomas Clayton and James Taylor—and one was from Antigua—Christopher Hodge. Clayton, Fordyce, and eight other students would go on to earn their MDs from Edinburgh.

In designing Situating Chemistry database we wanted to ensure that we could capture structured, machine-readable data on someone like George Fordyce, or for that matter William Cullen. Additionally, we also wanted to be able to create records for people like Henry Dunston, for whom we had only a name and relationships of interest, in this case that he was a student in Cullen’s chemistry course, in Edinburgh, in 1756, with these other people, and he was from England.

Screen shot of the Situating Chemistry Database depicting the fields available for recording data about a person

The record for any individual can be linked to other individuals in several different ways. In addition to familial relations, we also have structured fields to collect information on instructor-student relationships and correspondents. There is also a somewhat generic person-to-person connection field that offers a list of relationships that can be expanded when needed. We designed the database such that every individual is the subject of their own record. A field denoting that a person was active in chemistry is automatically checked for every new record, but can be deactivated for familial relations, business partners, and others who are of interest but were not actively ‘doing’ chemistry even in the broadest definition.

In addition to linking a person to other individuals within the system, a person can also be linked to many other kinds of data. The database was initially conceived of as a way to catalogue sites of chemistry. We thus started the database with a table to collect information on apothecary shops, lecture halls, pharmaceutical manufactories, bleach fields, labs, etc. For a given site, the latitude and longitude of the site along with a modern address can be recorded along with information about the ownership and financial history of the site, the chemical activities associated with it, the organizational history, related images, documents, sources, etc. For each individual in the system, we display the sites that they owned and operated and also those additional sites that they were associated with.

After developing tables for the sites and people involved in chemistry, we developed further tables for chemical substances collections, courses, documents, events, images, letters, objects, organizations, primary and secondary sources, processes and techniques of chemistry, and archival and museum repositories. Any two records can be connected with an extensible series of subject-predicate-object relationships. For example a given individual could be a member of an organization or might have studied a particular chemical substance or been a practitioner of a particular process or technique of chemistry. Every record, whether it be for a person or any other type of data, can and should be sourced by linking it to primary and/or secondary sources. For the system as a whole then, we have tables for more than a dozen types of information and hundreds of structured data fields, all strung together into a relational web of information.

Interoperability & Extensibility

In its first conception, the Situating Chemistry database was thought of as a single table for sites with about a dozen fields. However, this variety of tables and fields grew organically through discussion of the research questions and practices that we, as historians of chemistry, conduct. The goal for the project was not to publish a completed set of sites or records, but rather to facilitate active research. A researcher could enter the data that they were collecting for a research project to organize and analyze the information, and they could take the database with them into the archives to continue to collect information. Researchers can access their records and add new records to Situating Chemistry from a laptop, tablet, or even a phone.

To accommodate both offline note-taking and the rapid upload of external data sets, the database has also been designed so that users can upload CSV files (excel-type tables). Any data in the system can in turn be downloaded as a CSV or in other structured formats including XML, RDF, and JSON. Because Situating Chemistry was designed as a research tool rather than a data-publication, the goal of the database is to allow users to both enter and access whatever fields and records sets they consider interesting. Several visualizations including tables, graphs, and a timeline are built into the system. The user can also extract whatever structured data they want to pull from the system, so that she can also generate her own visualizations using tools like Tableau or programming languages like Python and R.

The schema of the database is not specific to our current project, nor to the period 1760-1840. It could be readily adapted for use by other historians of chemistry (and alchemy) and historians of other sciences.  If you were to dump out the 5000 records that we have input into the system, you could convert the project into a Sites of Archeology database and record the digs of the 19th and 20th century.  You could just as easily record the observatories, telescopes, and astronomers of the 16th and 17th centuries or plot the biological specimens collected by Linnaeus’s correspondents.

While we certainly hope that our database will be used by and be useful to historians of chemistry, the real point of the project is to enable the collaborative epistemology proposed by Vannevar Bush.  History and humanities more generally are dominated by the single-author article and monograph, so a system built to pool research notes may seem counterintuitive. However, we need to remember that the point of these publications is to share our knowledge. If we all share our coffee stained notebooks, idiosyncratic excel files, and shoeboxes full of notecards, we can engage in deeper and more nuanced studies in the history of chemistry and science more broadly. Without sacrificing traditional academic products, we can collectively populate searchable, interlinked reference guides that will accelerate research and model our methodologies for the generations to come.

Please visit our site to learn more about the project and let me know if you would like to set up an account or get a copy of the code.

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