A few weeks ago, I participated in the National Humanities Alliance Annual Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day. A primary focus of the meeting was how best to communicate the value of the humanities to public audiences and new ways of engaging students with the humanities. I sat in on a breakout session, "Changing Narratives About Humanities in Higher Ed", where I listened to Professor David Trowbridge discuss the app he created, Clio.
Professor Trowbridge graciously answered some follow-up questions over email (below) and I encourage you to download the app to check it out for yourself.
Provide readers a 2-3 sentence introduction to Clio:
Clio is an educational website and mobile application developed at Marshall University that uses GPS to connect the public to nearby historical and cultural sites. Professors around the country, along with historical and cultural institutions, are provided with special administrative accounts that include editing privileges so that they can create entries with their students or staff. Each entry and walking tour credits both the author and the institution and includes links to primary and secondary sources. The Clio website included resources for institutions and educators, including as a series of videos that guide authors through the process of creating entries and walking tours.
Entries for historical/cultural sites and monuments are user-generated in Clio—a key component of the public engagement opportunities Clio facilitates—but what are the challenges in vetting and maintaining entries in an open digital environment?
One of our goals is to not only create something for the public, but rather to build a resource that welcomes the participation of community members and institutions. For most local topics, these people and organizations represent the primary repository of knowledge. So while professors and institutions serve as gatekeepers for most entries, we also make it possible for anyone to create a draft entry that will be reviewed by one of our volunteers. The public can also suggest improvements to an entry. Unlike a wiki, these suggestions go into a que for review and we are always looking for more volunteers to help with fact-checking and editing entries so that we can improve the review process while keeping Clio free for everyone.
As you mention, we are working in an open digital environment and that leads to challenges and lost opportunities. For example, I regularly hear from people who feel that recent efforts to create monuments and historical markers that reflect the diversity of our nation come at the expense of “traditional” or “essential” history. When Clio was less well-known and these comments and complaints occurred less frequently, I usually engaged with individuals so long as they made arguments supported by facts. This was as beneficial as it was difficult, and I was usually able to make progress by listening and leveraging our common interest in history. I would like Clio to grow to the point where we could have a full staff of historians who not only edited entries, but also could also engage with the public and have these kind of one-on-one conversations about the nature of history and memory.
While Wikipedia faces challenges related to vandalism, I’ve found that the mere existence of a system of review dissuades most would-be evil doers. The larger challenge for a platform like Clio is to find ways to improve entries that simply fall short of what they might offer in terms of content and links to more information.
What are benefits Clio provides that are unique to a scholar? A student? Member of the public?
Over five thousand people use Clio each day, so this platform offers scholars a simple and effective way to connect the public to our work. Entries can (and should) include links to related books and articles at the precise moment someone is curious about a topic and wanting to learn more. Ever buy a book from a museum gift shop? Clio works on the same principle—it engages the public’s curiosity about a topic and at the bottom of the entry there are links to books from university presses and third-party vendors.
For institutions like libraries and archives, the fact that each entry can include links to primary sources offers a way to increase both physical and digital traffic. Clio is unique from other free “travel” related websites and mobile applications in that it is designed to drive traffic to other websites instead of generating “clicks” and advertisements.
For most local topics, these people and organizations represent the primary repository of knowledge. So while professors and institutions serve as gatekeepers for most entries, we also make it possible for anyone to create a draft entry that will be reviewed by one of our volunteers.
Classroom application is part of Clio’s appeal to educators, what has surprised you the most from your personal experience using Clio in the classroom?
The biggest surprise from using Clio with students is that it is possible to enjoy grading. This assignment requires students to take accountability for their work and it positively forces them to develop respect for facts and expertise. At the end of the semester, I’ve learned a great deal from them and we have something to show for our efforts.
I was inspired to build this after learning the origins of Foxfire magazine. Fifty years ago an English teacher at a high school in Appalachia was having difficulty reaching his students until he created a magazine with them. In 2013, a mobile app seemed a bit more relevant to my students but the assignment was essentially the same because it requires the students to take accountability for their learning.
“Discovery ” comes up a lot when publishers and librarians talk about scholarly communication. Clio applies the idea of “discovery” in two ways: encouraging users to physically discover historical or cultural sites near them and connecting them to digital content/resources on the site or related topic. How do these digital processes of discovery alter how students learn and engage with history?
