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Technical Skills Acquisition in a Graduate Public History Course - Planning for Success

Published onMay 31, 2020
Technical Skills Acquisition in a Graduate Public History Course - Planning for Success


In “The Landscape of Digital Humanities,” published by Digital Humanities Quarterly in 2010 as part of a four part series exploring the junction of the digital and the humanities, Patrik Svensson states that numerous humanities disciplines are seeing a “rich multi-level interaction with the “digital,” where scholars explore “differing modes of engagement, institutional models, technologies, and discursive strategies”(par. 1). Although published almost a decade ago, this continued shift in research methodology and output towards digital scholarship continues to underscore the need to train current history students in this digital methodology. With this continued deluge of activity in the still-emerging, or perhaps better described as ever-changing field of the Digital Humanities (DH), it thus has become the responsibility of those training humanists to adapt digital technologies in collaborative teams in order to make students’ skill sets relevant. Additionally, Wosh et. al write that preparing students for careers in public history and archives is becoming more challenging. In the past, those working in these careers were tasked with processing and describing collections or creating museum exhibits—and these more traditional intellectual products were usually aimed at a small, well-defined audience (80). The authors argue that as collections go online, students planning on working in these fields need additional training to be able to participate in this much more technologically complex world. They continue to say that due to this, the role for educators in training students for these fields had become far more complicated. However, it is also their responsibility to prepare students for this new reality (81). 

This paper describes such an endeavour—a graduate course taught at the University of Toronto’s Department of History, Introduction to Public History and Archival Research, that focuses on local, public digital history, and introduces new methodologies and digital skills using tools like Omeka and Neatline, taking students out of the seminar room and into archives and computer labs, where they apply methods used by research historians and translate them into a capstone digital project. This approach significantly enhances student learning and engagement by fostering applied research and writing skills, exposing students to the practices of digital scholarship, and giving them the opportunity to create tangible scholarly products by experiencing the process of producing, publishing, and sharing their intellectual work online. Kennedy states that her research has led her to conclude that “incorporating DH methods into non-DH classrooms is more than pedagogically important–it is an ethical duty and a feminist imperative. Humanities students need digital literacy skills–including the women who make up the majority of such students and potentially face gender biases related to digital technology and computing culture–and DH tools and methods are well-oriented toward the development of these skills within the context of the humanities” (par. 1). This ethical and professional responsibility, along with other considerations that will be further expanded upon below, was one of the driving forces behind the development of Introduction to Public History and Archival Research. Although listed as a traditional seminar, this course focused on the integration of DH skills in the hopes of making student skill sets more relevant and well suited to the continued shift in research methodologies, as well as giving students the basic skills that many non-traditional academic employers desire. The course integrated various DH tools including Omeka Classic and Neatline in order to enable students to build a digital exhibit rather than submitting the standard term paper, facilitating a deeper, more engaged type of learning while acquiring a new research methodology and technological skills. 

Please note that there is full awareness on the part of the author that the integration of Omeka into coursework is not unique, and that the co-instructors were not doing anything revolutionary—that there have at this point been hundreds of institutions and faculty members that have incorporated tools such as Omeka or Scalar into courses in hopes of training the next generation of digital humanists, or at the very least with the goal of introducing students/future academics to this burgeoning, blossoming area. There are numerous resources available online that can help faculty that are curious about integrating DH tools, in particular Omeka, into their teaching. Omeka even maintains a helpful list of resources through their “Back to School” page, as it is in their obvious interest that people learn this particular technology. This paper, however, should be looked at as a case study that delves into and reiterates the various considerations that should be taken when designing similar courses.   

This paper is divided into four sections that delve into various components of the course and the considerations behind it. The first will give background about course development and will explain numerous underlying circumstances that led to its development and implementation. The second will describe the course itself, including details about the goals, objectives, and learning outcomes, and course content. The third section will discuss the theoretical motivations behind its pedagogy, largely framing it within the work of other scholars working in this field, chiefly the work of Jeffrey McClurken. The final section  will discuss the benefits and challenges encountered and will offer improvements for future iterations. 


