Archives and Analysis

Extending Literary Interpretation through Archival Research and Global Collaboration

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The goals of a 100 level college Introduction to Literature course include learning the rudiments of literary analysis, considering how literature interprets the human condition, and analyzing the cultural and historical contexts of works of literature to interpret the meaning of literature and articulate the contemporary relevance of literary works. For these goals to be realized, a literature course needs to inculcate both independent critical thinking and a classroom (or digital space) community of critical discourse.

While core college courses in the humanities, such as Introduction to Literature, generally include an outcome connected to the use of digital information literacy competencies (see, for example, ISTE Standard for Students 2) such as (in the case of this course) “using contemporary technologies to select and use sources relevant to the study of literature,” these competencies are often interpreted by instructors of introductory literature courses as students’ use of library databases to find secondary works of interpretation to use as sources when writing analytical or interpretive papers. However, requiring novice readers of literature to synthesize scholarly interpretations of texts too soon can undermine the development of students’ independent critical analytical and interpretive skills; even with appropriate instruction in synthesis writing, students in an introductory course may transfer previous habits of working with sources such that their use of secondary sources tends to replace rather than extend independent inquiry.

By contrast, providing students with access to primary sources can give them additional textual and contextual elements that may serve as more productive tools for independent development of new lines of inquiry about the texts they have read. Charlotte Nunes (2015) described her incorporation of digital archives into a first-year literature class, arguing that “students can benefit greatly from even preliminary exposure to archives early in their undergraduate careers, by means of short-term, small-scale archival research tasks” (115).

This teaching unit builds upon Nunes’ suggestion by providing modelled and scaffolded access to digital archives to allow students to develop hypotheses about literary texts and address those hypotheses through contextual documents located in digital archives; in turn, the archival information located can problematize students’ original questions, and thus extend their critical thinking and allow for better application of students’ new understanding of literary, political, and social history to current issues as well.

The use of digital archives to position students as knowledge constructors aligns with ISTE Standard for Students 3. Through critical curation of primary sources located through digital archives, students can use archival technologies to develop inquiries, explore real-world sources, grapple with ill-structured problems presented by how primary sources must be interpreted to provide contextual relevance (rather than with the predigested solutions that may be the focus of students’ use of secondary sources), and pursue more personally owned theories and answers.



Students who are first or second year students at two-year colleges may or may not have taken the freshman year writing course sequence, may be nontraditional students with considerable life and academic experience, or may lack the preparation typically required by four-year colleges for admission, so their levels of skill in using research methodologies can vary considerably. Nunes (2015) noted that while learning the research strategies involved in archival research is beyond the scope of an introductory literature course, providing students with the “intellectual access” to archival materials can greatly deepen their ability to contextualize their thinking about the historical and social issues they encounter in literature (p. 117). Hence her approach to including primary sources in an introductory literature class typically involved students in working from instructor-provided primary sources.

Similarly, in a study of a problem-based learning project supported by digital archival resources, Chen and Chen (2010) noted that digital libraries face the challenge of effective informational architecture: even when curated by a college library, digital archives may not be intuitively or optimally organized for use by novice students. Likewise, Sharkey (2013), a professor of library science and Head of Information Use and Fluency at Illinois State University, noted that “information and technology are no longer separate entities but are inextricably connected” (p. 34), highlighting the importance of the instructor’s role in designing technology fluency instruction that focuses on the higher order thinking that will “give students a high level of aptitude to interact fluently with both (the) information and technology” (p. 37). Thus, the use of digital archives in this learning context itself presents a twofold barrier in terms of a lack of student knowledge about digital archival research methods, as well as in terms of a need for the development of 21st century teaching competencies that can support students in developing understanding of the nature of the information contained in digital archives, how that information is organized, and how to access and use that information (see ISTE Standard for Students 1). What is needed are both teaching approaches and instructional design approaches that will allow for student use of archival technologies while still foregrounding content learning and extension of students’ critical thinking and inquiry skills.

There are precedents for such an approach. In a controlled study of a Problem-Based Learning unit incorporating digital archives, Chen and Chen (2010) found that the use of digital archives that had been structured by the instructor resulted in deeper learning for students at three phases of the learning process (cognition, action, and reflection), in part because the problem of cognitive overload and the problem of students finding ineffective resources on the Internet were bypassed when more structured resources were presented (25).



The pedagogical frameworks that form the basis for this unit work together to support the concept of student “intellectual access” and draw upon the social constructivist approaches of Problem- and Project-Based Learning (PBL) in which student design of learning goals and iterative work on developing solutions (ISTE Standard for Students 4) is enacted through collaborative knowledge construction supported by the digital communication media that characterize these students’ world (ISTE Standard for Students 7).