By allowing students to choose their own topics (pending my approval) and then requiring that they “go forth” and conduct research, the students learned the skills of the historian in ways that changed the way they engaged with the rest of the material in class. The same students who failed to include specific examples in their midterm essays were going out there and making phone calls and traveling to local historical societies. They did primary source research and they even recorded oral history interviews completely on their own. After that transformative experience, they understood the need to make arguments backed by facts and they did not repeat their mistake on the final exam.
How do you approach diversity and representation in Clio? There seems to be opportunity for new stories and historical perspectives to be presented through the app, but also a danger of injecting bias into the entries.
This is our greatest challenge. It is not enough to simply remove traditional barriers like paywalls. And without resources to actively solicit and pay underrepresented groups for their time, most of the entries will come from institutions and individuals who have the resources to contribute information to a free and open platform. A second issue that is unique to Clio is the requirement that each entry be “pinned” to a specific location. With a little creativity, one can create entries for people and historical events that have not yet been recognized by a monument or historical marker. These entries offer a needed correction to a physical landscape of memory that usually fails to represent the contributions and perspectives of diverse Americans.
In 2013, a mobile app seemed a bit more relevant to my students but the assignment was essentially the same because it requires the students to take accountability for their learning.
How do you convey Clio’s value to public or other non-academic audiences?
Perhaps the best part of this story is the enthusiasm of non-academic audiences. A couple years ago, awareness of Clio was almost entirely a result of word-of-mouth and social media. At this moment, there are nearly a hundred thousand people who have Clio in their pocket. The public cares enough about the entries and walking tours to be critical—I receive dozens of emails each week asking for new features or asking for more local content in their community. I hope that this will lead to funding that could create job opportunities for students and recent graduates. Clio became an independent non-profit with 501c3 status and I hope to create part-time and even full-time positons for editors as more donations become forthcoming.
The popularity of Clio is encouraging, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people value a platform like this and want it to get better. More people visit museums each year than the combined attendance of every professional sporting event. We love museums because they allow us to see and discover new things in a fun and engaging way. My hope is to replicate this as an interactive digital layer embedded over the physical world and link to the best primary and secondary sources. We will need to offer the capacity to record unique audio versions of each entry and also create the option of adding audio along the walk. After that, we can add some VR features that will make the walking tours feel like a guided tour.
What does learning or teaching through mobile-centered technology provide? What are some of the limitations?
Clio’s unique strength is its ability to connect our sense of place to our knowledge of the past. We love museums because they offer both exploration and authenticity. With Clio, users can browse or simply go for a walk or drive using the discovery mode on the mobile app which updates automatically to reveal nearby history as you move. As a result, we reach people and provide information at the precise moment they are interested in a particular topic.
The limitations of the platform are also inherent and the last thing we want is for people to become so enamored with the 360-degree images or other features that they fail to read the entries. We also want to make it clear that digital markers can supplement physical markers, but they should never replace these important symbols of community memory. Likewise a walking tour on a mobile app is wonderful way to explore the history of a community, but it can never replicate the value of experiencing that history with a knowledgeable local guide and other people who share your love of learning.
What have you gained from working with a mobile application that serves an audience not just within the academe or humanities disciplines, but that is open to public?
The potential of a platform like Clio that is both crowdsourced and monitored is to create a space where all of the people and institutions who have knowledge and sources related to a topic can share what they know and what they have. For example, scholars might be able to offer historical context to an entry for a Rosenwald School, but they rely on local people and institutions for years of operation, historical photographs, and oral histories. By making the platform open, an archive or library might add photographs while local historians and residents can share what they know. The local historical society or preservation group can also add information about the current status of the building and the efforts that prevented it from being demolished on six separate occasions over the past four decades. A single entry can include information from all of these people and institutions without the need to send a single email.
The challenges will change over time, and I hope Clio grows to the point where we can add additional steps in the review process. I’d also like more people to help edit entries—a task that can be quite enjoyable given the speed with which most entries go from draft to published entry. The ideal entry offers a one paragraph introduction followed by three to six paragraphs of additional information and links to related primary and secondary sources. As a result, one can usually edit and publish several draft entries in a single afternoon. I have edited hundreds of Clio entries submitted by my students. In the process my knowledge of local history has grown exponentially along with my skill and speed in editing my own writing.
Dr. David Trowbridge
Associate Professor in the Department of History and Director of African and African American Studies at Marshall University
David Trowbridge (Ph.D. Kansas, 2008) is an associate professor in the Department of History and director of African and African American Studies at Marshall University. In 2016, the Whiting Foundation named Trowbridge as one of eight publicly engaged scholars in the humanities for his work with Clio, a website and mobile application that connects the public to information about nearby historical and cultural sites.