In the summer of 2017, the author was approached by a faculty member and colleague at the University of Toronto with the opportunity of co-teaching a graduate level history course—one that specifically focused on local Toronto Public History. Rather than using the traditional research paper/presentation approach used by most graduate seminars, the faculty member instead wanted to incorporate components of a practicum, whereby students acquired public history training through a combination of lectures and visits to major memory institutions throughout Toronto (including the City of Toronto Archives, the Toronto Reference Library, and the Ryerson Image Centre), while simultaneously acquiring digital humanities (DH) skills through workshops introducing several DH tools. In addition, the course aimed to teach broad-stroke DH skills as well, including the various components needed for successful digital project planning and implementation, as well as the importance of collaboration for project success, which was emphasized throughout the course. The faculty member and librarian worked together in order to craft a syllabus that would encompass these components, with the faculty member focusing on  the various methodologies and techniques associated with Public History research, while the librarian focused on various DH tools and skills needed in order to create an online digital exhibit.

From the outset, and a great factor for its success,  the course was an authentic and respectful collaboration between the faculty member and librarian, which can occasionally be a challenging dynamic. In her article “The Librarian as Digital  Humanist: The Collaborative Role of the Research Library in Digital Humanities Projects,” Cunningham writes that although DH projects are an obvious venue for faculty-librarian interaction and cooperation, this is largely dependent on how strong the partnership is between the faculty member and the library, and by extension, the librarian (2). She also writes that faculty tend to rely on their relationship to the library and librarians for curriculum development, grant writing, collection development, and research, but that there tends to be a disconnect when it comes to the librarian functioning as an equal research or teaching partner, and that very little collaboration is taking place “between librarians and faculty despite librarians’ adoption of the liaison librarian service model” (3). She argues that one reason for this continued disconnect is that libraries tend to be more collaborative in nature: librarians seek out and build relationships with their stakeholders and seek out opportunities for collaborations. It still tends to ring true that faculty, especially faculty in the humanities, tend to work alone and in isolation, the image of the lone scholar tenaciously working on their monograph in their office still being a vivid one. To this, Cunningham states that “[d]igital humanities projects may be seen as changing this traditional research culture in the humanities, and librarians and the research library need to seize this opportunity to foster more collaborative relationships with faculty” (3). Lynne Siemens et al., writing about collaborative approaches within Digital Humanities projects, state that on the major disciplinary differences, one issue that arises is that librarians, as team members, have more training and experience in collaborations, and collaborations can be often made more difficult when “faculty do not have a good understanding or appreciation for the librarian’s role in supporting research and scholarship” (337). In “Report on Librarian-Faculty Relations from a Sociological Perspective,” Lars Christensen et al. also found that there is an “asymmetrical disconnection between librarians and faculty” (118). 

Due to his extensive teaching experience, the faculty member took the lead in many components of the course design. However, throughout the process, the librarian was made to feel that they contributed equally in all aspects of course and assignment design. Both the faculty member and librarian contributed to the developed the curriculum and syllabus and weekly reading list, both delivered lectures and workshops, and both were tasked with grading and providing feedback to the students through the lens of their particular area of expertise. By bringing in a librarian to co-teach this course, and giving her work and opinions equal weight, the faculty member demonstrated the importance and equality in this partnership and modeled best practices for students, many of whom were being trained for opportunities where librarians and other information professionals would be involved. It is likely that this is one of the reasons that the delivery of the course was so successful.

Course Description

Introduction to Public History and Archival Research was a graduate level course offered through the Department of History, University of Toronto, in the winter of 2018. The spatial and temporal scope of the course covered Toronto in the early to mid-twentieth century. It was decided well in advance that the final assignment would culminate in the development of a digital project incorporating primary documents and would integrate at least one type of data visualization, which could include GIS mapping, or the development of interactive timelines or annotations. This was a move away from the standard graduate seminar, in which students are typically responsible for reviewing a book or facilitating a reading, in addition to writing an extended term paper; the capstone project brought in a far more tangible component. The class met once a week for two hours, in a lab rather than a lecture hall, in order to ensure that students got hands on, immediate experience whenever a new tool was being introduced. 

