Obsidian Class Vault Review

This semester, in addition to trying to run my classes in a HyFlex format as we came out of COVID lockdown, where students would have unprecedented flexibility to choose the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with, I tried using an Obsidian vault to house my reading content. Previously I had been using an Open Educational Resource (OER) ebook I had written; this semester I transferred that to a vault, divided it up into bite-sized pages, added questions for discussion to each, and made the whole thing available to my students in a private Dropbox folder.

Early last Monday morning, I loaded the last batch of “chapter” content into the class vault for my Modern World History this semester. The vault is now pretty much populated with all the content from my OER textbook, along with a few “extra credit” posts of link pages by my students. There are fourteen weekly folders which each have an average of ten pages of content. Each of the pages has links to additional information: names of people, places, things that the students should know something about. Many of these I’ve added pages for; others I’ve left “empty” so the students could add information themselves.

By looking at the graph, I (and the students) can see how the different pages connect to each other. In some cases, this is through a “next page” or “prior page” link that I put on the content pages to facilitate navigation. In many cases, however, this is because ideas such as “wheat”, “The Columbian Exchange”, or the “Ottoman Empire” appear in a number of places, and we can use the graph to visualize these connections. The big gray nodes are the most connected pages of content. The tan nodes are the students’ hashtags, which they use to mark their answers to Questions for Discussion as well as pages that they contribute to the vault. I can click on a student’s node to open a search window that will show me all their activity. This helps me get a sense of what they’re focusing on in the content, and also of course to grade them for participation and for answering questions.

Next semester, I think I’ll try this again in Modern World History. Since I’ll have the headstart of being able to copy and redeploy this vault, instead of needing to add each chapter in and format it, I’ll be able to devote more of my prep time to making additional reference pages and videos. As I’ve been thinking about the equivalence of modes that HyFlex offers, where I’m trying to make the students’ experience and learning outcome similar whether they attend in person, remotely on Zoom, or asynchronously online, I’ve been thinking of trying to emulate that with my course materials. If the stuff I’m telling them in lectures is also available in video, podcast, ebook, and in the interactive Obsidian vault, will there be more chances for students to find the format that engages them and works for their particular learning style? Or the combination of formats that help them reinforce their understanding and do the repetition work that will help them remember? I’m going to be learning more about retrieval and repetition this summer, so I’ll have a chance to try some of those theories out.

I will also begin much earlier in the semester, having the students add pages themselves. One of the things I thought was potentially quite powerful was the ability students had to be authors of information in the vault as well as just consumers of it. I think this could be transformative for History and Social Studies Ed. majors, but also very meaningful for general education students. The idea that knowledge (especially historical knowledge) is a joint construction created by a dialogue between the text, teacher, and student might help them become more active participants in their learning. Helping to add to the vault of information that is the class might be a useful way to reinforce this idea. We could start very early in the semester in small groups. Then move to pairs. By the end I could be asking students to add pages individually. Thirty students producing an average of five pages would be an additional hundred fifty pages of content. That could cover a lot of topics.

Is there an analogous activity I can have the students do, if they are unable to access the class vault? (will there be a mobile version by fall?) Maybe a website with additional wiki-style pages? I don’t necessarily feel that the students who can’t access Obsidian need to have an experience that tries to simulate Obsidian in an older technology. I think it’s different, so the students will have a different learning experience and that’s that. The outcomes can be equivalent without the experience being identical.

The Future of Publishing?

I got a note from the senior executive editor at Yale, who has been my main contact throughout the process of getting my book published. Peppermint Kings has not been flying out of the warehouse so they are going to remainder the excess inventory. They’re keeping it “in print” however. Now it WAS a strange year since the book came out in June 2020, but I can’t see that they did ANYTHING to promote it. Yale is one of the most prestigious academic presses — is the day of the academic press over?

This leads to the obvious question, how should I proceed with my new project. Is there a press or a book series that might want it? If so, is there one that could do it justice? I had been thinking about the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Book Series of the University of Washington Press. It was shaped by its first series editor, William Cronon, into an important series, and Paul Sutter, who has taken over in the past five years, seems to be interested in carrying that forward. But I have some reservations about the audience. Who do I want to be my audience for a story about the White Pines? Academic historians? Do I have anything to say to them? In a recent interview for the UWA Press blog, Sutter urged writers to think of their audience as intelligent non-specialists and also to try to develop cahracters and tell good stories. I think that’s good advice, but does the Weyerhaeuser series deliver these types of readers? If not, is there any reason for me to contribute a brick to the wall of US history? OR, do I really want, as Sutter says, to tell a story to regular readers?

This is not a question that I feel I am temperamentally best qualified to answer. I have been a fan of new media and self-publishing since before they really existed. I self-published a YA novel in 2007 and got it an award at a regional book event. I wrote my own textbook for my first class at UMass. Then for my second class at BSU. Then my third.

