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Future of Higher Education, STELAR Partnerships with Faculty, Technology Tools, Upcoming Technologies

Digital Humanities Grant: Updates and Invitation for New Proposals!

Digital Humanities is a field that aims to explore traditional subjects such as language, literature, philosophy, history, music, law, politics, religion, theater and art in new ways via the use of technology. The St. Thomas College of Arts and Sciences and St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) are partners in a grant program that supports and encourages this exploration by funding projects for Faculty and Grad Students in this area.

The first round of grant-supported projects are underway, with grantees engaged in projects that range from ethnographic virtual reality, an interactive StoryMap that links indigenous art and culture to geography, and machine learning Thoreau for hidden insight. On Thursday, December 5th, the Digital Humanities Grant Committee held a well-attended session to provide information on the next round of grants, along with sample projects from many disciplines. Graduate Student Scott Larkin showed off his master’s project that traced the publication and performance history of an long-forgotten poem called Shamus O’Brien, using ArcGIS StoryMaps to trace the rise and fall of its popularity across Europe and the Americas in the 19th century. Attendees also saw examples of interactive virtual museums such as John Ashbury’s Nest, maps of endangered languages and their current vitality, an “Emotional Map” of Victorian London that traced works of art linked to prominent city features: Mapping Emotions in Victorian London, and an interactive statistical analysis of art collectors in New York that explores who collected what based on a variety of socio-economic factors: Colleague Collectors.

We saw the works of  Shakespeare visualized by number of citations Visualizing Shakespeare, heard a singing artificial intelligence called Spawn interacting with human singers, Holly Herndon and Spawn, and a musical work composed entirely by AI! Attendees commented on how fascinating and inspiring the examples were.

Don’t worry if you missed the session- you can still apply! To apply for the grant, follow this link to the application form: Digital Humanities Grant Application. Note that there are two different forms, the first for Faculty and the second for Graduate Students.  There are two deadlines: a 300-word abstract is due by February 14th, 2020. The deadline for full proposals is February 28th, 2020.

You don’t need to worry about technology or detail in these documents- let your imagination run free! The DHG committee will review the applications for interest and viability, and facilitate the coordination of technology. The committee will select up to three projects for funding. More information is available on the application website. The committee is eager to see what you come up with!

This post was written by Eric Tornoe, Associate Director of Research and High-Performance Computing with the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.

Upcoming Technologies

The Tommie Science Network: A High-Speed Research Network and ScienceDMZ

NSF Grant

Did you know that St. Thomas has received a grant of nearly $400,00 from the National Science Foundation to build a high-speed research network? The grant money will fund a science network that will connect researchers to a ScienceDMZ, which allows for extremely fast transfers within the network and to other institutions via Internet2. Initial speeds of up to 100Gb are planned, opening doors to significantly larger research datasets and real-time collaborations than are possible on a conventional network.

The Tommie Science Network

A research network achieves these speeds through a variety of mechanisms, starting with a network switch that can handle the speed. This is the single most expensive item in the project, coming in over $100,000 for a switch that will be dedicated to the science network. Typically, a science network is outside of the enterprise firewall as well, because a modern firewall inspects each packet (unit of information) that passes through it, causing unacceptable slowdowns to research traffic. To get around this, Access Control Lists on the research network switch have typically been employed, which allow authorized traffic to bypass the firewall. A modern method uses the ability of an enterprise firewall to detect the nature of incoming traffic and route it through the science network if authorized. This method maintains the speeds required for research computing but offers enhanced security and efficiency because the pipe is only open during transmission, rather than sitting idle waiting for traffic. Specialized software components include Globus, a high-speed file transfer and management system, and PerfSonar, a tool for monitoring and maintaining research network speeds. Finally, a DTN, or Data Transfer Node sits in the ScienceDMZ, consisting of a very fast computer with very large, very fast SSD storage drives. Research clusters, GPU machines and other research technology can also be placed in the ScienceDMZ for maximum efficiency. The University of Minnesota is our partner in this effort and will help us design the network as part of the grant. This is a huge benefit for St. Thomas as UMN has significant experience in this area and has direct access to the Northern Lights GigaPOP (Gigabit Point of Presence), where we hook up to Internet2!

