Daily Archives: May 10, 2015

Transforming the Site and Object Reports for a Digital Age: Mentoring Students to Use Digital Technologies in Archaeology and Art History / By Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

Transforming the Site and Object Reports for a Digital Age: Mentoring Students to Use Digital Technologies in Archaeology and Art History

Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, CUNY Graduate Center


This article considers two digital assignments for courses at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. In one, students developed digital site reports in the form of individual websites about archaeological sites in the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt (Art and Archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt, Spring 2013), and in the other (Islamic Art and Architecture, Spring, 2014), students published digital essays about works of Islamic Art for the course website on the CUNY Academic Commons, some of which are in the process of being published on Smarthistory at Khan Academy, which is one of the most popular art history websites in the world. By assigning these projects I sought to support and mentor MA and PhD students to develop a range of digital skills including basic website building and using images in publications and online. I also wanted the students to develop a writing style that enables them to convey their academic findings to the larger public and to value public engagement and scholarship. The possession of strong digital skills is proving vital for young scholars to win grants and jobs in a highly competitive academic environment. This article focuses on the challenges, successes, and failures of integrating digital technology in the teaching of archaeology and art history in order to prepare graduate students to be active and successful contributors in these fields. Appendixes A – G include links to the syllabi, digital project overviews, digital portfolio guide, and grading rubrics that were used in the courses.


Art history and archaeology are closely linked disciplines. Both focus on the study of visual and material culture. Much of art history has traditionally focused the close, detailed visual analysis of objects in order to understand them. Likewise, archaeologists have considered the context of objects and developed typologies for objects in order to classify, organize, compare, and analyze objects. Undoubtedly, these are gross simplifications of these fields’ intellectual goals, and this observation only aims to highlight one of the many links between archaeology and art history. This connection is of interest in this article. As an archaeologist and architectural historian, I believe that in order to understand a building or object fully, one needs to both visually analyze it in detail and also contextualize it fully. This approach is interdisciplinary and although many art historians have long been interested in context, and archaeologists in visual analysis, it is key that this intersection is imparted to graduate students if they are to become competent archaeologists or art historians.

Therefore, my teaching of art history and archaeology aims to teach visual analysis and context as intertwined, so that students can learn to think about these two things as inseparable. There are two types of reports that I assign to students in order to help them understand how visual analysis and context are linked: the archaeological site report and the museum object report, both of which are traditional assignments in their respective fields. In this article, I will explain the site report and the object report, as well as reflect upon my attempts to have students create digital versions of these two reports in two different graduate-level courses at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (henceforth, The Graduate Center, CUNY), in order to prepare them to conduct art historical and archaeological research in the twenty-first century. I wanted students to learn how to engage the public and conduct public scholarship. I will also comment upon the successes and failures of these assignments.

The site report and the object report

The site report is a detailed research paper on an archaeological site. It is a fundamental assignment in many archaeology degree programs and is assigned to students in the required courses for the track in the Archaeology of the Classical, Late Antique and Islamic Worlds in the M.A. in Liberal Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. When conducting an excavation or survey, archaeologists are expected to publish their findings in an excavation report. During an excavation, a series of interim or preliminary reports are published, typically in peer-reviewed journals. The FastiOnline is a good example of an open-access, peer-reviewed journal where many preliminary reports for Roman-era excavations in Italy are published. These reports, generally published over several years, present an overview of the methodology of the excavation, technologies used, the areas explored, chronology of the site, phasing (the relationship between the different levels or contexts discovered during the excavation), and the finds (the objects discovered during the excavation). For a typical site, a final excavation report, often a multi-volume publication, would compile and update these earlier reports, as well provide interpretation for the whole site and the finds. If an archaeological unit or company excavated a site, as is often the case in England, or if contract archaeologists working for a Cultural Resource Management (CRM) firm in the United States, short reports are typically published. For a complicated site, such as the excavation of a city, individual volumes might be dedicated to pottery, metal work, glass, sculpture, or other specific classes of evidence. For example, the New York University excavations at Aphrodisias (Turkey), directed by Prof. R.R.R. Smith at the University of Oxford, publishes preliminary and ongoing reports for the site. The project also has its own series, the Aphrodisias Papers. Such reports are often heavily dependent on images, such as plans and photographs, to present and interpret the site.

An archaeology student must understand archaeological evidence, the arguments made on the basis of such evidence, and how to write about an excavation. Thus, I assign students a site report, which is modeled on the excavation report, discussed above. In this assignment, students are expected to research a site (perhaps a building, small town, settlement, or survey area). Since site visits are not normally possible students review the original excavation reports, preliminary publications, archives, and other documentation that provide first-hand accounts of the site. Students are then expected to discuss the site (its chronology and phasing), to identify key types of evidence, and to master interpretive and theoretical issues at the site, as would be done in an excavation report. By successfully completing this assignment, students should be able to read and interpret site reports published by professional archaeologists. Students should also start to develop an academic voice suitable to scholarly writing about archaeology. In the past, I have assigned the site report as a traditional research paper.

The object report, which I also assign, has similar aims. In this report, a single object is the focus of detailed formal visual analysis, interpretation, and contextualization. By studying an object closely, students learn how to evaluate its key characteristics, such as form, material, decoration, and iconography, and to evaluate the scholarly arguments about the object. Such reports are often adapted and used as catalog entries for objects in a museum. Therefore, learning how to write concisely and clearly about an object is a useful skill because many students want to be professional art historians or work in a museum.

These assignments aimed to support the development of critical thinking and writing skills for graduate students in archaeology and art history. I wanted to explore how these traditional assignments could be re-conceptualized through the integration of digital components. My goal was to have students develop digital skills that they need in their fields in the twenty-first century. After teaching graduate students for several semesters, it was evident that few graduate courses in archaeology and art history included the teaching of digital skills. While archaeologists can often gain technical archaeological skills, such as the use of GIS, in the field or in specialized workshops, basic web design skills or writing for the web were not considered a fundamental part of art historical or archaeological training. Furthermore, it was also clear that many students, especially those from certain disciplines in the humanities or social sciences, might not voluntarily develop their digital skills, even if workshops on WordPress, Omeka, and other digital platforms were free and available, as they are at The Graduate Center, CUNY. This may be due to concern over how they might perform academically on such an assignment, a perceived or actual lack of time to master new skills, or a need to take other required courses or learn other languages. Likewise it may be that students who do not consider themselves to be good at “digital work” may elect not to take advantage of these workshops, while other students, who are inclined towards digital work, enroll in these workshops. However, students would enroll in a class in whose topic they were interested or which they were required to take. Therefore, because the digital assignments were integrated into a normal archaeology or art history course, which also had traditional assignments, students were willing to take the course despite their concerns about having to do a digital assignment. In the course descriptions available to students before enrollment, the inclusion of a digital project was noted. Several students emailed in advance of each class to ask about the digital project or met with me to discuss it. To allay these concerns, which were also raised in the first meeting of each course by students, I specifically discussed the projects, the digital seminars, and the support that students would receive for their digital projects.

I wanted to do these digital projects in my classes because I wanted to improve my own digital skills. I also wanted to help students develop digital skills that would be useable within and outside the fields of archaeology and art history. Many graduate students will have to look outside academia for employment due to the shrinking size of higher education. By having digital skills and the ability to translate specialized ideas or findings to a non-specialist audience, a student will be far more competitive not only for an academic or a museum position, but also for non-academic positions. Perhaps more fundamentally I wanted students to understand the need to engage with the public. The humanities are often described as being under threat from all sides (Schmidt 2014). Therefore to argue for the centrality of the humanities to education and more generally to civilization, humanists must learn how to translate their results, as well as their significance, to the broader population. Graduate students must understand this is important early on in their careers.

Creating these assignments was possible due to the presence of the CUNY Academic Commons, where faculty members and graduate students can use technology in research and teaching. The course and student webpages, built using WordPress, were hosted here. The successful execution of the assignments was due to the support and guidance given to the instructor by Andrew McKinney, a PhD candidate in Sociology and a Digital Fellow at The Graduate Center. The Digital Fellows are graduate students who advise faculty members using new technologies in their research or teaching. In this capacity Andrew supports faculty members like me during the semester. In my case, he gave feedback on the assignments, the grading rubrics, and the digital portfolio before I assigned them, giving me the perspective of a graduate student on the clarity of my instructions and the reasonableness of my expectations. He also helped run two digital seminars on WordPress, which were specifically designed for the classes during each course, meaning that students could ask him questions directly. Lastly, the plans and results of these assignments were presented in several of the lunch meetings of the New Media Lab at The Graduate Center, CUNY in 2012 – 2014. The feedback from the faculty and students on the assignments was also helpful as they suggested changes from the first assignment to the second.

