The homepage of Prof. James Allen Evans’ digital exhibition on the history of science, Scipedia

In Part 1 of this series we examined some basic types of image assignments, such as using images in discussion boards or annotating images. Instructors looking to move beyond these fundamentals and engage their students on a deeper level may wish to consider the digital exhibition. In a digital exhibition, students create a digital mock-up representing a physical display space and populate the space with carefully chosen text and images, which work in conjunction to argue for a central thesis. The digital exhibition space makes it possible to exhibit objects typically considered too fragile for student exhibitions, like parchment rolls, fragments, or manuscripts, alongside other biodegradable objects that are challenging to preserve and provide access to. Digital exhibitions can circumvent the issue of spatial scarcity that often afflicts physical exhibitions, and also last longer than physical exhibitions. UChicago faculty have used digital exhibition assignments to teach their students independent research skills in a way that can supplement, or even supplant, the traditional research paper, while also helping their students learn how to write for a public audience.

There are several different tools available for the faculty member interested in teaching digital exhibitions to his/her students. The choice of tool for a particular assignment may depend upon a number of factors, such as the learning curve involved in mastering the tool or the pedagogical objectives of the assignment. In this post, we will survey a few examples of digital exhibitions created in UChicago courses and consider the tools chosen in each case.

UChicago Wiki (supported by Academic Technology Solutions)

For faculty seeking a digital exhibition tool with a relatively shallow learning curve, UChicago Wiki may be ideal. It provides a dedicated wikispace for collaborative knowledge construction, including multimedia uploads. Professor James Allen Evans had the students in several successive iterations of his course “Science, Culture & Society III (Modern Science)” use UChicago Wiki to create Scipedia, a Wikipedia-like digital encyclopedia with media-rich articles on the evolution of modern science.  Students were instructed to think of the space as a digital museum, and to use the platform as a space for critical thinking and making carefully supported arguments. Prof. Evans made note of especially strong articles and took them as examples to show to future classes, thus refining and improving the collective product over time. He found the platform easy and simple to use, as well as more persistent than past platforms. Scipedia is now available to view to anyone with a UChicago CNetID, and offers a public example of a thematically focused digital exhibition.

Omeka (supported by UChicago Library)

If a faculty member or instructor wishes his/her students to create a digital exhibition with detailed image information (metadata), such as provenance, date, type, or style, Omeka may be a good choice of tool.  Omeka is a web publishing platform designed for creating media-rich digital exhibitions featuring image galleries. It offers a range of different templates from which users can choose to organize content in visually creative ways. In addition, Omeka allows users to customize the type of metadata to record according to the needs of a particular class or project.

At the University of Chicago, Professor Christopher Wild used Omeka for a digital exhibition within “Reforming Religious Media,” an undergraduate research course in Special Collections. Prof. Wild was seeking a means of teaching undergraduate research skills other than a traditional research paper. Initially he planned to have his students curate physical showcases within the Special Collections space, but when this proved unfeasible, Omeka offered a means for them to create digital “showcases” instead. His students were instructed to find five to ten items in Special Collections that related to their topic and then fill out the appropriate metadata fields for each item according to the Dublin Core schema. Using this as a scaffold, each student wrote a research proposal and was given charge of a digital showcase, for which s/he chose items to display and wrote explanatory text to accompany them. His students were excited to have this opportunity to create public-facing material and to work with items in Special Collections. Prof. Wild himself was pleased with the success of the digital exhibition and plans to use Omeka again in other courses in the future.

UChicago Voices (WordPress; supported by Academic Technology Solutions)

Omeka’s ability to catalogue metadata also proved appealing to Prof. Joe Stadolnik in his course “The Archives of Early English Literature”. Prof. Stadolnik had his students work with the archives of the Chicago-based Chaucer Research Project. Like Prof. Wild, Prof. Stadolnik scaffolded the assignment to make the prospect of creating a digital exhibition less daunting.  His students were assigned to find ten items that interested them in the collection and create skeletal Omeka records, including metadata, for each item. They then chose five of the ten to research more deeply and write up in a short description. Finally, they chose two of these five about which to write an object note that ran to greater length and tied into an aspect of the archives that interested them. The ultimate goal was to allow students to figure out their interests within the collection so that they could then go back and create a digital exhibit, as part of a larger collaborative digital exhibition.

