Getting Started with Digital Humanities in the Classroom


“I have this idea for adding a digital assignment to my course.
I just don’t think I have the time or the skills to teach it!”

This is the kind of statement I and my digital humanities colleagues hear from instructors on a regular basis. I’m here to tell you that you likely do have the time, that you can start gaining skills quickly, and that diving into digital art history in your classroom is easier than it may seem. As Digital Humanities Specialist for the
Wired! Lab at Duke University, I have helped instructors move beyond this statement to realizing their pedagogical goals.

There are many fantastic digital projects that grew out of teaching, such as the Fashion History Timeline, Mapping the Martyrs, Colored Conventions, or Sonic Dictionary. These projects required resources far beyond the scope of what a lone instructor typically needs for a single class, and their work extends beyond one semester in a single classroom to reach into multiple classrooms across many semesters and institutions. It can feel overwhelming to view these projects and consider how much time, energy, and support went into building and maintaining them. Yet, each started out with individual instructors who wanted to change how their students learn and engage with humanities topics in our highly technological world.

In this post, I will share some ideas about where to find inspiration and training; what are the opportunities and challenges to consider; and which resources may be needed (or not needed) when designing and implementing a digital art history project in the classroom. Whether you have an idea for a project on the scale of Colored Conventions or the Fashion History Timeline, or you just want to see what it might be like to create a digital assignment for your class, you will find helpful information here about starting and building pedagogical projects.

Why digital?

There are a number of factors to consider when exploring the possibility of a digital assignment. First, and most importantly, we must be clear on why we want to engage students with digital technologies.

  • Will a digital assignment transform students’ overall experiences in ways that enhance not only critical interactions with technologies but also understandings of course content?
  • Will the digital creation process itself help students explore and analyze course topics in ways that reading, writing, visual analysis, or other analog art historical methods may not?
  • Will a digital assignment complement other assignments by helping students to draw connections between topics and deepen their analytical engagement?

These are just some of the questions we might ask when developing an assignment idea. While you do not need firm answers to all of these questions, having some at the outset will help you decide whether to move forward with developing the assignment. If you answered “no” to all of the above questions, do keep reading, but consider whether this idea is an appropriate candidate for technological transformation.

Start with what you know

This point may seem obvious, but developing a digital assignment works best when we start with what we know. Develop a digital assignment using course material that you are quite familiar with and/or a digital method you have used in your own research. Your digital assignment could be based on an existing analog assignment; it could be a new assignment for a course that you have already taught; or it could be an assignment based on a research project you have already begun. If you already have a strong understanding of the course material and learning objectives, then you can better identify an appropriate digital method for the assignment, ensuring that its implementation supports intended learning goals.

Consider also platforms that you may already be familiar with: Weebly? Twitter? Google Maps? Your smart phone’s digital camera? If you are able to start with a platform with which you already have some familiarity, you will be able to apply your prior knowledge of a platform’s functions, design, affordance, and limitations to your assignment.

Consider your students

Likewise, aim to meet your students where they are technologically. Avoid using the myths of the digital native to make assumptions about your students’ technological knowledge. That is, do not assume that all students engage with technology in the same way or that their engagement is any different from your own. Although many students arrive with some understanding of coding or critical digital making, it’s important that we not assume that these skills are ingrained in all of them. As with other parts of their lives, our students bring a range of technological experiences, making it crucial that we build assignments that are accessible yet challenging to everyone.

Be sure to take into account which devices students already use and others they can easily access. Observe your students: do they all have laptops, tablets, or smartphones? Which hardware do they have most access to? Do you need to provide appropriate equipment by booking a computer lab? The simplest, most accessible platforms have the potential to support the most powerful learning experiences, so opt for technologies that you know your students can access both inside and outside of the classroom.

Protect your students’ privacy. In a powerful talk covering many of the same subjects in this blog post, Jade Davis uses the acronym “REST” to stand for four factors:  Risk, Equipment, Stigma, and Time, which faculty should keep in mind when assigning public digital projects in a class. Davis importantly reminds us that students’ participation in open, web-based assignments can put them in socially, psychologically, and/or physically risky situations. These situations might be related to–but not limited to–immigration status, sexual harassment and stalking, or ethnic and religious discrimination.

Kevin Smith offers helpful tips on how to minimize risk for students while also accounting for FERPA:

  • Talk openly with your students about their public participation.
  • Encourage your students to communicate with you privately about any concerns they may have about public participation.
  • Make it possible for at-risk students to participate while using pseudonyms, keeping their content private, and avoiding posting location data.
  • Remind all of your students not to publish any private information about themselves or each other.

If you can, also use this opportunity to encourage discussion in class about our participation in the public forum, issues of privacy, and surveillance in the online interactions we have each day.


Consultations & Collaborations

Talk to others in your discipline about what kinds of digital assignments they have created, why they are using digital technologies in the classroom, and how they’re implementing them. Ask if they are willing to share their assignments with you, and if they might offer feedback on your own draft of an assignment.