My friend and mentor, Ted Melillo at Amherst College, introduced me to the editor at Yale. She had handled his 2015 book, Strangers on Familiar Soil. He published his second book, The Butterfly Effect, through Knopf in 2020. He had some interesting things to say about the differences in the author-editor interaction in the trade press. The gist, it seemed to me, was there was much more energy behind making the book a really good read, rather than an impeccably correct, well produced monograph. This is appealing, as is the energy and quick turnaround that was both expected of the author, as Ted described it, and delivered by the publisher.

Ted’s Yale book made it into a paperback printing, and is currently sitting at a sales rank of about 2.8 million in Amazon’s ranking. The trade book is ranked at about 400 thousand. I’m not sure what that translates to in unit sales, so I have no idea whether the effort has benefited Ted financially. I imagine the royalty check is the least of his concerns.Earning money for writing is not necessarily the first priority for authors who are also academics. If they work at research universities, publishing may be part of their job description. The university where I work respects publication but I don’t think anyone has lost their job or been denied tenure for not producing a book-length publication.

I had another advisor, early in my grad career at UMass, who had published several books in US History. The first two with the Harvard University Press, then one with Yale, and then the last three or so with Basic Books. She claimed that if you were doing it right, the advances should double with each new contract. Her first Harvard book, based on her dissertation, is at about 1.2 million in the Amazon ranks (for the hardcover – it’s also available as a Kindle though). Her most recent, which I haven’t read yet, is available in all formats including audible, and ranks in the 5 thousands in Amazon’s list, so I imagine she actually is earning a living by writing that may exceed her salary as a professor at an expensive Boston area private liberal arts college.

HOWEVER, another important element of the publishing game is a more or less winner-take-all distribution of eyeballs and earnings. It probably doesn’t really pay to go after that brass ring, unless you’re willing to sacrifice pretty much everything else. And even then, as Taleb says, it may largely come down to randomness. I imagine my former advisor might object to that and accuse me of sour grapes. But once again, I’m not really feeling that urge to compete.

Because it is staying “in print”, Yale continues to control the copyright to PK. That doesn’t mean, I think, that I can’t maybe put excerpts on my website. Or maybe read it aloud, one chapter a month. Maybe I should start that. And as for my next project, I think I’ll have a better idea of how to bring it to the public, once I know more about the actual topic I’m pursuing. I can imagine some instances in which, if I want to make a historical point or an “intervention” in the historiographical discussion, it might be useful to publish with a series like the Weyerhaeuser. If I want to tell a fast-paced, energetic story that will teach a “trade” readership, then maybe it would make sense trying to attract the attention of Basic or Knopf. Seems like an awful lot of work and hassle, though. And then there’s the audience available to me directly via these media I’m pushing these words out into. Doing it this way with these words has allowed me to focus on these actual words, rather than on packaging them in a way that will get someone to accept them for publication. That’s HUGELY attractive to me, since it’s the words I like the best.

This is also available as a video at https://youtu.be/rW2WREuA1ns

Back to the written word

Welcome (back?) to History4Today.com. This is a blog and a general front-page for stuff I’m doing in 2021.

Hello! I’m Dan Allosso. I’ve been blogging off and on (mostly on) since 1999. Over the years I’ve run a bunch of different sites devoted to topics that have grabbed my attention and interest.

  • Wireless tech and wardriving when wifi was brand-new in 1999. When wifi was new, NO ONE secured their networks. You could drive around with a notebook open and just make a map of all the open access points in town. Didn’t even need a Pringles-can antenna.
  • British secularist Charles Bradlaugh in the early 2000s. He was very popular with the folks in Northampton England. I even got a press clipping sent to me by a friend of Allan Moore, of a bunch of people toasting Bradlaugh at his statue on his birthday. That was fun.
  • A site called History Punk when I was a grad student. I posted stories of the interesting stuff I was learning, as well as book reviews of the things I was reading for my teaching fields — which got a surprising amount of traffic. Must have been a lot of other grad students out there, I can only imagine.
  • An Environmental History site that still exists (the others you can only see on the Wayback Machine).

In the past, because I came from the computer industry, I used to register my own domains and host my own websites. But I’m no longer on top of the tech and my coding skills have eroded. It’s like a language you used to be fluent in but haven’t spoken for 30 years — literally! I’m going to have to start taking German I again next fall with my son! Use it or lose it.

Luckily, there are now ways to have a website and a blog with a bit less coding. So I’m going to try to talk about all my stuff via this WordPress site.

SO…here I am. After over 20 years. This WordPress site has been dormant for a while. I was using it to blog about Open Educational Resources. Then I thought I might blog about history, but I ended up spending a lot of time the last year making some podcasts and a lot of videos. I’m going to keep doing that, but it seems like some folks still read stuff off of screens, too. So I’m going to start posting stuff here, about all the different projects I’m working on. Over time, some of these projects will probably develop their own subpages. But hopefully, I’ll be able to run them all from here. So wish me luck and stay tuned!