The role of the faculty member—a social historian whose work has focused on race and labour relations, the history of meatpacking and plantations, race and class in the 20th century, and the history of immigrant foodways in the interactions of 20th century Toronto—focused on teaching the theories and methodologies of Public History. This included modelling how to work directly with primary materials, including images and various archival documents, as well as assessment rolls, census data, and fire insurance maps, amongst others. There was a dedicated lecture to oral history interview techniques and skills, as well as a lecture on visual literacy and techniques to critically assess images. Numerous field trips were included in the curriculum. Arrangements were made for site visits to the City of Toronto Archives, where the students got an overview of both the collection and how to search it most effectively. The role of the librarian was to, in the context of each lecture, relate the material to the DH—but also to touch on the technical skills required to complete the final project. This included an overview of the development of a digital collection, archival organization, and an introduction to digitization and born digital objects, as well as sessions on metadata, copyright, and preservation. Additionally, she delivered workshops on Zotero, metadata standards and creation, and the development and structure of Omeka exhibits and its popular plugin, Neatline. Additionally two tools created by Northwestern University’s Knightlab were also briefly introduced—Timeline.js and Juxtapose.js. The librarian also continuously emphasized the importance of collaboration and project management, drawing on concrete examples. 

Course Goals

The goals of the course were five-fold. First, the intention was to give all students an essential foundation in public history methodology—not just from a theoretical point of view but by allowing students to get firsthand skills in this area by working directly with primary documents. What enabled students to accomplish this goal was the interaction with primary materials at the numerous site visits, accompanied by demonstrations on various methodologies and techniques that allowed students to make interpretations of their contents. The second goal was for students to get the practical experience of developing a digital collection or exhibit in order to present their research narrative in a non-traditional way. In order to accomplish this goal, the students needed to understand the various collaborative considerations that must be undertaken in order for a digital collection to be effective—hence a series of workshops were designed in order to teach students about the collaborative nature of digital collection planning, digitization, metadata creation, building, visualization, copyright, and preservation. The third goal was the elimination of the static assignment in hopes of enabling students to create something tangible and concrete that can be easily shared with their peers. This was only one of the reasons that the decision was undertaken for the final assignment to be a digital collection versus the more traditional term paper/presentation. Another goal was to introduce the students to the type of work that they might be asked to do as graduates of a post-secondary humanities program, hopefully informing how they may want to prepare themselves for their future career paths. Finally, although quite informally and as McClurken recommends, the co-facilitators wanted the course to challenge the students to learn new skills that might make them uncomfortable, but would also challenge them to grow and broaden their perspectives of what humanities research could be (par. 7). 

Assignments and Their Rationale 

The course used a variety of assignments for assessment. First, a more traditional book review was assigned, where students chose books that either focused on an aspect of public history related to their interest or that had a DH slant. Short assignments were also given on a weekly basis that were related to a particular new skill that students acquired any given week. For example, during a week where students learned how to find and interpret quantitative and qualitative data from the Federal census, they were asked to prepare for the following week a brief analysis of a half block in the Ward (a historical Toronto slum) based on the data available in the 1911/1921 census. After students participated in the metadata workshop that introduced a variety of standards but focused on the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, students were asked to fill in the metadata for five digital items that they were hoping to include in their final digital collection. The completion of these assignments counted towards the students’ participation marks. This structure also allowed for students to receive regular feedback before starting or completing their final assignments. 