The students in each class

To complicate the aims of each assignment was the considerable diversity of the students in each class. In the Art and Archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt, Spring 2013, there were nine students. Of these, four had a background in art history and, to a lesser extent, archaeology. One student had an archaeological background. One had a background in Classical philology. Two had backgrounds in Middle Eastern Studies. One had no background in any of these fields. In the Arts of the Islamic World, Spring 2014, there were seventeen students enrolled for credit. Two students also audited the class, but they did not complete any of the assignments for the class. Of these, five had backgrounds in Middle Eastern Studies, six in art history, four in archaeology, and two had no related background. In both classes, there was a range of students in terms of age, from twenty-two to sixty-five. Students also had wide ranges of comfort with using technology—from the self-professed Luddite to the tech-savvy librarian. So there was the additional challenge of teaching across the disciplines while also helping students gain confidence in their ability to use and master technology.

The Digital Site Report

While I traditionally assigned the site report as a research paper, I wondered if this was the best format. The linear structure of a research paper requires that one privilege certain evidence or theoretical approaches, and it does not allow for the integration of other media into the paper. By contrast, a website allows the author to explore an archaeological site in multiple ways. Creating a website required students to integrate images with text and therefore to consider the size, arrangement, and impact of images in order to make their websites visually attractive. Websites also allow students to incorporate video and to link their site to other websites.

Students had to learn how to write for the web by making their language more concise and by maximizing readability on a screen. They also had to master writing for the general public. For archaeology to be successful, there must be public engagement.

Being able to write for a broader public is important because archaeological sites are under constant threat due to illegal excavation, war, and development. For non-archaeologists to appreciate why archaeological sites should not be looted, destroyed, or razed to make way for a new shopping mall or car park, archaeologists must communicate the value of their findings and sites to the public, not just to their peers. Likewise, art historians and archaeologists must explain that the looting and selling of objects is not merely legally and morally wrong to the larger population, but they also must convey that the looting of an object means that information associated with the object , such as context, is lost permanently.

Reflection on the Digital Site Report (See Appendix A)

The first project was successful for most of the students—although there were some problems. Several factors contributed to the success of the assignment: first, students were well supported through two WordPress-focused seminars and other activities in the course; second, a clear model for the sites and an overview on the digital project was given to them; and third, the students received an outline of my grading rubric so that the expectations for the assignment were clear.

WordPress seminars and activities

Students were introduced to WordPress through the course webpage on the CUNY Academic Commons and through weekly blogging on the readings. Two seminars were dedicated to working on the digital project. The first seminar reviewed the WordPress interface, tools, and plug-ins. The second seminar focused on critiquing each student’s webpage, allowing them to discuss any issues that they were having, raise their concerns, and receive feedback on their sites before they were due. This second seminar was useful because students received input from Andrew McKinney and me. They also had an opportunity to share their experiences and comment about each other’s websites.

In website development, WordPress is still relatively new. Before WordPress and other platforms, one needed a knowledge of programming languages to build a website from ground up. Even with the proliferation of simple, relatively easy platforms like the blogging platform WordPress, which allow one to construct websites quickly, there remains a learning curve for young and old. Although learning to use WordPress is much easier than learning how to program, I also spent a semester (Fall 2012) learning how to use WordPress before I assigned the digital site report. In the end, teaching WordPress to students still required two seminars.

The two WordPress seminars did not detract from the development of more traditional skills, but rather they gave students additional skills such as writing for the web and knowledge such as manipulating images for web and print publication, which are necessary in archaeology today. It also required students to organize their thoughts and the structure of their websites, which has importance differences and similarities to constructing a linear argument of a more traditional paper. The research required for the website was as great as for an extended research paper. Thus, these assignments taught digital skills as well as research, critical thinking, and writing skills.

From the middle of the semester onwards, students were also expected to blog weekly. The blogging focused on the discussion of an image of a statue, object, building, or monument that was relevant to that week’s readings. The aim of the blog was to facilitate students becoming comfortable using the WordPress interface and with communicating online in a semi-public forum. It allowed certain students who were not talkative in class make meaningful contributions. It also helped me to see what aspects of the readings students had not focused on or grasped, and therefore it allowed me to direct our discussions in class more effectively. Due to the small size of the class, the blog seemed to work well, and students seemed comfortable posting to the site.

Model website and project overview (see Appendix B)

In order to help the students build successful websites that met my expectations, I constructed a model website on the Column of Jerash in Queens as an example. I have been researching the column with Jared Simard, a PhD candidate in Classics at The Graduate Center, CUNY, who also assisted in building the website. The website was designed to show students how to share archaeological findings with the public in a clear and accessible format. The website was also intended to present to the public our research on this Column from Jerash, now in Queens, the second oldest monument in New York City. When building this website, we purposefully included the plug-ins that I wanted students to use including the google maps plug-in, a photo gallery plug-in such as NextGen, and a footnote plug-in such as FD Footnotes (see Appendix B). Building the website also allowed me to foresee some of the pitfalls that students might face, and this allowed me to guide them around such problems. The Project Overview summary that students received helped break down the assignment so students understood what the assignment entailed and how to structure their time when working on the project.

Grading rubrics (see Appendix C)

I also outlined my expectations by giving the students clear grading rubrics for the assignments. Students were told how many and what kind of plug-ins they were expected to use (i.e., the google maps plug-in), as well as what writing and aesthetic aspects that they should consider. This meant that the students had a clear understanding of what was required of their websites and how the sites would be assessed.

Limits on the assignment

I did not require students to learn how to get permissions to use images online, although all of the students were given access to the Manar al-Athar Photographic Archive, an open-access, multi-media, online resource for the study of the Middle East of which I serve as deputy-director, which hosts over 12,000 free, labeled photographs.. The websites were not google-indexed and were only visible to the students, Andrew, and myself. As this was the first time I had assigned a digital project, I was not certain that students would be able to make the website and find the images that they need in a timely fashion, so I decided not to tackle the issue of image permissions.

Successes and failures

Broadly, the assignment was a success, as the email testimonies of two students affirm (see Appendix G). One of the sites, which only used images from the Manar al-Athar Photograph Archive, gives a sense of what students did. This site has not been updated since late May 2013. The greatest success, in my opinion, was that students began to realize that they could build websites regardless of their technical background. One of the students was a mature student who had graduated in the early 1990s from an Italian university. For this student, who had an excellent background in Classical languages, building a website was a great challenge since she was relatively new to email. However, she took an incomplete in the class and completed the project over the summer. She was very good about asking for support and extra time, which I was happy to grant because the assignment was more challenging for her and because she was determined to complete it. This indicated to me that anyone could build a website with proper support. The only disappointment in the class occurred when another student who did not communicate with me about the problems that he was facing with the assignment was not able to master the plug-ins and did not do as well in the course.

The Object Report

On the basis of the success of this digital site report, I decided to assign students in my spring 2014 course on the Arts of the Islamic World a digital object report as their final project. A fundamental aim of the course was to teach students to work with objects, to look at them closely, to develop skills of visual analysis, and to situate the objects in their larger historical context. In this course, students selected an object from a list of approximately twenty-five historically significant or representative objects in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Students studied these objects, which were not on display due to the reinstallation of the galleries, through a visit to the storerooms of the museum with Caitlin McKenna, the Research Associate for the Islamic Collection in the Brooklyn Museum. This visit allowed the students enhanced access to the collection and also enabled them to experience some of the hands-on work that art historians and archaeologists do. The students were able to examine their objects in a way that would not have been possible that had the object been in a case behind glass.

