My Latest from NITLE’s Techne Blog: Mapping Stories for Student Learning

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on January 24, 2012 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Pins indicate stories in the Cleveland Historical Mobile App.

How might projects combining digital storytelling and mapping help students learn?  Digital storytelling has become a prevalent pedagogy at small liberal arts colleges, as we explored in a previous impromptu videoconference discussion.  Aggregating and visualizing stories spatially, offers a layer of analysis and synthesis to the student learning experience.  Since residential liberal arts colleges often have a strong sense of place, this spatial aspect to storytelling seems especially promising. Yesterday, ten faculty and staff involved or interested in such projects joined me for a Google+ Hangout to discuss the challenges and benefits of place-based storytelling.

My cohosts were Amelia Carr, Associate Professor of Art History at Allegheny College and Mark Tebeau, (aka @urbanhumanist), Director,Center for Public History & Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.  Mark is one of the creators of Mobile Historical, a tool to “designed to ‘curate the city’ through the use of geo-located historical texts, archival film and images, oral history (and other) audio, and short documentary videos.”  All of these are accessible through a mobile app, such as Cleveland Historical (which was actually the genesis of Mobile Historical).  Amelia and her colleague Ian Binnington, Assistant Professor of History, hope to create a local version of Mobile Historical at Allegheny College. We were also joined by Larry Cebula, Associate Professor of History, Eastern Washington University, who is further along in the process with Spokane Historical, as he describes in this blog post.

We were fortunate to have many other projects that unite multimedia narrative and mapping represented in our conversation.  Participants and projects included Mo Engel, Graduate Advisor, Humanities Computing, University of Alberta, who discussed the Edmonton Pipelines project; Kenneth Warren, Technology Liaison to the Humanities, University of Richmond, who discussed the Americans in Parisproject, and Eric Behrens, Associate Chief Information Technology Officer, Swarthmore College, who discussed the Writing Nature project.

Student Learning

We began by discussing how place-based storytelling helps students learn.  Digital storytelling engages students by enabling their personal voice or perspective.  The opportunity to do authentic, applied research with a public audience—like local history projects—also engages students.  Larry Cebula described multiple learning outcomes for his students, including historical research methods, communication (concise storytelling), and technology skills.  Students also learn creativity and collaboration. At the same time, as Mo Engel noted, it’s difficult “to balance the critical, the creative, and the technological, particularly when students are at radically different levels in each of those categories (not just the technical).”  For more details on teaching with place-based storytelling in courses, see these blog posts:

The projects and courses under discussion came from a range of disciplines, including urban studies, art history, (public) history, literature and environmental stories.  The genre of stories ranged from the personal of digital storytelling (following the definition of the Center for Digital Storytelling) to oral history to multimedia narrative.  For example, Kenneth Warren shared, “While this class didn’t necessarily focus on personal storytelling as much as it did research and literature, one of our faculty taught a course entitled “Americans in Paris” which combined Street View links, GPS coordinates and Exhibit.”  This generic and disciplinary breadth contributes to interdisciplinarity, but also brings challenges when it runs into institutional structures that might hinder faculty from offering courses outside their departments.

Teaching Collaboration

I was particularly interested in how these projects might teach collaboration.  Larry’s students worked in two-person teams, while Mark’s worked individually to create stories but collaborated in building themes or tours for groups of stories. Students also collaborate with community members and K-12 teachers.  Mo described one collaborative exercise which she attributed to Jentery Sayers, in which students create a google map of a walkable thematically linked tour, then trade tours. Partners walk each other’s tour and comment on what’s good about the map and things they see that the maker of the map didn’t see at all.  The vast majority of students end up in places that they hadn’t seen before.  This exercise offers a way to scaffold larger place-based storytelling projects for students by introducing collaboration and the benefits of multiple perspectives.  For Mark, the ability to link stories together is powerful for student creativity.  In addition to collaborating with classmates, he asks students to make connections to the work of previous students, as a way to bridge that time between semesters, students, etc. This example seems to redefine both collaboration (between material as well as between people) and creativity (where the originality is in the collection not the original creation).

Creativity, Archives and Public Outreach

This concept of curation as creativity raised quite a bit of discussion.  Amelia expressed concern that “we might be massaging pre-existing materials (what Mark calls ‘low-hanging fruit’) rather than generating a lot of original material.”  The change in medium and in point of view will provide the creative element.  Others agreed on the importance of using existing materials, such as old city guides, brochures, historic preservation office documents, etc., but with a critical eye.  At the same time, instructors have to teach students to get rid of omniscient historical narrative voice and recover their own voice.  In the information age, this skill at personal expression through critical curation and synthesis, seems just as important as creating from scratch.

We also discussed the tension between digital storytelling and digital humanities.  When do storytelling projects cross the line between digital teaching and digital humanities?  Certainly, the aggregation of stories and visualization through mapping, as well as the creation of archives falls more into the realm of digital humanities.  At the same time, as Amelia Carr noted, “Archivists want everything very Permanent, Catalogued, Metadata which works against getting the stories out there in some “good enough” way.”  It seems that the impulse to perfection may hinder publication and engagement of the public in history.  This tension must be negotiated by all public history projects.


We were fortunate to have so much experience represented in this conversation to learn about both opportunities and challenges.  Technology, of course, presents one hurdle.  While Hypercities offers a “collaborative research and educational platform for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment,” it may not be as accessible for public outreach as a mobile phone app.  Usage stats, app downloads, and anecdotal evidence (like using Cleveland Historical stories to fight local developers) attest to the outreach of the mobile app.  Mobile Historical uses Omeka database for creating online collections as its back-end, so, the research becomes portable even as technologies for exhibition change.

A second challenge has been finding materials and being able to afford them.  Larry has to pay $30/image to license images from the local historical society.  Copyright also presents some material from being used.  Solutions include potential sources of free historical images, e.g., closeups of Sanborn and other maps, postcards online, newspaper headlines (Google News Archive), Flickr Creative Commons, ads in city directories, etc.  Seeking licensing through an institution’s library or parterning with local historical societies were other suggested solutions.

There was one way to address these challenges that we did not so much discuss as embody.  Our conversation took in faculty and staff from all types of institutions, ranging from public R1s to small liberal arts colleges.  This kind of sharing and collaboration helps all of us pursue digital projects.  I think it is especially important to see digital humanities centers creating projects or tools that faculty and staff at small liberal arts colleges can adopt and adapt for the undergraduate classroom.

Other tools, projects and resource

We’ve hosted a series of these videoconference impromptu discussions over the past few months, and hope to do more.  Please contact me at to suggest a topic or help organize a discussion.


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