In order to think through the process, students were asked to submit project proposals. This assignment asked students to conduct preliminary work in terms of identifying potential archives or collections of primary documents that they access and use, consider the temporal scope in which their project would be situated, identify secondary literature about their topic also assessing the literature from an interdisciplinary perspective, and include an overarching research question to be answered. It was recommended that a historiographic context be included along with a historical narrative and secondary questions, that the student map out their research timeline, and perhaps most importantly, based on the digital humanities projects that they have seen modeled in class, that they consider and indicate the type of visualization features and media that they would like to include in their final projects. The proposal was marked on a pass/fail basis. For the final project, the students were asked to create a digital collection integrated into a digital exhibit. The technical components included the ingestion and proper description of 25-40 digital items that support a specific position about a subject along with proper contextualization, the creation of an exhibit with a data visualization component, and the creative integration of digital objects in the construction of a narrative, in addition to the appropriate division and organization of content. Students were also asked to reflect on the process of building a digital collection/exhibit, including what they were trying to accomplish with their visualization components, as well as the challenges that they encountered.

In his “What’s wrong with writing essays,” Mark Sample argues that the only thing an essay measures is how well a student can “conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that in the hands of novice scholars eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thought,” (par. 1) and that essay writing in fact has a tendency of turning students into mini versions of their professors, often regurgitating what the professor has delivered throughout the semester (par. 2), a characteristic of undergraduate education common enough to be discouraged by the Boyer Commission. The Boyer Report, while focusing on  undergraduate education, makes 10 recommendations in regards to the post-secondary experiences and also issues a Bill of Rights, with two of the key statements being that students be given “opportunities to learn through inquiry rather than simple transmission of knowledge,” and “training in the skills necessary for oral and written communication at a level that will serve the student both within the university and in postgraduate professional and personal life” (Boyer Commisssion 21). While essays play a major role in the honing of critical thinking and in improving writing skills, Sample has also called them “a compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one,” mentioning that in most cases, when it comes to the essay, educators are asking students to write something that no one sees, beyond the professor or TA who must read it (par. 3). Sample instead encourages a type of “public writing.” He argues that this type of writing is what actually helps instill in students the idea that what students think, say, and write can matter a great deal (par. 4). He also emphasizes that critical thinking does not need to necessarily be captured in words: the interweaving of images and sound also has the ability to express critical thought. The design of the final assignment captures all of these concerns. The digital project was not meant to be seen just by the professor—the entire class and beyond would be able to read and look at the students’ final work, creating a type of positive peer pressure that can contribute to the improvement of the final, non-traditional academic product. Additionally, the assignment encouraged students to think about their primary sources creatively and contextually, and many of them interweaved these multimedia files in inventive and original ways. Perhaps most importantly, students had something tangible to point to upon completion of their projects. 

Rationale and Consideration for Course Planning

Jeffrey McClurken’s Guidance on Digital History, and Course Design

When planning the class, research was conducted in order to ensure that the co-instructors were following best practices, and that at the very least, were reducing redundancy by looking at previous practices in delivering similar courses. We found numerous examples of faculty designing similar courses. The most compelling however, was the general advice given by McClurken in his article “Teaching with Omeka” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. McClurken offers up six considerations when designing a course that integrates considerable digital pedagogy, and these were at the forefront of the instructors’ minds when designing the course.

First, he recommends that instructors be sure that they need to use Omeka, stating that it is best suited for projects that involve a sizeable digital collection, with digital objects being attached to metadata and being stored as an archive. He states that if all that you are looking for is for students to “write some content, put a few pictures up and call it a day, don’t use Omeka,” (142) but instead, opt for a software such as Wordpress. This recommended consideration is in fact similar to considerations that many scholars insist should be made around digital pedagogy more generally—just because a technology exists does not mean that you should or must use it. Brian Croxall and Koh define Digital Pedagogy as the use of electronic elements in order to enhance or change the educational experience (par. 2).  However, they point out that Fyfe’s argument that “if the tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat problems as nails,” meaning that a mere incorporation of a technology without reflection on its pedagogical benefits, is of no value at all (par. 6). For the instructors, the use of Omeka was invaluable pedagogically, as its technological and pedagogical features allowed for the building of numerous valuable, transferable skills in the students. 