Students first wrote a 12- to 15-page research paper to demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the object and its historical and artistic context. This was intended to help students establish a solid academic foundation to create their websites. Students were given detailed feedback and comments on this paper, and they were allowed to revise their papers. Students were then asked write the digital object report, which was a Smarthistory-style essay that included images, bibliography, and links. The aim of a Smarthistory essay is to convey the essential aspects of a work of art (date, material, iconography, significance, context, etc.) in a concise article of 800 – 1200 words. These essays should be able to explain a work of art or building to an intelligent person with no background knowledge of the object or field. Before writing their essay, students submitted a digital portfolio. If the essays were of publishable quality, they would be published on Smarthistory at Khan Academy and made available to a broad interested public. Smarthistory is highly original in its presentation of art history because it goes beyond simply providing illustrated articles. Rather it takes an unscripted conversational approach to teaching art history through videos where two academics, typically art historians, discuss a work of art or a building, its major features, material, iconography, and their significance among other characteristics. Smarthistory at Khan Academy is one of most popular art history websites in the world with seven million visits in 2014. I serve as the Contributing Editor for Art of the Islamic World for Smarthistory at Khan Academy, where I contribute essays and videos as well as edit essays from other contributors. Contributing to Smarthistory at Khan Academy allows me to engage with audiences across the world and to demonstrate how rich and diverse the material culture of the Islamic World is. I wanted my students to realize that they could and should share their academic work with the wider public around the world. Therefore, I discussed the possibility of publishing some of the student essays with Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, Deans of Art and History at Khan Academy. Another professor had successfully had their students write essays in a Smarthistory style, some of which had then been published on Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Therefore, they were willing to work with me to publish the students’ essays if they were of a high standard.

Reflection on the Object Report

As in the first assignment, I supported the digital assignment with weekly blogging and two seminars devoted to digital publishing. I outlined my expectations for the website by assigning the digital portfolio and by providing a clear grading rubric. The inclusion of the digital portfolio again meant that students’ work was critiqued before it was graded. Also students were encouraged to visit Smarthistory’s website to read published essays as models for their work.

The digital portfolio, the grading rubric, and learning how to use images (see Appendixes E and F)

Students were required to submit a digital portfolio to the instructor, which could be reviewed before students constructed their webpages. The digital portfolio consisted of images, a bibliography, and three-to-five links of vetted, relevant websites to include on the webpage. Students in art history and archaeology receive little or no formal training or mentoring when it comes to obtaining, formatting, and sizing images for publication or online. This is a fundamental skill that all scholars who work with visual and material culture need, and one that I also wanted students to have. Although I had not asked students in the previous course to work on this, I now felt comfortable that the students could build their webpages and master this skill using a small number of images from the web. I now wanted to make sure that students understood the challenges that scholars have when they want to reproduce images in their publications or on their websites, because the underlying issues are the same between these different media.

This lack of knowledge was addressed in the digital portfolio. The digital portfolio required students to learn how to deal with using images online (and by extension traditional publications). Students had to learn how resize the images to be suitable for web use (150 KB and 72 DPI) using Photoshop, Preview, or another photo editing software, and they also had to provide proof that the selected images could legally be used online. Students learned about how to use Creative Commons licenses and how museums, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Brooklyn Museum of Art, allow their images to be used for scholarly purposes. By the end of creating the digital portfolio, the students also learned about reproducing images for traditional publications since the same issues of legal usage and re-sizing images apply to print publications.

Students also included links for websites in their portfolios. This required students to assess which academic or quasi-academic websites to include and how to build a suite of complimentary and diverse online resources. Lastly, students were also given a clear grading rubric so that they understood my expectations and how their webpage would be graded.


Writing a Smarhistory-style essay for a general public or students new to art history was a challenge for most students. They needed to learn how to engage their reader by developing an authorial voice suitable to writing about art history for the general public. They had to learn how to translate academic work into a more accessible prose. Simultaneously, the essay had to describe and explain the significance of an object in no more than 1,200 words. It was hard for students to write concisely. Students found that it was easier to write a new essay rather than cut down a 3,000-word essay. They also learned how to balance the text with images and that good design made a site more interesting and more valuable for the reader.

The opportunity to publish

The chance to publish their revised essays as articles on Smarthistory at Khan Academy, I believe, made the assignment and the learning that it supported more appealing to students. The assignment was not a hypothetical exercise in training to become an academic. Rather than writing a paper that only their professor was likely to read, the students were actually contributing to the field as nascent scholars. I think this motivated students to push themselves and produce high-quality work. Because I contribute to Smarthistory at Khan Academy, I was able to connect students who wanted to write more essays with Drs. Harris and Zucker so that they could collaborate by contributing other essays or content related to their research interests to the site.

This opportunity to publish on Smarthistory, an open-access website, also aimed to make students think about what publishing means in the twenty-first century and how academics should value digital contributions and open-access publications. Because these articles are reviewed, although they are not subjected to a rigorous peer-review process, they offer a low-stakes opportunity for students to engage with the public. It also enabled students to explore an alternative way of presenting their research, as opposed to the peer-reviewed, proprietary journal model. As a result of this exercise, I hope that students started to think about non-traditional and/or digital ways of presenting their research, which may enable students to develop new ways of publishing in the future.

Successes and failures

Overall the assignment was very successful. Because students had multiple opportunities for feedback on their research and digital portfolio, most of the students were able to produce well-written, engaging text, which was well integrated with images that could be used legally. However, the class blog was not successful from the students’ perspective or mine. In the course evaluation, students commented that they did not enjoy blogging and that they found the interaction on the blog to be forced.

As in the previous course, I wanted to use the blog for students to become more familiar and comfortable with the WordPress interface. Therefore, the course blog counted for a very small part of the overall grade and was considered a part of class participation. The course blog was modeled on Mark Sample’s Better Blogging Assignment, where students in a class were divided into three groups whose responsibilities rotated. The first group of students posted initial responses to the readings, a second group then responded to the responses, and a third group of students posted links. This did not work well. Many students would post just right before class, and they did not read each other’s postings, meaning that there were not online discussions (unlike the previous class) and that they posted out of order. Likewise, the students often did not post in groups, but as individuals, so it was chaotic. When the students posted links, they often did not pay attention to what they were posting and whether the links posted were useful, suggesting that they were trying to get the assignment done rather than engaging with the exercise.

The blog was partially intended to help me understand what students needed to focus on and discuss in the seminar. The role of the third group to post links was designed to help students learn how to assess websites for their final digital project. So different aspects of this blogging assignment were conceived of as being connected to the course discussions and final assignments. On the basis of this experience, I would not assign a group blogging exercise again, but I would instead try to find a different way for students to contribute online, probably by having them post and annotate websites to the course website.

Reflections on both assignments and future plans

These assignments made it clear that the integration of digital tools in the teaching of archaeology and art history is essential. Faculty members need to encourage students to become more digitally savvy by integrating well-supported digital assignments into their courses so that students can develop more digital skills and understand the value of technology in the production of scholarship and its dissemination. As an educator, I came away with several important observations. First, the melding of traditional assignments with new digital ones did not sacrifice any fundamental outcomes and skills, but rather digital work enhanced students’ ability to think and write. Both assignments gave the students confidence that they could do digital work, even if they lacked confidence in their digital skills when the semester started. Students without a digital background could learn to do digital work in a well-supported environment. These digital assignments also taught them about images and in particular about the difficulties that image licensing poses to scholars who work with visual and material culture.

Second, students also learned that speaking to general public is important. As scholars in training, they will need to learn how to translate their discipline and research to non-academics in order to demonstrate the relevancy of their field and importance of their research. As funding is cut to museums, non-profits, schools, and universities, scholars in the humanities have to make the case for why the humanities are relevant and meaningful. Therefore, being able to communicate clearly means that one’s message—that the past and the physical traces of the past are important—can be shared with people to whom art history and archaeology are not familiar topics.

Third, I realized that my assumption that students who are of the so-called “digital native” generation, born to email and Facebook, would be well prepared to do online research is false. In fact, these students are as poorly trained as other students when it comes to conducting research online. For example, they do not know how to use search terms effectively, the difference between searching with Google and Google Scholar, how to use online databases, or how to assess information that they find on the web. Students need much more training in this area whether they are writing traditional research papers or conducting new online or digital projects.