NSF CC* PI Conference

One condition of the grant is that the PI (Principal Investigator) attend the NSF CC* (National Science Foundation Cyberinfrastructure and Cybersecurity) conference in each of the grant years (this is a 2-year project). In September, Ed, Will and I attended this conference at the University of Maryland and gave a brief presentation on our grant. Writing the grant was a significant effort (especially since we had to do it twice- our first attempt was not awarded), which produced a 70+ page document highlighting the amazing science that is going on at St. Thomas. Many in the crowd empathized with our story and several shared similar experiences with us afterward. The conference in general was excellent. It was tight-knit group consisting of government funders, researchers, technologists and research network consortium principles. We learned a lot about how NSF funding works, pitfalls to avoid in network design and general best practices for running and maintaining a research network. The conference was in Maryland, which was extremely hot and humid during our stay. The University of Maryland hosted the conference on their lovely Georgian campus (apparently the only two design choices in the DC area are Georgian or Brutalist):










UMD has an area similar to Dinkytown nearby called College Park. Here are some of us with colleagues from the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa (both of whom received similar grants) at MilkBoy Arthouse in College Park:

NSF CC* PI’s at MilkBoy ArtHouse

The Road Ahead

Now the fun begins- The grant period runs for two years, with a one-year extension possible. The first year will be dedicated to designing the network. Meetings have begun with UMN research networking staff as well as St. Thomas researchers as we consider the technical, organizational and support structures that will best serve our research community. When the network goes live 2-3 years from now, we will enter a new era of research capability at St. Thomas. This network will allow us to collaborate with other universities and science centers around the world at peer speeds, allow researchers from other institutions to logon to our resources with their own credentials, and provide seamless, high-speed access internally and externally to extremely large data sets that have been impossible to access at our current network speeds. This will in turn allow us to attract more high-quality researchers (to join our already exemplary cohort!) by offering them resources with capabilities normally found at much larger institutions.


We have taken the first step on the path to a significant upgrade to the university’s research computing capability. When complete, we will have access to Internet speeds that provide parity with the largest research universities and institutions in the world, along with a shared, secure identity space via InCommon that securely offers seamless, high-speed access to resources at any participating institution to any authorized researcher. From these seeds will grow a brand-new branch of the St. Thomas tree and resonate throughout the institution (and the world) for years to come.

Upcoming Technologies

Virtually There: The Current State of Virtual and Augmented Reality

A year has passed since Virtual Reality, or VR, made a big splash with the introduction of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at the high end, Sony PS4 in the middle and Galaxy Gear, Google Cardboard and Google Daydream offering the simplest (yet still compelling) experience. This year each major player will release a second generation VR device, and there are some new companies and technologies joining the mix.

While Virtual Reality blew away everyone who experienced it, VR did not see tremendous mainstream adoption. The systems were simply too complex and expensive to interest casual users. Sales figures bore this out: PS4 VR sold more than Oculus and Vive combined, due to the built in user base, lower price, and simplified setup. Even so, most people have probably experienced VR through Google Cardboard devices, as they are an extremely low-cost entry into VR (assuming you already have the expensive phone required to operate it!)


So what’s happening in the Year 2 VR? Already out is the HTC Vive Pro, which doubles the resolution of the original Vive, along with the Wireless Adapter for the Vive, so there go the tethers! Another forthcoming Vive technology is the Vive Anchor. The Anchor will precisely place your entire body in the virtual world for more accurate tracking.


The next generation of PC-based Oculus Rift has been cancelled in favor of the Oculus Quest, which has not yet been released yet (more about that later). In the meantime, Oculus has released the Oculus Go, which is a lower-powered version of the Quest that uses a single controller. The Go is a standalone headset similar to Galaxy Gear or Google Daydream, with the exception that no phone is required because the technology is built in to the headset. The Go, at $200 for the 32 GB version, is a major step-up from a cell phone setup. The resolution is better, the built-in software is excellent (Virtual Telepresence, anyone?) and the comfort and operation are significantly improved. STELAR has two Oculus Go’s in the showcase to try out. During testing, I played a game of chess with my daughter via Oculus Rooms. I was in my office and she was at home. The experience was seamless and immersive. You both appear in a virtual game room and can see each other’s avatars, with good lip sync. Conversation is very natural. One of the best features of the Go is the Spatial Sound. You can easily locate sounds in three dimensions when using the headset, which significantly heightens the sense of reality!