In the end, while Prof. Stadolnik and his students found Omeka very helpful as a cataloging tool, they were less content with its performance as a publishing tool, finding it too inflexible for their purposes. They therefore turned to a public instance of the blogging/website design platform WordPress for the actual publication of their digital exhibition. Using WordPress allowed them to get a public-facing product out swiftly and without too steep a learning curve. To see the resulting digital exhibition, “Making the Canterbury Tales in Chicago,” please visit https://chicagochaucer.wordpress.com/.

The University has its own instance of WordPress, UChicago Voices, which can also be used for this purpose. While Voices lacks the metadata capabilities of Omeka, it is easier to master quickly and is suitable for simple digital exhibitions combining text and images. Academic uses of UChicago Voices are fully supported by Academic Technology Solutions.

Conclusion

As the above examples demonstrate, digital exhibition assignments can entail a significant amount of initial effort on the part of both instructors and students. They are particularly well-suited to quarter-length or longer projects, including projects like Scipedia in which the faculty member can build on the same digital exhibition over several iterations of the same course.

As a general rule, digital exhibition assignments require careful planning with regard both to the choice of tool(s) used and the structure of the assignment if they are to succeed. That said, they offer a unique and compelling means of teaching research skills. By allowing students to engage both with text and images and to think through the connections between them, they spur creative thinking in a way that goes beyond the traditional research paper. As such, they can be a valuable addition to the faculty member or instructor’s pedagogical toolkit.

Digital Exhibition Tools Feature Comparison

Feature Omeka UChicago Voices (EduBlogs) UChicago Wiki
Official University branding No ✅ Available ✅ Available
User-selectable pre-made and custom themes ✅ (Over 150 themes to choose from, including a UChicago template. Note: customized CSS allowed but not supported.) Limited: Space owner can adjust color scheme and edit cascading style sheets for their site.
User support and documentation Full support for class use; Online documentation. Online documentation
Blogging capabilities fully-featured Limited
Comment moderation Not supported
Basic info page (static pages)
Structured content Limited, relies on Admin setting up navigational menu Supported. When Page Tree is enabled in the sidebar, the Wiki automatically creates structured navigation for the Space.
Integration with Canvas Not available.
Support for Multimedia Files
    Image Direct upload (Maximum upload file size: 20MB/image) Direct upload (Maximum upload file size: 25MB/image)
    Image Galleries ✅  built-in in select themes and via JetPack Plug-in ✅Basic gallery via Macro.
    Image metadata Captions only Captions only
    Audio/Video ✅ Direct upload (Maximum upload file size: 20MB/file) or via embedding ✅ Yes, via Macro.
Support for Other Files Types ✅Direct upload (Maximum upload file size: 20MB/file) Direct upload (Maximum upload file size: 25MB/file)
RSS Not supported
Feature extensions (Plug-ins, highlights below) fully self-service (about 30 plug-ins available) A selection of macros are available
    Integration with Google Maps Not supported
    Integration with Zotero (by request only, integrate with one account only) Not supported
    Scheduled Content Not supported
    Editorial Workflow with notification (by request only) Not supported
Access/Site Privacy Administrator can set permission at site level (allow search engine indexing, request search engines to not index, UChicago, users registered to the site, admin only, password) and page level (password protected pages). Administrator can set permission at site level and page level.
User permission levels Granular permissions available to administrators, batch user addition available for course blogs Granular permissions available to Space administrators.
Single-Sign On CNetID log in
Eligibility Faculty, Staff and Students Faculty, Staff and Students
Fees Free Free Free
Service Termination Class Blogs: 1 year after the course conclusion, faculty may request extension Normal account closure
Content migration Self-service (import/export between WordPress-based sites) Self-service, manual.
Storage Limit 500MB/Blog No limit
URL Convention For Class Blogs: voices.uchicago.edu/NAME wiki.uchicago.edu/display/NAME

 

Further Resources and Getting Help

  • Academic Technology Solutions supports the use of both UChicago Voices and UChicago Wiki for academic purposes. Send an email to academictech@uchicago.edu to get started.
  • For more information on getting started with Omeka, please see the Library’s guide (in development): https://guides.lib.uchicago.edu/omeka
  • If you would like to learn more about digital exhibition assignments and other topics at the intersection of technology and pedagogy, consider attending the Symposium for Teaching with Technology. The Symposium will be held Wednesday, April 22, 2020, from 8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., in the John Crerar Library. For more information and to RSVP, please visit the Symposium website.