The success of these endeavors and the students’ willingness to embrace digital work (after overcoming their initial concerns) has encouraged me to continue to integrate digital work into my future classes. In the future, students could be asked to do a traditional object report and then make a video about the object rather than write an essay. These assignments, which were completed by individual students, could be more collaborative. A platform like Omeka could be used to create a resource around a type of art or theme, where students would have to work together to build the site. In sum, there are numerous possibilities that I hope to explore in my teaching in order to prepare students to be art historians and archaeologists of the twenty-first century.


The author would like to thank the students in her classes, who were willing to experiment and learn. The author would also like to thank Beth Harris and Steven Zucker for reading this article, as well as for being wonderful collaborators and colleagues. She would also like to thank Steven Brier for his encouragement to write this article as well as his feedback on the initial draft of the article. Thanks also to Jared Simard, who reviewed this article, and to Andrew McKinney, who read versions of this article and whose support and input during the last two years while I have integrated digital technology into my teaching has been invaluable. The comments of faculty and students who attend the New Media Lab lunches were also helpful in writing this article.


Ben Schmidt. “Crisis in the Humanities?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2013, accessed August 20, 2014. http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/06/10/the-humanities-crisis/.


Appendix A: The Syllabus for The art and archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt

Appendix B: Digital Project Overview for Art and Archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt

Appendix C: Grading Rubric for Art and Archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt, Spring 2013

Appendix D: Syllabus for Islamic Art and Architecture, Spring 2014

Appendix E: A Guide to Creating a Digital Portfolio for your object

Appendix F: Grading Rubric for Islamic Art and Architecture Digital Project, Spring 2014

Appendix G: Email Testimonies from Students in Art and Archaeology of the Greco-Roman Near East and Egypt Seminar, Spring 2013.

From one student:

For technological luddites such as me the idea of creating a website was daunting at first; however, the step-by-step introduction and guidance in the media lab provided a much needed comfort. As the project took shape, I was especially grateful to have the template website (Column of Jerash) as a reference point. For the most part, every aspect of the WordPress format is straight forward and user friendly. The abundance of instructional tips available on the internet also helped — particularly with regard to adding plug-ins. The periodic check-ins over the duration of the semester (i.e. practice in lab, annotated bibliography with hyperlinks) really helped those of us who tend to procrastinate to stay on task. Finally, as we already discussed, I appreciate the idea of encouraging students to create projects outside the realm of a traditional research paper. As WordPress is such a popular platform, the skills gained are indeed applicable to a variety of situations and will only serve to make students more marketable down the line.

Overall the project was an enjoyable experience, one I hope to use again in the future and one I wish there was more time to really dig in and work on. This last point is my own fault for not spending more time playing around with plug-ins etc. which would enhance the final site. Particularly, I had issues with the footnote plug-ins again, I’m sure if I spent more time testing other versions, eventually it would have worked as I wanted. In the end, I opted for internal citations, which aren’t as aesthetically pleasing in my mind… Additional issues I had with WordPress revolved predominately around aesthetic concerns, specifically text and image integration. There were instances where the images refused to orient themselves on the published page in the same fashion as the editing window, causing some irritation. Finally, in creating a webpage research project, I felt a bit uncertain how best to organize and present text per page without overwhelming the viewer. Ultimately, my page erred on the side of minimal text per page and in retrospect should have included more information as a standalone mini lesson of sorts for each menu tab.

The manar al-athar database was wonderfully easy to navigate and for purposes of my site, Palmyra, it was absolutely essential. Having access to various high quality images not only broken down by location, but also by typology made cross-referencing a breeze. Additionally, I was very pleased to have the option what image size I could download. Hopefully, the manar al-athar database will continue to expand and offer an even wider range of images for students and professionals to access.

From another student:

Now that this assignment is completed and graded, I feel okay about saying that it was definitely a challenge. Actually one of the more difficult assignments I’ve had here. Everyone knows (mostly I assume) how to write a paper, but balancing creating content while also thinking about an end user experience was certainly a trick. And now that the class is completed and graded, I feel okay about saying that I really enjoyed this class.



About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Oxford. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor and the Deputy Executive Officer in the M.A. in Liberal Studies at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Her research interests are on Roman and Islamic material culture, specifically on architecture and gardens. She is also interested in the use of digital tools in the study and teaching of archaeology. She is the contributing editor for Art of the Islamic World for Smarthistory at Khan Academy and the Chair of the Digital Technology Committee of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Interactive Technology for More Critical Service-Learning?: Possibilities for Mentorship and Collaboration within an Online Platform for International Volunteering / By Willy Oppenheim, Joe O’Shea, and Steve Sclar

Interactive Technology for More Critical Service-Learning?

Possibilities for Mentorship and Collaboration within an Online Platform for International Volunteering

Willy Oppenheim, Omprakash
Joe O’Shea, Florida State University
Steve Sclar, Omprakash EdGE


International service-learning programs have rapidly expanded in higher education in recent years, but there has been little examination of the potential uses of interactive technology as a pedagogical tool within such programs. This paper explores a case study of an interactive digital platform intended to add more reflexivity and critical rigor to the learning that happens within international service-learning programs at colleges and universities. The digital platform under consideration, Omprakash EdGE (www.omprakash.org/edge), facilitates collaboration between students, international grassroots social impact organizations, and a team of mentors that supports students before, during, and after their international experiences. The authors represent both sides of a collaboration between Omprakash EdGE and a program at Florida State University which works to help students find affordable, ethical, and educational opportunities for international engagement. The paper begins with an overview of the troubled landscape of international service-learning within higher education, and an explanation of the authors’ rationale for collaborating to develop a new program model revolving around a digital platform. Then it discusses the ways in which the authors have sought to cultivate international learning experiences that are dialogical, reflexive, personal, and experiential, and it explains how a digital platform has been central to this effort by enabling students to build relationships with host organizations, engage in pre-departure training, and receive support from mentors. It then explains some of the challenges and successes the authors have encountered in their collaboration thus far, and concludes with reflections on the pedagogical constraints and possibilities for interactive technology within programs aiming to generate critical consciousness through international engagement.

I. Introduction

Within the broader trend of internationalization sweeping through colleges, universities, and even some high schools in the United States and elsewhere (Gacel-Avila 2005; Harris 2008), the phenomenon of international service-learning raises a number of interesting pedagogical and programmatic questions. As educational institutions in resource-rich countries (the so-called “Global North”) increasingly endorse opportunities for students to travel to resource-poor countries (the so-called “Global South” or “developing world”) to volunteer or intern in settings that include schools, clinics, orphanages, and community centers, what forms of student learning are they hoping to promote, and how do they assume that this learning actually unfolds? What are the ethical and pedagogical principles  —if any—that inform the design and implementation of international service-learning programs?

It is well-established that young people are leaving their home countries to volunteer abroad at an unprecedented rate (Dolnicar and Randle 2007; Hartman et al. 2012; Mcbride and Lough 2010, 196; Ouma and Dimaras 2013). Some aspects of this trend are not new: its roots reach back at least as far as the founding of the United States Peace Corps in 1961 and the United Kingdom’s Voluntary Service Organisation (VSO) in 1958, and are entwined with older trends of faith-based international mission work. Yet regardless of these various historical precedents, researchers agree that the trend has spiked dramatically in recent decades, spurred on by both government programs and a huge range of program offerings in the private sector (Rieffel and Zalud 2006; Leigh 2011, 29). Recent data suggest that over 350,000 individuals aged 16–25 engage in some form of international volunteering each year (Jones 2005). Within the United States, tens of thousands of young people per annum volunteer through non-profit organizations such as churches and charities and through for-profit companies that chaperone group volunteer trips or “place” volunteers with foreign “community partners” (Rieffel and Zalud 2006). Recent reports estimate the value of this emergent “voluntourism” industry at anywhere from $150 million to over $1 billion per annum (Mintel 2008; Stein 2012).[1] Meanwhile, whether under the banner of creating global citizens, preparing students to compete in a global knowledge economy, or fostering intercultural competence, colleges and universities are seeking new partnerships, developing new programs, and mobilizing new discourses that all celebrate the value of immersive, non-traditional educational experiences in international settings. Within this context, programs that revolve around international service-learning have become increasingly popular, and such programs have been the subject of a considerable amount of recent academic research (e.g. Crabtree 2008; Green and Johnson 2014; Hartman et al. 2014).

