Tagged experiential learning

Two people discuss by a computer and smartphone, gesticulating with their hands.

Authoring an Open-Source Game for a Faculty Open Educational Resources Workshop: A Case Study


While most college institutions running open educational resource (OER) conversion initiatives currently teach some online version of the OER faculty workshop, little scholarship exists on how this type of instruction can be optimized for best comprehension of, and engagement with, open resources, especially in a remote context. An overview of existing models of the workshop and their digital pedagogy philosophies is followed by a discussion of one initiative currently implemented by Baruch College’s Center of Teaching and Learning, which embraces online gaming as an effective modality to reinforce textual and auditory learning. The Old Régime and the OER Revolution, an online interactive tutorial created with the open tool Twine, is the first RPG for faculty to engage with open educational resource conversion issues. The game can be accessed in its current beta version. Because Twine encourages players to think in terms of choices and their implications while considering multiple scenarios, introducing this tool to college faculty via the OER workshop can also encourage its uptake in a plethora of other pedagogical contexts.


The faculty development OER workshop is one of the most important, yet little-researched, links in the chain of adoption of open resources on campus. Most of the models that exist acknowledge the importance of concept learning for instructors encountering terms such as OER, ZTC, and open pedagogy for the first time. Moreover, teaching faculty about best practices in fair use and Creative Commons licensing—a related field—has a trickle-down effect to undergraduates. One way to achieve familiarity with open education is through hands-on learning, where instructors model examining and converting course materials to open or zero-cost and abiding by U.S. copyright law.

The digital game-based module in this case study was created as an alternative to the traditional workshop, to meet the needs of instructors as observed after several years of an OER initiative. It gives the users an opportunity to be active participants in a multimedia narrative and provides them with the flexibility of an asynchronous, iterative assignment. It also bases itself in scenario-based learning—problem-centered instructional solutions, which complement and cement the more straightforward directional learning in the regular faculty workshop. And, as a program made with a relatively uncomplicated open-source tool, it provides an attractive use case for both faculty and students.

The OER Faculty Development Workshop: Going Digital, Going Multimodal

The workshop in OER for faculty has not yet emerged as a subject of research, although a few on-campus initiatives have presented their versions, explaining decisions around context and organization. At a base level, the class primarily focuses on certain topics germane to the field: what are open resources and open education in general, what is meant by zero textbook cost, how do open licenses work, why follow best practices when pursuing free content, and how do instructors follow accessibility guidelines. Practice activities involve faculty participants searching for materials to replace assigned readings or, if the initiative is grounded in goal-based learning, determining the course objectives and the kinds of resources required to meet them. More than a workshop, this scope of subjects suggests a training program designed for specialist-facilitated, hands-on learning. However, given the relative novelty of the twenty-year-old field, no set rules exist and no single model prevails.

Several teaching bodies have seized upon the potential of the OER workshop to be taught remotely. In 2017, the City University of New York (CUNY) was awarded a $4 million package as part of a Scale Up! OER grant “to establish, sustain and enhance new and ongoing OER initiatives throughout CUNY” (CUNY Libraries 2017). Most of the work of converting a class to open involves searching across multiple databases, and variable concerns arise depending on the instructor’s discipline. The nature of instruction, even at these online-optimized institutions, thus remains of necessity hybrid, combining asynchronous content delivery with a synchronous mode for live discussion and troubleshooting. The possibility to take such courses remotely and for free has added convenience and flexibility; their parallel emergence at public commuter colleges in the CUNY and the Washington State Community college systems has been no accident.

In 2017, Lehman College-CUNY Director of Online Learning Olena Zhadko and Susan Ko, Director of Faculty Development at the NYU School of Professional Studies, developed an asynchronous, online faculty OER workshop to be offered for a two-week period several times during the year. The mini-course, designed for incorporation into the Blackboard LMS, scaffolds understanding of OERs through a module-based system, based on a tripartite organization of defining, finding, and integrating OER, as well as a discussion forum. The learners are asked to think about how open fits into their teaching and articulate their rationale for selecting a specific OER. Their final project in the workshop consists of a list of course materials replaced by open or zero-cost equivalents, with justification and description of intended use: adoption, adaptation, or creation. The library department at Lehman College has an accompanying final assignment for hands-on practice, which tests participants’ ability to link to websites, images, and video, apply attribution, and choose Creative Commons licenses (Cohen 2018).

Simultaneously with Lehman, the Washington State Board for Technical and Community Colleges—the creator of the Open Attribution Builder—developed a free, self-paced course made up of ten modules, including one on accessibility and a reflection on “Why OER Matters.” The website likewise includes “Personal Journeys Using OER,” a series of videos by on-campus practitioners. This version appears less hands-on yet also more personal than Lehman’s, emphasizing the human element of course conversions. It co-exists in a face-to-face format, offered over a two-week period at set points throughout the academic year. These inroads in digital education have opened up the possibility of yet more interactive ways for faculty to engage with the material in concert with the existing learning structure.

Creating a New Mode for the OER Workshop at Baruch College

The Baruch College-CUNY Center for Teaching and Learning joined the OER initiative the same year as Lehman and created an in-person faculty seminar accompanied by a set of slides since made publicly available on the Center’s OER pedagogy site. Baruch’s seminar, conducted in a mix of presentation and workshop elements, features backward course design (What outcomes am I looking for? How will I measure if these outcomes have been achieved?) as well as choice of platform (mainly between the Blackboard LMS and the proprietary, though open, WordPress site Blogs@Baruch). The most recent addition to the topics covered in the workshop have been open-source digital tools (Hypothes.is, StoryMap JS, Timeline JS, Voyant, and Twine), which are simple to use and versatile enough to create OERs for both teaching demonstrations and final assignments, i.e. teacher- or student-led work.

In 2019, on the suggestion of Center for Teaching and Learning Director Allison Lehr Samuels, I began creating a future addition to the workshop. In the spirit of providing opportunities for faculty to educate themselves about OER and related topics, the game, like the slides, was to be made openly available on the TeachOER website and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA). Four goals for this project had materialized: (a) showcasing one of the digital tools, (b) adding another mode to the regular workshop to cater to different kinds of learners, (c) creating a fully asynchronous engagement experience with the workshop, which could also serve as review material, and (d) incorporating recurrent questions that had come from workshop participants for the past three years of the OER initiative.

The technology to carry out these diverse functions had to align with the Center’s principles of using open-source tools to support interactive digital solutions whenever possible. The college had already delved into creating single-player digital training with the 2009 Interactive Guide to Producing Copyrighted Media, developed by Baruch’s Computing and Technology Center and Kognito Interactive, a paid tool used for health simulations, owned and managed by college alumni. The experience took the user through an interactive maze consisting of various copyright and fair-use related situations drawing on such resources as U.S. copyright law, copyright guidelines for CUNY libraries, and public domain information. While this work was produced before any of today’s more common open-source tools and predated the state grant-funded initiative by several years, the Baruch library’s concern for adhering to best practices in decisions around intellectual property has been behind much of its OER programming as well.

The ultimate decision to make the new OER faculty workshop model with Twine, a non-linear, interactive storytelling tool for making single-player games based on decision-making, was grounded in Baruch’s longtime support for classroom technology as well as the Center for Teaching and Learning’s embrace of game-based pedagogy. According to the Center’s team,

The prevailing theory is that games enhance and mobilize internal desires and motivations for learning…[W]hen the rules of a game are tailored around learning outcomes, students are self-motivated to learn in order to ‘win’. Role-playing games in particular have been shown to increase student engagement and motivation to read, enhance persuasive writing and speaking, and increase critical and analytical thinking. (Baruch College CTL 2020)

Pedagogy games have in fact been shown to support classroom learning and stimulate greater engagement from students (Clark 2016; Gross 2007; Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa 2014). Internationally renowned game designer Jane McGonigal points out the salutary effect of games on students who experience the “satisfactions of achievement and mastery" (McGonigal 2016, 231). And a 2012 study by the Mathematics Education Research Journal showed 93% of class time was spent on task when using game-based learning, compared to only 72% without it (Bragg 2012). As the anti-rote memorization approach, game-playing is directly associated with active learning and has been a part of a general pedagogical shift towards fostering creativity by working through challenges and coming up with innovative solutions (Cheka-Romero and Gómez 2018; Lameras et al. 2015).

