Blog Post

Creating a DH/DS assignment for students

Digital Media Lab

Faculty at the University of Miami have been using assignments based on ArcGIS StoryMaps, a digital mapping platform, in their pedagogy. Below, I am going to discuss some aspects of adding a digital assignment into a humanities course, some of which I hope will be relevant to those new to Digital Humanities/Digital Scholarship practice in the classroom.

It’s best to anticipate future steps and hurdles while integrating digital tools into the coursework (speaking from my experience in teaching multimodal composition). Listed below are some steps to think about in creating a digital scholarship assignment. My insights are gleaned from observing Prof. Allison Schifani’s use of ArcGIS StoryMaps in her course FLT 191: Making the City: Art, Technology and Shared Urban Spaces. As a DH Research Fellow at UM’s Richter Libraries, I had the opportunity to interact with some of Dr. Schifani’s students and introduce them to unique features of ArcGIS StoryMaps. Here is a short and simple project I made using StoryMaps to showcase some of its features to students: http://arcg.is/0m1iuH

1. Including it in your syllabus

Where is the DH/DS assignment going to fit into your pedagogical and grading plan for the semester? There is a large logistical aspect of this question – are you creating the equivalent of a final paper or a midterm paper? Schifani’s course discussed above had an exciting final assignment to be completed on the ArcGIS StoryMaps platform. Working individually, students researched and mapped a significant aspect of a film, a novel, a TV series or another other cultural object. Creating a digital assignment for the end of the semester allows instructors to equip students with relevant tools and skills in stages throughout the semester.

In terms of pedagogy, one may think about how the student assignment resonates with an intended research question and the course’s learning outcomes. For instance, Schifani’s assignment asked her students to take stock of the cultural impact of a chosen film, novel or another cultural object. Some critical thinking and disciplinary research skills may be built into the scaffolding for the final assignment. For examples, instructors may creating a scaffolding for the final assignment by schedule days for students to discuss preliminary research earlier in the semester.

2. Creating the assignment
Whether you create a midterm or final assignment, it’s important to consider that students maybe new to the digital medium on which they’re submitting the work. As such it is important to be very clear as to the quantity and the nature of the work expected from them. For instance, instructors working with ArcGIS often quantify the number of places to be mapped, the number of words to be used in textual commentary, the number of images or videos to be discussed, or the number of slides or pages in the project. Schifani also scheduled in-class presentations for the final version of the student work. Such presentations may allow students to clarify the unique aspects of their work.

One of the ongoing debates in the field of DH is about “valuing process” in course of estimating student work. (Katherine D. Harris talks about this, among other people.) As an instructor, you may need to update and clarify your grading rubric for a digital assignment. A significant portion of the work that goes into creating a digital project (or doing research for it) may hard to see in the final product. While there may not be an easy solution to this issue, it’s important that you try out the student process of the assignment yourself. If you’re not a regular user of the digital platform of the assignment -- ArcGIS StoryMaps, Omeka, Storify or Prezi – try a small project on it beforehand to estimate the work. Additionally, if you’re asking students to look for images or other kinds of content on the web, you may try doing a search yourself first, to see how hard or easy it will be. It’s also worth thinking about what students may learn from this kind of work, more than simply collecting and visualizing data. 

3. DH and Technology support
As an instructor, you may find some level of support for digital scholarship at your institution to institution. You want to collaborate closely with your DH/DS center, library, media lab, or computing services, in providing your students with access and knowhow of the digital platform for the assignment. The University of Miami provides excellent support for ArcGIS StoryMaps, offering accessing to faculty and students on request. Schifani worked closely Paige Morgan, UM’s Digital Humanities Librarian, and Abraham Parrish, our GIS Services Librarian, to ensure her students had a smooth experience in learning and using a new mapping and multimedia narration platform. Morgan conducted two workshops customized for Schifani’s students, with assistance from yours truly. These workshops were aimed to equip students in using the main features of ArcGIS StoryMaps, finding relevant data online, and negotiating copy- and usage rights. Parrish created online user accounts for Schifani’s students, allowing them to individually create and share new projects. 

4. Submission and Afterlife
Submission of student projects may be as simple as emailing a link or a file to instructor, depending on the chosen platform. If students are going to work in groups, may need to share data and drafts among each other. In ArcGIS StoryMaps, student users can send a public web link to their work, or share their file within the organization.

The students’ work or dataset has the potential to be part of their future research or a standalone sample of their work. Since access to a proprietary software is often contingent on institutional affiliation, students may want to discuss their project’s “sunset plan” or afterlife after they leave the course or graduate from school. Hence students may need instruction on how to preserve some version of their project, whether as a website or a dataset. For some other digital tools like Omeka, a data curation software, students are able to save some of their work as a spreadsheet file. The student projects’ afterlife may seem like a distant issue, but some discussion on it with your support services will be worthwhile.

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