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Cite this article as: Mamprin, Irene. 2021. "Metodi digitali e scienze umanistiche: una nuova didattica." Bembus (blog). March 12, 2021. https://bembus.org/en/2021/03/12/digital-methods-and-humanities-a-new-didactics/.

Metodi digitali per l’insegnamento classico e umanistico

Paolo Monella
Milano, EDUCatt, 2021, pp. 146
€ 25,50 (paperback) | free ebook
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Ithe current pandemic context where the need to activate distance education (DAD) is felt more than ever, Paolo Monella, researcher at "Sapienza" University of Rome and visiting scholar at the Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities (VeDPH) which is part of Ca' Foscari University of Venice for the academic year 2018/2019, proposes an in-depth consideration of digital teaching methods in his new book Metodi digitali per l’insegnamento classico e umanistico (Milano, EDUCatt, 2020).

The volume focuses on methods for teaching classical languages, particularly Latin, in a digital context, and was largely conceived during the lockdown in Italy while new modes of  teaching were introduced. Faced with opposing and a priori attitudes of disdainful rejection or enthusiastic acceptance of digital teaching, Monella rationally addresses the issue. In fact, it is not just a matter of verifying the usefulness of digital tools but it is also necessary to wait for a radical rethinking of didactic work. For this reason, the author admonishes the reader, inviting him/her to always ask himself/herself whether a digital tool allows effective improvement of teaching methods, fostering the development of critical thinking, a more active and/or creative learning and a positive contribution to society. All this, in fact, is the basic principle of democracy.

Methods and tools

In addition, Monella offers an accurate review of the main tools and platforms for e-learning and, besides some valuable advice on good use, he strongly recommends the adoption of non-proprietary formats and open-source, open-access portals also for sharing teachers' materials. In this way, not only the economic problems related to subscriptions but also those related to privacy and the spread of sensitive data (especially for  minors) with web multinationals are avoided. Then, the author presents some suggestions on how to make the most of platforms such as Moodle to structure  new teaching methods, flipped classrooms, and addresses the issue of connectivity and the need for connection that has irreparably increased during the quarantine. All this has created a strong socio-economic gap among students, but has also highlighted how essential it is for pupils to keep a few gigabytes of their network subscription for teaching activities. The objective of the new practices proposed is not only to build a true digital pedagogical practice that can also be replicated in conjunction with face-to-face teaching, but also to make students true masters of the web. In fact, although new generations can be defined as "digital natives", they lack  essential digital skills like illiterate native speakers. Their knowledge turns out to be insufficient for a serious and careful use of their PC or smartphones because they have not (yet) mastered the logic of digital tools and their functioning. In this sense, the transformation from users to masters of the web is the ultimate goal of Monella's book.

In the last section of the book, the researcher presents some innovative tools for the study of Latin, including electronic corpora and their educational use. If some corpora offer many features by paying a fee, others offer their materials for free. Teaching students how to use the latter, especially its modes of research, could lead to a new approach to the study of classical languages and may foster a new awareness of the potential of electronic tools in schools.

A seminar by Paolo Monella entitled Out of the Tower of Babel: interoperability and pre-modern writing systems presented in English on December, 4, 2019 at VeDPH as part of the Seminars in Digital and Public Humanities 2019/20 series

Lockdown: an emergency (even) in schools

Serious deficiencies in terms of connectivity of the Italian educational system put a brake on methodological innovation mediated by digital tools. It often happens that schools, while focusing on the purchase of hardware (e. g. computers and interactive whiteboards) and caging themselves in proprietary software (e.g. 'closed' programs for managing the interactive whiteboard or electronic registers), neglect connectivity, which is, instead, the prerequisite for truly active and innovative digital teaching methods.

Paolo MonellaMetodi digitali per l’insegnamento classico e umanistico, Milano, Educatt, 2020, p. 25

Following the lockdown introduced to contrast the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, emergency teaching was activated through the use of  major videoconferencing applications such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype. However, we must consider that this solution, dictated by an extraordinary situation at short notice, cannot be considered true e-learning. On the one hand, it is not possible to replicate frontal lessons on the web (but this could be due to precise requests from families and teachers accustomed to this mode of teaching). On the other hand, because these video call platforms are intended for an adult, corporate and disciplined public. In addition, the quarantine revealed a large disparity in accessing adequate internet connection to sustain the DAD. The CENSIS survey on inclusion and public education showed how online education has widened the learning gap between students in terms of  availability of IT tools and technological culture within families. This is not only due to the students' families’ wealth, but also to the difference amongin the infrastructures needed to provide this service in major and minor urban centers. This is not the only issue. If university students can access network on campuses because active learning and autonomous study are required , this is not considered in relation to schools, since we perceive the role of students as passive and consider traditional methods sufficient. In this way, the scarce access to the Internet hinders methodological innovation in digital education, not to mention that infrastructure costs are very high and schools need the same connection capacity as that of large companies, widespread Wi-Fi networks including repeaters, Ethernet cables and access with ID and password.

