SAH Blog

  • Alienation and Education: Massive Open Online Courseware and the Future of Architectural History Instruction

    Oct 8, 2013

    By Samuel Ray Jacobson

    With a team of administrators, programmers, video editors, and student interns I spent the summer developing the first ever massive open online course on the subject of architectural history. Offered on the edX platform beginning September 17, the MITx course “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1”—known to us at MIT by its course number, 4.605x—is intended to serve as a platform for thought about architecture throughout the world and the history of human society. Like most online courses entering the education marketplace today, 4.605x is constructed around a body of pre-existing material. The bulk of the course is derived from the spring 2013 offering of Dr. Mark Jarzombek’s recurring MIT architectural history survey, 4.605 “Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture.”[i] This aspect of adaptation generated some of the most compelling pedagogical challenges to our creation of the online offering. It is because of the exemplary nature of these challenges to the field of architectural history and its instruction at the college level that I would like to share some of my experiences and thoughts with you, here on the SAH blog.

    4.605, the original course, was uniquely suited for an adaption of its kind because of the conceptual design of its learning objectives. The course’s overall structure is dependent upon the facilitation of a spirit of pluralism, for pedagogical effect. For example, Jarzombek’s first lecture begins with a rational and cautious conveyance of the limited theories and facts known about early civilizations. This includes a discussion of ochre, and its use in ancestral worship rituals; drawing a connection between the uses of this material in various societies, historically, without naturalizing this phenomenon within ostensibly trans-historical explanations, Jarzombek’s portrayal of the first societies imparts upon those groups a level of historical autonomy, whereby their cultural practices are represented as a cumulative instance, sitting at the end of an ongoing historical unfolding (rather than functioning as an antecedent of the present). Building upon this example, 4.605x can be rightly understood as a format for historical pluralism: it recounts the story of architecture and history in various instances as it moves through them, chronologically, in an attempt to foster a type of historical literacy. Presented in episodes, the history of architecture and society gradually accumulates, its instances receding form their particularity and towards their implication in a continuum. As a student, this revelation becomes ever-more seductive by virtue of the ignorance it produces: everything one learns reveals the possibility for learning that much more, as the unfolding of architectural history continues revealing itself as ever vaster and more complex than it seemed before. Embodying the curiosity of its self-selected student body, 4.605x creates for itself a new demographic of architectural historians: independent, global, and operating outside the normative boundaries of our field’s academe.

    That this should be so inherently pushes against the medium condition of MOOC development in its present, early iteration. In general terms the repackaging pre-recorded lectures as a free online course, while expanding availability to content, also highlights the elite privilege of access to today’s institutions of higher learning. In our case while 4.605x is making available, for free, to anyone with an internet connection, a simulacrum of an experience that up until this moment was only available to those with the ability to attend MIT classes, those who enroll in 4.605x will receive no official credit for the course and, since MIT retains copyright to its materials, enrolled students are not free to engage with course lectures, readings, or assessment outside the edX online environment. The experience is approximately analogous to auditing a traditional university course, with the added consideration that one cannot watch lectures live or interact personally with the professor. The necessary formatting of our recorded material heightens this potential alienation of the student from their online instructor, when compared to a traditional auditing situation: divided into segments, edited for length, and released en-masse, the lectures seen by 4.605x students will read unavoidably as a derivative product, awkwardly adapted for their online viewing and always feeling like a secondary sort of experience. Bearing these factors in mind, 4.605x is no more than the sum of what has been lost in translation; a teasing reminder of the world-class instruction offered by MIT, to individuals who will probably never be able to experience it.

    Such cynicism is misplaced. To view our MOOC as mere branding exercise misses the opportunities that the online medium provides for new forms of instruction and individualized learning, which are numerous and compelling. MOOC lectures, even those adapted from residential courses, differ from traditional lectures because students are free to absorb information at their own pace: with streaming online video, a student can watch when they please, with the ability to pause, rewind, and revisit portions they may not have understood the first time around. In our course, self-scrolling, time-stamped transcripts, displayed beside the lecture videos, enable better comprehension for the hard-of-hearing and English learners. Additionally, questions displayed beneath videos have been used to highlight salient points in our video segments; this simple gesture is of tremendous importance: by taking advantage the necessary fracturing of our video content as a pedagogical opportunity, 4.605x starts to utilize its digital nature as a value added opportunity for its global community of students.