Specifically, this unit develops a pedagogical foundation for the use of digital archives in an introductory literature course through: 1. The Community of Inquiry model, and an outgrowth of it (the QUEST Model for Inquiry-Based Learning); 2. The cultivation of 21st century instructional competencies in instructional design, facilitation, and collaboration (See ISTE Standards for Educators 4, 5, and 6; Florida State University Technology Integration Matrix) to scaffold and support students’ development of critical knowledge construction and communication competencies; and 3. The affordances of 21st century communication venues such as Web 2.0 content authoring tools, the platforms in which today’s researchers and tomorrow’s graduates will communicate, for similarly supporting students’ development critical knowledge construction and communication competencies.


The Community of Inquiry and QUEST Models

The Community of Inquiry model that has been the subject of research for nearly 20 years at Alberta’s Athabasca University and beyond describes the inter-relationships between three key elements that must be present for a meaningful higher education learning experience to take place among a community of instructors and students: cognitive presence, social presence, and instructor presence. The most essential element, cognitive presence, denotes the cognitivist elements of the learning process (such as experience, questioning, pattern recognition, making and applying connections, and noting and reconciling dissonances). In this model, the overlap between cognitive presence, social presence and teaching presence creates ways to focus on developing social critical discourse through the design of the educational experience. QUEST is a model for an instructional unit or learning experience based on Community of Inquiry principles. In the QUEST model, which focuses on the elements of cognitive presence and social presence, students formulate a personalized Question about course content, Understand the topic better by conducting research and sharing sources, Educate and collaborate by interacting with peers through an iterative process of discussion of the shared questions and resources, engage in defining a Solution through reflection on the inquiry process; and Teach others through presenting a final product in a blog or other Web 2.0 genre that engages an authentic audience.


21st-Century Communication Media

The use in college humanities courses of multimodal composition assignments presented through blogs, video and other Web 2.0 technologies represents more than a shift to 21st-century composition media. This movement is situated within a larger pedagogical “social turn” that emphasizes literacy as not merely cognitivist but sociocultural in nature. In this theoretical view, ways of reading and writing such as genres and written and spoken forms of the English are generated by the communities of practice–professional and institutional, but also historical and cultural–who use these conventions to achieve shared goals (Gee, 2010). Thus people learn not literacy but “literacies” that involve the ability to engage with those communities in terms of the evolving discourse structures of those communities. From the perspective of compositionists, “digital literacies” involve the way digital tools are used within sociocultural groups, such as the scholarly communities who use blogs, digital archives, and online journals for scholarly communication, but also the many other sociocultural groups that produce work in online media to learn and communicate (Gee, 2010).

Although the design for this unit presupposes neither that the unit must be used in a primarily online course (in fact it is piloted here in two face to face course sections) nor that digital composition tools should be chosen other than in the context of a comprehensive list of criteria for how learning materials should be optimized for learning, several factors suggest the use of a blog format for student work in this unit: two factors in particular–1. that this unit brings together students from across the globe in a condensed timeframe to achieve the desired learning outcomes of articulating the relevance of literature for contemporary contexts; and 2. the reciprocal goal of developing students’ existing social media literacies for an academic purpose and relating such a purpose to 21st century research and communication venues–indicate the type of computer-mediated learning context for which the QUEST model suggests the use of a blog format for student work.

For this unit, students from multiple classes and locations need shared venues in which they can locate primary sources in digital archives, post sources and reflections on sources, collaborate through feedback, and share final presentations of the results of their inquiries. They need a research and communication environment that will support the process of development of deeper understanding of a problem, generating ideas, and finding solutions (Kuo, Chen, & Hwang, 2014). On the other hand, they need an environment with affordances that support the creative development of student final products that display learning. Further, they need to work in an environment in which the cognitive load of learning new technologies and methods is minimized.

Criteria considered in the choice of a primary content curation tool for this project, included:

  • ease and affordability of access (a free tool was desired)
  • capacity for instructor and student curation of web links to digital archives
  • capacity for supporting student development of creative content
  • capacity for supporting student writing and revising
  • capacity for supporting the small group and peer-to-peer aspects of a research and writing process as well as the “voice to all” and visual presentation aspects of an archival product (Brownstein & Klein, 2006)
  • ease of use, including minimal layers of technology
  • privacy: students should be able to opt out of associating work posted publicly with their names

In addition to developing this list of criteria, the main venue for student work in this unit was also considered in light of how it would support the exemplary instructional design in terms of the 6A’s Project Idea Rubric and Puentedura’s (2003) Matrix Model for designing and assessing network-enhanced courses. Puentedura’s model includes the diagnostic tool for selecting computer-based technology tools, known as SAMR, in which the best use of technological pedagogy achieves “redefinition,” where “the computer allows for the creation of new tasks, inconceivable without the computer” (Puentedura, 2003). The combination of student digital archive research and curation with the collaborative process of the QUEST model in the context of highly creator-friendly blog space seems to meet this criterion.

