Using Open Rev in the Humanities Classroom

So here’s the thing: everyone decides to start a blog when they’re in grad school. Here’s another thing: finishing a Ph.D. takes up all your time. If you have a blog and managed to keep it up throughout the process of finishing, I tip my hat to you. I found it difficult to keep myself on a regular schedule of eating and sleeping, let alone working on extracurricular writing activities. In any case, I’ve forgiven myself. And now we’ll return to the (not so) regularly scheduled blog.



Don’t judge me for the super-unorganized cord situation in the background.

The fourth chapter of my Ph.D. thesis (pictured above because it is real and that is still exciting to me) focuses on the design and execution of an undergraduate course, called ‘The Notation of Medieval Song’ (henceforth MU3423), which I co-taught in the Music Department at Royal Holloway with my supervisor in the spring of 2016. The course focused on the notation used to write song in British and Irish sources during the 12th and 13th centuries. While this blog won’t cover the contents of the entire chapter (you’ll have to wait for the article!), it will focus on one specific tool that I used: Open Rev.

Open Rev is an open-source tool for collaborative annotation. It was originally created by a team of Harvard grad students, mostly intended for use by scholars and students in STEM fields. The impetus for its creation was to provide a platform to which users could upload open-access scholarly publications, which could then be publicly annotated, creating a discussion without the constraints of publishing firewalls.

In Mu3423, my students used Open Rev to interact with, analyse, annotate and discuss digital manuscript images. If you’re worried about image copyright, there are a range of privacy settings available on Open Rev. In the case of MU3423, I set up a private group to ensure that only approved users had access to the MS images and student-created content. In future iterations of this type of course, I will definitely attempt to either use non-copyrighted images or gain permission from digital archives (and from my students) so that I can make the course public (many manuscript databases allow scholars to download images for use in teaching as long as credit is given to the source, and no one is making a monetary profit off of the presentation). Given the amount of interest generated just through conversations I’ve had with people about this resource, it would have been great to have been able to publicly show how effective this resource was, and widely share the insightful comments that my students made throughout the course.

When students log into the Open Rev Group home page, they see thumbnails of recent activity and a list of all the documents. Each document has a unique title (I used the library sigla & folio numbers in lieu of song titles, since many songs had concordances in several of the manuscripts examined), but they can also be tagged. Because we were working with multiple documents during each weekly lecture/discussion, I tagged each document by week, so that students could easily access that week’s work without having to remember multiple sigla.

The majority of the assignments I had my students carry out on Open Rev required them to highlight areas of the image, and then write a comment about the contents of the highlighted area (usually a group of music notes, a phrase of text, or both). Then, each week, the students were also asked to write a comment on another student’s annotation. I would also write comments on the students’ annotations, usually to answer questions or point out mistakes and prompt them to explore alternative possibilities for transcription, but without ever divulging my own interpretations of the individual note forms or words. The student comments on their colleagues’ annotations were insightful, and above all, helpful: the resulting conversations led to students coming to their own conclusions, with minimal assistance from course supervisors.

Students could also use the public elements of the platform to see how the interpretation of certain note forms and scribal traits could vary among their peers, and be privy to the various routes taken by their colleagues in order to come to their own conclusions – there are almost always multiple interpretative possibilities that need to be examined before scribal error can be presented as a well-researched hypothesis. Palaeography, in many cases, can be less about identifying an individual grapheme than about determining what forms within a writing system a specific grapheme is not, and the Open Rev tasks helped to shed light on students’ processes of elimination.

The downside of using a platform originally intended for text annotation to engage in image annotation is, of course, file upload size limits. The images had to be converted to PDF, with a maximum file size of 20MB. To put this into perspective, digital MS images are regularly 400MB, even up to 1GB, depending on the file type. However, even after being converted, none of the 20 images used for MU3423 became so pixellated that it inhibited the students’ ability to use the images to carry out close palaeographic work (though I was initially worried about a few).

Using Open Rev allowed me to communicate with my students outside the classroom, while also allowing them to communicate with one another. The conversations that were started within the platform were then continued in the following week’s classroom discussion, which was particularly helpful later in the course as the subject matter became more difficult. This tool allowed the students of MU3423 to work with primary source material in a collaborative environment and also to receive regular feedback on their weekly progress. Because all of the content on Open Rev is based around individual uploads, it can be used for a variety of subjects (not just STEM, as this course shows!). The framework can be easily navigated, which ensures that all students will be able to complete the required tasks, no matter what level of experience they have working with technology. I’ll definitely be using it again for future incarnations of this particular course, and for others as well. Have you used it? I’d love to hear about experiences in other classrooms!


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