Considerations for Digital Assignments

Image of the handout on considerations for digital assignments

My colleague in the Center for Educational Resources, Reid Sczerba, and I often consult with faculty who are looking for alternative assignments to the traditional research paper. Examples of such assignments include oral presentations, digital and print poster presentations, virtual exhibitions, using timelines and mapping tools to explore temporal and spatial relationships, blogging, creating videos or podcasts, and building web pages or websites.

Reid, who is a graphic designer and multimedia specialist, put together a handy chart to help faculty think about these assignments in advance of a face-to-face consultation with us. A PDF version of this handout is available for your convenience. The text from the chart is reprinted below.

Learning objectives
♦ Have you determined your learning objectives for this assignment? Deciding what you would like your students to learn or be able to do helps to frame the parameters of your assignment.

Type of assignment
♦Will there be analysis and interpretation of a topic or topics to produce a text-based and/or visual-based project? Consider alternatives to a traditional research paper.
♦Will there be a need to document objects or materials for a catalog, exhibition, or repository? Defining meaningful metadata and the characteristics of research materials will be important considerations.

Access and visibility
♦Will you want the students’ work to be made open to the public, seen just at JHU, or shared only with the class? Decide up front whether to have students’ work be public or private in order to get their consent and choose the best platform for access.
♦ Will they be working with copyrighted materials? The fair use section of the Copyright Act may provide some latitude, but not all educational uses are fair use.

♦Will you want students to work collaboratively as a class, in small groups, or individually?
Group work has many benefits but there are challenges for assessment and in ensuring that students do their fair share of the work.
♦ Will you want the students’ work to be visible to others in the class or private to themselves or their group?
Consider adding a peer review component to the assignment to help the students think critically about their work.

♦ Will you want your students to have a choice of media to express their research or will all students use the same solution?
An open-ended choice of format could allow students to play to their strengths, leading to creativity. On the other hand, too many choices can be daunting for some, and it may be challenging to assess different projects equally.
♦ What would be the ideal presentation of the student’s work?

• spatially arranged content (mapping, exhibition)
• temporally arranged content (timeline)
• narrative (website, blog)
• oral presentation
• visual presentation (poster, video)

Formats for digital assignments are not limited to this list. More than one approach can be used if the result fulfills the learning objectives for the assignment.

Some of the solutions that we have recommended to faculty in the past are OmekaOmeka NeatlineTimeline JSPanopto (JHU), Reveal (JHU), Google tools (Google SitesGoogle Maps, Google Docs), Voicethread (JHU), and WordPress.


Reid Sczerba, Multimedia Development Specialist
Center for Educational Resources

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Image of the handout created by Reid Sczerba

The Fallacy of Fairness

Poster for Dr. Jo Handelsman seminar held on March 8, 2016.Back in March (March 8, 2016), Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and (see more here) Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Frederick Phineas Rose Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University, gave a seminar at Johns Hopkins. The talk, made possible through a Diversity Innovation Grant from the Johns Hopkins Diversity Leadership Council, was titled The Fallacy of Fairness: Confronting Bias in Academic Science. We are fortunate that a video of the talk is now available. Handelsman, who has done important research on women and minorities in STEM fields, discusses the strengths that diversity offers, scientists’ claim to meritocracy, how unconscious bias weakens the STEM pipeline, and offers actions and policies to confront and address bias.

The video is 80 minutes long including introductions and the question and answer session that followed Handelsman’s talk. Among the many thought-provoking points Handelsman made, it was particularly interesting to learn that women are equally as likely as men to be unconsciously biased towards other women when it comes to hiring, mentoring, and awarding salaries. Moreover, the unconscious bias holds across all types of educational. Although Handelsman focuses on STEM disciplines, the message is an important one for all in the academy.

I’d also like to point you to the blog edited by Dr. Karen Fleming, Professor in the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biophysics, Overcoming Bias & Barriers to Women in Science / Achieving Gender Equity in Science. Dr. Fleming was one of the organizers of the Handelsman seminar, along with JHU Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Jeffry J. Gray, and Julia Koehler Leman, postdoctoral fellow, and Dominic Scalise,  graduate student, both in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.  Also of interest on this topic is the video of a talk by Dr. Fleming given at the October 2014 JHU Diversity Conference: Achieving Gender Equity in STEM: How Can Women Move Beyond Bias & Barriers?


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Poster for Dr. Jo Handlesman JHU seminar, March 8, 2016.