My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: What is Digital Field Scholarship?

August 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Originally posted on August 17, 2012 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

The Domain of Digital Field Scholarship

The Domain of Digital Field Scholarship

On August 29 at 4 pm EDT Prof. Jim Proctor of Lewis and Clark College will lead a NITLE Seminar on digital field scholarship and offer the opportunity for faculty and staff in the NITLE network to join a sandbox and experiment with this approach over the next academic year.  Some of you may be wondering what, exactly, digital field scholarship is and why it is important for liberal arts colleges.


Dr. Proctor coined the term “digital field scholarship” to cover any approaches that use digital technologies to enhance research in the field.  More specifically, he means student work outside the classroom.  As Jim explains,

the ultimate aim is quality scholarship in undergraduate liberal education

Fieldwork is common to many high impact practices of liberal education, such as service learning, study abroad, civic engagement, or internships.  While disciplines like biology or archaeology may regularly include work in the field, more and more projects are moving students out of the classroom and away from campus.  For example students at Bucknell University, as part of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley Project, gathered stories from the Marcellus Shale region in the Susquehanna watershed of how the boom in natural gas drilling is transforming communities and cultural landscapes. Fieldwork is a form of authentic, inquiry-guided learning that engages students because they are not repeating work for an instructor who already knows the answer, but rather learning how to apply their skills in a different context to produce new knowledge.

Digital Fieldwork

While field work is a common methodology, digital technologies have enhanced how it is done in a variety of ways.  Digital mobile devices facilitate the capture of data, whether it is environmental datapublic performance artimages from study abroadtrips, or spiders in Portland, OR.  Online sharing via blogs, wikis, or other social tools like Flickr, links those in the field with each other and their home campus in alearning network. Such aggregation helps students see larger patterns, experience the impact of big data, and collaboratively build knowledge.  Open online publication also increases student investment because they are creating for a public audience rather than their instructor alone.

Geospatial Scholarship

The Lewis and Clark digital field scholarship sandbox focuses on geographic data as the organizing principle for its aggregation and analysis.  At liberal arts colleges, geospatial research has been growing steadily over the last decade as first Geographic Information Systems (GIS), then web-based mapping allowed the integration of geospatial thinking across the curriculum, matched by growth in spatial humanities scholarship. [1]


Pins indicate stories in the Cleveland Historical Mobile App.

Within that fertile context, mobile devices like smart phones combine the capture and geo-tagging of content with the ability to immediately share and aggregate it.  Smart phones and tablets can also allow place-based access to previously captured content. For example, the Mobile Historicalapp allows users to find local stories based on their current location. Such place-based storytelling has been used in a range of disciplines, including urban studies, art history, (public) history, literature and environmental studies—as we discussed in an impromptu videoconference earlier this year—producing learning outcomes such as research methods, communication, and technology skills. The ubiquity of smart phones with multiple affordances—geotagging, audio, video, text, and online publication—makes the production of collaborative, geospatial scholarship even easier.

Playing in the Sandbox

Lewis and Clark’s sandbox offers users the chance to use mobile devices for content capture and geolocation and a wordpress blog for data storage, sharing, mapping, and communication.  For those who may not have the support and expertise available locally to experiment with such approaches, Lewis and Clark’s generous creation of a sandbox offers liberal arts faculty and staff the chance to try out these tools before committing to this approach.  In return, they hope to create a learning network, a cohort that can invent and explore the potential of digital field scholarship across many disciplines.

The Importance of Place for Liberal Arts Colleges

This approach is, I think, especially important for liberal arts colleges because residential colleges are inextricably linked to their location.  In “Chief Academic Officer 2.5”, Provosts Carol Long of SUNY-Geneseo and Katie Conboy of Stonehill College cite the place-based nature of liberal arts colleges as one of their defining characteristics.  As more and more education moves online and becomes accessible in any place, residential liberal arts colleges must articulate the importance of their own place in the landscape—both geographical and the landscape of higher education.  Institutions like Bucknell University or Lewis and Clark College are more and more looking to engage their students in their local place. Digital Field Scholarship offers one more way to combine high impact practices of liberal education with the importance of place for liberal arts colleges.

[1] My thanks to NITLE’s GIS listserv for helping me reconstruct that history, especially Diana Sinton, Andy Anderson, and Robert Beutner.  NITLE’s GIS initiative launched in September 2003, though Middlebury’s Center for Educational Technology (CET) (one of NITLE’s founding regional centers) began offering GIS across the Curriculum workshops as early as 2001.


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