Students as Innovators – a project-led student collaboration between Digital Humanities and the National Museum of Australia

This project is a project-led course that is based around a collaboration between students studying digital humanities at the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia. The course was first run as a pilot program in 2019, and has run again in 2020 and in 2021. The course provides students from a range of disciplines (history, linguistics, computer science, design, law etc) an opportunity to work closely with the national museum and to gain an understanding of how a digital project is developed from concept to pitch to scope and final proof-of-concept. The project has been a great success on many levels, the students have gained invaluable real-world experience and report high levels of satisfaction. The museum staff in curatorial, education and digital development are given an opportunity to work with creative, out-of-the-box ideas pitched by students and to see how a digital project can be developed on a minimal (or non-existent) budget over a short time period (a 12-week teaching semester).

This course was initially developed as a pilot program. It began with a discussion between myself, Dr Katrina Grant, at the CDHR and staff from the educational development team at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). The museum had received a generous grant to develop a digital classroom resource for use by primary and secondary students across Australia (launched in November 2020). The coordinating team of educational specialists, led by David Arnold (former NMA Deputy Director), approached the CDHR for advice about developing dynamic and engaging digital resources. At the same time I was investigating new options for teaching students enrolled in my Digital Humanities and Public Culture: Projects and Engagement course. Across the centre we had identified a need for students to move away from just evaluating existing projects or engaging in short 2-3 week modules on various digital methods. We had found that students lacked an understanding of the complexities involved in project development, often focusing only on the appearance of the UX and ignoring important elements like funding, sustainability, audience and accessibility.

This course was an opportunity to develop a theory that the best way to learn about the challenges and expertise required for digital project development was the way that most of us teaching in digital humanities or working in GLAM learn, by actually developing a project themselves and seeing it through from concept to prototype. I proposed that our students could engage with the museum to develop projects for the digital classroom. This way the students could do the creative, and sometimes risky project concepts and regardless of whether the project ‘worked’ they would still have a useful experience and pass the course, for the museum if any ideas or projects were really strong they could pick them up and work further with the students. 

Students would be given a basic set of guidelines: projects had to build on the overarching concept for the resource ‘Defining Moments in Australian History’, and their intended audience should be school students rather than a broader adult public. The museum staff agreed to dedicate time and resources to support students, including advice on developing material for educational purposes and expertise on engaging with sensitive topics such as Indigenous and LGBTIQ history. 

Screenshots and description of an AR project by Yi Ji for exploring the art of Papunya Tula

This approach was presented as a win-win. The museum would be presented with several functioning proof-of-concepts, which they could choose to take on for future development. The students would take on the risk of pioneering and out-of-the-box-thinking, a critical element of learning to work with digital methods, and be rewarded with an opportunity to engage with external partner institutions. They were able to focus on topics they are passionate about, which in turn encouraged them to build their digital competencies from a variety of levels from beginner to expert. Students responded well to the ‘real world’ challenge and to being given autonomy and trust to work with a client. They created a range of ‘blue sky’ approaches to web-based content. Projects included a memory game revealing the history of a hydroelectric scheme developed by an engineering student, a machine learning collections interface, and an animation about the boomerang from two non-Indigenous students who worked closely with Indigenous curators to produce a short film that was culturally aware and intelligently aimed at very young children. As well as bringing innovative approaches to working with digital tools and platforms, the students bring a fresh and complex view to the presentation of Australian history itself. Students are culturally and linguistically diverse, they are typically engaged with current debates about race, sexuality, gender and offer insightful ideas on how to reframe national history and make it relevant to new audiences.

Feedback sessions with academics and museum staff – Pierre Shasha and Jonathan Barrett
Feedback and testing of digital project in 2019 – Simone Penkethman and Dr Katrina Grant

The success of the first collaboration inspired the development of a similar course for second year students, which offered more scaffolding and focused on smaller projects. Since the pilot program the course ran again in 2020. Under lockdown with museums closed the students saw the importance of digital resources in new ways. In 2021 we are fortunate to be able to run the course in person again and students are working again with curatorial and education staff on a range of creative ideas for engaging children with the complexities of Australian history.

