Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 31, 2014

Replacing the five-page paper with online exhibits

Students becoming authors through the UW Cities Collaboratory

“I see grad students in our department engaged and entrepreneurial, asking not just ‘How can I learn this tool?’ but ‘How does using this tool change the questions I ask and the answers I discover?’ That’s the great promise of digital scholarship and teaching, that you can present evidence in ways that lead you to new discoveries.”

Margaret O’Mara
Associate Professor, History


Margaret O’Mara’s urban history students used to write a five-page research paper that only she and peer reviewers read. But when she most recently taught The City (HSTAA 208), the students’ work was posted on a public website, available to anyone interested in Seattle history. Students learned that they could become authors who drew new insights from source documents. “You learn history in 4th grade,” says O’Mara, winner of the 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award for Innovation with Technology. “You produce history in college.”

Each of O’Mara’s students created a multi-media blog post detailing the history of a single block in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. “The students did as much work as they would have for a paper, in some cases more, with more enthusiasm and often better results,” says O’Mara. “They took ownership. They’d talk about ‘My block this, my block that.’”

The student work was posted in the Lake Union Lab, part of the UW Cities Collaboratory, an interdisciplinary effort led by O’Mara, History; Kim England, Geography; Susan Kemp, Social Work; and Thaisa Way, Landscape Architecture. Classes taught by Way and England have also posted exhibits in the Lake Union Lab, and additional courses are planned for 2014–2015. The team is mentoring an interdisciplinary group of graduate students in a project to research the history and changing geography of North Lake Union neighborhoods.The UW Cities Collaboratory is an experiment in collaborative research and teaching among the more than 100 UW faculty who study and teach about urban issues. “In addition to serving the students in our classes, the Collaboratory is also proving to be a great platform for research and scholarship,” says Kemp. Here is some of the team’s advice for managing digital projects:

“This kind of digital scholarship allows us and our students to understand place, environment, and urban change through multiple layers and multiple connections that you can’t get off a flat page.”

Susan Kemp
Associate Professor, Social Work


Budget time for start-up challenges: “When engaging in new technologies in the classroom, a range of unanticipated issues arise,” says England. The complex website presented a host of technical issues, as well as some academic challenges. Because students’ work is public, the team must hold them to higher standards for attribution and other issues than they would for a traditional final paper. “Our students’ research is now reviewed in ways never possible before, which is both exciting and intimidating. We need to develop new ways of curating materials for accuracy, appropriateness, and usefulness,” says Way.

Bring in speakers who are experts in digital skills: Guests in Way’s classes included an expert on sound environments, who taught students not only about the technology of recording and mixing sound, but also a little about how to listen. “He went out with us into the city and taped places that we thought were quiet,” says Way. “And then we played back the tapes and realized how noisy these spaces really were. We also learned how illiterate we were about sound, that we couldn’t tell the difference between the sound of the wind and a passing bus.”

Find technical support: “Teaching with technology requires more human power than less. So it’s really important to have your village around you, to have that support,” says O’Mara. Technical support, both from UW Information Technology (UW-IT) and IT staff in their home departments has been critical, according to the team. The History Department provided TA support in the quarter prior to the course to create a tutorial for the web platform, and scan historical documents.

“To me, learning always engages student initiative. That means in good teaching you should always get to a point where you’re not sure where the students are going to go, what connections they’re going to make.”

Thaisa Way
Associate Professor, Landscape Architecture


Be willing to experiment with technology: The team started with the digital platform Omeka for class projects and is now adding another platform, Scalar, that facilitates research collaboration and deep annotation. The Simpson Center provided training in Scalar, as well as support for faculty and students to attend the Digital Humanities Summer Institute.

Develop protocols for use of materials from archives and other sources: Team members realized that they needed to help students learn to trace the source and ownership of seemingly anonymous images and resources found online. They are developing protocols for citing sources to help students gain an understanding of professional practices in research, “what attribution and authorship mean,” says O’Mara.

Curate and promote student work: O’Mara is grateful that once her students’ site began to draw media attention (see Resources), the History Department paid for a research assistant to improve the presentation of student work by editing site content and creating an interactive map on the landing page.

Allow students who don’t want their work posted publicly to opt out: The default for O’Mara’s class was that students’ work would be public, but she offered an option that students could, with no impact on their grade, request that their work be visible only to the class.

“There’s a long tradition in geography of having students get out into the city to smell it, taste it, experience it. Now my students can share that experience online by taking photographs and recording sound, and linking those sights and sounds with census data and historical maps.”

Kim England
Professor, Geography


Know your metadata: As the team worked with the technology, they realized the possibilities for using metadata, the information attached to every digital file. For example, geocodes in the metadata of photos allow them to be linked to interactive maps. “The good news is that photos students take on their phones include geocodes,” says O’Mara. Unfortunately, files for historical photographs do not. The team is developing a protocol for confirming or adding geocodes before new images are posted, as well as site standards for all types of metadata, which will facilitate searches and the ability to link and annotate site resources.

Assign projects that meet community needs: The teaching team decided to research neighborhoods undergoing rapid change, to document issues such as the historical sources of industrial pollution in Lake Union, and current social stresses such as those caused by loss of affordable housing. Another key decision was that students should present their findings in ways that community members could easily understand, for example by describing issues without disciplinary jargon and illustrating findings with clear infographics. Students interested in research need to become familiar with visualization technologies and learn how to work with designers, so their findings on critical urban issues are accessible, says Way. “Then you can start talking to community groups and explaining complex issues in a way that makes sense and encourages engagement.”

Resources: Article on Lake Union Lab student histories: Robin Lindley, “Cities are the Living Embodiments of Past Decisions,” History News Network, 22 April 2013.

students at Lake Union


Above, a team of graduate students are studying both the north shoreline of Lake Union and its “blue space,” submerged lands and the lake’s waters, to develop an interactive exhibit for the UW Cities Collaboratory. Pictured here at Waterway 15 in summer 2014, the team has also supported the development of digital tools for teaching and helped curate undergraduate and other Collaboratory exhibits.

Left to right, Jennifer Porter, Geography; Odessa Benson, Social Work; James Thompson, Architecture; Eleanor Mahoney, History; Megan Brown, Geography.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to use technology in the classroom to engage students.