In his “Digital Pedagogy Unplugged,” Fyfe states that “it is irresponsible to teach with technology without a digital pedagogy,” (par. 20). This greatly influenced the motivations behind the use of Omeka. It is increasingly challenging for students in the process of attaining advanced degrees to get hired in traditional academic roles once they graduate. One of the goals of this course was to introduce the students to non-traditional academic paths such as the development of digital collections or digital scholarship projects, using the primary sources of history. There was no misconception for the instructors that in a twelve-week period the students would become experts in this area, but instead, the co-facilitators wanted to give them the opportunity to see the various steps, components, and collaborations necessary for this type of work. As Omeka enables these various components, and additionally has quite a low learning curve considering the alternatives such as Islandora or Drupal, the goal was for  students to get hands on experience in the various steps needed in creating the digital collection: from archival organization, to digitizing or managing born digital images, to creating metadata, to data visualization, to exhibit creation, while simultaneously considering methods associated with the study of public history and project management. Omeka seemed like the most straightforward tool to use in order to give a solid introduction to these higher-level concepts.          

Second, McClurken’s recommends that instructors should structure assignments in such a way as to amplify the technical features of Omeka (142). In discussing this, McClurken brings up an example of a colleague who wanted to ensure that students knew all of the ins and outs of creating a digital collection, including the administrative and hosting components. As such, this colleague insisted that students download and install Omeka to their own hosted accounts. This option was considered for this course as well, however, it was found that the free version of Omeka did not include various plugins necessary for essential skills acquisition for students. Additionally, there was already an existing infrastructure at the University of Toronto for the use and integration of Omeka within the classroom. The assignment was then structured to include a mandatory data visualization, which is easily facilitated through Neatline, an annotation tool that allows for GIS mapping and timeline building. Additionally, Omeka easily allows for instruction around other integral components of digital collection building and curation, including the organization and description of primary documents using an established, easy to learn metadata standard, as well as the straightforward construction of curated, digital exhibits. 

Another major consideration that McClurken outlines should be decided upon well in advance is whether the project should be group or individual. He states that group projects can often be more substantive in terms of size and functionality; however, they run the risk of not all students attaining the desired technical skills level, as one person within the group may have a natural inclination for that type of work (143).  As described above, the instructors were initially hoping that the final projects were, in fact, group projects—that a graduate history student might be paired with a graduate iSchool student in order to further mimic the collaboration typically needed in order to complete a major digital project and to demonstrate the various interdisciplinary expertise involved. Due to lower than expected enrolment numbers and the complete lack of enrolment from iSchool students, however, it was decided that students would complete individual projects. Although this took some emphasis away from the importance of collaboration, it ensured that students were able to choose topics that they were truly engaged with and that all students attained a basic level of technical competency in order to execute the project.

McClurken also states that another consideration for the use of a product like Omeka is the building in of technical support for students, especially those that might be struggling with the software (143). As Allison Marsh mentions in her “Omeka in the Classroom: The Challenges of Teaching Material Culture in a Digital World,” students, “the so-called digital natives – have little interest in the digital world as part of their professional training,” (par. 1) and it has been stated by many others that when it comes to real technical skills, many students lag behind what is expected. McClurken recommends that those planning a course that uses Omeka or similar software think about the number of students enrolled, how much direct help you expect to give each student and the infrastructure that you will use to deliver this help, and how comfortable you are as an instructor to see them struggle as they learn. Regardless of the goal of getting students outside of their comfort zone, extensive technical support was offered through the integration of the in-class workshops, a scheduled drop-in session, and one-on-one assistance that students could arrange for by booking an appointment with either instructors. It was also ensured that students had access to supporting documentation offered through Omeka. Students who wanted to explore further and integrate additional DH tools into their projects were encouraged and permitted to do so. One student took much initiative, and decided to learn and integrate ARCGIS into their final project. 