The Baruch CTL, already experienced in active learning practices, therefore considered the gaming approach optimal for the dual task of creating an alternative mode for faculty instruction and modeling new teaching techniques. And, with the target audience being the college’s largely contingent and overextended faculty, the team’s hope was that this exercise’s immersive approach would provide a high engagement—as well as an edutainment—quotient.

Twine and Digital Pedagogy

“Games should be created by everyone” is a motto that Chris Klimas, the creator of Twine, abides by in his work (Klimas 2020). The award-winning, Baltimore-based web developer and game designer published his text-authoring tool in 2009. The target audience was writers, and the experience of creating with Twine was meant to resemble a brainstorming exercise. Paying tribute to this legacy, its home page, www.twinery.org, to this day represents a corkboard with multi-colored notes attached to it with pushpins—a working surface of inspiration.

Passages in Twine’s editor interface appear in a simple, visual flowchart, a map of text nodes connected by arrows, to be filled out, then moved and rearranged at will. The starting point is a single node, and new ones are made when a user encloses the name of another passage in double brackets to continue the story. The scripting does not require any programming experience, although basic HTML skills are needed to change the style sheet and embed images, audio, and video. These technical features add up to a flexible, user-friendly tool with a low barrier to uptake, as well as quick connection capabilities due to its text-based nature. Scholar Anastasia Salter (2016) explains that an additional strength of Twine is its deregulated publication process, meaning that games can be distributed as quickly as they are created—unlike most products of subscription-based gaming websites, which go through an extensive review process before they can go live. This affordance of the open-source tool has also encouraged a greater immediacy and unselfconsciousness of the products made with it, as will be discussed later.

The main vehicle for moving through a Twine game has traditionally been the decision made by the user at the end of each passage between two or three options, each leading to a different fork in the narrative (occasionally, for the purposes of simply proceeding with the story, there may be just one choice). The origins of this decision-tree setup can be traced to “Choose Your Own Adventure,” a series of interactive fiction created in the 1970s by Edward Packard. Klimas (2020) fondly remembers devouring the CYOA books during regular visits to the public library and, later on, trying to “repurpose the genre for something more adult.” A manual on Twine for which Klimas served as the technical editor has recommendations for strong character arcs and narrative devices such as gifts and secret powers (Ford 2016). The author, who envisioned games like Dungeons and Dragons in book form, has since seen his stripped-down writing tool take on a superhero’s cloak—many of those using Twine build role-playing games that feature fighting fantasies. Another influence was hypertext in early Macs and the culture of object-oriented programming in graphical environments.

In a surprising development, yet one that its creator has heartily welcomed, the indie gaming community originally put Twine on the map in 2012–13, crafting a whole body of “vignette” stories with messages that are often unsettling or subversive. In a field dominated by males, its association with female voices and the experience of queer and marginalized groups has lasted to this day (Harvey 2014). Titles made with Twine range from the offbeat Cat Petting Simulator to 2014’s The Depression Quest, a work initially controversial for its very existence as a “game” yet now hailed for raising awareness of clinical depression by including crossed-out “non-choices”—regular actions impossible for someone afflicted with the condition. Salter (2016) refers to this feature as “metaphors of limitations” and praises the power of Twine’s economy of means as helpful for conveying emotion and raising awareness of mental health issues. (She also stresses that it is one of the few vehicles for games with non-mainstream/taboo subjects.)

While Twine has largely flown under the radar, the darling of a niche creative community, greater exposure has recently come to it from popular artistic culture—and, to some extent, the educational environment. The new-media artist Porpentine Charity Heartscape, whose unsettling, subversive games are made largely with the tool, had her works, With Those We Love Alive and howling dogs, featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (Klimas 2017). The following year, Charlie Brooker, the creator of the interactive Netflix film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) announced that its hundred-plus page script was written entirely in Twine (Aggarwal 2019). Around the same time, instructors began discussing their own teaching projects made with the tool and posting assignments made for humanities courses on the open web (McGrath 2019) (McCall 2017, 2019) although the practice remains limited to select classes by the enthusiastic few.

Salter credits Twine’s orientation toward the agency of the main character and lack of a peer-reviewed publishing model with its rising prominence: “Compared to the intensive team-based productions of 2D and 3D games, text-based games continue to offer a space for individual production.” In an industry known for technological extravagance, Twine is the plucky underdog that can achieve inspired—and pedagogically sound—results within a surprising economy of means.

The Baruch Twine Game: Scenario-Based Learning in a “CYOA” Format

According to its reviewers, Twine’s greatest affordance is that it deepens understanding and engagement through exploring alternatives. The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game also aims to mimic the branching, decision-making process of selecting the materials for a class: why and how should faculty abide by best practices? What are the consequences and trade-offs of certain decisions one makes in choosing freely distributed over proprietary copies—for legal repercussions, plain peace of mind, pedagogical freedom? And, more generally, why should instructors care about these issues if they do not yet teach with open resources? The title, juxtaposing “the old ways” and the “OER turn,” alludes to the main character’s specialization: in the game, “you” are a professor of French history. Yet more broadly, it references the pedagogical transformation involved in switching to open resources, which cover a wide range of mediums and modalities and involve not just a replacement of materials but also an examination of the way one teaches.

The decision that launches the game is not to teach in the usual way, as the introduction says of the main character:

You have always struggled with how unsatisfactory and expensive textbooks on the subject are…Given that your students come from so many diverse and international backgrounds, you wish there were some texts that talked more at length about their histories. (Tsan 2020)

As explained in a footnote, the prototype for this hero is Helmut Loeffler, a professor in the History Department of Queensborough Community College, CUNY, who authored a text, Introduction to Ancient Civilizations (2015), with a small grant, creating a book that understandably eschewed timelines, charts, or illustrations (Loeffler 2019). The non-fiction aspect of this “origin story” of the interactive fiction game was intentional, since the overarching goal of any faculty OER workshop is to inspire by actual example.

The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game follows Scenario-Based Learning (SBL), a popular instructional strategy in online training. In this approach, facilitators use situations close to ones that might come up and introduce applicable problems, to which the participants try to figure out the answers. Because SBL is grounded in the premise of applicability for the learners, the role-playing game aspect of many Twine products does not apply here. There are no magic friends, secret weapons or helpful gifts picked up, and the experience stays in the realm of the believable. (However, more than one aside, such as the French history professor’s waxing eloquent over a War and Peace passage she is choosing for her open syllabus, or the character of a curmudgeonly faculty member determined to resist the incursions of OER content, have been included for the purposes of levity or edutainment).

The single-player Old Régime game was designed to be non-competitive and low-stakes, a “game” in the sense of an adventure rather than a quest that results in “winning” or “losing.” In this sense, it is inspired by Jane McGonigal’s assertion that “good game developers know that the emotional experience itself is the reward” (McGonigal 2011, 244). Like most Twine tutorials created for learning and instruction, it follows the simple mode of SBL, “used to validate the learner’s recall and basic comprehension” and “good for basic problem solving” (Pandey 2018). In a similar vein, a Twine game recently made at Hostos Community College, CUNY, “encourages college-level English Language Learners to practice grammar concepts as they play the game narrative” (Lyons and Lundberg 2018). Making the wrong choice of several options sends the user back to do the exercise again until they get it right and can proceed with a visit to the Metropolitan College of Art (Met)—a relatable exercise for Hostos ELL students who frequently go to the real-world Met on field trips. The Old Régime aims for a more branching narrative, since, due to variations in the availability and permissions of course material, the choices taken by an instructor can only sometimes be classified in the right or wrong category.

While The Old Régime does not frequently correct the user’s choices, it has built-in capabilities for addressing decisions that may result in an impasse. If the answer is blatantly incorrect (“copy a 1992 book in its entirety and distribute the PDF to your class”) or fraught (“embed the YouTube link to a culinary video directly in your course website”), it leads to an “explainer”—a tactic common to Twine narratives where the user can explore links embedded within the body of the text for extra information and then go back to the main narrative. The explainers used in the game align almost exactly with the principal concepts being communicated: OER, zero-cost materials, saving money on textbooks, copyright/fair use doctrine, Creative Commons licenses, and open pedagogy (see Figure 2). Since the premise is that participants go through this experience to learn rather than be tested on their knowledge, the game aims to take them through the real-life consequences of certain actions. For instance, one storyline explains that, in a rare case, you may receive a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice to take down illegal digital content, and another shows how always having a rationale for why you are obeying the fair use doctrine in a specific case might save trouble and keep you on the right side of copyright law.