Another new VR technology we have in STELAR is called ClassVR. This is a system of VR goggles that can be controlled from a central location, e.g. the teacher, who can allow students to explore on their own or deliver a specified lesson plan to all goggles at once. The goggles come in a road-ready case for easy transport. Another part of ClassVR is their authoring system, which is used to make content for VR lessons. The authoring system is a series of pre-created VR elements, lessons and demonstrations that can be assembled by a teacher into a custom lesson on many different topics, from anatomy to English to space exploration. This system is intended to go out into the field and be practically used in actual classes, so if you are interested in exploring VR lesson creation and delivery, let us know!

Augmented Reality

The big reality story in 2019 is AR- Augmented Reality. Unlike VR, which completely immerses the user and cuts them off from the outside world, AR combines computer generated imagery with the real world, allowing you to see things that appear to exist in reality but don’t! As an example, imagine you are building a new skyscraper. With AR technology, you could create a virtual model of the proposed building, go onsite and see what the building would look like on the actual lot before it was built! You could even go inside the virtual building and walk the layout.

Magic Leap

One of the most anticipated AR devices came out in late 2018, called Magic Leap. We have a Magic Leap in the STELAR Showcase. Early users have had strong reactions, both negative and positive. Digital artifacts seen through the Leap appear to interact with objects in the room- virtual objects falling on tables, breaking apart and rolling to the floor. Life-size virtual avatars that appear to be standing on the ground in front of you. Portals that open on the walls and allow you to gaze into infinity. Interactive bioluminescence! If you’ve been wowed before by VR, come be wowed again by AR!


Projected AR. This brand new product (releasing in November, first wave sold out, ours is coming in April!) couples with a projector to create pixel-accurate AR! It includes a GUI design interface for code-free AR creation. Examples I saw included uncarved pumpkins that were made to look carved with burning candles inside, white skeletons (it was Halloween) on which animated, Day of the Dead-style tattoos would appear, and white parasols that appeared to have rotating, multi-colored patterns. This technology seems ideally suited to educational uses- AR annotation of real objects, sculpture projected onto blank forms, even AR-enabled Tommie welcoming you to campus!


SparkAR Studio

Another AR technology that’s been around for awhile is Facebook’s AR Studio, recently renamed SparkAR Studio. They’ve also removed the coding requirements to make it entirely GUI-based. This software is used to create AR experiences viewed through Android or iOS phones. You’ve probably seen it being used to add dog or cat ears to people, face-tracking scary clown makeup, and many other digital creations that map onto your face or other objects. This is one of the easiest entry points into AR creation, and is potentially one of the most lucrative as it has direct access to millions of Facebook and Instagram users. SparkAR Studio is free to download. Mac only at this time, but a PC version is promised this year. https://developers.facebook.com/docs/ar-studio

And More!

As mentioned previously Oculus just announced the spring release of the Oculus Quest, a stand-alone headset with room tracking and hand controllers. This is an exciting development that promises to bring some portion of the power of a connected headset to a completely portable unit!


While VR wasn’t a big commercial hit initially, the technology clearly opens up new territory in a variety of areas including art, scientific visualization, training and education. When the technology is able to deliver a comfortable, cost-effective solution, usage will potentially skyrocket. Think of the first cell phones, (called “car phones” at the time): They cost thousands of dollars (the equivalent of $16,000 of today’s dollars!), were extremely limited in their functionality, of little practical value, and literally had a battery the size of a suitcase! Virtual Reality is currently in the “suitcase cellphone” era, but an era where VR/AR services are delivered in real time, at photorealistic resolution without tethers or bulky goggles is easily imaginable.


STELAR’s goal in year two is to move VR/AR beyond the showcase, and begin exploring pedagogically significant uses of VR/AR. Practically, this means partnering with professors to build VR/AR into the lesson. This has been happening already, with Dr. Alison Underthun-Meilahn’s Wartime Literature class using complementary virtual experiences to supplement their reading, and Art History’s use of 360 cameras- another easy-to-use VR creation tool- to capture not just the art their students visit around the world, but the cultural and physical context in which it exists, providing a glimpse into that experience for those who didn’t physically make the trip. VR/AR can be used in many different ways at many different levels of technical execution. If you have an idea for using VR in teaching, STELAR can help you figure out a way to make it a reality that’s more than just virtual!














