Pedagogical Practice and Digital Media
A student walked into my office a couple of years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the digital history projects I had assigned to the students in my “History of American Technology and Culture” course (McClurken et al., A History of American Technology). She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.”
Much of my pedagogical practice regarding the use of digital media emphasizes student-generated, online, creative and public digital conversation and project creation. When teaching with digital media, my approaches stem from pedagogical, theoretical and practical goals, many of which challenge traditional teaching practices in educational institutions and push students out of their comfort zones. Ultimately, I want students to be capable of critically using and producing digital media themselves.
The notion of students creating and writing for a public audience is a key part of this approach, which has clear benefits for the students, the teacher and the institution. I’m particularly interested in opening up the traditional, closed system of knowledge production by which student products (such as papers or projects) go only to the instructor to be graded, after which the student views the instructor’s comments, and then no one ever looks at the material again. By making their work and words public, students learn to write for an audience of more than one. They also learn to learn from each other. Further, what they are creating has the potential to be lasting and important. In a broader sense, making students’ work public allows faculty and institutions to be transparent about what it is we do in the “ivory tower” of academia.
Digital media projects offer students the opportunity to be creative in their approaches to conceiving and presenting information. Rather than the static text of student tests and research papers, these projects can be dynamic, cross-media, innovative and new, while still adhering to rigorous standards for citation and scholarship. In my classes, we are focused on new ways of making available and presenting historical information, but the concepts extend equally well to other disciplines.
One challenge that we face as instructors in a digital age is the notion of “digital natives,” a term much bandied about in education and the media to describe students today as somehow intuitively knowing how to use digital media (and technology more generally). I would acknowledge that there are differences in growing up in the digital age (I know a 3-year old fully capable of navigating my iPod Touch despite not yet being literate), but we need to acknowledge that for many (most?) students, their digital abilities tend to be fairly narrowly-focused (e.g., on Facebook, texting and the first page of Google Search results). For those students, their involvement with digital media tends to be consumptive rather than productive. Another problem with the notion of the digital native is that it risks letting teachers off the hook from teaching with digital media because of some notion that students already know how to use it (or, even more scary, that they know it better than we do or can).
Pushing students into other forms of digital media creation and consumption can be unsettling to them. That’s good. I want students to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” because it is often the case that real learning comes with a bit of struggle. Many students could write a (bad) 7-10 page paper in their sleep, but scholarly digital media projects move them out of their comfort zone in ways that are useful for deep learning.
I believe that student creation of digital media projects also encourages the development of new literacies or fluencies. This act of construction provides not only opportunities to create knowledge (more than “just” learning), but also provides students with experiences necessary to be better consumers of information generally (what some scholars describe as information literacy or digital fluency). In addition, the act of creating such projects also builds visual literacy, as well as an appreciation for the importance of visual aesthetics (this after years of telling students that the paper binder doesn’t matter, it’s the content that counts). Well, even those of us in text-focused disciplines have begun to understand that the binder (presentation/form/interface) actually does matter, at least somewhat, in digital products. Broadly stated, I would argue that these literacies must be central to our expectations for undergraduates, joining critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated forms.
I structure digital media projects in a way that emphasizes a general fluency with digital media, making students more marketable and better prepared for the workplace of tomorrow. A focus on adaptability is a key trait in the current and future labor market and digital world. It is not my goal that students learn a particular program or piece of software. Just focusing on a single tool (or even a particular canon of tools) is ultimately not very helpful if the tools are likely to change significantly in 12-24 months. Software and hardware obsolescence is simply a reality in the digital media world. Therefore, it is a willingness to play, to learn new tools, to evaluate the needs of the situation and the tools available that is a key goal for my students. So, too, is the ability to play well with others, so I build in structured and unstructured academic communication with others in and out of classroom, including, but not limited to, formal group work.
For me, then, teaching with digital media is part of a pedagogical process in which I encourage students to write, create, and build for a larger audience than the classroom. The process is intended to challenge the traditional product of the classroom. It acknowledges, even embraces, the ephemeral nature of digital media tools while encouraging students to think about their work as lasting beyond the semester. Finally, it works to create opportunities for students to become “critical practitioners” of digital media rather than passive consumers or users.
Omeka – An Introduction
Omeka is an open-source, free, web-based publishing tool that is both a digital repository and a resource for building online exhibits. It allows users (ranging from individual researchers/teachers/scholars to libraries, archives, and museums of all sizes) to catalog and share their collections of documents, images, and videos in any number of ways. Created by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media to be used easily by non-programmers, it is also flexible and powerful enough to meet large institutional needs. Omeka lies at the intersection of several types of tools, including basic web-publishing systems, digital repository systems, and collection management systems (Scheinfeldt).
Though the basic installation of Omeka software on a server is easy enough to manage (“Omeka | Omeka How To”), there is an option now which removes that step as well. CHNM recently announced Omeka.net, a version of Omeka that CHNM will host. While there are paid versions of the hosting service, a basic account is free.