Moving Day

I’m starting to move my History videos from my personal YouTube channel to my new History4Today channel. The first set to go is the American Environmental History series. I’ll be taking it off my personal channel, so look for it in the new location!

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Captioning Videos

When I mentioned earlier in the week that I had made a bunch of videos for my online East Asia course last semester, a colleague challenged me on twitter regarding whether the videos were captioned. I responded that the ones I was talking about were not part of my OER, but just short messages to my students announcing what was next, explaining how to use tools like Hypothesis, etc. He responded that even so, federal and state law and our university system’s policies require captioning of any course video. 

I was not sure this is true, so I asked him to provide a reference to the statutes he thinks apply. He provided a link to a MinnState guideline document that seems to agree with his claim that the system I work within supports a broad interpretation of the law that seeks to require captioning of all videos, regardless of their purpose. Among the questions addressed in the document’s FAQ is an explanation that transcripts of videos are not sufficient, because the user experience is not identical. While I accept that this statement is true, I’m skeptical of its importance in all cases. For example, If I make a video version of a PowerPoint lecture based on a chapter of my OER textbook, the same basic content is presented in three different formats. My initial idea is to make the content accessible to students with different learning styles. I think, some students learn better by reading: they’ll use the textbook. Others may have time while commuting: a podcast might be useful to them. Others may miss one of my lectures of may really learn better watching a video: so I’ll make a video version of my lecture and post it online.  

The idea is to make my course content more accessible. Requiring me to caption these lecture videos complicates the process of making them and adds time. Let’s be honest: increased complexity and time are disincentives. Not only for someone like me who wants to make videos, but even worse for instructors who are on the fence about the shift to online resources or looking for a reason to reject the idea. Moreover, the type of aggressive virtue-signaling language that sometimes accompanies arguments or mandates of accessibility can be very off-putting. Maybe it’s me, but I’d prefer to be helped to make my content more accessible rather than told if it’s not 100% right out of the gate I shouldn’t bother. And if I was paranoid (who me?) I might suspect that although the proponents of universal accessibility have their hearts in the right spot, putting steep barriers in the way of instructors seeking to make a change seems to play into the hands of textbook publishing corporations.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to try to make my videos with captions, even though that’s going to be more complicated and time-consuming. I’m going to try to find the least time-consuming and expensive way to do that and share what I find. If you know of any better, faster, cheaper ways, please let me know! Although I’m fairly comfortable with technology and have a lot of opinions I’m not shy about sharing, I’ve only been doing this OER and open ed stuff for about a year. Point out what I’m missing and I’ll work it in and make a video about it! 

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As I’ve begun looking at the tools available, there seem to be a several ways for me to type caption text into a video as I’m watching it. This isn’t optimal. If I’ve written copy and then made a video of it, the last thing I want to do is then retype it. I suppose I could cut and paste it a little bit at a time, but this is also a pain, especially if I’m captioning a lecture. So the best option seems to be finding a reasonably accurate, easily-correctable auto-captioning app. Again, there are a bunch of these available, but I’m not going to buy one in order to make my videos. Sorry. I paid for Camtasia, but there’s a limit to the amount of my own money I can afford to spend. I was disappointed to learn that Vimeo, the video-hosting service I’ve been using for years to avoid YouTube, allows you to add captions to videos but doesn’t have an automated process like YouTube’s. It supports automation tools like CaptionSync, but again, I’m not going to buy a subscription to an app that doesn’t even list its pricing online! So maybe it’s time to surrender to the dark side and stop paying $199 a year for an inferior tool.  

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Roughly six hours after writing the previous paragraph, I’ve removed over 150 videos from Vimeo, canceled my $199 per year “Pro” subscription, and loaded eleven lecture videos from my American Environmental History course onto YouTube. The auto-captioning seems to work remarkably well! Not perfectly, and I’ll need to spend a little time with each video, editing the captions. I’ve shifted the licensing on the videos from standard YouTube license to CC-BY, the Creative Commons Attribution open license that allows anyone to reuse or remix the videos. I don’t think it’s really possible to download the YouTube versions of the videos, so maybe I should load the originals up into Opendora (my system’s open archive) so that others who want to use the content can grab an mp4 file and mess with it.  

My next step will be to see if it makes sense to load videos like the lectures I just added to YouTube into an app like MediaSpace in my university’s learning management sandbox. I’m not actually teaching the course those videos go with again this semester, and I’m rethinking a lot of design elements of the video lecture format, so I’ll need to ponder on that a bit in the next couple of weeks as I prepare for next semester. I’ll report on the process as I go, so thanks for reading and I’ll see you again next time.