    Snapshot of 4.605x, 9/17/2013

    There are many other ways in which the 4.605x course team attempted to capitalize on the edX platform, building on the learning objectives implied by the material available from the original MIT course. The content of Professor Jarzombek's course holds up the ideal of free, rational association between historical episodes. Paraphrasing his course abstract, 4.605/4.605x’s lectures give students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts; analyzing particular architectural transformations, arising from various specific cultural situations, the course lectures answer questions like:

    • How did the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE impact regional politics and the development of architecture?
    • How did new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produce new architectural understandings?
    • What were the architectural consequences of the changing political landscape in northern Italy in the 14th century?
    • How did rock-cut architecture move across space and time from West Asia to India to Africa?


    • How did the emergence of corn impact the rise of religious and temple construction in Mexico? (Jarzombek)

    These questions coordinate very particular narratives about architecture and its role within the unfolding of social history. In a traditional lecture course, student concerns involving these narratives and their relationship to each other could be addressed in recitation sessions, but in the MOOC environment this is not possible. While technologies exist to facilitate personal interaction between instructors and online students, such as edX’s built in discussion form or products like Google Hangout, even with these tools it is not possible to address individualized concerns with the attention and care of graduate student teaching assistants. Building upon spring 2013 4.605 TA input, the 4.605x course team devised a moderated approach to facilitating student discussion that emphasized the course learning objectives without necessitating the input of additional resources.[ii]

    To discuss these strategies it is necessary to understand how 4.605x configures its narratives of architectural history. As an example, let’s consider the third question above, about early modern northern Italy. In his lecture on the topic, Jarzombek argues that the example of the emergence of the town square in Siena in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and concomitant consolidation of the medieval torre typology from its proliferation in family compounds to the singularity of town hall, signals the emergence of civil society in that region. Thus, the comparison between the later and earlier town-scape conditions, illustrated below, relates indexically to the creation of the concept of citizenship and the growing role of civic institutions during the Renaissance.

    View of Piazza del Campo with Torre del Mangia (Siena), Wikipedia Commons

    Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century, Wikipedia Commons

    In this and other incidents, 4.605 lectures enact an historical methodology, whereby architectural developments are seen as causally related to a wide variety of cultural factors, across related geographical and chronological contexts. With respect to the issue of fitting incidents together, it is important to note that there are other metanarratives that one might fit this event in Italian history in to, and that in 4.605/4.605x a student is not given an opportunity to choose, or even explore, such counterpoints. It should be stated that in offering an admittedly singular and sanctioned narrative among a broad variety of twenty-four related, but autonomous incidents, students are enabled if not forced to use their own reasoning to create a comprehensive understanding of global architectural history; therefore, despite operating on an inherent notion of propriety and sanctioned knowledge, 4.605x’s epistemic values nourish and encourage an individualized engagement with architectural history, and therefore history, writ large. It is with this directed encouragement in mind that we, in developing 4.605x, tried to facilitate a conversation that could be as open as possible, and that took maximum advantage of our online course’s large and diverse community of motivated students. Like most surveys, in 4.605x the fostering of intellectual connections between related materials is foregrounded at the expense of individualized exploration. That said, the global character of our course community offers an unprecedented opportunity for students of diverse backgrounds to connect with each other, and these connections offer opportunities for personalized reflection and exchange that the original MIT course cannot match. Indeed, we see the open-posting capability written into the edX discussion forum as a wonderful tool for students to get to know each other as they get to know the material—and to experience whatever benefit this may offer. To this end, simple policies have been devised such that the discussion can remain free without impinging upon comprehension of the class's radically inclusive historiographical methodology. Those policies, informed by previous edX courses, include:

    • Be polite. We have learners from all around the world and with different backgrounds. Something that is easy for you may be challenging for someone else. Let’s build an encouraging community.
    • Search before asking. The forum can become hard to use if there are too many threads, and good discussions happen when people participate in the same thread. Before asking a question, use the search feature by clicking on the magnifying glass on the left-hand side.
    • Be specific. Choose a descriptive title, and provide as much information as possible: Which part of what problem or video do you want to discuss? Why do you not understand the question? What have you tried doing?
    • Write clearly. We know that English is a second language for many of you but correct grammar will help others to respond. Avoid ALL CAPS, abbrv of wrds (abbreviating words), and excessive punctuation!!!!
    • Use discussion while working through the material. On many pages in the learning sequences and homework, there is a link at the bottom that says “Show Discussion”. Clicking on this link will show all discussion on the forum associated with this particular learning material.