The story map of the game, which shows the entire story projected on one screen, divided into boxes, or passage links and connected by arrows.
Figure 1. The “story map” view of the Old Régime and the OER Revolution game.
A screenshot of the game, showing a page from the Syllabus 1 story path.
Figure 2. A screenshot of the game.
A screenshot of the game, showing an explainer for DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notices.
Figure 3. A screenshot of the game.

Scenario-based learning is often explained in the context of scaffolding the skills being taught to the learners (Clark and Mayer 2012). As the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, who first coined the term while inspired by Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Promixal Development theory, has posited, the goal here is to provide a series of instructional techniques and support to increase the learner’s understanding, with the end result of increased independence (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976). The Old Régime begins with an explanation of the main concepts in the open community, then goes on to offer the user the choice of working through a trio of syllabi types: (a) a traditional list of copyrighted resources, (b) a set of zero-cost multimedia resources, some of them of questionable provenance, and (c) a non-traditional syllabus focused on assignment creation, i.e. open pedagogy (a section paying tribute to recent developments and publications in the field). The issues within escalate in terms of complexity, from questions such as “Can I distribute a PDF I got off the Internet?” to “What digital tools can students use to create multimedia assignments?” While faculty can choose which syllabus to start with, depending on their interests and background, as well as go back and forth between the syllabi, there is a natural progression built into the game from less to more open permissions.

Although most Twine games are text-based, with visuals, if any, used for illustrative purposes, the images, audio, and video in The Old Régime serve an integral purpose: to demonstrate the variety of resources—and issues—a faculty member might come across in their OER course-conversion journey. One page, for instance, features a poster for the Andrzej Wajda-directed film Danton (1983) on Wikipedia, discussed in the game as an example of a fair-use argument (according to the Wikimedia Foundation, the commercial poster had to be used on the website since it was the only available visual of the film). Even on pages where the image cited is not directly related to an argument over openness, the purpose of including it is to reinforce correct attribution practices—each picture in the game comes from Wikimedia Commons and carries either a public domain or a Creative Commons license. A visualized broken link message reinforces a discussion of permanence, and a video from the New York Times’ cooking section is embedded next to a paragraph about the potential dangers of “link rot.”

A screenshot of the game discussing fair use using the example of the poster for the movie Danton on Wikipedia.
Figure 4. A screenshot of the game.

In recognition of the range of curricular decisions available to faculty, the game is signposted throughout with a system of symbols that explain to the learner whether they are being told about a resource that is fully open (green O—“this resource can be used, modified and redistributed freely”), open with restrictions (yellow O—“look out for restrictions on modification and/or redistribution”), and zero textbook cost (yellow Z—“look out for restrictions on use, modification and/or redistribution”). This iconography was originally developed by CTL staff member Pamela Thielman to classify the teaching materials posted on the TeachOER website, as well as to appeal to audiovisual learners, in a sustained commitment to multimodality.

The home page, or title page, of the game.
Figure 5. The home page of the game.
The ending page of the game showing the player having completed the path to OER conversion.
Figure 6. The ending page of the game.

Reflections and Potential Applications

The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game had its planned launch during the Spring 2021 semester OER faculty development workshop, running remotely for the first time with two sections of fourteen participants in total. Due to other priorities that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative did not involve gathering feedback on the game. Moreover, the small sample size has made it difficult to draw causal inferences between game playing and seminar completion. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence from having faculty participants play the game—for many, their first encounter with the topic of open-source education—has been positive. The number of questions and points of confusion that the seminar leaders get—especially about OER vs. ZTC and where to look for open-source images—has lessened significantly. One area that needed clarification from a number of seminar participants is the meaning of a Creative Commons license and the mechanism for creating one. This observation is being used to create an update (i.e. a sub-scenario) to the game that focuses specifically on these questions.

Because of the comparative ease of screen sharing and the availability of virtual help, Baruch’s CTL has launched a concomitant initiative to encourage faculty to create their own assignments made with open-source tools. Despite the predictable roadblocks to this effort in pandemic times, it has met with success so far: several faculty members have authored interactive course resources predicated on input from students, which they are currently using to teach their classes. Twine has not featured among their chosen platforms so far, most likely because it still enjoys less visibility on an institutional level and is also perceived as a “more involved” and time-consuming choice. Knight Lab tools, which do not require CSS stylesheet language, especially StoryMap JS, are currently a bigger draw among Baruch instructors. Although more hands-on tutorials are needed to dispel the understandable hesitation many faculty members still feel about creating their own resources, the ensemble of these efforts has gradually led to a greater engagement with, and appreciation of, OER on campus.

In-person survey of the game with pie charts. Part 1. Have you had previous training about OER and/or Open Pedagogy? Yes-both: 60% Yes-OER: 20% No training: 20%
Figure 7. Results to question regarding previous OER training from in-person survey of the game from Baruch-CUNY OER Showcase 2020.
In-person survey of the game with pie charts. Do you feel that you understand how to navigate the game and could play through it on your own?   Yes: 55.6% I don’t know: 33.3% No: 11.1%
Figure 8. Results to question regarding game navigation from in-person survey of the game from Baruch-CUNY OER Showcase 2020.
In-person survey of the game with pie charts.Part 3. What concept do you think you’ve learned most about during this brief, guided experience with the game?  Copyright law: 20% Twine: 20% OER: 20% Zero cost materials: 20% CC licensing: 10% Open Pedagogy: 10%
Figure 9. Results to question regarding key learning concepts from in-person survey of the game from Baruch-CUNY OER Showcase 2020.

Feedback on the game from instructional designers and Baruch faculty who playtested the game during the 2020 Baruch OER Faculty Showcase, featured in Figures 7–9, has been used to edit the current version for greater clarity and playability. A more robust set of instructions is being created and guidelines for helping players navigate through all three scenarios developed. Moreover, the game developer has set up an apparatus with learning objectives and specific questions to better target faculty engagement. A “how we made it” section and detailed instructions for making one’s own basic Twine resource will eventually accompany the game: information on where to find tutorials, what some examples with the best interactivity/greatest emotional impact are, and how the game can be hosted with campus technology. Such a content-based approach in the supplementary material means to combine subject expertise and instructional design, taking its example from openly published resources on making history simulation games and brainstorming creative writing with Twine (McCall 2016, 2017, and 2019; McGrath 2019). More educational solutions—using Twine for process modeling in entrepreneurship classes, to consider alternate plot twists in literature, or to follow scientific processes—are being considered.

These efforts are taking place alongside promising developments in Twine itself. Emily Christina Murphy and Lai-Tze Fan have announced they are assembling EnTwine: A Critical and Creative Companion to Teaching with Twine, a proposed companion to the new and invaluable Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives (2021) by Anastasia Salter and Stuart Moulthrop, with the latter published on Amherst College Press’s OER platform. In the past year, Chris Klimas has also released a new story format, Chapbook, which makes it easier to work with multimedia and create and play mobile-friendly games (The Old Régime was written in the default format, Harlowe, authored by Leon Arnott). As stated in a presentation to the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s annual event, NarraScope, the Twine team hopes to add a collaborative authorship function in the future (Klimas 2019), making the tool a natural choice not just for assignment creation, but also for in-class work, either in the face-in-face or asynchronous format.


Instructional designers, pedagogy specialists, and librarians who wish to create their own faculty workshop for teaching about open resources are encouraged to think about building both asynchronous and interactive content into their programming. The changing content of the open education field highlights the importance of providing materials in flexible ways that permit add-ons and variations. Easy-to-use open-source tools constitute a convenient and pedagogically sound resource for the faculty workshop. Twine, with its decision-tree setup and built-in interactivity, presents one possible solution to faculty handling their scenario-based learning independently and remotely alongside other face-to-face or synchronous modalities and asynchronous discussions. The other affordance of “teaching OER with OERs” is the example it provides to faculty who might introduce tools such as Twine to their own classes, creating assignments and perpetuating a culture of best practices in online publishing. The ongoing improvements in the technology suggest that gaming pedagogy can indeed become the vehicle for teaching about openness while promoting active learning and student initiative. However, a concerted initiative that combines instructional design and subject-specific pedagogy is needed to make this vision a reality.


