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Teaching with Omeka

omeka student example[Editor's Note: Although this is a post by ProfHacker author Jeffrey McClurken, we would like to acknowledge the assistance of super friends-of-ProfHacker Amanda French and Jeremy Boggs in the creation of this post.]

Now that Julie has told you what Omeka is and what it does, it’s my job to talk about working with students using Omeka. I’ve done so twice as part of a senior undergraduate seminar on Digital History. In both cases I didn’t require students to use Omeka, but introduced it as one of a variety of tools from which students could choose for their digital projects. Here are some lessons I learned from working with students on those projects and in talking with two others who have used Omeka in teaching, Amanda French (in a graduate course at NYU) and Jeremy Boggs (Creative Lead at CHNM and adjunct professor at American University). Most of these lessons take the form of decisions you should make before using Omeka in your classes.

Are you bringing a sledgehammer when a regular hammer will do?

If you’re looking for students to write some content, put a few pictures up and call it a day, don’t use Omeka. It would be overkill (and frankly, something like WordPress would be more flexible and have less technical overhead for the students and you).

Omeka is best suited for projects that involve a sizable digital (or at least digitizeable) collection. As Jeremy explains, “I generally tell students to consider whether they want to create an archive with detailed, searchable metadata. If they want to do that, Omeka is perfect. If they want to just put some static pages up, with no real item archive that is itself searchable, then WordPress or static HTML pages are better.”

A good example of a student project that works well with Omeka is this one using letters written by James Monroe to the Secretary of State when he was Minister to France. It’s a project with numerous images and text, lots of metadata and tags, and a clear structure that lends itself well toward Omeka’s exhibit templates.

Structure the assignment and the students’ involvement with the technical details of Omeka based on what your goals are for the students

Those goals should affect your decisions on whether or students set up their own domains, download and install the software themselves, build the architecture, add plug-ins, edit templates, and so on. In Amanda’s graduate class, she wanted students to learn every aspect of creating an Omeka site and so she had her students set up their own Omeka installations on their own hosted accounts.

In my classes I was interested in a balance between each student learning technical skills and making progress on a group project over the course of the semester. So, I turned to one of our instructional technologists in our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, Patrick Murray-John, to setup Omeka installations (with relevant plugins) on our department’s hosted account for each group that wanted to use Omeka as their main platform. The students chose (and edited) their own templates, created their own repositories of digital items, and built their own exhibits. The upside is that they were able to jump right in on their digital projects by the time they had their basic planning done. The downside is that they didn’t get to experience that process of installation. It also meant that when some groups were dissatisfied with the Omeka template choices, they didn’t have the skill set themselves to create new ones (though a couple groups played around with the underlying code until they could make some basic changes they wanted). Still, by not having them create their own installations, I found that students in those groups were able to concentrate more on building a structure and content base for their projects.

If you have concerns about you or your students rolling your own Omeka installations, there is a new option coming shortly. CHNM, the makers of Omeka, recently announced the Omeka.net alpha, a version of Omeka that CHNM will host. Though the alpha is closed, look for a public beta version this fall. [It looks like there will be free and paid versions of the hosting service, though the software itself is still free.]

Decide between group vs. individual projects

Again, it depends on your goals for the students and the course. As Jeremy notes, “I always advise group projects, regardless of the tool, because most digital humanities work is done so much better in groups than as an individual.” In my experience, I’ve found that it’s easier to do substantive Omeka projects in groups. However, Amanda “wanted each of them to get the same level of digital literacy.” If they had done it in groups, I figured some people would take on ‘soft’ skills and others would take on the ‘hard’ tech skills, and then they wouldn’t learn as much as individuals.”

Expect to provide more technical support for Omeka-based projects than for WordPress or wiki-based projects

Regardless of your decisions on hosting/non-hosting, group/individual, expect to provide more technical support for Omeka-based projects than for WordPress or wiki-based projects. Think about the number of students you’ll be supervising, how much direct help you can give them, what your teaching and learning technologies support infrastructure is, and how much you’re comfortable with them struggling a bit to find a way to construct their digital repositories and exhibits.

As Jeremy notes, you should also plan on “lots of discussion with managing information in Omeka, like how to use Items, Collections, Exhibits.” These conversations are not just technical ones, however, but are fundamentally about the way information is structured and best presented. I’ve found the lessons learned here go far beyond using Omeka for my students because they deal with questions of information organization, management, retrieval, and presentation.

Decide how much time you want to focus on the creation of standardized and complete metadata

Omeka is incredibly powerful in creating metadata for the objects in the repository, so you should also decide how much time you want to focus on the creation of standardized and complete metadata. It may be helpful to point people to the Dublin Core Usage Guide, as Amanda directed her students to do.

Decide how to deal with primary source materials

Copyright and publication rights can be a real issue with making archival sources available, so how you deal with primary source materials is something else you’ll want to think about ahead of time. Amanda’s students picked their own topics and found their own sources to digitize. That process was “highly educational” for her students. The downside is that “plenty of them ran into copyright and permissions problems—also highly educational.”

In my case, I found materials for students before the semester started that were in the public domain, or had already been cleared for publication. The upside is that copyright was less of an issue (though one we still discussed). The downside is that it shaped the topics they were able to do.

A final piece of wise advice from Amanda: “Get them to make use of the very helpful forums and Omeka documentation, and encourage (or even assign!) them to improve the Omeka documentation, because it’s a wiki, which is awesome.”

Conclusions

So, using Omeka is perhaps not a decision to be made lightly, but in the end Amanda, Jeremy, and I think that the time spent preparing and guiding students is well worth it. Students can create some impressive projects using this tool and learn a wide variety of skills (digitization, organization, presentation, exhibition, metadata creation) along the way.

Examples of strong student-created Omeka projects from Jeremy and Amanda include:

From my students:

And more!

Thanks again to Jeremy and Amanda for sharing their thoughts and experiences. Have you used Omeka with your students? In other contexts? Have you thought about using it? Share your experiences or questions in the comments.

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