Thursday, May 24, 2007

Broken Links

Over the years Medieval Writing has acquired a formidable array of external links, which periodically have to be systematically checked. I started this job again today. I thought I would finish it today. No such luck!
I had thought we were over the worst period for random changes of URL, but it seems sites are still migrating and also disappearing. Site owners who work in places like universities get new jobs, and pack their site up with them to a new university server. The move towards giving academic projects their own snappy little URL instead of the long and complex university style index finger breakers seems to have abated unfortunately. Many big institutions are going over to database driven sites, which ought to be a good thing for archiving, but it seems that things can still get mislaid in the spin cycle. The website for the Louvre has become as labyrinthine as the building, as I discovered when trying to relocate a lovely medieval exhibition, which was still there.
Some sites get taken down when they are considered to be no longer relevant, but how an article about some ancient medieval treasure can lose its relevance because it's no longer 2002 is beyond me. One of the marvellous things about web exhibitions is that they can extend the life of real exhibitions for those who never got to go there in the first place, or who have only just discovered them. Sometimes things can be excavated out from the Internet Archive, and sometimes not. A heroic but mysterious beastie, that one, but if a favourite website has disappeared, it's always worth a search.
It's a little bit sad when stuff that has been on the web for years for free suddenly disappears because it has gone to a commercial publishing house. The copyright wars seem to be in a hotting up stage at the moment.
Anyway, why can't those clever geek boys invent a tracking system for web pages, so that wherever they go, they can't get lost. How hard can it be? Meanwhile, back to the quill pen. I'll probably just get the site updated in time to start again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Whatever Happened to Shorthand?

You know how you are sitting around after dinner talking about one thing and the conversation wobbles off into something else. It started with reminiscences about how the education system used to be about several decades ago, and I recalled that girls who were not in the academic stream learned shorthand. Those who proved adept at it then went on to become secretaries, rather than humble typists.
Shorthand was gradually eroded away as a result of technological change. The first was the invention of the dictaphone machine, with execrable sound quality, but which allowed letters to be typed without the intervention of a shorthand transcription. The takeover of the workplace by the personal computer meant that the boss sometimes even typed his own letters, without the intervention of a secretary. Likewise, at meetings and seminars there is likely to be a mini-disk machine on the table rather than a person taking minutes. It seems like technological improvement, but the ability to edit and interpret the material being recorded is removed. Silly jokes, embarrassing remarks and offensive asides are all preserved for posterity along with the official record.
Shorthand was employed in the days of the Romans, in a form known as Tironian notes, which appears in manuscripts up to around the 10th century. During the later medieval period university students, legal recorders and others who had to write quickly from the spoken word employed very simplified scripts with numerous abbreviations. Shorthand has not, of course, entirely disappeared. It is making a big comeback in the new guise of SMS speak. Strangely enough, I do not recall anyone in my youth suggesting that the demise of language and literacy was at hand as a result of people using shorthand, which was simply regarded as a practical means to an end.
Does anyone out there still use shorthand?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Maintain the Revolution

In a recent newspaper editorial from this end of the world, in the Canberra Times, it was reported that certain schools in America, which had formerly had a policy of issuing every student with a laptop, had decided not to continue with this policy on the basis that it did not appear to have improved educational outcomes. The editor in question seemed quite pleased about this as he had, on his own telling, never entirely mastered the typewriter, let alone later evolutions in writing technology.
I guess the attitude in both cases is an unfortunate, but almost inevitable, consequence of the way that technology was introduced to the educational arena. I first started paddling around in the area in the mid 1990s. At that time, everyone was a pioneer and people with both academic expertises and computer skills were running around trying many different ways to use this new technology for educational purposes. However, while the capabilities of the new technology rocketed ahead, neither teachers, librarians nor educational administrators had much idea of the best way to make use if it. There are still teachers in schools and universities who are practically computer illiterate. They can open their email, but they don't know how to file it, trash it or delete it.
In my granddaughter's primary school, the younger kids are still being taught "computers" by their buddies in older classes. It seems that new teaching strategies based around the use of the new technology have still not filtered through to many teaching professonals, and it is still thought necessary to learn "computers" rather than using them creatively for learning something else. If the students with the laptops are using them for idling away their time in chat rooms or accessing YouTube, it is because they are more computer savvy than their teachers.
The answer is not to take away the computers, especially as there is now an ever increasing amount of high quality educational material on the web, and this is in a rapidly expanding phase. The time is ripe to take teachers at all levels of the educational spectrum out of the classroom for long enough to learn, not only the mechanics of using computers, but strategies for finding, sifting and using the wealth of educational material out there and incorporating it into their lessons. Find out how to use chat room technology to build a science project. Use YouTube to share knowledge with other students.
Those of you who are already converted can just keep practising with your quill pens, because, as users of Medieval Writing know, modern technology can be used to learn about ancient technology.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I need your help

Occasionally I receive emails pointing out transcription errors in exercises on Medieval Writing, or other anomalies in the text. This is always welcome, as I regard all my users as proofreaders and critics. The brave new world of self-publication means that instead of sub-editors (of variable expertise), there are people with all manner of specialised expertises who can contribute to the final product. Please do not be afraid to email if you think I have made an error (and I have undoubtedly made a number of them). If I think I am right and you are wrong, then we will have a private conversation about it. If I think that you are right and I am wrong, I will make a correction and acknowledge it. Either way we can have an interesting conversation. I am not quite ready to adopt the Wikipedia model of anything goes, but I do think that current technology gives us the opportunity to develop collaborative projects that develop all our expertises. Looking forward to hearing from you.