Students and privacy

Monella argues that it would be more appropriate for schools to invest a few hundred euros a year on a good fiber optic connection rather than buying interactive whiteboards and other expensive peripherals that will become obsolete in a few years. The author, however, also deals with a very delicate but crucial issue in the Google era, that is the sharing of school materials and the treatment of sensitive data. In fact, most students are still minors, which is why their data should not be entrusted to social networks or external companies. Nevertheless, most of the lessons conducted so far and the sharing of materials have been done through the platforms made available by Google and Microsoft. Monella's solution for creating a teaching repository with open licenses and easy opening and uploading of materials reflects the American model. Hence, the invitation to create open and voluntary platforms to exchange and contribute to the existing ones. Andrea Balbo (2007) had already proposed a database hosted by MIUR to retrieve high-quality resources for the teaching of classical Latin. However, in his view, resources should remain on the original websites and indexes should be cross-referenced. In addition, the author strongly recommends the use of open source, open access platforms, which do not involve the use of proprietary formats for content creation. For this reason, it is best to target Moodle, Chamilo, Socloo and free clouds such as Nextcloud and Framasoft for teaching materials.

Back to translation

At this point, Paolo Monella proposes several solutions to start real online education. Giuseppe Fiorentino (2020), in fact, distinguishes between emergency DAD and good practices of digital education. The former not only mirrors an emergency situation, but also highlights a common way of conceiving the circulation of learning. Families and teachers, who have been accustomed to (ultra)frontal lessons for a long time, decided to replicate the same methods of classroom teaching via video lessons. Certainly, there has been little time to rethink pedagogical practices, but this has brought to light Italy's delay in training teachers to experiment with innovative methods. Good practices, in fact, do not involve a simple substitution of traditional practices, but require a whole rethinking of school activity. Students should be the subjects, and not the objects, of instruction. They have to take an active role during the course, developing critical and creative skills. It is not by chance that pedagogical activism and constructive learning were cardinal elements of Maria Montessori's thought.

Monella investigates the opportunities of using some platforms or methodologies for teaching online. Wattpad, for example, can be a stimulus to creative writing, just as Kahoot enhances competition through quizzes and rankings of correct answers. However, it is the flipped classroom, or “upside-down class”, that is the real revolution in the teaching of classical language grammar and it can also be applied in DAD. As we know, translation is the real pillar of learning Greek and Latin, but we are currently witnessing a collapse of its central role in favour of numerous virtual classes during which several hours are devoted to grammar teaching. The author proposes flipped classrooms based on active learning of classical grammar by  students in order to devote more time to video lectures or to lessons in presence to  practice translation and the study of texts.  The teacher will make downloadable materials available online, in addition to videos and links for in-depth study, while students can ask questions, and study  grammar rules, do exercises and be evaluated autonomously or in group. In this way, digital technologies can help reshape teaching from passive to active and students will feel responsible for their learning and encouraged to learn.

Exploring corpora

Finally, Monella provides an overview of the main Greek-Latin textual corpora and their educational use. It is important to underline that some databases of literary texts, such as the Perseus Project and the Digital Library of Late Latin Texts (digilbLT) are open-licensed. They are among the most advanced databases in terms of variety and number of tools available and present texts in XML-TEI, the standard format for scholarly digital editions. Others, such as the archive of classical texts of the PHI (Packard Humanities Institute) and the TLG (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae) require a subscription or can be queried through Diogenes, an open source software.

A special mention is reserved to the Musisque Deoque (MQDQ) project, started in 2005 by Paolo Mastandrea, which contains Latin texts from classical antiquity to the Renaissance accompanied by a critical apparatus. Obviously, Paolo Monella prefers, and strongly recommends, the consultation of open source corpora. The pedagogical exercises proposed can help students to examine texts by classical authors in depth. For example, students, equipped with sections of texts in the original language and their translations , can consult frequency indexes to understand what the most frequent words used by an author are, can learn how to make boolean or lemmatized searches and  use dictionaries and comments for translation.

To learn more

The English translation of this article has been revised by Francesca Masiero.

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