Coding the Humanities


Digital Humanities


April 16, 2020

Traveling at the speed of light and then
At the same time I'm in the same spot too


In 2013, two somewhat naive humanities scholars that liked computers and coding wrote a letter to their dean. In this letter, Marijn Koolen and I argued that the humanities faculty of the university of Amsterdam should invest in us I mean online education.

Why? Because it was a looming threat to traditional institutions? Because it was an easy way to scale up classes and safe money? Yes! Definitely! But these weren’t the main reason to us. Marijn and I, saw in online learning an opportunity to increase the quality of higher education and research.

A few days ago, I rediscovered the proposal that Marijn and I wrote in 2013. What struck me was the following: there is still so much untapped potential in online higher education. But today, most quarantined students are sitting behind a zoom screen attending the same old lecture or seminar.

Why are educators still treating online as if it is second best? Why is it only used as a substitute when the real thing is unattainable? Online learning can offer so much more than that.

But there is a second, more personal question that preoccupies me: why weren’t we more successful in convincing people? What is missing in our letter? How could we have explained it better? Critically reading the proposal back it becomes crystal clear to me. Marijn and I were sharing our conclusions, but we failed to communicate our journey and convey our enthusiasm.

Let me try again.

2013 Redux

I did not become someone different
That I did not want to be
But I'm new here
Will you show me around?

Gil Scott-Heron

Let’s be frank. The letter that Marijn and I wrote, is not very good. In fact, it’s terrible. Seven years later, I'm actually surprised that it took us as far as it did. Our diagnosis is full of broad, inaccurate generalisations. We only hint at alternatives, but they never become concrete or tangible. And last but not least, we were almost obsessively preoccupied with the horrors of MOOCs.

What the letter is missing is urgency. Why did we write it in the first place?

The reason is simple. Marijn and I shared a common passion: programming. A lot of our enthousiasm back in 2013, was sparked by the innovations in online learning that we saw popping up in that space. There where so many different online platforms that tried to teach people how to code in new innovative ways: Codecademy, Gitbook, Peepcode.

To us, however, there was one platform that was superior to all others: Code School. This now defunct learning platform combined short videos with in-browser coding assignments that were checked automatically. The fact that all their courses had creative themes such as the zombie apocalypse (Rails for Zombies) or Monty Python (Flying through Python) made Code School into nerd nirvana.

If were to reverse engineer Code School’s secret formula, it would consists of three key ingredients:

  • Online is not a Compromise. Code School realized that they offered a mode of education that was not possible offline and chose to double down on this. Instructors did not try to recreate a classroom vibe. Lessons were somewhere in between 5 to 10 minutes on average. And homework never felt as such.

  • Automation is your Friend. Code School had an in-browser editor where you made your assignments. Through clever usage of unit tests, you got real time feedback on your performance. And when you got stuck, you could get a hint. No human intervention needed.

  • Learning should be Fun. There were so many things that made Code School fun: the aforementioned themes, the gamification, the assignments. But if I had to pick one thing, I’d say the theme songs. Each course would start with its own cheesy tune. They were so catchy, that you could not resist to sing along. But there was a catch, these fun songs actually also contained some valuable lessons. I still remember clearly that "you have to get the truth out of the DOM" because of the Anatomy of Backbone theme song.

In 2013, I thought that I had to convince people that they were doing education wrong. That Marijn and I were experts in online learning. That we were already offering solutions to problems that people didn’t even realize that they had yet. In short, we were prophets of rage and doom.

Looking back, I regret that we didn’t put more time and effort in conveying our enthusiasm. Whe should have tried to make others as passionate as us about the future of online education that we saw happening elsewhere. Maybe, just maybe, it would have saved some teachers and students from becoming zoombies of the coronapocalypse in 2020.

Photo by Dai Phong on Unsplash

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