Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Online Versus Face-Time

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is cutting an on-site World War I workshop intended for high school history classes, and took some heat in the Globe and Mail for the decision (the article, "First World War workshops soon to be history" [Feb. 25, 2010] is behind a pay wall).

The workshops offered Ottawa-area students the opportunity to handle World War I era letters from soldiers and learn about the soldiers' experiences from LAC archivists who had expert knowledge of the material.

The article paints Canada's national archives as near-sighted for replacing face-time between students and expert archivists with online PDFs and lesson plans for teachers.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Canadians should be applauding the decision. In the face of a huge Canadian deficit this year, it is important for cultural institutions to justify their spending and look for more efficient ways to offer Canadians their services. LAC has achieved this by placing the learning resources online, making them available to far more students, and reassigning the staff who offered the workshops to other tasks.

Critics argue that it's not the same for students to read online PDFs as it is to hold the actual letters written by soldiers, and that the expertise of the archivists adds to the learning experience. I certainly cannot argue that these cuts are not a loss for Ottawa-area students and teachers. But, claims made in the article that teachers - who are not WWI experts - cannot teach the content or that students will be unable to make the connection between the short-hand, “GSW” and “gunshot wound” are overly apocalyptic.

Our educational curriculums are designed to teach our students skills that are realistic and are based on their maturity and prior education. To suggest that Canadian high school teachers are unable to teach those skills without the help of an archivist is a disservice to the countless excellent teachers out there - many of whom have no option but to create their own lesson plans.

If a teacher is concerned that the students will not have the same experience with a PDF as they would with the actual letters, I invite them to use some creativity: print off the letters and Google “how to make paper look old.” All you need is some coffee and a little bit of planning. Not sure what a “GSW” is? Read the tool kit that accompanies the project, or email an archivist for clarification.

This shift from on-site to on-line content will create a program that students and teachers from Vancouver to St. John's to Yellowknife can use in their classrooms. Unlike smaller countries like Italy or Germany, Canadians are not connected via high-speed rail lines or short bus trips. Even if financial restraints were not a concern, it would be environmentally irresponsible to fly all Canadian students to Ottawa to participate in these workshops. Paying to set up workshops across the country is equally unrealistic.

Instead, to keep our education system competitive, we have to ensure our virtual connections can bridge the vast distances our geography demands and offer all students access to important educational resources.

The solution is not to offer more local programming, but more national programming that is created once and remains useful for many years. Instead of asking Canadians to continue to pay for each workshop, LAC has decided to ask Canadians to pay once more for archivists to scan and upload the documents and make them available for years to come at no further financial burden.

The change may not be the best for everyone, but it's better for most Canadians. Face- time is great, but we must also be prudent and accountable to all Canadians for the money we put into services accessible to only a few. For that, I applaud LAC for their forward thinking as we continue to make our educational system more sustainable, from coast to coast.

Photo Credit: "Takin' it to the BANK$Y" by John.


Casey-Filion said...

I find your blog quite intriguing to say the least. Yes, digitizing information is important in this new era of technology as it helps to bridge the geographic gaps especially for students who are unable to travel to Ottawa. But if students are already traveling to Ottawa, as thousands do, as part of school trips or involvement in programs such as Encounters with Canada, why can they not visit Library and Archives' Learning Centre. If one follows your line of thinking, the National Art Gallery should take down their portraits simply because they have a nice website...the National War Museum should stop offering its on site school programs because they have digitized their artifacts?

I totally disagree with your arguments.

Adam Crymble said...

Hi Casey,

I never suggested Canadians (students or otherwise) be denied access to materials. Nor do my arguments suggest we take down art at the National Gallery because the material is available online.

What I do suggest is that it is unnecessary to pay someone with Canadian tax dollars to repeatedly offer the same information to a group of students who live in a small geographic area when those students have a teacher who is capable of the task.

Casey-Filion said...

Classroom teachers repeatedly teach the same curriculum year after year.

Yes, teachers could use the online information to teach but there's nothing better than on-site learning and teaching. As a teacher, I believe in teachable moments and the Learning Centre at Library and Archives is by far the best in the country. This is a perfect example of my taxes being used for a positive and enriching learning experience.

Adam Crymble said...

Thanks for the reply Casey.

I think your comment hits the nail on the head. You think the experience your students gain are a good use of your tax dollars.

My Vancouver-based tax dollars also fund your students' experience in Ottawa yet very few of the students in my area will benefit from the same opportunity.

All I'm suggesting is a model that gives all students an equally positive experience, no matter where they live.

There are many inherent historical learning advantages for Ottawa-area students, and that's fine. It's when we go out of our way to enrich some Canadian's experiences while providing nothing equivalent for others that there is a problem with the system.

Casey-Filion said...

Please don't underestimate the thousands of students from outside Ottawa who also enjoy the resources at Library and Archives as part of their visit to the Nation's Capital.