    By foregrounding concerns of civility and legibility in our management of the discussion forum, we hope that our course community will develop itself into a vibrant forum of equal interlocutors, despite the centralizing epistemological tendencies of the survey format and sense of alienation imposed by the digital adaptation of an existing course.

    To get things moving, and emphasize certain salient aspects of course lectures, a small body of conversation topics, written by Dr. Jarzombek, have been pre-seeded. Released onto the discussion forum with each lecture, these directed prompts offer opportunities for personal reflection that is based on the material discussed. Emphasizing the living nature of architectural history, it is hoped these discussion questions help students to connect material together as they form associations between what they are learning about and their own lives. For the lecture on early modern Italy, for example, the discussion prompt includes the question “Have you ever visited an Italian city and had a coffee in a piazza?” By answering this question or responding to the experiences of others, students can start to understand how they have interacted with the contemporary legacy of the urban-political shift addressed in the course, even in something as everyday as having an espresso.

    We hope that this intentionally limited mode of fostering student engagement catalyzes additional ancillary benefits. It is true that, by not encouraging engagement with alternative philosophies of history, 4.605x often works to reinforce its epistemological authority, to the effect of performing as a vehicle for sanctioned facts and narratives. That said, given the specifically anti-hegemonic nature of Professor Jarzombek's architectural history—which engages the subject across traditional chronological and cultural boundaries—I am incredibly optimistic about 4.605x’s ability to enable new connections to the field of architectural history, conceived in the broadest possible form. These directed questions are one excellent example of how this could occur; there are many others. Ultimately, it is the global nature of the content developed for the course that will help an unprecedentedly diverse audience to relate to what has traditionally been a somewhat elite and generally Eurocentric subject. In catalyzing this novel opportunity to create a new community of persons interested in architectural history, allowing for personal reflection is of immense importance. It is in this sense that the discussion component of 4.605x is helping to build on the course’s pedagogical strategy, even if the online formatting of the course ambivalent about our inability to engage with students personally.

    My measured optimism comes with a wealth of caveats, predicated on uncertainty. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping to develop curricula for an emerging university outside the United States, and it is likely that 4.605x will be adapted as an instructional tool for use at that institution in the near future; it is also likely that the course will be used as an instrument in similar “flipped instruction” utilizations elsewhere, further in the future. The details about this were still developing as 4.605x was being put together, but the continuation and adaptation of 4.605x into new and different forms seems inevitable. The inherent problem with this dynamic is one of derivation. Not only is our online course inherently derivative—based, as it is, on recorded lectures from spring 2013—but it is also going to be used to develop derivative content—such as materials to facilitate residential instruction elsewhere. Here is my fear: 4.605x is a survey course, composed of relatively autonomous episodes, portrayed in lectures; I can see its content being easily misused, formulating connections that the course itself leaves ambiguous, to the detriment of students.

    The motivation of my fear is an attachment to 4.605x’s present and delicate neutrality, as a format for content, from the perspective of historiography. Having watched the course lectures out of order, a few times, I can say that all of them stand on their own easily. They are comprehensive, and entertaining. I can also say that no particular lecture is necessary to satisfy the overall pedagogical ambition of the course: the ambition of training students in an understanding of history and architecture can be achieved even without a unit on the Minoans and discussion of the impact of the collapse of the Indus River Valley civilization in 1500 BCE, for example. That said, 4.605x does not lend itself easily to historiographical agendas outside the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason. So, while 4.605x courseware can and should be used as a resource for teaching global architectural history—few exist, more should—I would hate to see it adapted in a manner that naturalizes secondary aspects of the course as overriding concerns. It would be an abuse of the course’s content to create a derivative from it which is centered on ideological critique (cf. Tafuri) or technical determinism (cf. Semper; Banham) for example, or to make an argument that architectural history is characterized by expressions of singularity (Frampton) or signification (Jencks)—all of which are possibilities, should one cherry-pick content to adapt based on ideological interest. To provide an extended example: bearing in mind my interest in sexuality and space, it would be entirely possible to utilize 4.605x lectures to create a limited course on the history of human sexuality and the architecture of domestic environments; this course could include clips about matriarchal societies in the pre-classical Mediterranean (Lecture 6), the relationship between the rise of farming and more dimorphic gender roles in the Holocene (Lecture 3), connections between the lack of public space and the culture of rape renaissance Italy (Lecture 22), among many others. While I am OK with the idea of using 4.605x videos in an external and unrelated environment, it is crucial that this adaptation not be presented as an abridgement of 4.605x. The absolute character of “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1” (covering the whole world, and the complete history of society) neutralizes its particular content such that its only agenda is that of conveying material, to foster the intellectual growth of a student audience. It is for this reason that the course can cover 100,000 years of human history with efficacy: none of its admittedly limited dives into particular subjects are inherently necessary to the overall integrity of the course. Once that neutrality is compromised, the course becomes a political instrument, using incomplete materials to enforce a set of propositions. Rather than learn to teach themselves, students are merely indoctrinated.