3D model of Australia’s first post office developed by Ting Wang

As well as providing the NMA with ideas and engagement for current projects, the course also aims to train students to be able to work on and lead project collaborations with GLAM in the future after they have graduated. The courses are aimed at teaching students from both humanities and computer science backgrounds about the range of skills, methods, research and critical thinking that is required to create a great digital project. The real world context also means they are asked to engage with a range of stakeholders and manage different expectations.

Key elements of the course’s pedagogy include:

  • Real-world assessment. The students do not write essays, instead the assessment is based on types of work they would be expected to produce for a real-world project. They first have to pitch the idea to ANU academics and NMA staff, they are restricted to 5 minutes and expected to really sell the idea and then take on feedback. they then submit a plan and scope for the project, including timelines, GANTT charts and outline the challenges and hurdles. The final project is submitted as a proof of concept and must be demoed to staff at both institutions. They then submit a final technical report.
  • Students are assessed on an axis of ambition and completion. Students who develop very ambitious projects are rewarded for their vision even if the project is not as complete as planned, students who set smaller-scale projects are rewarded for completeness and understanding how to appropriately scope a project for  a 12-week course. The best projects are those that are ambitious but fit the scope of the course. This approach means that students are not put off trying new software or setting their sights high, but still are helped to understand the importance of proposing ideas that can be finished within the time allotted.
  • Students are supported to make progress from the point at which they start the course. Due to the diverse backgrounds of students I ask students to identify personal challenges relevant to digital humanities projects that they wish to develop. For humanities students this might be learning to code a basic game, for a computer science student it might be learning to engage with Indigenous languages and to understand what is required to create a culturally respectful and useful website for exploring them. Students are also asked to build on the skills they bring with them to the course, but to learn how to apply these to a project for a client (the NMA). Examples of the challenges include a student from computer science who set himself the challenge of learning illustration to build a basic html game, but also wanted to know how to use the National Archives collection to generate rich  and historically accurate content for the game. Another student from Design had 3D modelling skills but wanted to work with the NMA to understand what types of digital and printed 3D models would actually be useful for educational and public outreach.

Example projects:

Students project included in the NMA Defining Moments Digital Classroom in 2019 (launched 2020).

Thomas Larkin – Snowy hydro who’s who game

Thomas developed a digital version of the popular card game ‘who’s who’, where players turn over two cards and aim to get a matching pair. This memory matching game and quiz, produced by Australian National University student, Thomas Larkin in 2019, challenges users to match 10 pairs of cards featuring real life stories of employees who worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Students then complete a quiz to help them learn more about each of these Snowy employees. The game is a fun way to learn about the diverse range of people and skills that were required to build one of Australia’s most important infrastructure projects.

Play the game here:

Simone Penkethman – Blue Poles Podcast

This three part podcast series delves into the importance and significance of arguably Australia’s most famous artwork, Blue Poles. The podcast weaves together narratives from different times and perspectives to tell the story of a monumental, abstract impressionist work, and the social and political context in which it was received in Australia in the 1970s.

Listen to the podcast here:

Aileen Xu and Sheng Han Moses Koh | The Boomerang

The Boomerang is a short animation produced as part of a university course at the Australian National University, in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia. The animation’s purpose is to explain the uses of the boomerang by Australian Indigenous people in a format that is appealing, especially for younger school students.

Watch it here:

LGBTQ timeline developed by PIerre Shasha

Pierre Shasha | LGBTI history interactive timeline 1975–2019

This interactive timeline, produced by Australian National University student, Pierre Shasha in 2019, tells the story of LGBTI rights from 1975 to 2019. The timeline aims to show some of the struggles and gains that Australian LGBTI people went through to achieve their goals. It includes links to a number of important state and national laws that were brought in during this period.

In 2020 students created projects under lockdown and these included a website about 3D modelling wit demonstrations of how it can be utilised in a museum setting and an app that used Augmented reality to enhance the experience of on site museum objects in exhibitions. Watch the video about the app developed by Dion Tan here: