Creating, Collecting, Curating in Digital Space

Smith College librarians, educational technologists, and Museum of Art staff collaborated to redesign the Museum Studies capstone course.

In Fall 2015, Jessica Nicoll (Director & Chief Curator of Museum of Art) and Charlene Shang Miller (Associate Educator for Academic Programs, Museum of Art) approached Brendan O’Connell (Instructional Technology Librarian, Libraries) and Deborah Keisch (Instructional Technologist, Educational Technology Services) to discuss redesigning the Capstone project for senior Museums Concentration students to incorporate a digital final project as an alternative to writing a research paper.

What does a museum mean in the 21st century?

Librarians, instructional technologists, and Museum of Art staff worked closely together to design both an assignment and support structure for students during the semester. The new digital final project required them to not only conduct extensive original research on a topic of interest, but then to represent that research by building projects in a digital space that was largely unfamiliar to them for creating academic work.

“Digital space” was intentionally broadly defined: students were asked to consider the affordances, ideology, and limitations of five digital platforms (WordPress, Twine, Tumblr, Scalar, and TimeMapper) and then decide which platform would be most suitable for creating a praxis of course concepts, thesis, information architecture, and user experience.

Scaffolding for Digital

Based on prior experience designing digital project assignments with Smith faculty, Deborah and I knew students would need plenty of opportunities for drafting, critique, peer review, and expert research and technology assistance throughout the semester in order to realize their concepts.

How can students create technology-enabled, socially just futures for museum visitors and collections?

We developed two in-class digital project workshops for students, focusing on mind mapping, research and technology training, and critiquing a variety of digital platforms. Students were also encouraged to schedule individual research appointments with a librarian, which many took advantage of.


Designing for Social Justice

Students successfully engaged with difficult, unanswered questions inherent to digital scholarship and digital space: access, permission and representation; copyright and fair use; representing features of the physical (distance, space, time); and preservation.

Twine tour
Smith College Twine tour – A historical mobile tour of the Smith College campus built using Twine and featuring photos and other primary sources from Smith College Archives.

Students demonstrated a strong social justice focus in their projects and sought ways to leverage the digital to realize this. Student projects concerned everything from digitally archiving Smith College student life to developing a novel metadata schema for a digital collection to exploring issues around online access to in-copyright video art. A common thread running through many of the students’ projects was a desire to enhance the accessibility and discoverability of museum collections through digital means.

We believe all the students saw firsthand the value of presenting scholarly work on the open web, and the majority made their projects publicly available at the end of the semester. Scholars, Smith students, and the general public can now discover and engage with their work.

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Free the Art – A shareable platform for un-exhibited works from Smith College Museum of Art built using Tumblr.

Creating in digital space significantly enhanced students’ digital and information literacy. Working in digital space and presenting their work publicly enhanced the quality of students’ research process and output, but it also made them consider the designed nature of digital space and how they would design an experience.

Students deeply considered questions they may not have previously engaged with: Who is the audience for this work, and how do I design for them? Do I have (or need) permission to use these copyrighted images in my project? What is the intended emotional affect of my project, and how do I create that? How does my work fit into scholarly conversation on this topic?

Finally, students learned a great deal about the development lifecycle of a digital project, which differs significantly from writing research papers. During the semester, students journeyed from proposed topic to conceptual design to sketching and wire-framing their projects to learning digital tools, while identifying and working with campus collaborators and partners they needed to successfully realize their ideas. They presented digital drafts to peers, then incorporated peer review and critique from a user-centered design perspective. In course feedback we gathered, students broadly agreed that their digital work in MUX300 would have real-world applications and gave them skills that they would carry beyond Smith.

Brendan OConnell

About the Author:

Brendan O’Connell is Instructional Technology Librarian at Smith College Libraries.