Are there are units on your campus devoted to enhancing teaching or supporting instructional technology or digital scholarship? Such units might be housed in libraries, IT departments, or teaching and learning centers. Make an appointment with someone in one of these units. Before you meet, write out a description of the assignment you have in mind. Try to include sketches or even a prototype to help explain what you want to do. Most importantly, be prepared for a conversation that helps you both bridge the gap between their technological and your subject area expertise. Meet with as many such experts as you can to gather different perspectives on how you might structure the assignment, which kind of platform(s) might work best, and whether their unit can provide any infrastructural or teaching support.

If you will have a graduate teaching assistant assigned to your course, involve them in the design and/or implementation of the assignment. While it’s important to avoid adding to their expected workload, finding ways for graduate students to collaborate on the digital assignment can provide important training opportunities for them, and ensures you have someone else who can help students troubleshoot as they create their projects. This blog post describes the experience of one graduate TA when she and I collaborated with an instructor.


Seek out ideas and training

As Ryan Cordell writes, “You do not have to be a DH expert to create—or better yet borrow—a few exciting DH assignments.” Take a look around the internet to see what others have done and if they have shared any teaching resources. Start with AHTR, but also look more broadly at resources that address the humanities disciplines and educational practice such as the Journal for Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, Hybrid Pedagogy, and the American Historical Association’s Teaching with #DigHist. Then look for colleagues’ blogs and workshop websites to see what they are posting about their own digital assignments. Here are a few examples worth exploring:

Also seek out training opportunities either through your own institution or through online tutorials and regional or international workshops. The following resources will get you started:

[Editor’s note: Click on the RESOURCES tab in the AHTR header for these and other Digital Humanities resources]


Design a digital assignment

Talking with colleagues across humanities, education, and technology disciplines and exploring online resources will certainly reveal an abundance of possible assignments. Yet all of them need to develop along the following guidelines:

Choose the digital method(s) best suited to support your learning goals. If we want students to consider spatial relationships and context, for example, we might design a mapping assignment. If we want them to notice  changes over time, a timeline might work best. For visual analysis, they could create annotated images with tools like Thinglink, Neatline, or StoryMapJS. We might also use Neatline to develop spatial analyses that examine the movements of raw materials or monumental sites in a city. Of course, none of these options have to exist in isolation. For example, students might combine Thinglink annotation with Omeka exhibits or embed StoryMapJS or TimelineJS projects in a Wix website. The challenges are to stay focused on the learning goals and to manage the time available in your course to engage with new technologies.

Plan to allocate at least 3-4 class periods to the assignment. This includes in class tutorials, problem solving and critiquing, and presenting. If you are using 1-2 tools, dedicate 1-2 class periods, or about 2 hours, to teaching the basic functions, affordances, and limitations of the platform(s). This time should include not only step-by-step technical instruction, but also time for students to work through a case study that you provide. This allows them to practice and demonstrate their understanding of how they will use the tool for their project. . Consider adding an hour for students to explore a tool’s interface and critique existing projects before they start learning how to build with that tool.

If necessary, assign project critiques and step-by-step tutorials as homework in advance, a kind of flipped workshop model. In class, you can use one or part of a class period to discuss the example projects and answer questions about the platform. Students can also work on the case study as a homework assignment if they have access to computers outside of class. If possible, do set aside time for students to work in class on their projects, especially once they’ve begun their research and if they are working in groups. This way they can ask the more specific questions that inevitably arise once a platform is applied to a specific project. Facilitate peer review and feedback.

Consider all your preparation time. Beyond developing the learning objectives, choosing a platform, and planning in-class and homework components, do the assignment yourself to find any potential technical or content problems that may arise. Creating well-designed, instructive tutorials is time consuming, so look for existing tutorials before creating your own. There are a range of written and video tutorials for tools like Omeka and WordPress, and tools such as those in the Knight Lab suite are well documented.

Determine how you will evaluate the project. Should students be graded on how well they use a digital platform? Which technical components are critical to assessing whether learning objectives are met? For one approach to evaluation, take a look at this rubric for Omeka & Neatline projects, as well as this reflection on the grading process.


Get started

Now that you have a sense of how to approach a digital assignment, the best way to learn more is to give it a try. This blog post is being published midway through many schools’ fall semesters. If your next teaching semester starts in January, start planning your digital assignment now. This will give you plenty of time to gather ideas, get advice, try out different platforms, and create and test a potential assignment. The more time you can devote to planning before the start of the next semester, the better the assignment will be. This is especially important if you hope to involve collaborators who can assist with technical instruction, but who may need to balance this with other responsibilities.


Share your experience

One final thought: Whether it’s on your personal/professional website, a blog like AHTR, an online journal, at a conference, or in a workshop, please share your ideas, experience, and teaching materials so that others may learn from and build upon your work. Start by leaving a comment here.


Feature image by Maya Aiba (Duke University, Class of 2016) from a digital project “Athenian Use and Acquisition of Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean” (Spring, 2015)

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