Aggarwal, Raghav. 2019. “Bandersnatch: The Marketing Weapon.” June 28, 2019. https://medium.com/@raghavaggarwal0089/bandersnatch-the-marketing-weapon-f8eb6020ed04.

Baruch College Center for Teaching and Learning. n.d. Teach OER (website). Accessed November 8, 2020. http://teachoer.org/.

Bragg, Leicha. 2012. “Testing the Effectiveness of Mathematical Games as a Pedagogical Tool for Children’s Learning.” International Journal of Science and Math Education 10: 1445–1467. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10763-012-9349-9.

Checa-Romero, Mirian and Isabel Pascual Gómez. 2018. “Minecraft and Machinima in Action: Development of Creativity in the Classroom.” Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 27:5, 625–637. https://doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2018.1537933.

Clark, Douglas, Emily E. Tanner-Smith, and Stephen S. Killingsworth. 2015. “Digital Games, Design, and Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 86, no. 1: 79–122. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315582065.

Clark, Ruth C. and Richard E. Mayer. 2012. Scenario-Based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Cohen, Madeline. 2018. Responsible Use of Materials for OER: A Hands-On Workshop for Faculty. CUNY Lehman College Publications and Research, CUNY Academic Works. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/le_pubs/241/.

CUNY Libraries. 2017. “CUNY Open Educational Resources.” Accessed November 8, 2020. (2017), https://www.cuny.edu/libraries/open-educational-resources/.

Davidson, Cathy N. 2011. Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. New York: Penguin Books.

Ford, Melissa. 2016. Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine. London: Que Publishing.

Friedhoff, Jane. 2014. “Untangling Twine: A Platform Study.” DiGRA ’13 – Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA International Conference: DeFragging Game Studies, August 2014, Volume 7.

Gross, Begoña. 2007. “Digital Games in Education: The Design of Games-Based Learning Environments.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 40, no. 1: 23–38.

Hamari, Juho, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. 2014. “Does Gamification Work? A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.” Proceedings from the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Science 2014.

Harvey, Allison. 2014. “Twine’s Revolution: Democratization, Depoliticization and the Queering of Game Design.” Game: The Italian Journal of Game Studies (3).

Hayles, Katherine. 2002. Writing Machines. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press (Mediawork Pamphlet Series, 1). Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (2020).

Hostos Community College. 2018. “Grammar Adventure Story.” Hostos Community College, CUNY Commons. Accessed November 8, 2020. https://commons.hostos.cuny.edu/esl/.

Huang, Wendy Hsin-Yuan and Dilip Soman. 2013. A Practitioner’s Guide to Gamification of Education, Research Report Series Behavioral Economics in Action, University of Toronto.

Jackson, Brianne and Virginia Thompson. 2018. “Exploring Twine and Its Use in Active Learning Online.” In Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, edited by Elizabeth Langran and J. Borup. Washington, DC: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE): 1533–1536. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/182731/.

Klimas, Chris. 2017. “Interactive Fiction Appears in the Whitney Biennial.” The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation blog, April 2, 2017. Accessed November 8, 2020. https://blog.iftechfoundation.org/2017-04-02-interactive-fiction-appears-at-the-whitney-biennial.html.

———. 2019. “Twine: Past, Present and Future.” Blog sharing of NarraScope presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 21 June 2019. https://chrisklimas.com/blog/2019-06-21-twine-past-present-future/.

———. 2020. Interview by Katherine Tsan, December 21, 2020.

Kumar, M. S. Vijay. 2012. “The New Landscape for the Innovative Transformation of Education.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 79, no. 3: 619–630. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/528185.

Lameras, Petros, Thrasyvoulos Tsiatsos, Panagiotis Petridis, Dimitris Tolis, Fotis Liarokapis, Despina Anastasiadou, Aristidis Protopsaltis, Maurice Hendrix, and Sylvester Arnab. 2015. “Creative Thinking Experimentations for Entrepreneurship with a Disruptive, Personalised and Mobile Game-Based Learning Ecosystem.” 2015 International Conference on Interactive Mobile Communication Technologies and Learning (IMCL), Thessaloniki: 348–352. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/IMCTL.2015.7359617.

Lehr Samuels, Allison, Pamela Thielman, and Katherine Tsan. 2019. “Helping Faculty Navigate OER and Copyright Law: Two Approaches (Instructional and Curricular Design).” Presentation at the 18th Annual CUNY IT Conference, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY.

Loeffler, Helmut. 2019. “Experience with Authoring and Using an OER Textbook.” The 16th Annual Open Education Conference, Phoenix, AZ, October 30, 2019.

Lundberg, Karin and Catherine Lyons. 2018. “Using Twine to Deliver a Grammar-Linked Creative Writing Assignment in a Hybrid ESL Course.” The Free Library, November 1, 2018. Accessed November 8, 2020. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Using+Twine+to+Deliver+a+Grammar-Linked+Creative+Writing+Assignment…-a0563684036.

Lyons, Kate and Karin Lundberg. 2018. “Twine—Using Non-Linear Storytelling in Your Pedagogy,” Hostos Community College Commons. Accessed November 8, 2020. https://commons.hostos.cuny.edu/edtech/2018/02/05/twine-using-non-linear-storytelling-in-your-pedagogy/.

McCall, Jeremiah. 2016. “Twine, Inform and Designing Interactive History Texts.” Play the Past (website). Accessed November 8, 2020. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5739.

———. 2017. “Historical Twine Project Rubric.” Gaming the Past: Historical Video Games in the Classroom and Beyond (website). Accessed November 8, 2020. https://gamingthepast.net/simulation-design/twine-interactive-fiction-tool/twine-rubric-for-interactive-history-projects/.

———. 2019. “Twine Hist Rubric 9th Grade History 1.5.” Gaming the Past: Historical Video Games in the Classroom and Beyond (website). Accessed November 9, 2020. https://gamingthepast.net/simulation-design/twine-interactive-fiction-tool/twine-rubric-for-interactive-history-projects/.

McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Are Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Random House.

———. 2016. SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully. New York: Penguin Random House.

McGrath, Jim. 2019. “Digital Storytelling.” Spring 2019 syllabus, Brown University, Provincetown. Accessed November 8, 2020. http://www.digitalstorytelling2019.jimmcgrath.us/.

Ohler, Jason. 2006. “The World of Digital Storytelling.” Educational Leadership: 63 (4) 44–47.

Pandey, Asha. 2018. “7 Examples on Scenario-Based Learning for Formal and Informal Learning.” EI Design. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.eidesign.net/7-examples-scenario-based-learning-sbl-formal-informal-learning/.

Piedra, Nelson, Janneth Chicaiza, Jorge López, and Edmundo Tovar Caro. 2016. “Integrating OER in the Design of Educational Material: Blended Learning and Linked-Open-Educational-Resources-Data Approach," 2016 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), Abu Dhabi, 2016: 1179–1187. https://doi.org/10.1109/EDUCON.2011.5773299.

Queneau, Raymond. 1981. Conte à votre façon. Contes et propos. Paris: Gallimard.

Rizvić, Selma, Dusanka Boskovic, Vensada Okanovic, Sanda Slijvo, and Merima Zukić. 2019. “Interactive Digital Storytelling: Bringing Cultural Heritage in a Classroom.” Journal of Computer Education: 143–166. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40692-018-0128-7.

Salter, Anastasia. 2016. “Playing at Empathy: Representing and Experiencing Emotional Growth through Twine Games.” 2016 IEEE International Conference on Serious Games and Applications for Health (SeGAH), Orlando, FL, 2016: 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1109/SeGAH.2016.7586272.

Salter, Anastasia and Scott Moulthrop. 2021. Twining: Critical and Creative Approaches to Hypertext Narratives. Amherst: Amherst College Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mpub.12255695

Tsan, Katherine. 2020. “The Old Régime and the OER Revolution.” TeachOER (website). Accessed November 8, 2020. http://teachoer.org/the-old-regime-and-the-oer-revolution-game/.

