SHANTI Software Tools and Support Take Digital Scholarship Mainstream

October 5, 2009 — The University of Virginia has long been a leader in digital scholarship, home to landmark projects such as Rome Reborn, the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, Valley of the Shadow, and the Chaco Digital Initiative.

These ambitious projects – each requiring extensive support and custom programming – have benefitted from the leadership of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, as well as the U.Va. Library.

While such support is necessary for the cutting-edge work in digital humanities for which U.Va. has become famed, a different but complementary approach is necessary to better distribute and diffuse technological innovation across Grounds, throughout all aspects of scholarly activity.

To democratize the power of digital tools, a new U.Va. technology initiative will roll out a suite of off-the-shelf software tools this fall that offer many capabilities that previously were only possible through custom programming.

Leading the new initiative are many of the pioneering faculty who led the landmark projects of past years, faculty who understand the technology needs and requests of their colleagues, and the impediments and difficulties they encounter, explained David Germano, associate professor of Tibetan and Buddhist studies and director of the Sciences, Humanities and the Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, or SHANTI, which recently hired its full team of three full-time staff, two half-time staff, and a number of part-time supporting students and programmers.

Faculty feedback is driving an emphasis on providing "85 percent" solutions, Germano explained – software that will serve 85 percent of the needs of 85 percent of faculty. That means the software must be "best-of-breed" – reliable, easy to use, powerful and interoperable.

The new suite of software available through SHANTI will serve the most requested needs:

WordPress for Web site creation and blogging;
Confluence Wiki for collaborative creation of shared documents;
Kaltura for managing, editing and presenting audio, video and photos;
Zotero for creating and sharing bibliographic data, including the documents and Web pages themselves;
NowComment for collaborative close reading and annotation of texts.

Much of this software is open-source, and some is free, Germano noted. SHANTI is acquiring site licenses as needed (for Confluence and Kaltura), and providing an enhanced version of WordPress, called WordPress Multiuser, along with BuddyPress.

Each of SHANTI's new software offerings will be visually and structurally integrated into the UVaCollab portal, which can provide Netbadge login and security authentication, access to the Student Information System, user accounts, and other class management tools. The new applications will function within UVaCollab as built-in tools, accessible with a single sign-on, and automatically associated with predefined groups (where applicable), such as all members of a class being given access to a class wiki, blog or Web site.

Each program will be rolled out this fall in phases (details here) that gradually increase integration with UVaCollab and expand support resources – from online manuals, tutorials and user comments, to a help desk and ad hoc workshops, to user communities.

The SHANTI Web site will serve as a portal, linking to projects created with the help of these new tools. To facilitate peer support, the SHANTI site will feature a custom-designed social networking application that will let faculty, staff and students discuss their projects, and the related challenges and lessons learned.

Beyond the five "core" applications intended for the most widespread use, SHANTI is also offering Drupal for rapid development of scholarly archives and exhibits that organize and connect a wide variety of media and data, and VisualEyes for easy creative visualization of diverse data such as maps, graphs, statistics, images and timelines.

All SHANTI software comes with U.Va.'s institutional endorsement and integration into normal operations, said Mike McPherson, associate vice president and deputy chief information officer.

SHANTI will offer yearlong Cohort Fellowships that will formally bring together groups of faculty with related projects or goals, to meet regularly and support each other. About 70 faculty are expected to be in the first group of cohorts, currently being selected, Germano said.

The final element of SHANTI will be a new, two-course curriculum (which may eventually grow to become a minor) aimed at broadening student understanding of digital technology.

"This is an attempt to put U.Va. at the vanguard of transforming higher education with digital technology," Germano said. "We call it 'the SHANTI experiment' – to roll out an ecology of high-quality, best-of-the-breed tools that the University stands behind, and then see what we can do with them, see what research, teaching, publication and engagement comes out of this."

The aim is to reach a tipping point of community adoption and peer support (creative, technical and intellectual support) that will give people the comfort and confidence to widely apply these new technology tools, creating a local "ecology of innovation," Germano said.

For those who still feel hesitant, check out this YouTube video of a medieval monk who's spent a lifetime working with scrolls, and faces a newfangled challenge – a book.