This assignment asks students in a design course to assess user experience and accessibility elements by reviewing a digital humanities project of their choosing from a curated corpora of DH projects.
Author: Serenity Sutherland, SUNY Oswego
Role: Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Students sign up for DH projects to review.
Then, students write a review based on this prompt.
What did you want students to be able to do by completing this assignment?
Evaluate digital media as content consumers employing moderate to high media literacy.
Assess metadata features like alternative text for determining accessibility and principles of universal design.
Critique the user experience and design of digital media while simultaneously writing with web-based writing tools and strategies
Understand digital humanities projects as one genre of scholarly web-based writing and research
Was there anything this assignment taught students that you felt they wouldn't have been able to learn through other types of class assignments?
Students learn to use tools like WAVE WebAim’s Accessibility Checker to critique web content for universal design and web accessibility standards. They also learn how to create a blog post using their individual WordPress.org sites. And finally, they learn the difference between web-based writing and other types of academic genres.
What is the course title and level?
This is a 200-level course, required for all students in the Broadcasting and Mass Communication major. The course title is “Integrated Media: Writing and Design.” The course is intended to teach students how to use many types of digital and web-based media to tell a professional story about themselves. Students create websites as professional portfolios.
What kinds of prior knowledge is necessary to complete this assignment? How do students gain this knowledge?
Students do not require any prior disciplinary knowledge. Typical college-level digital media skill usage is necessary, such as how to use a computer and an internet browser.
The course I use this assignment in is not a digital humanities course. It is instead intended to teach students basic design principles so they can make their own websites using a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress. Additionally, students develop their media literacy and web-based writing skills in the course. Evaluating a digital humanities project helps them achieve these skills and introduces them to a way of knowing and creating (the digital humanities) that many have never heard about before. I share this assignment with the DH community not because it is particularly “DH-heavy” or full of neat technological tricks, but rather because it is one way I’ve found to weave together my research interests with my teaching responsibilities, which fall outside of a traditional DH curriculum. Furthermore, the assignment makes sense given the goals of the class: to increase media literacy, practice writing web content, design ethical web-based media and use different types of media to tell a story.
Students select a project they are interested in from a curated Google Spreadsheet list of DH projects. The curated list spans many different topics, regions and histories, and students are generally enthusiastic to choose something. We take about ten minutes in class for the students to begin looking. I circulate around the room and comment on each project they are looking at - providing small tips like “oh, this project is a really fascinating story about canoes,” or “can you believe they do this with coins?” or “This is an archive where you can toggle the transcription between English and Dutch - how cool is that - do you know Dutch?” (Their answer is no, my answer is also no). In this way, students can ask questions if they are confused. They can decide right in class, or later on at home, which project to review.
Students then spend about a week and a half reviewing the site on their own. They are instructed to focus on key user experience (UX) elements that we’ve discussed in class: things as simple as aesthetics and color, to more complicated design features such as reviewing any available code or evaluating how well the site does with accessibility features, such as descriptive alternative text. The variety of digital humanities projects allows students to review and critique the affordances of certain types of digital projects for accessibility. For example, alternative text is essential for images, but what about a project utilizing dynamic data visualizations that change as the user engages with the content? They write their review in WordPress employing the same design features they have been critiquing on the digital humanities site.
Because this is also a writing class, students engage in peer review of two of their peers’ WordPress posts reviewing a DH project. This way, students are exposed to about three digital humanities sites. After making the appropriate edits, students then post and publish their reviews on their sites and submit for a grade. The students study broadcasting within a Communication Studies department and for many this is their first, and possibly only, exposure to digital humanities as a research method and a way of telling stories on the web.
How much time did you allot to this project?
Because the goals of the assignment are heavily integrated into the course, I spend a lot of time preparing the students to be successful in general content creation and content consumption on the web. The assignment asks them to employ nearly everything we’ve learned up to this point, including one 50-minute lesson spent on each of the following:
principles of good design - does the web navigation “make you think”? (Krug, 2014); and do these “everyday things” on the web tell good stories? (Norman, 2013).