Against this backdrop, academics and mainstream media outlets alike have recently put forth well-justified criticism of international volunteering (e.g. Biddle 2014; Hickel 2013; Zakaria 2014). Some authors (e.g. Ausland 2010) have usefully delineated between various forms of this phenomenon within and beyond universities—distinguishing, for example, between mission trips, slum tourism, middleman companies that “place” individual volunteers, and faculty-led group service trips. Many argue that the practice of sending untrained, unskilled young people into sensitive foreign contexts on short trips for the purpose of “serving” is a paternalistic impulse that smells of neocolonialism (e.g. Crossley 2012; Simpson 2004). At the same time, a growing body of peer-reviewed research has argued for the socially and personally transformative potential of student volunteering through university service-learning programs, especially when those programs take an explicitly critical stance and explicitly orient themselves towards the pursuit of social change (e.g. Crabtree 2008, 2013; Hartman and Kiely 2013; Mitchell 2008).

The authors of this paper represent a collaboration between the director of Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement and the directors of Omprakash EdGE, a web platform that connects prospective volunteers with autonomous grassroots social impact organizations and provides intensive volunteer training and mentorship via an online classroom. We share many of the same concerns and hopes described above, but our aim here is not to restate the common refrain that “good intentions are not enough,” nor to offer another aspirational but abstract vision of what service-learning programs “should” achieve. Instead, we identify three common characteristics of service-learning programs that we find to be deeply troubling, and then explain our ongoing attempt to confront and improve upon these programmatic features via an innovative model that revolves around an interactive digital platform. By sharing the case study of our own experience, we aim to raise new questions about the educative capacity of interactive technology within the sphere of international service-learning, and to generate further debate and collaboration in this direction.

Our collaboration grew out of a shared concern that many, if not most, organizations in the business of selling or facilitating volunteer opportunities meet one or more of the following three conditions: 1) they act as a middleman; that is, they “place” volunteers with organizations or in communities from which they are distinctly separate; 2) they charge high fees for this service and more or less guarantee a placement to those who pay these fees; and 3) they promote their work by insisting that a) volunteers will be “making a difference” regardless of their background or qualifications, b) even a little bit of help is “better than nothing,” and therefore c) no significant pre-departure training or preparation is necessary (see Ausland 2010; Citrin 2011; Hartman et al. 2012). We contend that the convergence of these common program features is deleterious to student-volunteers and the organizations they purport to serve.

This paper centers on our attempt to develop an interactive digital platform that enables alternatives to these trends, and its central question is whether this model is indeed a viable one. Circling around this question are many others: If international service-learning is inherently a distance-based and loosely-defined educational experience, then how do we track learning, and what can be the role of technology in this tracking? How can a digital platform be used to remediate many of the broader problems of service-learning and ‘voluntourism’? How can an interactive digital classroom and mixed-media curricula be integrated toward that end? What role can a trained mentorship team play in facilitating learning before, during, and after students’ international trips? And most crucially, in a world characterized by stark inequalities, is it possible to use an interactive digital platform as a vehicle for critical pedagogy that sparks social and personal transformations?

In what follows, we attempt to answer these questions by sharing data and reflections from our own experience. We begin by elaborating our guiding pedagogical principles and then describing the online volunteer-matching platform, classroom, and mentorship system that are central to our program. Then we offer qualitative and quantitative data to illustrate some of the challenges and successes we have encountered thus far. We conclude by reflecting on the possibilities for interactive technology as an avenue towards more critical and transformative service-learning.

II. Programmatic Origins and Pedagogical Principles

Founded in 2004, Omprakash is an interactive digital platform that enables vetted international partner organizations to build profiles, post positions, and recruit volunteers. Prospective volunteers search and apply for positions posted by Omprakash partners, and partners have full autonomy to determine when and if they offer a particular position to a particular applicant. Volunteers pay for their own travel and in-country living expenses, but pay no program fee to Omprakash in exchange for the connective services offered by the Omprakash platform. In early 2012, Omprakash administrators launched Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement) as an attempt to actively confront the most problematic aspects of the service-learning industry described above: namely, that volunteers are often provided with little to no pre-departure training and mentorship, and that the learning half of “service-learning” is often a disconcerting grey area. The EdGE program couples volunteer trips with a 12-week pre-departure online classroom, a dedicated mentor, and a required field-based inquiry that culminates in a Capstone Project documenting local perspectives about the social issue(s) that the volunteer’s host organization is working to confront. The program is tuition-based, and one of the motivations for its design was to create sustainable, not-for-profit revenue to support the broader Omprakash platform. Omprakash sought university collaborators for the pilot year and found a strong partner in Florida State University (FSU).

In the fall of 2012, Omprakash and Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement (CRE) partnered to create an FSU Global Scholars program (http://cre.fsu.edu/Students/Global-Scholars-Program) that would offer a combination of online training and immersive international volunteer opportunities to several dozen FSU students per year. A particular focus of the program is to recruit participants who are from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college students, as this population is often underrepresented in these types of experiences and stands to benefit greatly (Finley and McNair 2013). In the first iteration (’12-’13 academic year), 37 students were selected to be Global Scholars by CRE administrators. These students each participated in the EdGE online classroom during the spring semester and then spent at least two months during the summer with one of Omprakash’s international partner organizations. In the second iteration (’13-’14 academic year), 28 students participated, and the online classroom was complemented with weekly in-person meetings among the Global Scholars on the FSU campus. At the time of writing, we are in the midst of the third iteration of the EdGE/Global Scholars collaboration, with 49 students involved.

Our work together has revolved around four pedagogical principles. First, we believe that the learning in international service-learning should be dialogical: learning should emerge via interactions with others and exploration of different perspectives, and various “truths” should be uncovered and interrogated in an ongoing process of exploration, rather than received as static “facts.” Second, learning should be reflexive: it should encourage students to reflect on their own positionality, to recognize and share their own biases, and to understand the process of learning about others as inextricable from a process of learning about selfhood and subjectivity. Third, learning should be personal, meaning that it should emerge through human relationships characterized by empathy, camaraderie, compassion, and humor. Finally, learning should be experiential, meaning that it should be grounded in empirical inquiry and exploration, and that students’ international experiences should recursively inform each other’s ongoing learning.

We make no claim to the originality of these guiding principles—indeed, we readily acknowledge the extent to which our own work has drawn inspiration from the broader trends of constructivist epistemology and critical pedagogy, in particular the work of Paulo Freire (1970). Yet our unique challenge has been to apply these principles to the creation of interactive technology intended to facilitate and support international engagement. The next section provides further details about why and how we have attempted to do so.

III. The Omprakash EdGE Digital Platform: Rationale, Functionalities, and Possibilities

Rationale for Using Interactive Technology

The prominent role of interactive technology within the EdGE/Global Scholars program is a response to several key contextual points. The first contextual point is one of geography and logistics: a digital platform is the most obvious solution to the parallel challenges of enabling students to connect directly with potential host organizations around the world, and also enabling students to maintain contact with each other and to maintain some semblance of intellectual continuity before, during, and after their field positions. Likewise, the chronological flexibility of digital learning means that a wider range of students can find ways to integrate the EdGE pre-departure curriculum into busy schedules.

The second contextual point concerns program costs and accessibility to a diverse group of students: in contrast to chaperoned “voluntourism” trips, the Omprakash digital platform can operate at scale for relatively minimal overhead costs, and thus Omprakash experiences are financially accessible to students whose less-privileged backgrounds might render them unable to afford more expensive “voluntourism” trips.[2] The key difference is that Omprakash does not spend administrative resources on placing volunteers or chaperoning trips; instead, its digital platform allows individuals and organizations to connect organically and arrange their own plans via direct communication. Omprakash invests time and resources into the initial vetting of its partner organizations to ensure a degree of quality and reliability, but the ongoing vetting process is largely driven by users’ reviews of their experiences, and this is another example of the ways in which Omprakash has been able to expand and strengthen its network without incurring expenses that must be passed on to users.

The third contextual point concerns the institutional and bureaucratic inertia faced by administrators at FSU and many other universities: despite a genuine intent to integrate rigorous academic content with students’ international experiences, universities often lack the funding and institutional will to incentivize or allow faculty to teach accredited interdisciplinary courses that explicitly prepare students to approach international service-learning with intellectual seriousness (Crabtree 2013; Hartman and Kiely 2014). Against this contextual backdrop, it made sense for FSU’s CRE to use the Omprakash EdGE online platform instead of developing a new on-campus course.