    The question facing 4.605x now, as future adaptations remain to be considered, is: can the course’s present ethos of facilitation be expanded to include a body of teachers? Stated another way: Can 4.605x become a platform for facilitating new and novel engagement with global architectural history instruction, in both senses of the phrase (instruction on the subject of “global architectural history;” and on architectural history, generally, around the world), in the same manner as it encourages new, global connections to the subject of architectural history? I don't know. What I would like to see is metamorphoses of 4.605x, not derivations, elicited in the same way that the course hopes to have an impact on student thinking about architecture and history, but not necessarily to shape it.

    I am able to present several informed judgments about the state of 4.605x with regards to the ambitions of its institutional stakeholders. Presently members of the MIT Office of Digital Learning (which also oversees MITx) are utilizing analytics to reconsider how MOOC courseware can be designed to maximize intended impact. One recent study, “Exploring the Relationship between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses,” uses anonymous, aggregated, and chronologically analyzed student click data sets to understand when and how often students utilize certain resources. This research had a marked impact on our course, leading to the implementation of four regular exams rather than a mid-term and final, since research has found that students engage much more with eText when this format is used, and more engagement is assumed to be beneficial. The impact of this leveraging of analytics remains to be seen. In developing our course, research was used to short-circuit the traditional iterative refinements by which university courses are developed over the years. The intention was to improve 4.605x’s online learning experience based on scientific data, but it is just as possible that our creation of additional tests will work to over-emphasize an aspect of the courseware (eText), at the expense of the other possible developments obviated by the labor necessary the additional tests (for example peer reviewed essay assessments, or the beta testing live office hours analogues).

    The dynamic of derivation within which 4.605x presently sits involves a high degree of free play. It is my hope that future analytics data about, for example, what students click on the most, how this is reflected in assessment outcomes, and how demographic data might be implicated in such outcomes, can be leveraged to continue thinking pragmatically about improved learning outcomes. Put another way: it is my hope that those responsible for 4.605x in down the line will leverage gathered data to learn what there is for the architectural history community to learn, about learning, rather than to attempt to manipulate the structures we have created to conform to externally generated assumptions.