Tytler, Sarah. 2017. “‘TwitFic’, Twine, and Student-Centred Learning: Combining Creativity and Coding in the Classroom.” Africa International Journal of Management Education and Governance: 21–34.

Wilson, Rebecca, Jon Saklofske, and INKE Research team. 2019. “Playful Lenses: Using Twine to Facilitate Open Social Scholarship through Game-Based Inquiry, Research, and Scholarly Communication. KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 3, no. 1: 5. http://doi.org/10.5334/kula.11.

Wood, David, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross. 1976. “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 17, no. 2: 89–100. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1976.tb00381.x.

Zhadko, Olena and Ko, Susan. 2017. “OER Sustainable Scale Up: Faculty Development as Key Strategy (OER).” Presentation at the 16th Annual CUNY IT Conference: Bridging the Gaps, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1u4JIGhu6b08l_gwaIWH8kpmy9KD10yR9yJE_iTz2Zv8/edit?usp=sharing.

———. 2019. “Refresh your Course with Open Educational Resources.” The Teaching Professor (blog). Accessed November 8, 2020. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/online-learning/refresh-your-course-with-open-educational-resources/.


The author/game designer would like to thank Chris Klimas for the insights and background knowledge shared in his interview, Hamad Sindhi and Dimitrios Papadopoulos for sharing useful bibliographical sources, Pamela Thielman for creating the pie charts based on faculty responses in Figures 7–9 and suggesting necessary changes to the game, and Allison Lehr Samuels and the whole staff of the Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning for their invaluable help and support throughout the creative and editorial process.

About the Author

Katherine Foshko Tsan (PhD, MLS) focuses on open educational resources and the digital humanities at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Baruch College, CUNY. Her scholarly background is in Academic Libraries and Modern European History. She designed The Old Régime and the OER Revolution game for Baruch CTL’s TeachOER website with input from her colleagues and is now completing edits and additions to the resource. She welcomes comments at katherine.tsan@baruch.cuny.edu.

Earth viewed from space, with Africa lit up in the sun.

Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS


In the fall of 2018, Dr. Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (Ohio Wesleyan University) and Dr. Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Albion College) conducted a teaching collaboration through their courses “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions” and “Introduction to African Art.” Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, the courses explored the artistic traditions and literary, journalistic, cinematographic, and visual representations of African peoples and cultures. Students in both courses were encouraged to confront and ask difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate Western perceptions about Africa, African peoples, and cultures; and to become attentive to the problems of history, misrepresentations, and the importance of historiographic revision. In this article, Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi show how connecting these courses through an active, experiential, creative, collaborative culminating project, namely the digital platform called “Documenting Africa,” built with StoryMapJS technology, proved a particularly effective approach for students to satisfy the learning objectives for each class and grapple with those questions at the heart of the courses. In addition, the piece explains each course’s assignments and learning individual objectives individually, united through overarching philosophical underpinnings and objectives.

Introduction: Common Learning Objectives, Description of Project, Theoretical Underpinnings

This article describes a collaboration between two courses, one on African art and another on immigration from and through North Africa, that culminated in the collaborative digital project “Documenting Africa.” Because the course on African art was an introductory course, the text in this article specific to that course focuses on the pedagogical rationale that drove both the materials included on the syllabus and the nature of the digital work and preparatory assignments. On the other hand, because the course on immigration was an upper-level course with many complementary parts, the narrative specific to that course concentrates primarily on describing materials, assignments, and learning outcomes.

Before delineating the elements undergirding the mission of our collaboration, it is important to see where Africa sits vis-a-vis the majority of American undergraduates. Most American students who come to African Studies (with few exceptions, like heritage students), especially in an introductory course, typically have little to no informational knowledge—historical, political, sociological, cultural, regional, or topographical—of the African continent. The sparse background that they do bring usually comes in the form of monolithic assumptions and overly generalized, misrepresentative, received ideas about the continent and its peoples. They might imagine a “‘global diaspora, an international culture and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West: gold, savages, ‘darkest,’ ‘deepest,’ liberation, devastation’” (Phillips 2007, 97–98). Imagery in students’ minds often derives from such sources as nature documentaries on the Serengeti to pop cultural touchstones like The Lion King to news reports about war and child soldiers. It is not uncommon that, in the first few class meetings before certain myths have been debunked, students will unmaliciously, but naively, refer to and treat Africa, the continent, as a holistic, homogeneous entity. This is not surprising, since current events happening throughout the continent today typically surface on major Western media outlets with reportage on disease or scourges (e.g. Ebola, AIDS, etc.), acts of violence or terrorism (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, etc.), poaching and wildlife conservation efforts, and more recently, the effects of climate change on widespread famine and territorial struggle for resources. Collectively such journalism exacerbates an already maligned imaginary of places and peoples. This is what the brilliant, late Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor called Afro-pessimism and the exact kind of generalized, vague, negative, ahistorical representation of the “other” that formed the basis for Edward Said’s Orientalism (Okwui Enwezor 2006, 10–20). The socio-cultural and political conditions of Africans, for many American undergraduates, typically remain abstract, conceptually, just as the immense heterogeneity and regional nuances of this landscape remain elusive to them, at the outset. To make matters even more urgent and challenging, not only do most students possess a gap in their current, geopolitical understanding of African peoples and nations today, but they lack the critical thinking skills to question the history of why some of those gross misrepresentations persist to this day. As a result, Africans today, as well as their rich cultures and nations’ histories, remain largely under- and/or mis-represented, foreign, and woefully divorced from notions of progress and potential for many American undergraduate students.

With the aforementioned problems in mind and with a desire to address them in a particularly experiential mode of teaching and learning, Professors Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (French, Ohio Wesleyan University) and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Art History, Albion College) decided to pursue an opportunity through the Great Lakes Colleges Association to connect two courses, Lewis Cusato’s Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions and Dr. Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art, primarily through a collaborative digital humanities project called “Documenting Africa.”

The employment of digital platforms as a means of encouraging students to actively engage with unfamiliar content and problematic misconceptions was informed by such thinkers as Mary Nooter Roberts and Ruth B. Phillips, to name just two. Indeed, Roberts’ articulation of exhibiting as “always in some measure the construction of a cultural imaginary and never a direct reflection of lived experience” (2008, 170) resonated with both Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi as a useful way of conceptualizing the integration of digital work into their respective courses. When working not only to fill a knowledge gap, but also to correct misconceptions, a constructive, visible, experiential mode struck them as particularly promising and appropriate. In order to see and understand African objects and representations, students were asked to work with, comment on, and display those very objects, texts, and representations. In the same way that Roberts describes “the museum exhibition as an arena for translation” and exhibitions as “objects of knowledge,” so, too, were students in the courses asked to translate their knowledge for audiences in a curatorial, reflective, but also creative mode in which learning, creation, and reflection were intertwined and integrated.

So it was through four weeks of curricular planning during the summer of 2018 that the pedagogical philosophies at work began to crystallize to ensure, first, a focus on comparing cultural representations of Africa from the African continent with Western representations of African cultures and, second, successful completion of the digital humanities project. Furthermore, Lewis Cusato was concurrently awarded a second grant, the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, to secure a student research assistant and assistance from the Five Colleges Post-Bac to help build and maintain the digital humanities project. Assistance from the Post-Bac, Olivia Geho, proved absolutely instrumental in moving the project forward in a thoughtful, productive, efficient, and reflective manner.

In tandem, these courses shared the following three learning objectives, albeit through different resources and in different languages:

  • Broadening knowledge about, and appreciation of, African material culture;
  • Examining inherited understandings about African cultures;
  • Comparing the stakes of self-representation with those of “representing the other.”

The conceptual and theoretical overlap between these two courses was rooted in some key learning outcomes. Firstly, both professors expected students to develop more nuanced notions about African literary and artistic traditions and cultural practices, and visual/material cultural patrimonies. Secondly, students were asked to confront sometimes difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate our own popular culture in the West about Africa, African peoples, and cultures. The professors hoped their students would become attentive to the problems of history and representation, and understand that for alternative histories to emerge, we need historiographic revisions, which can come about only through different types of primary source engagements (through oral interviews or analyses of visual cultural objects, for example). Thirdly, these questions of the historiographies of African arts and cultures, in the end, point students to the high stakes and direct impact posed in how these diverse peoples are not only represented, but remembered.

