Is Omeka the right tool for my class?
Although Omeka is a polyfunctional software, it’s not the best tool for all purposes.
If you are looking to create a website for your students to engage class material, write blog posts, and interact with one another, a WordPress course site is often a better and more flexible option. Omeka, by contrast, is best suited for projects that involve a digital (or digitizable) collection with metadata that you want to curate, organize, and describe.
With a little bit of work, however, you can have both options at the same time. You might opt to have your main Wordpress site where you can provide a link to your Omeka site and even style them in a similar way. This option allows each platform to do what it does best.
Omeka offers some great features that integrate well within teaching environments and is especially well suited for projects that involve:
Digitizing and describing objects from physical archives and creating metadata descriptions and virtual exhibits.
“Archival Recovering” and “Archival Remixing”
Presenting visual analyses or reinterpretations of holdings, including born-digital material, from other websites or digital archives. I borrow the terms “recovery” and “remix” from Laura Helton and Elizabeth Maddock-Dillon, respectively.
- Coursework Archiving
Omeka allows teachers to create a repository of final course projects, such as digital and multimodal essays, with metadata attached. These can be offered as private resources or be open to the public.
Teaching with Omeka allows students the opportunity to engage (sometimes for the first time) in some common practices for working with digital tools, such as how to use software documentation, how to participate in a community of practice, or something as simple as using Google to problem solve effectively. An Omeka-based assignment can also be an opportunity to provide students basic training on essential digital skills, as students will likely encounter questions on file formats, standards, sizing, copyright, and licensing.
Archival Research Skills
In addition to learning about artistic, historical, or literary subjects and introducing students to the field of Digital Humanities, digital archives also provide basic training in archival research. Students will have the opportunity to both conduct research in local (or digital) archives while thinking like archivists and curators, as they engage critically with their items.
Public-Facing Academic Writing
Curating a digital archive requires students to engage with forms of writing that differ from standard academic writing. Public Humanities-oriented work allows for class reflections on topics as diverse as effective storytelling techniques, the affordances of digital writing, and the intricacies of visual rhetoric. At the same time, producing work that (unlike traditional assignment) has the potential of living and circulating beyond the walls of the classroom (and the eye of a course instructor) can nurture in students a sense of relevance. (Please note that, because of their public facing nature, keeping questions around privacy in mind when designing and introducing these assignments in class is especially key to these kinds of projects.)
Digital archive-based courses allow students to participate in the kind of collaborative praxis that, according to Lisa Spiro, is one of the central tenets of Digital Humanities. “Lab Culture” can be enacted by working collectively on assignments, building on (and crediting!) the work of previous cohorts, and connecting work conducted in class with the local community.
Plug-ins for Classroom Use
TeachingHistory.org recommends four essential plug-ins for classroom use: Docs Viewer (for scanned or digital files in DOC, PDF, PPT, or any image files), Simple Pages (which allows users to create a standalone page, such as an About page or course syllabus), CSV Import (for importing large quantities of items into the collection using an Excel CSV sheet), and Exhibit Builder (which offers the ability to create rich expository exhibits around selected items and collections). Extended documentation for all four plugins is available on the Omeka website. Editorial, Image Annotation, Text Annotation, Simple Vocab, and Neatline are additional plugins that can be of use in the classroom.
Familiarize with the Platform
Before the semester begins, get familiar with user permissions and Omeka theming – try and customize your website with logos, picture headers, customized menu categories, or, if you have some CSS and HTML expertise, match the stylesheet of your Omeka site to that of your course blog.
The Omeka Gym and Omeka for Millenials are two fun ways to play around with the website and familiarize with the platform before your class starts.
Learn from and Teach through Metadata
Following a theoretical introduction to metadata and its ethics (please refer to the Intro to Omeka workshop), consider developing shared metadata guidelines for your archive with your students.
Once you have settled on a schema and developed shared criteria to compile it, consider populating a spreadsheet in class for some sample items.
Copyright and licensing
When using Omeka in the classroom, you will be prompted to discuss questions that concern copyright and licensing. Alston Cobourn recommends a set of excercises to teach and practice this. This is also an excellent opportunity to introduce students to Creative Commons licensing, proper citation and acknowledgements, as well as the concept of fair use.
If you are teaching a slightly more advanced DH class, encouraging your students to work with and along other online repositories can also be an opportunity to introduce them to linked open data and its affordances.
Because students enter the classroom with different degrees of digital knowledge, expertise, and access to technology, and because – as most digital humanists would concur, especially if this is your first time using digital archives as a pedagogical tool – it is likely that there will be some trial and error involved, developing a process-based grading rubric is often recommended for praxis-oriented assignments.
As Allison C. Marsh suggests: “In assessing [students’] work, it is important to be mindful of the learning process; remember that they are professionals in training, and they should not be judged on their first attempt but rather on the progress they achieve by the time they graduate.”