Casey-Filion said...

Hi - did you see the CBC's National on April 9, 2010 where they reported the story of a young girl who was deeply impacted by her on site school program at LAC, during the Vimy Ridge Week (these were Encounters with Canada students from all over Canada). The young girl from the Vancouver-area said in the report that she will never forget her experience while she was here in the National Capital.
Here is the link to that video again: http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/Canada/ID=1464901627

Adam Crymble said...

Thanks for the link. I hadn't seen that.

It's obvious you're passionate about this topic. I'm not trying to argue these programs aren't great learning opportunities.

It comes down to the fact that money doesn't grow on trees and students don't need to be sitting in Ottawa to open up a folder full of documents about a particular soldier.

Granted, one can't lay a rose on the tomb of the unknown soldier without a trip to Ottawa, but that's not really what my article was about.

Claire Campbell said...

Hi Adam -
I'm teaching public history as a spring course (three hours a day, four days a week, for a month!) and this year we're having a class on ph & new media. Can I use this post as a discussion starter?

Adam Crymble said...

Hi Claire,

Please feel free to use this post as you like.


Cenotaph soldiers said...

Hi Adam
As a future PHD History candidate, I am surprised at your lack of research about the functions of the LAC Learning Centre.
Each year, hundreds of teachers from ACROSS CANADA order copies of WWI and WWII military service files from the Learning Centre. Each file contains a minimum OF 20 pages of information about a WWI or WWII soldier. Photocopied miltary service files are not a huge budgetary expense.The wait time for these military files to arrive at schools used to be 2-3 weeks. If we are talking about costs to taxpayers, can you imagine the cost of uploading the files of 100,000 soldiers ( WWI and WWII KIA). I love the idea of military files going online but it should be in addition to students having the actual copies to use. With the changes to the Learning Centre, teachers will now wait in the cue with the general public for 6-9 months before students can have an actual hands-on experience. Talk to any of my students at Oakville Trafalgar High School who have used these files (our school has ordered over 200 military service files) and they would tell you that nothing compares to having those documents in their hands.
Again, you need to do more research about the Learning Centre. It is not an Ottawa-based program. It is a national treasure and the proposed changed greatly hinder access to the untold stories of our Canadian WWI and WWII soldiers. Lest We Forget.

Adam Crymble said...

Thank you for your comments. It's good to see teachers fighting for programs they believe in.

I'm sorry I can't share the Globe article with you (it's behind a paywall), but in this case we're specifically talking about the "Lest We Forget" program which was on-site only and involved a paid employee of the archives facilitating an exercise with a group of physically present students.

LAC has decided to replace this with an online version of records for 200 Canadian soldiers - far more than any one class is ever going to need.

You can read more about this particular decision here: http://www.thenhier.ca/en/content/%E2%80%9Clest-we-forget%E2%80%9D-history-education-canadians-call-lac-reverse-controversial-decision

Cenotaph soldiers said...

Hi Adam
Thank you for your response.

What you are saying is that 200
on-line files are sufficient for all the students across Canada to use to research our soldiers...only 200 stories are worth telling?
I still don't think you understand the limitations to researching the stories of our Canadian soldiers KIA with the planned changes to the Learning Centre.
I have read the Globe article and my students attended a 2009 Lest We Forget Workshop to research 28 WWI soldiers who attended our high school...and our school is not in Ottawa.
Your limited view about the Lest We Forget project ( that it is just about an on-site workshop)is a disservice to everyone who reads your blog. I would be more that happy to send you stats produced by LAC about the Lest We Forget project so you can get a better understanding of what it involves and what will be lost. This issue is much bigger than shutting down the workshops.
Pam Calvert
Oakville Trafalgar High School

Dale Winling said...

I think we need to do a bit more to acknowledge what is being lost by going the digitizing route in lieu of the in-person visit with an archivist.

There are a number of trade-offs that have not been acknowledged -- first the recognition that handling archival documents offers a lesson in material culture that a digitized document cannot, one that is surely part of a historical education. If we think of these letters as only useful for the information written upon them, then digitization is an improvement. However, I anticipate an archivist would be able to talk about, for example, envelopes, postage, the quality and source of the paper, the ink (leading to a discussion of military procurement), and how archivists have developed ways to preserve these materials, all of which are important to an understanding of the historical world and World War I and which are pretty specific to the archivists and the visit -- if we value an understanding of material culture.

Now, after considering this loss to the lesson, or the added cost to giving this kind of interpretation in a digital form, it might still make economic and pedagogical sense to digitize. But we should acknowledge that these would end up being two very different lessons.

Adam Crymble said...

Hi Dale,

Are teachers not capable of discussing ideas of material culture with students?

I'm afraid I don't buy the argument that teachers cannot fill the educational role of an archivist in this case. And if teachers are claiming they can't, then I think that opens up a completely different discussion few teachers likely want to have.

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