    Addressing the issue in this way might be too limited. From the perspective of architectural history as a subject and discipline, the ultimate question provoked by this course at present—and therefore by MOOCs, towards the future of architectural history instruction—is: what do we want? 4.605x proves that creating a high-quality massive open online course on the subject of architectural history is possible, and demonstrates that even following the simplest model for online courseware production (adaptation of existing materials) there is a lot to be gained pedagogically from a careful consideration of the capabilities of the format of content distribution. I personally think that 4.605x will help to fill a gap that exists at many professional programs, who lack the resources retain a dedicated, experienced PhD-level instructor of architectural history capable and motivated to teach a broad, undergraduate-level survey course, and for this reason the course is highly noteworthy. Your views on what qualifies an individual to teach the subject of architectural history and what should be taught to whom likely differ from mine but it is likely we agree that expanding access to college-level instruction in architectural history is a service to the field. What this service will mean, as the project evolves, can start to be evaluated by looking at the landscape of online education today. Compared to disciplines such as math, biology, or electrical engineering, architectural history is relatively unique in its limited size and scope, with only a few institutions able to maintain robust programs of study; 4.605x is an interesting case study in the early history of MOOC education since its licensing and re-distribution likely does not offer the threat of professional displacement that speculated about similar MOOC surveys in subjects with larger teaching communities, threatened by our current age of austerity.[iii] What these things mean, together, is that the relative value added by increasing access to and otherwise facilitating instruction on the subject of architectural history online is high, while the risks, at the level of administration and job security, are relatively low. Even if 4.605x fails to meet your best expectations for the first architectural survey online with regards to content I think you can concede that the precedent it sets with regards to the possibilities for architectural history instruction is a worthy one. It does not replace its traditional equivalent, but it allows greater access to its content, and this is a benefit. Given that, I ask you the members of the Society of Architectural Historians: where do you want to take this? Certainly some serious consideration of what we want the future of architectural history to look like is warranted. The fact of 4.605x occurring, now, and the prospect of its continued adaption brings to that consideration some urgency: massive open online education in architectural history is happening, and will continue. While it is unlikely that a competing MOOC on the subject of “global architectural history” will emerge soon, it is quite likely that similarly constructed offerings on the subject of architectural history—adapted, comprehensive, and lecture-driven—will proliferate over the coming years. I am content with how this course turned out, but not satisfied; to the effect that I remain insecure about its present iteration I worry about its future adaptation, and the design of other MOOCs on the subject of architectural history. In the translated words of Roland Barthes, “whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought.” Applying this maxim to 4.605x: our course is configured as it is as a result of its context and the resources available, future iterations will remain the same in that regard, and related courses will bear some resemblance in that concern. It is likely that other online courses on architectural history will resemble ours in terms of formant. Thus it bears asking: how do we want online education to benefit the field of architectural history, and how can the possibilities and capabilities of emerging online education platforms be utilized in the service of these goals?

    To begin this conversation, I would like to offer some interdisciplinary reflection. Many in the arena of Internet Studies have argued that the World Wide Web is a powerful, flattening force, capable of everything from radically decentralizing economies and reproduction (cf. Friedman, The World is Flat), to revolutionizing technological evolution (cf. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It), to transcending traditional boundaries of place and culture. In support of this last proposition, Canadian online education pioneer and activist Stephen Downes has argued that the internet is capable of functioning as a global public sphere, where people from around the world can talk to each other without regard to their social position. MOOCs are a fundamental vehicle for achieving this openness; as Downes stated in his EdgeX2012 presentation,

    Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that's a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister's always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features. The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can't really do offline. But online - I see people laughing at the diagram, that's a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC - and the idea here of a MOOC is that it's not one central entity that everybody goes to, it's not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It's distributed… it's the website of this student, this student, this student, it's the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever. (Downes)

    Despite this flattening aspect, like all public spheres, MOOCs are characterized by barriers to access. The most important one here is that of regular sustained access to an internet connection. Downes makes a note of this in his presentation:

    Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I'm going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure. (Downes)

    Here, the non-possession of prerequisites for participation (an internet connection) preemptively disqualifies a person from participation in the public sphere of the MOOC. This problem is negated, however, when it is turned into a question of taste; in this vein Downes continues the selection above...

    It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you'd be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don't have that infrastructure? Well then probably you're not going to want to do a MOOC, because it's going to be a lot more difficult. (Downes)

    When one considers that this factor of preference might be motivated by other contingencies (including wealth) the narrative offered by Downes echoes those seen elsewhere. Consider Craig Watkins and Juliet Schor's recent report on connected learning, which argues that new educational approaches risk becoming an opportunity to reinforce already existing privileges of class and status. So they write,

    The trend for privileged young people and parents to mine the learning opportunities of networked and digital media is one more indicator of how differential supports in out-of-school learning can broaden the gap between those who have educational advantages and those who do not. When the public educational system lacks a proactive and well-resourced agenda for enriched and interest-driven learning, young people dependent on public institutions for learning are doubly disadvantaged. (Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design)

    To summarize: the societal value of MOOCs is moderated by limitations to their access. At the same time, the medium can be considered of incredible importance because of its ingenious operation between ideas and ideology: at this precise moment the MOOC remains both a pursuit of education content and its universal access, but its utopic promise remains precisely that. To these ends, while massive open online courseware can serve institutional and egotistical functions, covering elitism with a bad-faith gloss of equanimity, it can nonetheless also be leveraged as a means for identifying social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy and personal growth.