McClurken also recommends that planning around the required level of metadata be done prior to the course (ProfHacker, par.11). He prescribes notifying students about the Dublin Core Usage Guide, which was made available to the students enrolled in this particular course. The co-facilitators felt that it was very important for students to understand how crucial metadata is to successful digital collection building, therefore an entire lab session was dedicated to this topic. Two examples of how other instructors had dealt with the integration of metadata—one internal and one external—were introduced in order to best present these concepts to students and ensure that there was consistency in metadata creation. First, Dr. Alexandra Bolintineanu, Assistant Professor,in Medieval Digital Studies at the University of Toronto, has been integrating Omeka into her courses for several years and has created a wonderful resource called Omeka Gym. It can be found here: Omeka Gym is a collection of resources for anyone who would like to build a digital collection using Omeka or for faculty members who would like to integrate Omeka into the classroom. It includes tutorials on Omeka, Neatline, as well as Metadata for Omeka. Bolintineanu has created specific guidelines for her students to follow when they are contributing items to a collection, which includes very clear examples. The co-instructors decided on using the same approach, as they felt that this would increase the consistency and accuracy of metadata generation and would also lead to a reduction of questions from the students. Amanda French has also created an excellent lesson plan for Omeka that considers metadata. In it, she provides access to the DC user guide section on creating metadata (par. 15). The co-instructors fully realize that metadata generation requires extensive expertise that cannot be acquired in one workshop, therefore it became important to support students in other ways as well. 

McClurken’s sixth and final consideration is how to give access to primary documents, as there can be many issues that arise  around copyright and publication rights when dealing with archival sources (144). As such, the instructors had extensive discussions regarding how images/documents can be used. In the case of the City of Toronto Archives, we ensured that students would be able to integrate images into their collections for the purposes of teaching and learning. However, other institutions could not guarantee this and thus the decision was made to not make the exhibits public. This has been identified as an area for improvement moving forward. 

Other Considerations

 The Student Collaborator Bill of Rights

Another major consideration during course design and was UCLA’s Student Collaborator Bill of Rights. There is no doubt that there have been courses offered in the past where students merely ended up doing the work that a hired research assistant or work study student would do—carrying out repetitive, rote tasks that in the end are not very academically or intellectually meaningful. Written by Haley Di Pressi et al., the core of the Student Collaborators Bill of Rights is the importance to recognize that students and faculty members or instructors tend to exist as part of a hierarchy (par. 4). This is demonstrated by the fact that faculty members and instructors typically grade students, can recommend them for jobs, scholarships, and grants, and can pave the way to other research of scholarly opportunities. As such, students may not feel comfortable enough to bring objections to certain practices that might occur in a classroom setting. Di Pressi et al. have created a list of best practices that were followed. Although the document was originally crafted for circumstances where students participate in particular research projects, many of the principles apply to the classroom as well.

The preamble of the document states that a “professor who assigns a (DH) class project, for example, must primarily consider the student’s own intellectual growth,” versus a professor that might hire students in order to work on a particular project, in which case, work that primarily benefits the project can be assigned (par. 5). This was one of the primary reasons why it was decided, well in advance, that students would be choosing their own project topics to develop, based on their own interests broadly falling within the realm of Toronto’s public history. It was also decided very early on that students would not be merely digitizing and performing basic data entry, as outlined by Principles One and Two of the Bill of Rights, which state that  such work should not be performed without pay and course credit is not “sufficient “payment” for students’ time, since the courses are designed to provide students with learning experiences” (par. 7-8). Additionally, opportunities were made for students to participate in conferences in collaboration with the faculty and librarian instructors, empowering them to present on their work, as well as the general experience of building a digital collection, which falls in line with Principle Five of the Bill of Rights. In fact, two students co-presented with the two co-instructors at the 2018 Ontario Museum Association Conference. The presentation focused on how this approach enhanced learning and engagement by fostering applied research and writing skills and by exposing students to the protocols and practices of working with archival and historical materials.