After installing the Omeka software on one’s web server or after setting up an account at Omeka.net, adding items to the digital repository is as simple as filling out a form with the relevant metadata (information about the object) and finding the object (born digital or digitized) on the computer to upload it. Once in the repository, Omeka’s built-in templates make it easy to begin to build online exhibits that use and reuse those items as often as desired. A growing list of plug-ins allows for a variety of additional capabilities to be added to an Omeka installation, including enabling the public to add items to a digital repository (Contribution) or identify favorite items in a collection (MyOmeka), as well as a variety of tools to import, export or manipulate content. Though building a basic site, especially on Omeka.net, is quite easy, tapping into the higher levels of complexity in Omeka will require some basic skills in the web-programming languages of CSS, HTML and PHP.
An upcoming feature is Omeka Commons, an IMLS-funded project that will enable the option of adding the contents of an Omeka site to a centralized repository for backup and federated (centralized) search. The Commons will provide Omeka-based projects with greater security and visibility, while allowing researchers a way to search across many collections (Leon).
Examples of exhibits built on Omeka can be found at the Showcase page and the development team details a number of ideas for using Omeka with specific examples (“Omeka | Showcase”; “Omeka | How Might You Use Omeka – Omeka How To”).
Teaching and Learning with Omeka
I’ve had students use Omeka twice as part of a junior/senior undergraduate seminar on Digital History (McClurken, Digital History; McClurken, Adventures in Digital History 2010) at the University of Mary Washington. In both cases I didn’t require students to use Omeka, but introduced it as one of a variety of tools from which students could choose for their digital projects. The following advice is based on those experiences and conversations with other professors who have used Omeka in their courses. Most of these lessons take the form of decisions you should make before using Omeka in your classes.
First, be sure that you need to use Omeka. If you’re looking for students to write some content, put a few pictures up and call it a day, don’t use Omeka. It would be overkill (and frankly, something like WordPress would be more flexible and have less technical overhead for the students and you). Omeka is best suited for projects that involve a sizable digital (or at least digitizable) collection that would benefit from being stored as an archive with metadata (rather than just a single static exhibit). A good example of a student project that works well with Omeka is one done by my students using letters written by James Monroe to the Secretary of State when he was Minister to France (deGraffenreid et al.). It’s a project with numerous images and text, lots of metadata and tags, and a clear structure that lends itself well toward Omeka’s exhibit templates.
Second, structure the assignment and the students’ involvement with the technical details of Omeka based on what your goals are for the students. Those goals should affect your decisions on whether students set up their own domains, download and install the software themselves, build the architecture, add plug-ins, edit templates, and so on. One colleague wanted students to learn every aspect of creating an Omeka site and so she had her students set up their own Omeka installations on their own hosted accounts. In my classes, I was interested in a balance between each student learning technical skills and making progress on a group project over the course of the semester. I turned to one of our instructional technologists to set up Omeka installations (with relevant plug-ins) on our department’s hosted account for each group that wanted to use Omeka as their main platform. Each group of students chose (and edited) their own templates, created their own repositories of digital items and built their own exhibits. The upside is that they were able to jump right in on their digital projects by the time they had their basic planning done. The downside is that they didn’t get to experience that process of installation. It also meant that when some groups were dissatisfied with the Omeka template choices, they didn’t have the skill set themselves to create new ones (though a couple groups played around with the underlying code until they could make some basic changes they wanted). Still, I found that when students did not create their own installations, they were better able to concentrate on building a structure and content base for their projects. If you have concerns about installing Omeka, look into the Omeka.net option.
Another key decision is between group vs. individual projects. Again, it depends on your goals for the students and the course. In my experience, I have found that it is easier to do substantive Omeka projects in groups, but there is the risk that students in a group will gain different levels of technical expertise in the tool involved. If that is a concern, then you might consider assigning individual projects.
Expect to provide more technical support for Omeka-based projects than for blog-based or Wiki-based projects. Think about the number of students you’ll be supervising, how much direct help you can give them, what your teaching and learning technologies support infrastructure is, and how much you’re comfortable with them struggling a bit to find a way to construct their digital repositories and exhibits. On the last point, remember that struggle can be a productive part of the learning process.
Plan on having extended discussions with students about how they will use their Omeka repositories and build their exhibits. Conversations about the differences between “items,” “collections,” “tags” and “exhibits” are not just technically oriented, however, but are fundamentally about the way information is structured and best presented. I have found the lessons learned here go far beyond using Omeka for my students because they deal with questions of information organization, management, retrieval, and presentation. In grappling with how individual “items” fit into larger “collections,” how those “items” are “tagged,” how those “items” are then presented in “exhibits,” students gain an understanding of the ways that scholars approach, contextualize, and interpret sources. Omeka is also incredibly powerful in creating metadata for each Item in the repository, so you should also decide how much time you want to focus on the creation of standardized and complete metadata.