User experience and user interface - how much control do we have over these in CMS’s like WordPress?
Accessibility and Universal Design - how to use tools like WAVE WebAim to evaluate alternative text? How does a screen reader work?
How to write posts and create content in WordPress? How to write/design as you create content? (Ball, Shepard, Arola, 2018).
I spend about 20 minutes in class the day I introduce the prompt detailing what the digital humanities is as a field of study, the goals of this type of web content, why digital humanities projects are important, and how many DH projects are built for a general audience. I spend time setting DH up to give them a bit of background, but also to let them know that the students are the ideal audience in some ways because DH-researchers and creators often imagine, and feel excited about, a user “stumbling” upon their site with little subject expertise and contextual background.
What kinds of support or training did you provide to help students learn to use new techniques or specialized tools?
They need to know how to create posts in WordPress and how to take screenshots of websites in order to provide evidence for their claims. They also need to know tools such as accessibility evaluators. These are all tools taught directly in the course and so the assignment blends the “hands-on” use of the tools learned in class alongside a critique of digital artifacts.
Did you need any specialized equipment, tools, or human resources to make this assignment feasible? If so, please describe.
For this particular iteration in a design/web writing focused course, students do need to have a website. This means they have signed up for and use Reclaim Hosting and install WordPress. It’s important to emphasize that the hosting and WordPress are related to other goals of the course (to create a professional portfolio/site where students practice design and web-based writing). This assignment could just as easily be used without any CMS and simply done as an essay in a word processor.
How did you assess or grade this project?
When grading I refer to the prompt as my rubric. I assess the following:
Is there an argument or main claim?
Is the argument backed up with evidence, or if no argument, what kind of evidence is provided?
Does the reviewer keep medium-specificity in mind while reviewing the site (i.e., not reviewing an interactive art project unfairly as a video game)?
Has the student assessed accessibility and backed their claims up with evidence from an accessibility checker?
Does the student discuss UX, what it is, why it matters, and how their chosen DH site meets standard UX?
Does the student employ principles of good web design and web writing themselves in the writing/designing of their post?
If you assigned this project again, would you change anything? If so, what?
I assign this project every semester. I make small tweaks here and there and I’m always adding (and taking away due to link rot or unplanned project “endings”) from the curated list of DH projects. In more recent years I’ve started offering the caveat that students will find projects on the list that have wonderful UX and some that have poor, or flagging, UX - this is intentional as students can learn what to do and what not to do, and that while they may want to take inspiration from the sites they review, they should also learn lessons (such as monitoring their sites for “404 errors,” reviewing their web tools for dying software such as Flash, and making sure hyperlinks work) on how to keep their content fresh and sustainable.
Describe any trouble spots or complications someone else might want to be aware of before trying a similar assignment in a course of their own.
Depending on the course goals, this assignment might be hard to employ in a DH-focused class as I take a very “big tent”/ “contact zone” approach to inclusion in what is DH (Svensson, 2012; Ortega, 2019). Some students in more advanced courses may wonder why certain projects are considered DH in this list, although this seems like a wonderful pedagogical moment to discuss the boundaries and fluidity of the digital humanities.
Occasionally, one difficulty with this assignment is that a very few students may have missed signing up for WordPress and may not have sites ready for this assignment. This is a very infrequent occurrence, though, as we sign up for WordPress in class, learn the tools in class, and I introduce the assignment (complete with previous examples) in class. If students need help with WordPress, they typically reach out to me for assistance.
Ball, Cheryl E., Jennifer Sheppard, Kristin L. Arola. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Multimodal Projects (Bedford/St. Martins, 2018, 2nd edition).
Krug, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (New Riders, 2014, 3rd edition).
Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition (Basic Books, 2013).
Ortega, Élika, “Zonas de Contacto: A Digital Humanities Ecology of Knowledges” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, eds. (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
Svensson, Patrik, “Beyond the Big Tent” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, Matthew K. Gold, ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).