Academic Employment Horizon 

It has become very clear that the number of academic positions is diminishing. Robert Townsend and Julia Brookins, writing in 2016, state that the academic job market has become extremely challenging—that the number of traditional posts are falling, and in addition to this, each subsequent year is seeing fewer tenured jobs. It also it appears that few faculty members will be retiring anytime soon and that there are far more graduates every year than the number of positions that are available. Svennson emphasizes that in recent times there has been an increase in activity in the field of digital humanities, where “humanists are exploring differing modes of engagement, institutional models, technologies and discursive strategies,” (par. 1). He also states that this increase in activity is affecting research strategies at post-secondary institutions, including in the area of recruitment. Additionally, many cultural institutions are taking advantage of digital technologies in order to promote their collections and to educate their audiences. The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, whose authors were tasked with defining the requirements for a cyberinfrastructure of information, teaching, and research and to recommend areas of emphasis and coordination for the various agencies and institutions (such as museums, universities, archives, libraries, and galleries) that might play a role in developing and maintaining this infrastructure, state that

digital cultural resources are a fundamental dataset for the humanities: these resources, combined with computer networks and software tools, now shape the way that scholars discover and make sense of the human record, while also shaping the way their findings are communicated to students, colleagues, and the general public,

further indicating that this is where the future is heading in terms of access and research methodology (par. 1). One of the major recommendations that the Commission makes is for cultural institutions to “[c]reate extensive and reusable digital collections,” as they are “the core of the humanities and social science cyberinfrastructure, and scholars must be engaged in the development of these collections” (38).  

From a practical perspective, the National Association of Colleges and Employers lists teamwork/collaboration as one of their main competencies for career readiness. This competency includes the ability to build collaborative relationships with colleagues and stakeholders of diverse backgrounds, ages, lifestyles, and points of view. Employers now are looking for graduates that can work well within a team structure and who are able to negotiate conflict and work through bottlenecks. An equally important competency identified is that of being able to leverage digital technology: graduates should be able to use these technologies ethically and efficiently and should also be able to adapt to emerging technologies.By taking this course, students learned about various and alternative career paths that can be taken by someone who has attained a graduate degree in History or other humanities disciplines. Although it cannot be said that the course gave students all of the digital skills that they would need to create large scale digital projects that followed all prescribed best practices, the course certainly gave students an overall picture of the various technical roles needed in order to create digital collections. Additionally, the students gained technical skills that they could choose to develop further beyond the classroom. The course also helped students to identify skills areas that they might need to further should they want to pursue a technically oriented career. 

 It is hoped that future iterations of course, the final project, a digital exhibit that incorporates digital objects with their associated metadata, will be created as a group project, as this would further re-emphasize the importance of collegial collaborations.

Results and Considerations for Future Iterations

All students enrolled in the course completed a final digitally curated project, with subjects varying from the history of animal menageries at the Canadian National Exhibition; the history of Hispanic Businesses—from 1970-1990—on Bloor Street West; University of Toronto Student Participation in World War One; the history of the Loretto Sisters of Canada (a religious order); an exploration and documentation of the history of Chinese restaurants in Toronto and their movement throughout the city; and the history of the British Home Child program in Toronto and Stratford. The vast majority of students built a successful narrative using primary documents and surpassed the outlined requirements of the assignments. One student went beyond the technical workshops that were offered as part of the course and taught herself to use ArcGIS in order to conduct more granular analysis. All students used metadata as outlined as well. The quality of the projects was high, and feedback indicated that the both overall delivery and reception of the course was positive. Marsh, writing about a course she teaches for Museum Studies at the University of South Carolina in which Omeka is integrated, writes that the exhibits that her students produce are disastrous - that they are boring and clunky (par.5). However, she also states that regardless of this, Omeka has proven to be pedagogically effective in teaching students the basics of building digital collections (par. 6). In the case of this particular course, the exhibits that students built surpassed expectations in terms of their narrative sophistication, meaning that students achieved the goals initially set out. Because students were asked to submit a written reflection, it also became clear that a lot of thought was given to the design of the projects, and, although some were frustrated by various components of the process, most felt that the skills they learned were highly valuable. 

Although the course was generally well received, there is of course, always room for improvement. The following is a list of additional considerations that will be applied to future iterations of the course.