After developing two prototypes using different Web 2.0 tools, the instructors for this unit chose to create a Google Sites webpage to house students’ work, interaction, and access to digital archival resources. Support for student use of the site was provided both through a series of modeling sessions (Preparatory Lessons 1 and 2) and through written project instructions and a technology tutorial, as well as daily in-class “check-ins” and individualized support through email and in person.


21st-Century Teaching Competencies

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000), the authors of the Community of Inquiry model, note that “the binding element in creating a community of inquiry for educational purposes is that of teaching presence” (p. 96). They categorize this element in the three indicator categories: instructional management, direct instruction, and building understanding. Instructional management has to do with the design and planning, and the considerations of how technological teaching media change learning and call for the sorts of criteria for instructional choices considered above. For this unit, the lead instructor worked with the participating instructor to select and design learning environments, technologies, and a series of learning tasks structured according to the QUEST Model. The Community of Inquiry model also features a second teaching indicator, “direct instruction,” which overlaps with unit design but is not a focus of the QUEST Model. Direct instruction involves both content and pedagogical expertise, and is described by Garrison, Anderson, & Archer as “those indicators that assess the discourse and efficacy of the educational process” (p. 101). A significant shift in computer-mediated instruction such as that used in this unit, is the shift from instruction that takes place in written as opposed to verbal formats. Engaging this shift successfully involves much more than following a list of netiquette protocols, such as providing timely standards-based feedback at each stage of student work, and much more than choosing a unit design framework. Key aspects of direct instruction that were considered in this unit included how the instructors would teach the literary skills and content to be employed in students’ work, how we would how we would teach requisite technology skills and content to students, how we would facilitate student engagement with the unit project, and how we would move the learning of the unit along, for instance through intervention or providing opportunities for reflection. These aspects of direct instruction are nowhere more paramount than with a community college student population, with its diverse range of backgrounds in terms of culture, literacy, and preparation.

Two key ways in which we addressed direction instruction in this unit included instructor modelling and individualized support and feedback that anticipates and responds to student needs.

Pursel and Xie (2014) studied the use of blogs housed internally by a university to explore which blog patterns led to improved student performance over time. One finding of their study was the relationship between instructors’ use of modeling the behavior expected from students and student achievement. Instructors who model alongside facilitating and making effective technology choices are more likely to leverage student engagement.

Greener (2009), in her article “e-Modeling – Helping learners to develop sound e-learning behaviors,” provides a fuller picture of what effective instructional modelling looks like. She calls for not just demonstrating proficient skills, but for taking risks and showing students what it looks like to try new things and face unexpected results, then comparing those approaches to more effective strategies. The need for direct instruction, in part through this sort of modelling, which leads beyond observation on students’ part to collaboration as students engage with the dynamic and uncharted nature of digital learning environments, formed the basis for Preparatory Lessons 1 and 2, which precede implementation of the student project in this unit. These lessons were designed to be used in as many iterations as needed or to be distributed across class days as needed to provide instructors with flexible opportunities to provide effective direct instruction through modelling and collaboration as well as through lecture and through the videos that would be implemented in the student project.

Our second consideration for direct instruction involved how to proactively support individual student needs, including helping students develop the ability to use digital tools to connect with peer audiences, a key indicator of ISTE Student Standard 7. One approach was to provide modelling through samples of student work, including constructing peer feedback, and in Preparatory Lesson 2 to model not only products of student work but the process of constructing student work and peer feedback. A second was the decision to provide instructor feedback within the same learning and composing space that students occupied. (This decision was partly driven by the lack of a mechanism for a private communication channel between students and instructors on the blog site.) Thus in this unit, instructor provision of individualized feedback (direct instruction) is blended with small group facilitation (building understanding).

“Building understanding,” the third group of teaching indicators in the Community of Inquiry model, is described by Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000) as follows:

A process that is challenging and stimulating is crucial to creating and maintaining a community of inquiry. This category is very much concerned with the academic integrity of a collaborative community of learners. It is a process of creating an effective group consciousness for the purpose of sharing meaning, identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, and generally seeking to reach consensus and understanding. Through active intervention, the teacher draws in less active participants, acknowledges individual contributions, reinforces appropriate contributions, focuses discussion, and generally facilitates an educational transaction. (101)

Building understanding in a digital learning space is a 21st century teaching competency that is critical for effective learning by community college students. Although the instructors of this unit considered whether instructor presence in students’ learning spaces would stifle student conversations, our hypothesis that, on the contrary, it would help to facilitate meaningful student conversations, was borne out by the fact that in the exit survey for the pilot implementation of this unit, some students requested more instructor feedback evaluating the quality of peer feedback they were providing, and a number of students expressed frustration at lack of peer involvement. Suggestions for how instructors of this unit can “build understanding” include: creating a visual social connection between participating groups prior to implementation of the student project, either through synchronous interaction or asynchronous video introductions; and intervention and support through email or another private channel for all students early in the project to provide coaching and support in their peer feedback.


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