Incorporating Digital Projects

As a warm-up the first day of my youth cultures class, I asked my students to write down the characteristics, habits, and spaces that they thought of when I said “youth” and “youth cultures.”  While I expected them to write down social media and the internet, I did not expect these words to fall into each category.  In other words, my students identified social media and the internet as characteristics of youth, habits of youth, and, quite literally, spaces where youth “hung out,” in one student’s words. This convinced me—and I hope it convinces you—that we need to incorporate more digital projects in our classrooms.  Moving away from the traditional essay can be daunting.  Here are a few things I learned as I made the transition.

First, solicit all of the help you can, from human resources to online guides.  Luckily, my home institution had an eLearning Initiatives Office where I found all of the necessary resources to get me started.  Most of the advice I summarize below actually came from conversations I had with their eLearning specialists.  To keep from getting overwhelmed as you wade through the resources you find, keep in mind why you want to incorporate a digital project.  For me, it was the fact that I wanted my students’ assignment to reflect our course material (as my last post showed, mass media has been a defining aspect of youth cultures since at least the turn of the twentieth century). I also wanted to encourage my students to think more critically about their online presence and get excited about primary source research.

The next task will likely be choosing a platform.  Keeping my assignment objectives in mind, I asked myself, “How do my students use platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook?”  Thinking about this question helped me realize that I wanted a platform that integrated text and multimedia in a way that forced my students to think about the relationship between the two as they told a digital story.  I settled on a platform called Microsoft Sway because of how aesthetically pleasing and easy to use the platform was.  I came to this conclusion after playing around on numerous platforms, including WordPress and Wikipedia, before the semester started.  As I learned exploring my options, only by using the platform will you be able to determine if it is right for your project and right for you (i.e. will you feel comfortable explaining the project and the platform to students?  Will you be able to answer their questions?). While other platforms were tempting, I ultimately felt most comfortable with Microsoft Sway.

Getting comfortable with the platform before the semester begins is important because I highly recommend introducing the platform to your students the first week of classes and incorporating the project throughout your syllabus. This helped my students feel invested in the project from the very beginning of the course.  My students’ final product was a Microsoft Sway page that they used to present a primary source that they had done research on (see here for student examples), so on the first day of classes I introduced the project by showing them a Microsoft Sway page that I made using one of my favorite primary sources.  I also incorporated examples of the type of work I wanted my students to produce in my syllabus.  Since I encouraged my students to think of their final product as a sort of blog in which they had to incorporate both textual and visual analysis, I assigned a few blogs run by archives, such as William & Mary’s Special Collections and the Library of Virginia, early on in the semester.

Incorporating examples in the syllabus also allows you to include your students in the process of making the grading rubric.  For example, as my students read the archives’ blog posts, I had them evaluate what the authors did and did not do effectively.  The students had to post their evaluations to Blackboard, and we discussed the pros/cons they identified in class.  I then used their evaluations and our discussion to create the rubric for the project (I told them I would do this when I introduced the project the first day).  This not only encouraged students to buy into the project even more, it also set up clear expectations for a project that neither I nor my students had ever done before.

Lastly, the best piece of advice I received was to incorporate an “Artist Statement” as the last step of the project.  An “Artist Statement” is a short piece of writing that asks students to reflect on the assignment.  I prompted my students with a list of questions: “What did Sway enable you to communicate to your audience?  What did it not enable you to communicate?  In answering these questions, think about the strengths and weaknesses of Sway as a platform for communicating historical research.  What do(n’t) platforms like Sway contribute to the field of history and, specifically, studies of youth and youth cultures?”  Many students used their Artist Statement to critique how they believed history was usually taught, such as the student who wrote, “One stereotype that many American students hold about history classes is that history teachers tend to present antiquated and irrelevant facts in an uninteresting way.”  Statements like this were usually followed by praise, with many students saying things like the project let “students engage with less traditional ways of learning in the Information Age.”  The students overwhelming enjoyed the digital project, and the few that said they would have preferred a traditional essay did at least admit to seeing the benefits of using an online platform.

The Artist Statement not only got my students thinking critically about the digital world and the presentation of history, but it also provided them with the opportunity to critique the project and suggest things for improvement.  For example, many criticized Microsoft Sway for not having a discussion feature that would allow them to comment on their peers’ projects (something that I admittedly had not thought of when I chose the platform).  Others wanted more creative liberty than Microsoft Sway allowed, and still others requested more class time to talk about their primary sources with their peers.  I am very grateful for this feedback as it will help me improve my digital projects going forward.

Have you or are you planning to incorporate a digital project?  I would love to hear about your experience, the platforms you are using, and your students’ feedback in the comments below.

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