    The MOOC as described by Downes is not really free and available to all but it nonetheless serves as a means of resistance to established social orders; it is building on this compromise that I feel that the MOOC can function as a means towards broadening the availability of architectural history instruction at the college level while also facilitating the creation of a new diverse generation of independent, self-motivated architectural historians. Downes believes that the MOOC can be a democratic space capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and elitism, and I agree. I think that 4.605x has started to model what the space of the MOOC might be within architectural history. I invite you to improve on it.

    Samuel Ray Jacobson holds a Master’s degree in architectural history from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As MITx Fellow, Jacobson coordinated the production of the world’s first massive open online course in global architectural history. He is currently editing a book on sexuality and the ethos of architectural critique.


    [i] In producing the online course, lectures, recorded during the run of the class, were divided into eight to seventeen minute segments. Images and videos from lecturer PowerPoint presentations were spliced over the video feed where appropriate. In addition, four custom-coded, comprehensive exams were developed from the spring mid-term and final exams. As is typical for the massive open online course a.k.a. “MOOC” medium, videos are each accompanied by short multiple-choice exercises, and each lecture includes an opportunity for guided discussion. Some supplemental resources, such as a map of sites mentioned in the course, were also created, based on existing resources. Twenty-three of the twenty-four lectures are presented MIT Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture Mark Jarzombek, and one by Ana Maria Leon, PhD Candidate in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT. Six supplemental lectures are also offered with the course package, two by Jarzombek, two by Leon, and two by University of Washington Professor of Architecture Vikramāditya Prakāsh. These were recorded over the summer.

    [ii] Currently MITx estimates that managing their discussion forums requires approximately one hour per thousand students, per week, at a minimum; given limited resources it was necessary to devise strategies for discussion forum management that were as efficient as possible.

    [iii] See recent controversies involving JusticeX, a Harvard course offered to San Jose State University students, as well as Princeton sociology professor Mitchell Duneier’s decision to withdraw from his partnership with MOOC distributor Coursera, citing uneasiness over licensing his course to the University of Maryland and the University of Akron.;


    Downes, Stephen. "Education as Platform: The MOOC Experience and what we can do to make it better." EdgeX. Delhi, 2012. Keynote address.

    Ito, Mizuko, et al. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2013. Report.

    Jarzombek, Mark. Ed. Samuel Ray Jacobson. 6 June 2013. Online course description. 10 July 2013.

     Seaton, Daniel, Yoav Bergner and David Pritchard. "Exploring the Relationship Between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses." 6th International Conference on Educational Data Mining. 2013. Conference Proceeding.


    Portions of this essay appeared in the blog of 4.605x,, in altered form, between June and August 2013.

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  • Building Data: Field Notes on the Future of Architectural History

    Sep 25, 2013
    This is an excerpt of an article by Gabrielle Esperdy that originally appeared in Places Journal on 9.23.13

    1. Wilderness in search of metadata
    After decades of lurking in the shadows of the digital realm, metadata is finally facing the glare of the media spotlight, from revelations about National Security Agency surveillance to disclosures of Wikipedia’s woman problem to discoveries of privacy breaches on Facebook. At first glance, these disparate scandals don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with metadata: at Facebook, the company was sharing member preferences and activities with advertisers; at Wikipedia, site editors were changing classifications for American novelists, separating out those who also happened to be women; at the NSA, analysts weretracking phone records, looking for patterns in who called whom. But in all cases, it was the use and abuse of metadata — structural metadata that describes how data is organized into hierarchies and categories, and descriptive metadata that describes the content of the data — that was at the heart of the controversy. In fact, structural and descriptive metadata —data about data, to put it simply — are critical to our networked lives. Searching without metadata would be like following Dr. Seuss on a dérive down a rabbit hole. It might be fun for a while, but when information is the quarry, seeking without finding has its limits (notwithstanding the allure of full text strings). Whether we are wondering which movie won the best picture Oscar in 1965, how frequently the Airtrain runs to JFK, or when the English edition of Vers une architecture first appeared, metadata helps to guide our search and to aid in discovery. And yet, though we spend an increasing amount of time searching for information, once we’ve got it, we rarely think about how we found it. Few of us contemplate the algorithms when what we’re after are the answers: The Sound of Music; every 3 minutes; 1927. 