At its core, this collaboration sought to ensure that students grasp the deep connections between the politics of representation and historical memory, especially given that “once an African object has entered the epistemological arena of a different time and place in, say, the United States, France, or Japan, it cannot be divorced from that world of thought and presented from an exclusively African point of view” (Roberts 2008, 174). In sum, the connections among history, representation, and memory were foundational for this project.

Technology is rapidly changing the way that the humanities are pedagogically envisioned and taught: three-dimensional reconstructions of archaeological sites enable students to imagine ancient spaces; various forms of digital scanning alter the manner by which conservators restore paintings; digitizing maps opens up new forays in critical cartography. The digital humanities is not solely invested in analyzing data, producing new quantitative analyses or statistical metrics, or amassing or preserving cultural artifacts. Digital art history is often perceived to be apolitical and uncritical (Drucker 2019, 325), preoccupied with data collection (Battles 2016, 329), and lacking the intellectual rigor of conventional methods of visual analysis.

Yet as the work of N. Katherine Hayles exhorts us to consider, the digital is changing the ways we think—our epistemologies—and tell stories. For her, narratives (whether literary or artistic) and databases are fundamentally intertwined, integrating ideas of temporality and spatiality (2012). For both the fields of literature and art history, digital modes of instructional technology can render course content more accessible, interactive, and therefore familiar. If, as Hayles asserts, “the ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world” then surely, our students’ digital research and interactive exhibitions might enable them to reevaluate their own relationship to peoples and places previously unbeknownst to them (2012, 2). In teaching comparative literature and art history, the close reading of literary texts and images is paramount to pedagogical methods, though Hayles suggests that this needs to change to adapt for a new age of media literacy and that the traditional close reading of texts needs to accommodate a new type of digital hyper-reading, the fragmented ways we all consume media via filtering, skimming, hyperlinking, and so forth (2012, 61).

To account for these trends and shifts in the digital mechanisms of media consumption, what if the tools of the digital humanities could also be repurposed in the classroom to confront and debunk representational injustices and complicate conceptual or epistemological problems of a subject or discipline? Can a digital tool challenge misrepresentations or assumptions on African cultures and peoples? This essentially was the key methodological and pedagogical question we sought to tackle.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

Teaching African art history presents instructors with the immensely tall pedagogical order of rendering places, peoples, and cultures that are mostly alien to students familiar, through experiential learning, connection, and creation. In Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art course, students encounter a range of original artistic practices from cultural groups all over the geographical and political terrain of the continent. Lesson units are broken down by considering the visual culture and communal usage of objects within specific ethnic and cultural groups of a particular region (e.g. sculptural practices and cosmology of the Dogon peoples of Mali, the divination objects and storytelling memory boards of the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the royal paraphernalia of the Bamum peoples of Cameroon, etc.). Students examine the artistic qualities, fine craftsmanship, and contextual roles of an array of objects—wooden sculptures, masks and headdresses, gold bracelets and staffs, buildings and materials, garments and regalia—to comprehend the socio-cultural significance of such objects within these peoples’ lives, and to grasp the epistemological connections such peoples make about the environment and the places they inhabit.

Like any introductory course, this too was a survey in its general format. The key challenges of any art history survey are to balance depth and breadth, and to instill in students both the detail-oriented skills of visual analysis, on the one hand, and the macro-level conceptual abilities of asking broad, theme-based questions, on the other. And so over the course of any standard curriculum in African art history, students not only gain an intricate understanding of how diverse peoples and their visual and material cultural practices throughout the continent, but they are encouraged to identify similarities and connections in how many of these cultural groups construct their art, societies, and conceptualize their worldviews in relation to pivotal political and historical events, as well as centuries of economic trade and cross-cultural exchange. Methodologically and theoretically, however, African art history is fraught as a subfield by virtue of its heritage. Its origins lay not within the field of art history, but in the discipline of anthropology and the problematic, unethical collection practices of colonial ethnographers and bureaucrats on military expeditions in Africa throughout the long nineteenth century. Thus, the very study of African art was founded under exploitative conditions, and as a consequence, has given rise to a number of methodological and epistemological debates about how African art should be approached, analyzed and understood (Hallen 1997). As the noted art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir remarks in her much-cited article, the eventual field that formed out of these geopolitical inequities—mostly work undertaken by anthropologists—followed the “one tribe, one style” paradigmatic model, in which the artistic production of one ethnic and cultural group is correlated to one quintessential style and set of formal qualities (Kasfir 1992). Such ethnic and cultural groups become siloed entities, treated homogeneously, accounting little for cross-cultural encounters and exchanges across and among groups. Paradoxically, this method of treating ethnic and regional case studies in a singular, tribal fashion still generally predominates in African art history pedagogy at the introductory level, due to the diversity and sheer multiplicity of African peoples and cultures and the need of instructors to render the material digestible to undergraduates. In our course, we used Monica Blackmun Visona’s textbook, A History of Art in Africa (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), which navigates through the rich artistic traditions of peoples and groups with chapters divided according to regional domains (e.g. Sahara and the Maghreb, West Africa and West Atlantic Forests, Central Africa including the Congo Basin, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the diaspora).

Time/temporality and authorship are yet more variables that add complexity to African art historical analysis. Contrasting with conventional or Western art historical methods, which privilege historical chronology and periodization, African art history preoccupies itself more with conceptual epistemologies and indigenous knowledge systems—often derived from contemporary cultural phenomena and observations (Ogbechie 2005)—to arrive at an historical art work’s interpretation. This approach to time is complicated by gaps in the historical record (Peffer 2005) and the fact that many African artists may acquire fame and repute, but their notoriety may not be socially linked specifically to the art works that they produced in their lifetime. Objects’ lives and meanings are not defined by their authorial makers, but instead by their social lives circulating among the patrons, the groups who wear or use said objects, or the religious officials and diviners who control and activate them (Vogel 1999).

Such methodological and epistemological issues bear greatly on pedagogy and student learning outcomes as well. The rationale for assigning a digital final project to students of African art history is multi-pronged and motivated by a desire to decolonize troubling pedagogies. Firstly, in order to problematize those aforementioned methodological questions of tribe, style, cross-cultural exchange, history, collecting, time/temporality, and authorship in African art objects, students must engage in cross-cultural and comparative thinking straight away. The rote memorization and connoisseurship-focused pedagogy enforced by an old guard of art historians does not serve to enliven either the African art objects, peoples or cultures in this generation of students. By encouraging students to think about the axes of time and space in African art, they resist notions of fixed, homogeneous peoples and instead become attuned to the dynamism of cultural exchanges and processes of transformation. Furthermore, to break free from and challenge those ubiquitous misrepresentations of African cultures in the Western media, students must acquire some interactive sense of intimacy or immediacy with African cultures and current events so as to break the barrier of foreignness. And crucially, reception is a vital facet of any African art history course, in probing students to empathically position themselves in the role of the makers, interlocutors, recipients, and beholders of such works of art.

Throughout the course, students had the tall order of absorbing the content and material of each unit, but the final digital project was conceived to help integrate their knowledge through comparative, analytical thinking. Students were divided into three groups of three and four by the professor (balanced based on their respective standing, research experience, critical thinking skills, reading abilities, and academic readiness) and instructed to curate their own digital online exhibition of African art objects, centered on a specific theme across time and space; just like real art curators in museums and galleries, students had to critically examine issues of representation, conceptual and narrative coherence, and sub-thematic division and arrangement in designing their own online exhibition. At the outset, Neatline and Omeka were briefly considered as potential software tools, but ruled out because of their relative complexity; ultimately, in consultation with Albion College’s instructional technologist, Sarah Noah, StoryMapJS was chosen due to its facility for a general audience.

To aid students in envisioning their digital shows, they were taken on two local field trips: firstly, to see the special exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, which ran from August 11 to November 25, 2018 at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) and was curated by Dr. Laura De Becker; and secondly, to tour the permanent African art exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Art, known by Africanists to be one of the richest collections of African art in the United States (Woods 1971). By selecting at least twenty images of African art objects now residing in US museum collections from a minimum of five disparate cultural groups, students had to create and curate their own show around a story arc (e.g. power and kingship; adornment and beauty; women’s authority; masking, performance and spirits; ancestors and memories; apotropaism and protections; slavery or imperial encounters; kinship and communalism; etc.).