Browsing and Applying for Volunteer / Internship Positions

Omprakash administrators developed their volunteer matching platform as a deliberate alternative to the dominant “placement” model in which middlemen restrict direct contact between volunteers and their host organizations prior to arrival, and volunteers are not required to apply for specific positions. The basic rationale for this platform is that it provides greater power and autonomy to host organizations that tend to be marginalized within the dominant “placement” model.

In the dominant model, middleman organizations have little incentive to allow for direct dialogue between volunteers and hosts, because doing so might allow the volunteer to sidestep the middleman and avoid paying the middleman’s fees. Consequently, host organizations possess little to no autonomy to determine which volunteers might (or might not) be a good fit for their organization’s needs, values, and specific position openings. Likewise, volunteers have limited to no opportunity to learn more about different potential hosts and decide which one might be the best fit for their specific skills and interests.

The Omprakash model reverses this pattern by empowering partner organizations with full autonomy to solicit applications for specific positions, and to accept or reject applicants as they see fit. In addition, this programmatic feature is also an important component of students’ learning experiences: by requiring students to apply for specific positions and communicate directly with Omprakash partners, Omprakash challenges the embedded paternalistic assumptions that NGOs working in resource-poor contexts are desperate for foreign help, and that “anyone can do it.”

The EdGE Classroom

Course content in the EdGE digital classroom is divided into separate weeks that are sequentially accessible. Weeks are clustered into thematic sections, and each week is oriented around a single essential question. For example, the theme of Weeks 1–3 is “Good Intentions and Unintended Consequences,” and the essential question of Week 1 is “What might be wrong with international volunteering?”

Each week is divided into three sections: Learn, Respond, and Browse. The Learn section (see Figure 1) of each week is further divided into slides in which Omprakash administrators arrange learning content: a reading excerpt, an embedded video, a photo collage, a public service announcement from the Omprakash narrator, or any combination of the above. At the base of each slide, students are able to write observations and browse the observations of their peers. The Learn section of each week contains anywhere from ten to twenty slides and is designed to require 1–2 hours to complete. Upon completing the Learn section of a given week, students enter the Respond section (see Figure 2) and submit a written reflection or recorded video to a prompt related to the week’s essential question and associated content. After submitting their weekly response, students enter the Browse section (see Figure 3), where they explore and comment upon the responses of their peers. The end result is three ways for students to interact with classroom content and each other on a weekly basis: observations in the Learn section, responses in the Respond section, and comments in the Browse section. All participants are notified with an email whenever their response receives a comment, and mentors are notified with an email whenever their mentees post an observation or response.

EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Figure 1. Cropped screenshot of a slide within the Learn section of last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.



Respond section from EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Respond section from last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

Browse section of EdGE/Global Scholars classroom

Figure 3. Cropped screenshot from the Browse section of last year’s EdGE/Global Scholars classroom.

EdGE Mentorship

In contrast to a typical Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), we sought to ensure that student experiences within our online classroom would involve a significant degree of personalized mentorship and instruction. With this in mind, Omprakash administrators solicited applications and built a team of EdGE Mentors who would work with FSU Global Scholars as they worked through the EdGE online classroom. The EdGE Mentor team is comprised mostly of graduate students and young professionals with deep experience as researchers and practitioners in fields such as international development, public health, gender studies, and anthropology. EdGE Mentors are geographically dispersed—the current team of seventeen Mentors is spread across locations including Atlanta, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Quito, Port au Prince, and Toronto—but collaborate with students and with each other via the EdGE digital classroom. For each cycle of the Global Scholars program, each mentor is matched with a handful of mentees and is expected to maintain contact with his or her mentees before, during, and after the mentees’ field positions. Mentors are compensated on a per-student basis.

The mentorship team has multiple nodes of contact with mentees. Firstly, mentors make themselves available to mentees via email and video calls. As students progress through the online coursework, mentors schedule “office hours” with their mentees, usually via Skype or Google+. Omprakash administrators request that mentors hold office hours at least four times throughout the 12-week pre-departure classroom, and mentors use this time to answer questions and build personal rapport with their mentees. Secondly, within the classroom itself, mentors are engaged in almost exactly the same way as their mentees: each week, mentors write observations, responses, and comments. Within the Browse section, mentors are required to provide a substantial comment to each of their mentees’ responses. Mentors are welcome to provide comments to any student, even if the student is not one of their designated mentees. While these comments are public to all users, the online platform also affords mentors the opportunity to send private weekly feedback to their mentees.

Blended Learning

Upon acceptance into the Global Scholars program, students are enrolled in a one-credit, pass-fail course during the spring semester. The on-campus course is facilitated by CRE administrators and meets weekly. These meetings are usually devoted to answering logistical questions and giving students time to discuss content encountered in the EdGE classroom thus far. These meetings constitute a key feature of the collaboration between Omprakash EdGE and the CRE: while the EdGE digital classroom provides space in which students can explore content and discuss with mentors and each other, the weekly on-campus meetings add another layer of personal interaction to the experience.

EdGE Curriculum and Capstone Projects

Rooted in Paulo Freire’s notion of conscientization (“raising critical consciousness”), the EdGE curriculum is designed to help students move beyond the superficial urge to ‘help others,’ and to work towards more holistic and reflexive understandings of the intersecting contexts in which they and their host partners are situated. The curriculum begins by challenging students to reflect upon the intentions and assumptions that underlie their desires to volunteer abroad. It dedicates a week to deconstructing the catch-all term “culture.” Another week is devoted to exploring the complexities of conflicting local interest groups and power dynamics that are often obscured by overly-romanticized notions of “helping the community.” Three weeks explore intersections of social, economic, and environmental inequality, and thereby help students locate themselves and their host organizations in relation to global configurations of power. The latter part of the curriculum teaches research methods—particularly the tools of ethnographic observation and community-based participatory research (CBPR)—so that students can complete observer-activist Capstone Projects which document the roots of a complex social issue and are meant to be shared with all members of the Omprakash network as well as other audiences back home.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The Omprakash digital platform allows Omprakash administrators to easily track each student’s observations, responses, and comments throughout the duration of the twelve-week pre-departure curriculum, and to qualitatively assess how a given student’s understandings seem to shift (or not shift) over time. Likewise, the platform also allows Omprakash administrators, EdGE Mentors, and FSU administrators to easily answer quantitative questions such as which pieces of classroom content elicit the most student responses, which mentors have the most consistent back and forth dialogue with their mentees, and how trends in classroom participation vary between students with differing background characteristics.

To supplement these data sources, we also administer surveys to our students on a periodic basis. Students complete a pre- and post- survey that builds upon established survey instruments, such as the Global Perspectives Inventory (https://gpi.central.edu/) and the College Senior Survey (HERI), and also includes original questions and constructs. In addition, students offer qualitative feedback and reflections on the quality of our program via surveys administered at the midpoint and conclusion of the pre-departure curriculum and upon returning home from their field positions. Finally, Omprakash administrators also solicit feedback from Omprakash partners about the contributions of each student-volunteer.

All of this is to say that we have managed to accumulate abundant data reflecting student experiences within our program. However, we will be the first to acknowledge that conducting meaningful analysis of this data is much more challenging than simply collecting it. In the next section, we attempt to draw some inferences from the various forms of data we have collected thus far.

IV. What We’ve Learned—Challenges and Successes

Having provided an explanation of the roots and structure of our program and collaboration, we now offer a deeper analysis of the challenges and successes we have encountered during our collaboration thus far. We focus on three core aspects of our digital platform: the volunteer matching system, the EdGE classroom, and the remote mentorship model.

Matching Volunteers and Partner Organizations

By requiring potential volunteers to apply for positions, establish dialogue, and build rapport with potential host organizations before they leave home, we encourage a bridging of the real and imagined gulfs that separate the two parties. In addition to reducing our administrative burden and thus making our program more affordable and accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds, this aspect of our program actualizes a key dimension of our ethos: by allowing volunteers and hosts to engage autonomously, exchange information freely, and establish a preliminary relationship, we enact a preventive strategy to discourage distorted relations, perverse incentive structures and perpetuated biases.