Upcoming Technologies

Canvas and the Winter Olympics

This February, the STELAR Technology Showcases featured Winter Olympics viewing sessions in virtual reality (VR), and we were excited by the number of faculty who made time to visit STELAR and try it out.  Since we are also in the midst of our Blackboard to Canvas conversion, this has led to a mental game…if the migration to Canvas was an Olympic sport, which one would it be?  For some faculty, we thought Curling.  It’s strategic, deliberate, planful and detail-oriented, with slow and steady work that leads to the desired outcome.  For other faculty, Figure Skating – these faculty are creating beautiful Canvas courses that have a central theme with a beginning, middle, and end, and are entirely charming.  Then we have the ski jumpers… those who see the move to Canvas as a great leap into the unknown (and we have a few skiers still in the air as of April).  One thing we know for sure: the closer we get to summer, the closer we all get to bobsled, as we approach the hard deadline for shutting down Blackboard this June.

Black Male undergraduate student wearing a virtual reality headset

Dan Hoisington, Eric Tornoe, and the whole STELAR team did a great job of putting the VR viewing sessions together, and they turned out to be useful and instructive for two reasons.  First, we had some great conversations about practical applications for VR technology this year, not in some far-off future.  The question we want to ask about VR this semester is, “What does it mean to be somewhere?”  Or put another way, “What is presence?”  In the STELAR online teaching certificate program, students learn about the three elements of presence in the Community of Inquiry Model of teaching:  Teaching PresenceCognitive Presence, and Social Presence, with the central point being that high-quality online courses are designed to address each of these elements.  Virtual Reality gives us an entirely new tool – and possibly an entirely new set of expectations – for what ‘presence’ can mean in the context of teaching and learning.

Ideas we discussed with faculty members included:

  • Education students using VR to experience their own students’ living conditions as a way to increase empathy;
  • Geology students using VR to travel up and down rock strata;
  • Business students using VR to practice employee coaching and initiating difficult conversations at work; and
  • Psychology students using VR to explore new ways to conduct exposure therapy.

Second, the VR experience was instructive thanks to NBC, which of course was responsible for creating all these VR experiences that we shared. One thing that struck us was that NBC had an opportunity to bring essentially unlimited resources and decades of professional video expertise to bear, in order to create unrivaled, amazing VR experiences.  But instead they kind of botched it.  In STELAR we are guessing that those decades of professional experience were as much a hindrance as a help because of the way they shot the VR.  (And it’s not just us. See, for example, MIT’s review of Winter Olympics programming.)

In broadcast video you have establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, and cutaways.  And in many instances this is how NBC shot the VR experiences, presumably using their years of video production as a guide.  However, the best VR, we think, is about having an immersive experience and so changing shots and adding cutaways becomes disorienting to the viewer,  as they try to re-discover their location in virtual space.  In short, it ruins the illusion of presence.  It seems to us that NBC did not take a step back to think about what is best about VR and how they could leverage that to create truly unique and effective experiences.

This is a great example of how a new technology can require us leave behind our experiences and expectations.  It also demonstrates in a real way something we say a lot down here in STELAR – that the smart use of technology isn’t about learning the tech itself, but rather about understanding  what you’re trying to accomplish and then using the technology the way it is best suited to reach those ends.  We saw it here on NBC’s virtual reality, and it’s equally true for teaching online or in an active learning classroom.

Learning to use Canvas is one thing – you can learn all the right clicks to upload a PowerPoint slide deck or a video of yourself lecturing, but without stepping back to ask yourself what kind of experience you want your students to have, you might inadvertently wind up with some NBC VR.  This can lead to the disappointing online course experiences that many of us have had over the years, when instructors merely update the technology without updating old ways of working and thinking.

We have an opportunity here at St. Thomas to become a leader in the effective use of VR in our courses, and STELAR is ready to partner with you to accomplish that goal.   As we move through the VR learning curve together, we’ll discover what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll find new ways to bring this increased sense of presence to your classes and your students.  Experimenting with this technology is an important step towards St. Thomas becoming the digitally-enabled university that students have increasingly come to expect.  It will help us to continue to deliver high-quality educational experiences that help define our future.

This post was written by Brett Coup, the AVP for Academic Technology for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research  (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.  To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at www.stthomas.edu/stelar or email us at stelar@stthomas.edu.