Assignments were scaffolded so as to break down tasks and ensure genuine collaboration among group members. The first of these benchmark assignments asked students to construct their story arc or narrative theme. Next, because StoryMapJS enables one to render stories interactive and visual over geographical space and chronological time, students had to build on their narrative outline by selecting their base map, through which their audience will navigate through the digital exhibition; and most importantly, their objects and regional sites. For each object, students had to conduct research on the piece and write their own object label–just like an explanatory placard on the wall of a gallery—providing their viewers with the necessary content to understand the cultural significance of that piece and how it fits into the overarching narrative arc.

The students’ final, digital exhibitions successfully exemplified those desired learning outcomes of understanding the heterogeneity of African artistic traditions, cross-cultural exchange, and regional specificity. The three projects differentiated and compared the creative output and cultural practices shared by various ethnic groups across the continent: the exhibition “Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage in African Arts and Cultures” dealt with masquerade practices, sculptural traditions, and sacred rituals in the transition from youth to adulthood; “Passion, Power, Perfection: Marriage and African Arts” examined the role of courtship, public displays of fidelity and the place of marriage in African artistic traditions; and finally, “African Funerary Practices and Traditions” highlighted the central position of objects in honoring ancestors and funerary rituals, proving that death and collective memory are intertwined in African artistic practices. Pedagogically, these exhibitions were a success in that they challenged students to think about conceptual and representational issues and through research encouraged familiarity with the objects. The digital exhibitions brought to life material that otherwise often remains static and foreign in an African art history course.

Students’ digital exhibitions were graded on the following criteria: narrative coherence, informational accuracy and depth of research, facility of the exhibit (e.g. cleanliness and user-friendly qualities), aesthetic appeal, and teamwork professionalism. A major drawback of StoryMapJS is that only one student could be the user/owner of that project account, and so edits to the digital exhibition could not be implemented simultaneously by other group members; this proved to be inconvenient for collaboration, with inevitably one student in each group shouldering more of the burden of entering data into the program.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions”

The benchmark assignments designed for the Fourteen Kilometers class were conceived with the objective of preparing students to answer such weighty questions as the following:

  • What does it mean, first, to record an oral history both responsibly and ethically and, second, how do stylistics, such as camerawork and sound recording, affect such a project?
  • Second, what are the stakes of creating an outward-facing project that is a carrier of meaning, especially for cultural documents that represent and / or come from Africa?
  • Are exhibition and translation, both defined here as extensions of the original object(s), “all one can ever know”? (Roberts 2008, 183) If so, what does this mean in terms of thinking about “original” vs. “translation” or “exhibition”?

To these ends, several benchmark assignments were designed to prepare students to learn and create with a sense of depth, purpose, and reflection. As a class, Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions was preparing to collect, edit, and publish an oral history from a French-speaking immigrant in the Columbus area, and these benchmark workshops and assignments were essential training tools for the students. First, the Fourteen Kilometers class held a workshop in the campus library with the Director of Media Services at Ohio Wesleyan University, Chuck Della Lana, who demonstrated framing techniques with video cameras and discussed the implications of various manners of video framing, camera angles, and relating sound to image. Students then paired off to interview one another briefly on a topic of their choosing, and returned to the media center to share the product with the class to analyze various techniques related to the recording choices of both sound and image. In a second round of interviews, partners switched roles and finessed those elements upon which they wished to improve before concluding discussions. This benchmark assignment was crucial in training students to understand the deep relationship; whether in videography, cinematography, or oral history; between message and stylistics. Camera angles, shots, manipulation of sound, and other tools associated with video recordings all shape, both literally and figuratively, the narrative at the center of the story. Students were encouraged to reflect on such different modes of recording as recording-as-art vs. recording-for-knowledge. What does it mean to take an oral history, to record and disseminate someone else’s story? How is the oral historian, literally and figuratively, framing the story to be received by anyone who views it later? By the end of the workshop, students understood these concepts in a deeper and more concrete way.

The second benchmark workshop and assignment deepened students’ engagement with questions that arose from the first. On Friday, October 26, 2018, Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College, came to campus to lead a workshop for students and other Ohio Wesleyan University community members through a presentation and a series of exercises and discussions training students to consider the ethical issues that can arise when conducting, editing, and publishing oral histories. When an oral history is given, how do authorship, subjectivity, ownership of the story, and voice shift? To demonstrate this notion, Singer asked students, in pairs, to designate a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller told the story of their first day on campus, and the listener retold the story to the group. The original storyteller then noted differences between the original version and the retelling and offered reflections on subtle differences between the two tellings. This workshop, building on the first, guided students’ thinking about the overarching goals of oral history and the subtle ways in which retelling is also, whether willfully or not, a reshaping. If the objective is to record an oral history with as little intervention as possible, with as little reshaping as possible, then great care and attention must be paid.[1]

The third benchmark assignment took place on November 16, 2018, the Friday before Thanksgiving, when Lewis Cusato and the students in the “Fourteen Kilometers” class boarded a university van to drive nineteen miles to visit the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) organization in Columbus, Ohio. Lewis Cusato had arranged for an oral history given by a local French-speaking refugee and a follow-up Question and Answer session to be recorded by a colleague. Upon arrival at CRIS, it became clear that the person sharing his story did not wish for any recording to be disseminated. This was surprising and disappointing for the students, who had devoted significant time, energy, and thought to developing appropriate questions to ask him in French; considering how to approach such questions in the most respectful and productive ways possible; and to learning about how to record, transcribe, translate, and present the oral history. He presented his story with both narrative and images, students did ask their questions, the session was recorded, and the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator spoke with the group about the state of immigrants and immigration in the United States under the current presidential administration. The visit lasted some two and a half hours and generated much discussion for the drive back to campus in Delaware, Ohio. Lewis Cusato asked students to articulate their reactions to the visit. They expressed enthusiasm at the poignancy of hearing a first-person, in-person account and were grateful for the opportunity to nuance common media reports, many of which consistently depict immigrants as a homogeneous, problematic group. Engaging with one man’s personal narrative about what it truly was to leave his country, what it meant to wait for eleven years in a refugee camp in Uganda, what it was to be examined and checked by the Department of Homeland Security and finally granted asylum, and what it entailed to move and find his way in a new country and a new language allowed students to see the phenomenon of immigration in a more realistic, complete, personal, and thorough way than they would have by simply relying on the news. The students expressed gratitude at hearing from the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator the staggering statistics about just how few refugees are in fact granted asylum to the United States and how such numbers pale in comparison with many smaller, less wealthy countries. Rich discussion ensued, and the class collectively decided to use the Thanksgiving break to reflect on potential paths forward, given that the original plan to record, transcribe, and disseminate the oral history would no longer be possible.

During that first class session following the visit to CRIS and Thanksgiving break, Lewis Cusato asked students to reflect on what they had done so far throughout the semester’s work in the class. As they spoke, she noted both content and skill development work on the board. Their discussion hinged on the progress of the course to that point. Yes, there had been an emphasis on the oral history component of the class, but students had also watched and analyzed a documentary, La Saga des immigrés (The Saga of Immigrants, 2007); engaged with street art throughout the Mediterranean that comments on immigration; read a novel, Les Clandestins, about clandestine immigration from Morocco; watched and interpreted a film, Harragas, about clandestine immigration from Algeria to southern Europe; watched and discussed a special report on the SOS Méditerranée organization that saves migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea; read and discussed news articles from African, French, and American media about immigration throughout the Mediterranean; and studied the photojournalistic manifesto I Am With Them, which was exhibited in 2015 in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). The course participants realized that the course, at its essence, tells the stories of the journeys taken up by the protagonists, the subjects filmed, the characters written, and the people portrayed. Hence, the StoryMap mode would likely work best. When all the materials studied throughout the term were listed on the board so that all could see them together as parts of a whole, the structure for the website began to emerge, founded on valuable insights gleaned through comparative analysis of the syllabus’s content. The point here, too, was to move beyond such common Western aspirations as “the experiences of ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ that are produced by the presentation of objects as artifact and art” (Phillips 2007, 98) and to move towards a multi-layered, multimodal, multifaceted narrative that emphasizes originality, individuality, reflection, sophistication, and art and knowledge alike. Informed by Turnbull’s work theorizing maps as knowledge, maps as languages and networks, and maps as narratives in and of themselves, this new digital project emerged with a sense of depth and complexity that had the potential to allow the narratives of journey to emerge in a vibrant, full digital display.

