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Teaching Humanities in UCloud

UCloud has been a game changer for Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science and Humanities Computing (Aarhus University), Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan, teaching within the crossroads of cultural studies and data science.

In short, the benefits of UCloud within teaching narrows down to a much more trouble-free teaching process free of unnecessary technical issues, allowing teachers as well as students to focus on the substance of their work.

Benefits when teaching in UCloud

One of the major benefits is the computational resources available in terms of having more computing power, allowing students to focus on state-of-the-art work.

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

Ross has been teaching two elective Cultural Data Science bachelor courses as well as a master’s level course on Natural Language Processing (NLP) for students of Cognitive Science. A clear before and after characterises the two elective courses, formerly run on a local server: as more than 25 students typically had to have access to the server, it naturally required a lot of energy and time. As a result, actual time to do state-of-the-art work was typically limited but with UCloud this kind of downtime has been reduced significantly. Barriers that could potentially make students new to computational methods loose interest in the field have therefore also been reduced.

Another major benefit, according to Ross, is that UCloud allows all students to work from the same starting point and reduces possible imbalances between students with brand new computers and students with older computer models:

One thing about UCloud, that I actually think is quite important, is that it kind of democratises access to resources.

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

In terms of teaching, several palpable benefits allow teachers and students alike to concentrate on the substantial content of the respective courses. Some challenges do, however, arise in class, though these are typically rather insignificant such as some minor issues when integrating with GitHub.

UCloud and the humanities

When teaching the elective courses on Cultural Data Science, Ross has encountered humanities students with no background within computational methods whatsoever. This, however, turned out to be an advantage as the students were typically open and able to adapt quickly:

Because UCloud has eliminated a lot of former technical obstacles and barriers, students can focus on learning good programming practices and the results of their research. It allows us to focus on the task at hand. The students don’t have to know how the backend works; they don’t have to be computer scientists – they are humanities students and should be able to think about humanities objects (texts, visuals etc.) using computational methods.

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

As such, UCloud is “a means to an end”, Ross emphasises. Though computational background knowledge is of course far from irrelevant, the objective for the Cultural Data Science courses has been to educate the students to think critically when working with computational methods:

We are not just looking at data science methods and applying them uncritically. We try to use the students’ main expertise and encourage them to apply their subject knowledge to think critically about their results when working with computational methods. Determining the notion ‘genre’ from a classification model eg. urges the students to think critically about the notion itself – is it even something we can determine from text alone?

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

Overall, the students following Ross’ courses have been extremely positive about UCloud, even though some were sceptics to begin with. Two kinds of feedback characterised the reception of UCloud from the students in general: one group fully integrated with UCloud from the start, others came to accept it as a necessary (useful) tool.

Collaborate teaching resources

Among teachers from the department of Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Semiotics at Aarhus University, UCloud has furthermore improved the internal coherence across the department for the benefit of both students and teachers. As most teachers have moved all their material on to UCloud, students now avoid using one set of tools for one course and one set of tools for another course.

Besides the many teaching-related benefits to be gained from UCloud, Ross further emphasises the ongoing dialogue between users of UCloud and the team who maintain it:

They are very responsive to suggestions. Over the past year it’s (UCloud) become even more fully featured in terms of what you can do with it, and I don’t see that stopping any time soon.

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan

One potential improvement of UCloud, Ross suggests, could be the implementation of some sort of outreach program in order to get even more people to gain from the benefits:

UCloud gets rid of all the annoying things. As far as I can see there are only benefits – the minor issues are vastly outnumbered by the benefits.

Assistant Professor Ross Deans Kristensen-McLachlan