    Yet while metadata is finally getting attention, it’s still not getting much respect. It remains the stepchild of authorship, a technicality we assume others will handle — namely, all those indexers, librarians and cataloguers who’ve been engaged in something akin to metadata creation for a couple of centuries (think Library of Congress Subject Headings, the New York Times Index, or the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals). If in earlier centuries — in the print-only era — that division of labor made sense, today it is an obsolete holdover that should be challenged by every 21st-century author; for in the digital era the creation of metadata is essential authorial territory. Here, of course, the concept of authorshiprequires qualification: as Roland Barthes very nearly predicted (and numerous critics have observed), the author is now a producer of diverse content (clearly text is a wildly inadequate term) in diverse media and formats, distributed across diverse platforms. [1] To find all this rapidly proliferating content has become an ever more complex task, and for those of us who also produce content in order to generate knowledge, the task is even more fraught as we use our multiple devices to sift through tens of thousands of results that may or may not be authoritative, verifiable or even remotely useful, much less organized according to our own research interests or priorities. 

    Almost two decades ago — still early in the digital age — Nicholson Baker discovered thatfinding aids — like the index cards in a catalogue or the entries in a database — whether printed or computerized, were not neutral (though Barthes could have told him this two decades before that). Baker argued that cataloguing itself could, and should, be understood as a genuine contribution to scholarship; he also argued that the catalogue cards themselves contained information important in its own right, regardless of the content they directed us to, and taken together constituted a potentially significant historical record. [2] Back in the '90s most of us missed this crucial point (distracted as we were by Baker’s main narrative: the last days of the physical card catalogue); and most of us are still missing it today. Though many experts accept cataloguing and metadata as roughly synonymous, and though most of us engage in cataloging-cum-metadata when we categorize our blog posts, tag our photos on Flickr, and keyword our journal articles for scholarly databases like Academic Search Premier or JSTOR, rarely do we think about metadata or its creation as part of our intellectual practice. [3] But what if we did? We'd discover that metadata has been with us for far longer than we've realized, concealed in the taxonomies and classifications we’ve been using to structure disciplinary knowledge since at least the Enlightenment. Even if we've dedicated our intellectual practices to upending the canon — with its fusty taxonomies and rigid classifications — we still need the schema, if only to reject it. 

    In "The Great Gizmo," Reyner Banham offers a powerful evocation of a mythic pioneer: "The man who changed the face of America had a gizmo, a gadget, a gimmick — in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, round his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo." Almost half a century on, we prefer more nuanced portraits of frontier settlement and cold war brinksmanship, but Banham's image remains deeply appealing, and it’s tempting to carry it forward into the present digital/machine age of iPhones and Google Glass: a gizmo on her face, etc. But Banham understood that the gizmo’s true significance, and perhaps most lasting impact, had less to do with size and portability — though these were key gizmo attributes—than with the distributive culture the gizmo generated, and ultimately required. The Colt Revolver, the Franklin Stove, and the Evinrude Outboard Motor are undeniably great gizmos, but they achieved this greatness, at least in part, because folks in a "trackless country" knew how to find them. Which is why Banham calls the Sears Roebuck catalogue "one of the great and basic documents of U.S. civilization." [4]

    Banham isn't just interested in how gizmos make history; he’s also interested in using gizmos to do history, "gizmology" as discipline and method. What's key here is that Banham understood that it wasn't enough to study the gizmos themselves, no matter how satisfying they might be as objects or artifacts; nor was it enough to study their transformative effects, whether social, economic or technological. For Banham, it was also necessary to study the networks in which the gizmos existed. However much he appreciated the Sears catalogue as a compendium of gizmos, what really caught his attention was the gizmo information that Sears' "Big Book" contained: the categories, descriptions, prices, shipping weights, warehouse locations, and so on. 

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    Author’s Note

    This article grew out of a paper delivered at the annual conference of the College Art Association in February 2013. My thanks to Craig Eliason for organizing the session, “Putting Design in Boxes,” and to David Shields for his useful commentary.


    1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1967) in trans. Richard Howard, The Rustle of Language(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), 49-55. See also Nicholas Rombes, “The Rebirth of the Author,” C THEORY (October 2005).