Omprakash has been refining this aspect of its platform for a decade, and the platform has facilitated thousands of fruitful collaborations between volunteers and partner organizations. However, our experience with this platform has also uncovered some troubling ironies related to digitally-based dialogue and collaboration. To state the obvious: technologies intended to connect people do not always result in increased connectedness or in successful collaborations. Prospective volunteers can be very fickle when communicating with partners: in many cases, they delay in answering emails; they forget about scheduled meetings—whether due to time zone confusion or other distractions—and they express themselves in casual, lackadaisical terms which partners sometimes interpret as immature or unprofessional. Given that Omprakash partners are real organizations confronting real social issues and are not pop-up projects that exist only to facilitate feel-good volunteer experiences, this sort of digital interaction with prospective volunteers can be disconcerting or even offensive.

Omprakash prides itself on its commitment to providing an alternative to the dominant “placement” model, and collaborators at FSU and other universities share this commitment. However, at times it seems as though some students would be much more comfortable if Omprakash would just “place” them on a volunteer trip and save them the trouble of needing to browse real organizations and apply for specific positions. Likewise, some parents and university administrators balk at the lack of “on-site supervision” within the Omprakash model. Of course, all partners provide their own “on-site supervision,” but it seems that the embedded concerns of some parents and administrators will not be soothed unless supervision comes in the form of a well-credentialed American or European chaperone. The Omprakash digital platform is meant to facilitate direct collaboration between diverse people and organizations, but some prospective volunteers, parents, and university administrators seem that to prefer paying a high premium for a guaranteed “placement” rather than grapple with the complexities and uncertainties of building relationships with locally-run social impact organizations that may or may not actually want their help. The irony here is that volunteering abroad is ostensibly a process of collaboration, but many prospective volunteers seem intimidated by the fundamentally collaborative ethos that underpins the Omprakash platform and would prefer crisply packaged “voluntourism” products designed for mass consumption.

The EdGE Classroom

On the whole, FSU Global Scholars have interacted deeply and positively with the Omprakash EdGE online classroom. There was marked improvement in the level of engagement from the first year of the program (’12–’13) to the second (’13–’14). We attribute this to two main factors. First, FSU administrators facilitated on-campus weekly meetings in the second iteration of the program. Providing this structure seemed to help spur participation. Second, Omprakash administrators gave the EdGE curriculum a thorough makeover before the second year based on feedback from first year students. Omprakash administrators added a great deal of new content, removed content that had not resonated, and developed new tactics for structuring the material in the Learn section. For example, in the first year only one piece of content (reading, video, etc.) was put onto each slide, which meant that some weeks had over 20 slides. In the second year, to whatever extent possible, slides were crafted to deliver a specific message and multiple pieces of content were arranged on a single slide to tell that story.

The post-course evaluation completed by 82% (23/28) of the 2013-2014 Global Scholars provides a clearer snapshot of students’ experience in the online classroom. Only one student disagreed with the statement “I found the classroom intuitive to navigate,” and all students agreed that “the classroom was well-organized.” Nineteen of 23 (83%) students agreed that the weekly content was “stimulating” and 20 (87%) agreed that “the flow of the course from week to week was logical.” Nineteen (83%) agreed with the statement “I valued the opportunity to engage with peers and mentors in the weekly forums.” In response to a request for general feedback, one student wrote:

I liked how it had a curriculum set up that consisted of a learning, responding, and browsing stage. It really makes me feel engaged with my peers and administration. I liked how it felt like we were in a live class. It was enjoyable to learn things online at our own pace.

With regard to self-reported learning in this evaluation, 100% of students agreed with the statement “I am a better prepared international volunteer because of this course” (of which 14 (61%) “strongly” agreed). This is encouraging, but even more encouraging is the overwhelmingly positive written feedback, such as:

I really loved how Omprakash opened my eyes to a whole new world of international aid, public health, anthropology, and research that I’ve never known about.

This program changes your perspective on international volunteering and issues like no other. It helps you reevaluate any prejudices and biases you may not even be aware you have, and learn how to best be an informed and engaged intern. It gives you extremely valuable resources and a network of people to help along the way.

I’m sure that if I were left to my own devices, I would have been more likely to literally wait until possibly even now to START preparing. It made me consider a lot of things that I wouldn’t have considered, and throughout taught me several things I will use over the course of my volunteering experience.

IT was the absolute BEST program I could ever recommend to anyone looking to volunteer abroad. It was the most eye opening experience of my undergraduate experience.

It is exciting to find students expressing this level of appreciation for a web-based learning platform. The final quoted comment reads like a typical testimonial about a ‘life-changing’ experience in another country, and thus is all the more fascinating given that it was written weeks before the volunteer even left home.

Feedback like this makes us confident about the depth of learning that occurs in our online classroom, but we still see a great deal of room for improvement. The structure of our Learn section requires students to click through each slide, but it is difficult to gauge how carefully or carelessly students are engaging with weekly content unless they submit observations or responses that blatantly demonstrate a lack of understanding. Such instances are not rare and are certainly disheartening, but it is worth noting that the student tendencies of taking shortcuts and skimming are hardly problems unique to digital learning environments.

One of the most common critiques about digital learning is the high rate of attrition, estimated to be 93.5% for MOOCs such as Coursera (Jordan 2014). In this credit-bearing collaboration, we do not face this problem. If Global Scholars do not participate in the EdGE classroom, they will fail a course that appears on their FSU transcripts. But because it is a pass-fail course, our challenge is making sure that students are doing more than the bare minimum to pass.

Online Mentorship

EdGE Mentors are a crucial component of our effort to ensure that our online classroom is dialogical, reflexive, and personal. Our expectation that mentors provide thoughtful comments on each of their mentees’ weekly responses is the cornerstone of our strategy to ignite dialogue in the weekly forums. In ideal circumstances, every student’s weekly response will garner comments from his mentor and peers. In reality however, most but not all responses in any given weekly forum will spur this level of dialogue.

At the conclusion of the most recent Global Scholars session, we reviewed each mentor’s engagement with his or her mentees and provided substantial quantitative and qualitative feedback to each mentor. We analyzed mentor engagement and coded it according to seven possible categories: supportive, i.e. “This is a great post”; affirmative, i.e. “I liked when you said…”; follow-up, i.e. “How would you explain…?”; own opinion, i.e. “My perspective on this is…”; personal anecdote, i.e. “When I was in grad school…”; refer-to-material, i.e. “Freire would say…”; for-further-reading, i.e. “Check out this article about…”. This coding system allowed us to identify major trends in each mentor’s style of engagement. For example, one mentor’s evaluation reads that 93% of her comments were ‘supportive’ and ‘follow-up,’ while 40% were ‘affirmative’ and 7% were ‘own opinion.’ In addition, 27% of her comments resulted in a ‘back and forth’ (student responds to her comment at least once).

We believe our mentorship system is one of the most vital aspects of the EdGE program. It provides the personal touch that keeps students honest and involved. In the post-course evaluation mentioned earlier, all 23 respondents agreed that their mentor “makes himself/herself available to answer my questions”; 21 (91%) agreed that their mentor was “helpful” (two were neutral), and 20 (87%) agreed that their mentor “provided good comments on my weekly responses.” Nineteen (83%) Global Scholars agreed that mentorship was a “very valuable” aspect of EdGE and “plan to maintain communication with my mentor during and after my field position” (the remaining four were neutral to both questions).

V. Using Interactive Technology to Raise Critical Consciousness?

Interactive technology and service-learning are both on the rise within higher education, but there is little reason to assume that either will be a driver of social change rather than social reproduction. Despite the hype about egalitarianism and democratization that surrounds emergent digital learning platforms, we worry that the implementation and evaluation of such technologies are sometimes directed towards the goals of increasing efficiency and profit margins at the expense of student learning and transformation. Likewise, despite the buzzwords of global citizenship and collaborative partnerships that surround the proliferation of service-learning programs, we worry that many such programs lack substantive pedagogical vision and are oriented around placement models and paternalistic narratives that are intrinsically disempowering to those they purport to serve (Baillie Smith and Laurie 2011). The authors of this paper have sought to integrate the two trends of interactive technology and service-learning with the explicit aim of going beyond the buzzwords to cultivate critical inquiry and authentic collaboration in pursuit of social change. Our pedagogical vision derives from Freire’s notion of ‘raising critical consciousness’: a conviction that ‘knowing the world’ through dialogue and reflection is the first step towards creating change. The question, then, is whether or not such a vision can be actualized through an interactive digital platform—or at all.

