Juilee Decker: Digital Volunteers for the Smithsonian

Background and Classroom Context: My students become Digital Volunteers for the Smithsonian Institution in the General Education course MUSE 225 Museums and the Digital Age. I developed this assignment as a way to engage students in the preservation and digitization of material from the Institution’s collection. The assignment allows me to evaluate how students are grasping concepts discussed in the early stages of the course. To complete this assignment, students demonstrate comprehension of information and ideas accessed through reading, one of RIT’s General Education Student Learning Outcomes.

First, students select material from one of the museum’s collections and transcribe it using the digital files provided through the Smithsonian’s platform. The second part of the assignment asks students to write an informal response to this assignment that is based upon their experience and includes linkages to our course readings, particularly readings authored by Smithsonian museum staff about the Transcription Center, specifically, and digitization in general.

Why I like this assignment: 

  • This assignment allows students freedom and flexibility in terms of the type of content that they will be working with (the Smithsonian provides myriad choices of collections materials from art and astrophysics to history, ethnography, and natural sciences).
  • The assignment is a manageable and enjoyable way to measure their ability to comprehend information and ideas accessed through reading by connecting the project element (transcription of materials) to readings and asking students to respond to those readings.
  • This assignment puts students into contact with volunteerism and the ethos of “citizen science” and other crowdsourcing projects among libraries, archives, and museums, beyond the framework of the course itself.

Lessons learned: I developed this assignment in 2014, shortly after the Transcription Center went “live” and have made tweaks to it over the past several years. One important change was to tether this assignment to course content and concepts later in the semester, such as object conservation and collections care. While that tweak required re-working some readings and organization of material, the results have been promising. Students now are seeing connections between collections and their digital surrogates, which is one of the aims of the MUSE 225 course.

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