Skills Versus Methodology

In “Teaching Skills or Teaching Methodology,” Simon Mahoney and Elena Pierazzo explore what should be taught under the broad area of the digital humanities (215). They argue that teaching students new approaches and new ways of thinking about the humanities is actually what is needed, rather than simply focusing on technical skills. The authors also argue that there is a real need to train students in “collaborative methods and reflective practices in order to build a community of learning that will lead to a community of practice,” (215). When planning a course, it is important to remember that the technology is simply a pedagogical tool for getting students to think about big picture ideas in digital curation or the creation of digital collections. The tools facilitate higher level conceptual learning. It can be argued that what the technological tool used does not matter, the concepts taught are what contribute to students’ transferable critical thought. Mahoney and Pierazzo state that “skills training is not research training: the knowledge gained is transient because, like a language, it requires constant practice and repetition to be retained in memory. By contrast, thinking skills are the most important because they are the most deeply embedded and the most transferable,” (224). Thus, it is of the utmost importance that this be remembered in curriculum design if planning a similar course.  

Time, Length, and Depth

In future iterations, it is hoped that the required class time will increase from two hours to four hours per week. Ideally, two hours will be dedicated to the theory and methodology of public history, while the remaining two hours will consist of site visits and lab time, where students could be given a fulsome training experience. Lab time can also be used for drop-in hours closer to the final project due date so that students could be given ample opportunity to ask a variety of questions and see additional demonstrations. This is a very important consideration in course design, as it is important to strike a balance between theory/method and skills acquisition. 

More Tools, More Choice, More Creativity 

In a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education, McClurken describes his experiences with Omeka in teaching undergraduate students digital history, however he mentions that he does not impose Omeka as the only tool to facilitate digital curation. He teaches numerous tools that facilitate this type of work, and he allows the students to choose the tools that allow them to include features that they need. In future iterations of the course, especially if the total course hours increase, additional DH tools will be introduced to students, in the form of a tool parade, where an explanation will be presented around what a tool can do or is most useful for. Students will be able to explore an increased number of tools, and have greater control over what tools will work best for them. 

Increased Emphasis on Collaboration

As mentioned above, it was initially hoped that graduate level history students would be paired with graduate students from the iSchool. The paired students would then work on a joint project in hopes of emphasizing to the students the importance of collaboration in the building of digital collections. Due to the lack of uptake from iSchool students, it was decided that students could create their projects individually, so that they could focus in on a topic that they were particularly passionate about, which varied from student to student. One benefit that came out of this was that each student developed a baseline of digital and technical skills. Students may have not otherwise acquired these skills, as when it comes to group work, students tend to gravitate towards tasks that they are already familiar with or are strong at. In the future, however, it will be in order to reproduce the typical structure of digital project development, students will be required to complete a group project, in order to replicate more closely the real life scenarios that students would experience. 


Although humanities computing has been around for decades, research methodologies in the humanities have been substantially and swiftly changing over the past twenty years, moving towards the incorporation of digital tools that allow for a different and deeper analysis of primary sources. At the same time, due to changing expectations and expanding audiences, those students that are intending to go into public history, archives, or other work at memory institutions are increasingly expected to have increased technical skills that make collections available online. As such, it is becoming a priority for faculty to ensure that graduates of advanced degree programs are prepared for these changes, and that they are graduating with relevant skill sets. One way to do so is to offer courses, such as the one described in this paper, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. When designed well, such courses can help students integrate and apply both technical and methodological skills into their academic and post-academic work. 

It is important to plan the course in such a way that it is truly meaningful to students. Within the context of the Introduction to Public History and Archival Research, students gained enough technical and methodological skills to create a digital narrative for a public historical topic of their interest. Striking a balance between these two divergent skill sets is essential to success, a component that will be further emphasized in future iterations. Students were engaged with the work that they were doing and walked away from it with a final project that could be showcased to their peers, rather than a final term paper that only the professor would see. The course, as is also true of many DH projects, was a success because the co-instructors brought varying skill sets and considerations to the experience, with a real emphasis on collaboration—an element emphasized to the students as well. Following examples and advice of those who have delivered similar courses was also essential. What is perhaps most important to remember is that when planning such courses, it is not necessarily the particular technology being used that is important. What is important is the use of the technology is pedagogically thoughtful and considerate, and that it gets students thinking about research and academic production in new, relevant, and practical and ways. 

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