It is surely too early to attempt any conclusive answer to this question, but the case study offered in this paper suggests that interactive technology might indeed be a useful tool for facilitating the sort of learning and collaboration that “critical service-learning” would seem to require. Further research should investigate not just what students are learning via the digital platform, but also how they translate this learning into their work on the ground while volunteering abroad and into the rest of their lives upon returning home.


Willy and Steve would like to thank the Omprakash EdGE Mentorship team, without which this article would not exist: Alex Frye, Eric Dietrich, Kalie Lasiter, Emily Hedin, Mayme Lefurgey, Miyuki Baker, Kit Dobyns, Shelby Rogala, Anabel Sanchez, Laura Stahnke, Matt Smith, Barclay Martin, Nathan Kennedy, Meredith Smith, Devi Lockwood, Nina Hall and Mary Jean Chan. W&S would also like to thank Lacey Worel for making sure the Omprakash trains run on time and Sonu Mahan and Adarsh Kumar for being brilliant web developers who can turn stale mockups into truly interactive technology. Finally, W&S would like to thank the other half of this great collaboration: Joe, Latika Young and Kim Reid. Joe would also like to thank Latika and Kim for making sure the FSU Global Scholars program runs so well.


Ausland, Aaron. 2010. Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0. From <http://stayingfortea.org/2010/08/27/poverty-tourism-taxonomy-2-0/>. Accessed 31 May, 2014.

Baillie Smith, Matt, and Nina Laurie. 2011. “International volunteering and development: global citizenship and neoliberal professionalisation today.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36 (4). OCLC 751323473.

Biddle, Pipa. 2013. The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist. From <http://pippabiddle.com/2014/02/18/the-problem-with-little-white-girls-and-boys/>. Accessed 31 May, 2014.

Citrin, David M. 2011. “Paul Farmer made me do it”: a qualitative study of short-term medical volunteer work in remote Nepal. Thesis (M.P.H.), University of Washington. OCLC 755939202.

Crabtree, Robbin D. 2008. “Theoretical Foundations for International Service-Learning.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 15 (1): 18-36. OCLC 425540415.

Crabtree, Robbin D. 2013. “The Intended and Unintended Consequences of International Service-Learning.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement. 17 (2): 43-66. OCLC 854574208.

Crossley E. 2012. “Poor but Happy: Volunteer Tourists’ Encounters with Poverty.” Tourism Geographies. 14 (2): 235-253. OCLC 792841012.

Dolnicar, S., and M. Randle. 2007. The international volunteering market: market segments and competitive relations. International Journal for Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 12(4), 350-370. OCLC 826185553.

Finley, Ashley P., and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. OCLC 872625428.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder. OCLC 103959.

Gacel-Avila, Jocelyne. 2005. “The Internationalisation of Higher Education: A Paradigm for Global Citizenry.” Journal of Studies in International Education 9 (2): 121-136. OCLC 424733796.

Green, Patrick, and Matthew Johnson, eds. 2014. Crossing Boundaries: Tensions and Transformation in international service-learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus. OCLC 877554267.

Harris, Suzy. 2008. “Internationalising the University.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 40 (2): 346-357. OCLC 4633544389.

Hartman, Eric, Richard C. Kiely, Jessica Friedrichs, and Judith V. Boettcher. 2013. Building a Better World The Pedagogy and Practice of Ethical Global Service Learning. Stylus Pub Llc. OCLC 866938358.

Hartman, Eric, Cody Morris Paris, and Brandon Blache-Cohen. 2012. “Tourism and transparency: navigating ethical risks in volunteerism with fair trade learning.” Africa Insight 42 (2): 157-168. OCLC 853073233.

Hartman, Eric, and Richard Kiely. 2014. “A Critical Global Citizenship.” In Green, Patrick, and Matthew Johnson. Crossing boundaries: tension and transformation in international service-learning. OCLC 877554267.

Hickel, Jason. 2013. “The ‘Real Experience’ industry: Student development projects and the depoliticisation of poverty.” Learning and Teaching 6 (2): 11-32. OCLC 5528846526.

Jones, A. 2005. Assessing international youth service programmes in two low income countries. Voluntary Action: The Journal of the Institute for Volunteering Research 7 (2): 87-100. OCLC 658807900.

Jordan, Katy. 2014. “Initial trends in enrolment and completion of massive open online courses.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 15(1). OCLC 5602810303.

Leigh, R. 2011. State of the World’s Volunteerism Report. United Nations Development Programme. OCLC 779540815.

McBride, A., and Lough, B. 2010. “Access to International Volunteering.” Nonprofit Management & Leadership 21 (2): 195-208. OCLC 680823597.

Mintel. 2008. Volunteer Tourism – International. London: Mintel International Group Limited.

Mitchell, Tania D. 2008. “Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 14 (2): 50-65. OCLC 425540125.

Ouma, B., and H. Dimaras. 2013. “Views from the global south: exploring how student volunteers from the global north can achieve sustainable impact in global health.” Globalization and Health 9 (32): 1-6. OCLC 855505685.

Rieffel, L., and S. Zalud. 2006. International Volunteering: Smart Power. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. OCLC 70134511.

Simpson, Kate. 2004. “‘Doing development’: the gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development.” Journal of International Development 16 (5): 681-692. OCLC 5156622715.

Stein, N. 2012. “Is 2012 the year of the volunteer tourist?” From <http://www.travelmole.com/news_feature.php?news_id=1151074>. Accessed 31 May 2014.

Zakaria, Rafia. 2014. “The White Tourist’s Burden.” Al Jazeera, 21 April 2014.

[1] The neologism “voluntourism,” though lacking a precise definition, is generally used in a pejorative manner to describe programs that combine volunteering with tourism. Throughout this essay, we use the terms “service-learning,” “volunteering,” and “voluntourism” somewhat interchangeably—not because we are unaware that many commentators have attempted to delineate between them, but rather because we believe that such delineations often obscure more than they illuminate, and that our criticisms and suggestions are applicable to programs that fall into all of these categories as well as the grey area between them.

[2] To offer one example of the sort of high-cost “voluntourism” program against which we work to offer an alternative: an organization branding itself as “the gold standard of global engagement” sells ten-day trips to Uganda under the slogan of “short term trips; long term impact.” Customers pay a program fee of $1,990 plus airfare, and travel in groups of at least eight. In contrast, a student participating in Omprakash EdGE and working with an Omprakash partner in Uganda for sixty days would pay a total of roughly $1,350 plus airfare ($750 for the EdGE program fee, and $10 per day in country), and would receive pre-departure training and mentorship that is unavailable in the typical “voluntourism” model.



About the Authors

Willy Oppenheim is the founder and Executive Director of Omprakash, a web-based nonprofit that connects volunteers, interns and donors directly with social impact organizations in over 40 countries. Willy received a BA from Bowdoin College, where he completed a self-designed major in religion, education and anthropology. In 2009, he received a Rhodes Scholarship and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education from the University of Oxford. As an educator and educational researcher, Willy has worked in classrooms in the United States, India, Pakistan and China, and in the wilderness as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. For over 10 years, Willy has been working through Omprakash to transform the field of international service-learning to make it more affordable, more ethical, and more educational for everyone involved.

Joe O’Shea serves as the Director of Florida State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement and is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy. He received a BA in philosophy and social science from Florida State University, where he served as the student body president and a university trustee. A Truman and Rhodes Scholar, he has a master’s degree in comparative social policy and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Oxford. Joe has been involved with developing education and health-care initiatives in communities in the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa. His research and publications are primarily focused on the civic and moral development of people, and his recent book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Joe serves on the board of the American Gap Association and as an elected Councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research, the leading national organization for the promotion of undergraduate research and scholarship.

Steve Sclar is the co-founder and Program Director for Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement). Steve received a BBA from the College of William & Mary, where he majored in Marketing and Environmental Science. He is finishing up an MPH in the Global Environmental Health department at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Previous volunteer or work experience in Tibet, Ghana and Iceland led Steve to his current role for Omprakash.

Skip to toolbar