The site would begin with an introduction, in both English and French, by Lewis Cusato. At the bottom of the page would appear an image, title, and short explanation to introduce each of the five students’ StoryMaps, all of which would be connected through an overarching WordPress site. As their final project for the course, then, students would work either individually or in pairs to choose images, quotations, and to create explanations and analysis of their source or sources. The students’ first step was to curate the text and images they would like to include on the map as well as decide on the map’s pinpoints. Once this was accomplished, each student or team would present their proposed focus to the group to solicit feedback from their classmates. Bit by bit, as students worked alone, presented their proposed contributions to the site, gave one another feedback, and revised and reframed as necessary, the site began to take shape. From November 26 through December 14, 2018, then, students built the site in consort with Lewis Cusato and Olivia Geho. In retrospect, it is clear that devoted the first three months of coursework (August 22 to November 16, 2018) to content coverage and assessment as well as benchmark assignments, followed by spending three weeks (November 26 to December 14, 2018) building the site worked well as a timeline. Finally, since the Fourteen Kilometers course is an upper-level French course, significant time, energy, and focus were necessary to correct and finesse the students’ translations. Fortunately, a senior student in French particularly interested in translation approached Lewis Cusato about pursuing an independent study under her guidance with an emphasis on translation. Thus, in the spring of 2020, through this independent study, this student and Lewis Cusato painstakingly examined, corrected, and finessed all the text and translations associated with the project.

To balance and integrate such elements of a course as content and skill mastery with a culminating, collaborative digital project requires purposeful and consistent pedagogical movement among the various modes of input and output, whether textual, visual, digital, cinematographic, political, journalistic, popular, or some combination of these. The syllabus and course timeline must therefore be constructed with an eye towards balancing the content work with the benchmark assignments, consulting experts, digital work, and time for collectively checking in with one another as a class and revising both the plan and the culminating project as necessary along the way. The ability and willingness to rethink and pivot if necessary proved foundational for the course, as did maintaining open dialogue with the class about best strategies for progressing, even unexpected obstacles rendered the original plan unfeasible. Furthermore, the notion that “a person is always operating within the structures of his/her own culturally prescribed formats for understanding the world” (Roberts 2008, 172) reminded all involved that the project must take into account potential lack of familiarity on the part of visitors. With these elements in mind and with transparent, clear communication among all members of the class, such a course can become, and indeed was, a particularly collaborative, engaging, relevant, and constructive experience of learning, thinking, reflecting, and creating.

Concluding Reflections

The courses described above allowed Demerdash-Fatemi and Lewis Cusato to teach students about the stakes of cultural production related to Africa. Students were asked to take their time, look at, contextualize, study, and reflect on the objects, images, and texts upon which each respective course was founded. Furthermore, these courses asked students to consider the stakes of representing oneself, as compared to being represented by others. Students were asked to compare and contrast Western representations of Africa with African representations of Africa in order to begin to be able to see and articulate the politics of representation always at work. Finally, these courses facilitated students’ creating something that could be shared with others from their readings, their viewings, their discussions, their analysis, their research, and their interpretations. This is the great value of coupling a course with the creation of a digital humanities project: it asks students to curate and create something visual, textual, technological, outward-looking, and helpful for others who might wish to explore the topic. It asks them to engage with layers of meaning as they interpret and to be meaning-makers themselves. The students literally become the teacher, and they emerge from the course experience having moved from input, from learning, to creation, to teaching. It allows them to show anyone interested how—though the news media often portrays immigrants as a problematic, troublesome group—artists, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists tell the story of immigration in very different ways and paint very different pictures. Finally, this project encouraged the students to reflect upon and comment on, to connect to and share new learning about traditions, novel aesthetics, and communities throughout the African continent. You can find such stories and such pictures, as well as associated commentary and analysis, on this site, where learning begets reflection and creation, and where engagement with resources begets the genesis of a new resource. The cycle, the learning, continue.


[1] Open to the wider campus community, Professor Singer’s visit was made possible by support from The Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award and from Ohio Wesleyan University’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages.


Battles, Matthew and Michael Maizels. 2016. “Collections and/of Data: Art History and the Art Museum in the DH Mode.” Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Drucker, Johanna and Claire Bishop. 2019. “A Conversation on Digital Art History.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Enwezor, Okwui. 2006. “The Uses of Afro-Pessimism.” Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, 10–20. Göttingen: Steidl.

Kasfir, Sidney Littlefield. 1992. “African Art and Authenticity: A Text with a Shadow.” African Arts 25, no. 2 (April): 40–⁠53; 96–97.

———. 1984. “One Tribe, One Style? Paradigms in the Historiography of African Art.” History in Africa 11: 16–⁠193.

Hallen, Barry. 1997. “African Meanings, Western Words.” African Studies Review 40, no. 1 (April): 1–⁠11.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu. 2005. “The Historical Life of Objects: African Art History and the Problem of Discursive Obsolescence.” African Arts 38, no. 4 (Winter): 62–⁠69, 94–⁠95.

Peffer, John. 2005. “Notes on African Art, History, and Diasporas Within.” African Arts 38, no. 4 (Winter): 70–⁠77, 95–⁠96.

Phillips, Ruth B. 2007. “Exhibiting Africa after Modernism: Globalization, Pluralism, and the Persistent Paradigms of Art and Artifact.” In Museums after Modernism: Strategies of Engagement, edited by Griselda Pollock and Joyce Zemans, 80–⁠103. Victoria, Australia: Blackwell.

Roberts, Mary Nooter. 2008. “Exhibiting Episteme: African Art Exhibitions as Objects of Knowledge.” In Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Africa: Crisis or Renaissance, edited by Kenji Yoshida and John Mack, 170–⁠186. Pretoria, South Africa: Unisa Press.

Turnbull, David. 1993. Maps Are Territories: Science Is an Atlas: A Portfolio of Exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://territories.indigenousknowledge.org/.

Vogel, Susan Mullin. 1999. “Known Artists but Anonymous Works: Fieldwork and Art History.” African Arts 32, no. 1 (Spring): 40–⁠55, 93–⁠94.

Woods, Willis. 1971. “African Art in the Collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.” African Arts 4, no. 4 (Summer): 16–⁠23.


We, the authors, wish to acknowledge the following people and organizations, without whom this work would not have been possible: Simon Gray (Program Officer, Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance), Wendy Singer (Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College), Tyler Reeve (Volunteer Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio), Ben Daigle (Associate Director of Consortial Library Systems for the Five Colleges), Deanne Peterson (Director of Libraries at Ohio Wesleyan University), David Soliday (Instructional Technologist at Ohio Wesleyan University), Eugene Rutigliano (Digital Initiatives Librarian and Curator at Ohio Wesleyan University), Olivia Geho (Ohio 5 Digital Collections Post-Bac), Brandon Stevens (student assistant for Dr. Lewis Cusato), and Sarah Noah (Instructional Technologist at Albion College). This Digital Humanities resource is housed at Ohio Wesleyan University and managed by Dr. Lewis Cusato, in cooperation with Ben Daigle, Deanne Peterson, Eugene Rutigliano, and David Soliday.

About the Authors

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato came to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she serves as an Associate Professor and the Director of the French Program, from the Yale University Department of French. She was promoted and granted tenure in 2019 and awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Dr. Lewis Cusato teaches French language at all levels, as well as courses on the French-speaking world outside of France, with an emphasis on francophone Africa. She publishes regularly, and her work has appeared in Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Expressions maghrébines, The Journal of North African Studies, The Chronicle: Vitae, and The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature. Dr. Lewis Cusato also co-founded and co-directs OWU’s Palmer Global Scholars Program.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Albion College (Michigan, USA), where she teaches a range of courses in global visual culture and art and architectural history. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, respectively, and publishes widely on modern and contemporary art and architecture of the Middle East and North Africa. Her broader research interests include postcolonial and diaspora studies. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes as well as in journals such as The Journal of North African Studies, The Journal of Arabian Studies, Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art, among others. Additionally, she serves as an Assistant Editor for The International Journal of Islamic Architecture.

Skip to toolbar