Case Study Editorial

A Case Study for Using the Omeka Editorial Plugin in Art History Pedagogy

Contributed by Kimon Keramidas, New York University

The increased use of digital technology in classrooms has resulted in the implementation of a wide variety of different tools. The predominant form is the Learning Management System (LMS), which limits the flexibility of the individual instructor in favor of a generalized system marked by institution-wide oversight and centralized management and support. This lack of flexibility has driven many instructors to platforms like Wordpress and Omeka, which allow for more customization and granular control of functionality and aesthetics. One challenge for using platforms like Omeka is a lack of robust messaging systems that allow instructors and students to communicate directly about their work.

Since one system does not offer everything an instructor may want, the workflow of assignment -> student draft -> instructor commentary -> revision -> final submission -> grading, usually takes place across a number of different platforms. Instructors (and this includes myself) who assign final projects in Omeka may use one platform to assign the work, one to provide feedback, and receive a final version of a narrative exhibition in Omeka itself. For instance, since most professors using Omeka in the classroom have some level of digital proficiency they are inclined to provide feedback using digital means and refer to tools like Microsoft Word’s Track Changes or commenting in Google Docs on structure and prose of these capstone projects. Even with commenting available in Omeka, the inability to keep those conversations private, between the instructor and a single student, makes it difficult to comment on drafts. This leads students to hand in their early work on a non-Omeka platform and only at the final or nearly final stage post their work on Omeka.

The Editorial Plugin, solves a number of these problems by streamlining the workflow and allowing for private interactions with students building Omeka projects.

Below, I detail a course project I have run in classes to show how the Editorial Plugin would have helped me work with the students.

When appropriate, I practice what I call object-oriented pedagogy. This asks students to research 5-7 objects, create items for each in an Omeka site, and then create a multi-page exhibit using Exhibit Builder to connect the objects through a narrative. The assignment combines traditional research and writing with an active recognition of how to write for digital media by taking into consideration modularity, non-linear paths, and the user-driven nature of hypertextual experiences. Students must think about making explicit connections, re-inferring without completely restating their thesis across all their writing, and even linking across one another’s projects.

In the past the workflow has gone like this:

  • Assignment posted course Wordpress Site
  • Project proposals posted on course WP site
  • Object study drafts handed in using Microsoft Word, usually without media or hyperlinks
  • Object feedback returned using Word with track changes
  • Exhibit drafts handed in using Microsoft Word, usually without media or hyperlinks
  • Exhibit feedback returned using Word with track changes
  • Final objects posted on site
  • Final exhibit posted on site
  • Feedback provided via email

While this has worked in general, and the projects have for the most part turned out quite well, a number of things have suffered, in part due to the need to transition materials from one platform to the other. For instance, this workflow greatly centers the text in the early stages of the project. Writing is of course an important part of the assignment, but the project is also about writing within the digital medium, which students often aren’t doing until the end. Students are working in Word which has a particular look and layout that is significantly different from the web site in which their work will reside in the end. Early drafts may have media and links but they are not where they will be in the final version, and to make them do so would require an investment in formatting in Word that would be counterproductive to the goals of the project.

In the end, the centering of the text makes it difficult to expect more of layout considerations during the draft stage and therefore the final stage is the first time work is seen in full layout and cannot be moved along farther. This means that students are not usually experimenting with the full creative capabilities that exist within Exhibit Builder and don’t get to think as deeply about the possibilities of such a non-linear modular platform. With the Editorial Plugin there is an opportunity to integrate instructor feedback into the project, in the Exhibit Builder, although not privately at the item level.

The new plugin workflow would proceed like this:

  • Assignment posted course Wordpress Site
  • Project proposals posted on course WP site
  • Object study drafts posted on Omeka with media and hyperlinks
  • Object feedback returned using email comments or Word with track changes on copied text minus images
  • Exhibit drafts posted on Omeka with media and hyperlinks
  • Exhibit feedback returned using Editorial Plugin within student exhibit
  • Final item descriptions revised on site
  • Final exhibit revised on site
  • Detailed feedback on exhibit provided via Editorial Plugin, general feedback and comments on objects made via email

This workflow is greatly improved. First, this setup allows for integration of media and hyperlinks earlier in the process throughout the site, and to the Web, contextualizing the student’s text in their choices of images and links and allowing for that portion of the assignment to be highlighted sooner. Second, feedback on the exhibit can happen within the site keeping it all in one place. Furthermore, the Editorial comment blocks can be added multiple times and in different places throughout an individual exhibit page, allowing for very granular commentary on specific details about research content, image choice and placement, or any other relevant feature. Finally, because the Editorial Plugin is conversational, students can ask questions, write back when they have updated, and participate in a more dynamic way with the instructor’s feedback.

The Editorial Plugin greatly improves the workflow of integrating Omeka into your pedagogy. Keeping the work within the platform, allowing for private conversations, and highlighting the challenges of using media correctly refines the ability of instructors to get the most out of the Exhibit Builder with their students.