Digital pedagogy and student knowledge production

The past two weeks in my Introduction to Digital Humanities course, students have been using the open-source content management system Omeka to create online exhibits related to the early Christian text, the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas.

I was astounded by their accomplishments.  The students raised thoughtful questions about the text, found items online related to Perpetua and Felicitas to use/curate/re-mix, and then created thoughtful exhibits on different topics in groups.

None of them know much if anything about early Christianity. (I think one student has taken a class with me before).  None of them had used Omeka before.  Few of them would consider themselves proficient in digital technology before taking the class.

Here’s what they created.  In two weeks. And I’m super proud of them.

Here’s what we did:

  • We read and discussed the text together.
  • They all registered on our joint Omeka site, and we created a list of questions and themes that would drive our work.
  • Each student then went home and found three items online related to Perpetua and Felicitas or any of the themes and questions we brainstormed. (They watched out for the licensing of items to be sure they could reuse and republish them.)
  • In class each person added one item to the Omeka site — we talked about metadata, licensing, classfication
  • We revised revised revised; in groups, each student added two more items
  • We grouped the Items into Collections (which required discussion about *how* to group Items)
  • Then in small groups, students created Exhibits based on key themes we had been discussing.  Each group created an Exhibit; each student a page within the exhibit.

What made it work?

  • Before even starting with Omeka, we read about cultural heritage issues and digitization, licensing, metadata, and classification — all issues they had to apply when doing their work
  • Lots and lots of in class time for students to work
  • Collaboration!  Students all contributed items to Omeka, and then they each could use any other students’ items to create their exhibits; we had a much more diverse pool of resources by collaborating in this way
  • Peer evaluating: students reviewed each others work
  • The great attitude and generosity of the students — they completely submersed themselves into it.
  • The Omeka CMS forced students to think about licensing, sourcing, classification, etc., as they were adding and creating content.

The writing and documentation in these exhibits exceeded my expectations, and also exceeded what I usually see in student papers and projects.  Some of this is due to the fact that I have quite a few English majors, who are really good at writing, interpreting, documenting.   I also was pleasantly surprised by the level of insight from students who were not formally trained in early Christian history.  They connected items about suicide and noble death, as well as myths about the sacrifice of virgins; they found WWII photos of Carthage.

Are there some claims in these exhibits that I would hope someone more steeped in early Christian history would modify, nuance, frame differently?  Sure.  And not all items are as well sourced or documented as others.  We also did not as a class do a good job of conforming all of our metadata to set standards (date standards, consistent subjects according to Dublin Core or Library of Congress subject categories, etc.).  We tried, but it was a lot of data wrangling for an introductory class.  And honestly, I was satisfied that they wrestled with these issues and were as consistent as we were.

So in sum, for undergraduate work, I was pleased with the results, and am happy to share them with you.

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