Consider copyright and publication rights issues related to making archival sources available. Think about how you and your students will deal with primary source materials ahead of time. In my case, I found materials for students before the semester started that were in the public domain, or had already been cleared for publication. The upside is that copyright was less of an issue (though one we still discussed). The downside is that it shaped their topics.
Take advantage of the terrific how-to videos and documentation from Omeka and advise students to use the forums to find answers to their questions. There is an active community of developers and users of Omeka, and, in my experience, it is a very friendly and helpful group.
Using Omeka is not a decision to be made lightly, but in the end the time spent preparing and guiding students is well worth it. Students can create some impressive projects using this tool. (For example, Tona Hangen’s undergraduate students at Worcester State College have created Digital Worcester.) In working with Omeka, students learn a wide variety of skills—digitization, organization, presentation, exhibition, metadata creation—along the way, skills that go well beyond those employed in writing a traditional research paper. In creating public, online, digital collections, students contribute to a larger academic discourse, learn what it means to be an historian, and gain an appreciation for how knowledge itself is construction and presented.
Arndt, Jenn et al. Mary Ball Washington. University of Mary Washington, Spring 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://maryballwash.umwblogs.org/>.
Biddle, Colin et al. James Farmer Project. University of Mary Washington, Spring 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://jamesfarmer.umwblogs.org/>.
Brennan, Sheila. “Omeka | Omeka.net Alpha Arrives.” Omeka. 29 Apr 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://omeka.org/blog/2010/04/29/omeka-net-alpha-arrives/>.
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deGraffenreid, Alexandra et al. James Monroe Papers Project. University of Mary Washington, Spring 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://projects.umwhistory.org/jmp/>.
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—. Digital History. University of Mary Washington, Spring 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://digitalhistory.umwblogs.org/>.
—. “Student Contracts for Digital Projects.” ProfHacker—The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2 March 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/student-contracts-for-digital-projects/23011>.
—. “Syllabus – Adventures in Digital History 2010.” University of Mary Washington. Spring 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://dh2010.umwblogs.org/draft-syllabus/>.
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—. “Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.” Techist: A Blog about Technology, History and Teaching. 22 January 2008. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://mcclurken.blogspot.com/2008/01/uncomfortable-but-not-paralyzed.html>.
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1. Note that I don’t believe that everything in the classroom should be changed to digital media-based work. There will continue to be an important place for traditional pedagogical methods done well, and not all projects, assignments, or disciplines lend themselves well to digital media projects.
3. The phrase “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” is something I often use with my students to describe where I want them to be when using new tools, concepts, or approaches. For more see McClurken, “Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed.”
. For the Omeka site, software, and support, see http://omeka.org. For more detailed descriptions of Omeka’s features and options, see Meloni; “Omeka | Project”. Started in 2007, the project has received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Sloan Foundation, and the Samuel Kress Foundation.
. See <http://chnm.gmu.edu>.
. Metadata is data about data, or the information about an object that helps to identify it, including creator, date of creation, type of object, etc. Omeka makes it easy to follows an archival industry standard format for metadata, known as Dublin Core (“DCMI Metadata Basics”). The term “born digital” refers to materials such as blogs, web sites, social media, and email that have always been in electronic form (as opposed to “digitized” materials such as print materials that have been scanned or captured electronically).
. See <http://omeka.org/codex/Themes>.
. See <http://omeka.org/add-ons/plugins/>.
. See <http://omeka.org/codex/Plugins/Contribution>.
. See <http://omeka.org/codex/Plugins/MyOmeka>.
 See <http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/>.
. Much of this section comes from McClurken, “Teaching with Omeka.” That piece was written with lots of input from two people, Amanda French, who taught Omeka as part of a public history graduate course at NYU, and Jeremy Boggs, Creative Lead at CHNM, who used Omeka in a graduate class in history as an adjunct professor at American University. This section continues to be greatly indebted to them.
. In this class, students work in groups throughout the semester to produce different online resource projects about various historical topics related to my school or the surrounding areas. Students are exposed in the first four weeks of the semester to a variety of online and freely available programs or services as part of a “digital toolkit” from which they could choose the tools most applicable for their particular project. Working with broad guidelines for their topics, in the fifth week each group creates a contract with me about what their project would look like and what tools they would use. Overall, groups have either based their projects in CHNM’s Omeka (deGraffenreid et al.; Milner et al.) or in WordPress (Biddle et al.; Arndt et al.).
. See <http://wordpress.com/>.
. We currently use Bluehost, but there are plenty of others to choose from. Going forward, I will have students create their own free accounts at Omeka.net.
. See <http://projects.umwhistory.org/jmp/about-site/> for an excellent description of how the students working on the James Monroe Papers Site defined and used Omeka’s items, collections, exhibits, and tags.
. See <http://omeka.org/codex/Documentation>.
. See <http://www.digitalworcester.org/>.