By Sarah Payne
On October 20th, the NULab hosted the “Making it Digital” assignment workshop co-sponsored by the New England Digital Scholarship Collective. The workshop featured instructors who use digital assignments in their classrooms; presenters discussed sample assignments, what worked well, the challenges they faced, and tips for structuring similar assignments. The first half of the workshop featured the following lightning talks: “Student Assignment Models using The Map of Early Modern London” by Ian MacInnes (Albion College) and Kristen Abbott Bennett (Stonehill College); “Digitized Concrete Poetry” by Mindy Seu (Harvard); “Integrating 360° Virtual Tours of Historic House Museums into Omeka Exhibits” by Jody Michael Gordon and Christopher Scott Gleason (Wentworth Institute of Technology); “Integrating Omeka in the Classroom” by Jeremy Guillette (Harvard) and Gabriel Pizzorno (Harvard); “Mapping the Atlantic” by Anne Ruderman (Harvard); “Teaching with Digital Timelines” by Allison Lange (Wentworth Institute of Technology); and “Boston: Then and Now” by Ella Howard (Wentworth Institute of Technology).
Omeka was one tool that was common for classroom use; Ella Howard, Jody Michael Gordon, and Jeremy Guillette and Gabriel Pizzorno all integrated Omeka into their classrooms. Guillette and Pizzorno, for example, cited the low barrier to entry in using Omeka. Omeka was fairly intuitive to their students and therefore minimized the amount of technical training required for the course. Ella Howard’s students were able to host their juxtaposed “then and now” photos on Omeka and Jody Michael Gordon’s class used Omeka to create their virtual tour of the Loring-Greenough house in Jamaica Plain. Jim McGrath, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, stressed that despite its relative intuitiveness, Omeka is not necessarily the best fit for every digital assignment, emphasizing the importance of choosing a tool that meets the goals of the assignment and the course in general.
Gordon’s class relied on 360-degree, panorama imagery that was photo-stitched in Autopano Giga and then integrated into a virtual tour using Panotour Pro to create their virtual tour, highlighting the importance of institutional funding and support in digital pedagogy, a topic that came up again in the afternoon discussions. Questions of funding and support also related to issues of labor and project scalability. Many of the projects worked well precisely because classroom sizes were small. Anne Ruderman noted that the success of her digital mapping assignment was partly contingent on only having seven students; the assignment would be more difficult to replicate in larger classes. Additionally, instructors also have to consider the labor required of themselves in learning a new digital tool and teaching it to their students, particularly if the instructor is expected to provide the bulk of technical support.
Finally, many projects raised the question of what role the digital plays in the classroom and whether digital tools and skills are secondary to traditional assignments or whether the digital serves as an integral component to individual assignments and the course as a whole. An important consideration is the praxis of integrating digital tools and more conventional essays and other assignments, making clear how they can inform each other. Ian MacInnes and Kristen Abbott Bennett, for example, began their TEI assignment with readings meant to encourage students to think about texts as networks. Guillette and Pizzorno asked their students to write about the relationship between the digital and written essays, fostering a metacognitive approach to the assignments. Rather than thinking of the digital as an add-on, students were encouraged to view the digital as fundamental to the course and not necessarily novel or extraneous. Many of these topics were discussed further in the second half of the workshop, detailed more in Making it Digital Part 2. Check out the NULab’s Twitter for full videos of the talks!