    2. Nicholson Baker, “Discards,” The New Yorker, 4 April 1994, 64-86. 

    3. See Karen Coyle, “Understanding Metadata and its Purpose,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 31 (March 2005), 160-163. Here, Coyle offers the quip that “metadata is cataloguing done by men.” See also Coyle’s InFormation

    4. Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), reprinted in ed. Penny Sparke, Design by Choice (London: Academy Editions, 1981), 108 & 110. The Sears Catalogue from 1896–1993 is available in a digitized version at 
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  • Gold Coast’s Buried Relics: Artifacts from the Charnley-Persky House Dig

    Sep 6, 2013

    By SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

    Visitors to the Charnley-Persky House Museum in Chicago have a chance to peek into the butler’s pantry behind the dining room on the first floor. Displayed in the cabinets are rusted pots and pans, medicinal bottles and jars, and shards of broken china dishes. These artifacts were discovered when the historic house and current headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians was undergoing extensive renovation work in 2002. Construction work on the foundation and vaulted sidewalk required digging an eight-foot deep trench along the foundation wall in order to install waterproofing material below grade. Beneath the driveway on the east (back) side of the house, the workmen discovered a late 19th-century midden with a variety of refuse left behind by the inhabitants of Gold Coast from about a hundred years ago.

    Beginning in the mid 2000s, staff members at SAH worked to categorize, document, and preserve materials from the area. In 2009, in the hopes that a professional excavation would uncover further insight into the development of the Gold Coast neighborhood and the lifestyles of the families that resided here, Pauline Saliga, executive director of SAH, contacted Rebecca S. Graff who had been a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago at the time. (Graff is now a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the Michigan Technological University.) With experience in leading urban excavations of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition site in Chicago’s Jackson Park already under her belt, Graff led a field school for DePaul University students during the summer of 2010. The undergraduate students had the opportunity to learn the tenets and practices of historical archaeology including stratigraphic excavation and soil sampling.

    Most of the collection consists of glass bottles and jars that contained medicine, cosmetics, food and other condiments. Some of them were imported from across the pond, such as cologne from the Parisian perfumer Ed. Pinaud, attesting to the affluence of the families that lived in this neighborhood. A few of the bottles are local, such as from the Schiller Company, an apothecary that was just a few blocks away on the northeast corner of Clark and Schiller streets. Broken shards of fine china from France, Germany, England, and Asia were also found in the midden.

    This medicinal bottle is embossed with the name of the local Schiller Pharmacy whose store sat on the northeast corner of Clark and Schiller streets, just three blocks west of the Charnley-Persky House. As the embossing “Tel North 442” shows, the telephone numbering convention in 19th century Chicago was a name followed by three digits.

    The ownership of the garbage salvaged from the pit remains a mystery. It seems unlikely that a cultured family such as the Charnleys would have buried trash next to the house. Moreover, a graduated nursing bottle and a tiny clay toy in the shape of a pipe indicate that the artifacts of young children were in the midden. According to the 1900 census, however, the residents of the house were James and Helen Charnley, their 26-year-old son Douglas, a boarder the same age as the son, a brother-in-law, and two Swedish servants, Hannah Larson and Annie Carlson, with no evidence that a young child lived in the house. Rather, these items may have belonged to the Potter Palmer household whose grounds originally included the land on which the Charnley-Persky House was constructed. They also may have come from the 1890s apartment building immediately to the east of Charnley House. Although these items may or may not have belonged to the Charnleys, they do date to the period of the Charnley occupancy and are representative of the types of items that would have been used in their household.

    Ed. Pinaud’s Cologne, Paris.

    As part of my summer internship at SAH, I was able to photograph about 100 of these artifacts. The image gallery on the Charnley-Persky House Museum website highlights some of the retrieved items. From these buried relics, we can surmise fascinating stories of the Charnley House’s former occupants or their neighbors – someone was interested in photography and developed albumen prints, while another was occupied with perhaps filling in a bald spot with hair growth tonic – providing a retrospective glimpse into the daily lives of the Gold Coast’s well heeled society in the late 19th century.

    Christine Shang-Oak Lee is a 2013 Jeff Metcalf Fellow at the Society of Architectural Historians and a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying art history. She is currently researching Western-style architecture in Korea built during its colonial period. On campus, you can find her in the projectionist booth with her hands tangled in old film reels at the student-run Doc Films or drumming away infectious beats in the tradtitional Korean percussion group.

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