Omeka is an open-source platform of digital archives and collections that makes web-publishing easy and compliant with Dublin-core standards favored by libraries and museums. While it was first developed to help archivists and scholars publish their work online, Omeka has evolved into a valuable tool for students and educators.
Omeka contains two platforms. Omeka.org offers more personalization options but requires users to secure their own server for hosting. Omeka.net, on the other hand, hosts sites on its own server but the capacity and capabilities are determined by the various plans (which includes a basic, free plan). Teachers should examine the detailed comparison of Omeka.org and Omeka.net in order to decide which options best serve their desired use of Omeka.
This review will examine the free basic plan on Omeka.net and how teachers could use Omeka in the classroom.
First of all, it would be counterproductive to outline a step-by-step installation and set-up for an Omeka site. The developers at the Center for History and New Media have done a wonderful job providing a concise and understandable tutorial for first-time Omeka users (Omeka.net users should head to the Help page before beginning). In addition, the forum on Omeka.org addresses many questions that initial users might have—even for Omeka.net users. The Omeka team is fairly quick in addressing any questions that are submitted via email or through the forum.
Instead, some suggestions can facilitate creating an Omeka site from the free basic plan. After registering for an Omeka account and activating it via email, users will be directed to some simple set-up steps for starting a new site: choosing a name and description, selecting a theme among the four options in the basic plan ("Seasons" offers various design options) and installing plug-ins. Teachers would benefit from selecting appropriate plug-ins, which can be activated and deactivated at any moment—even after the site is live and published.
We recommend four plug-ins for classroom use: Docs Viewer (for scanned or digital files in DOC, PDF, PPT, or any image files), Simple Pages (which allows users to create a standalone page, such as an About page or course syllabus), CSV Import (for importing large quantities of items into the collection using an Excel CSV sheet), and Exhibit Builder (which offers the ability to create rich expository exhibits around selected items and collections).
Teachers can also customize their themes with logos, picture headers, customized menu categories, and other elements visible on the homepage. Eventually, as students are added as users, teachers will be able to control administrative levels of participants. (Here is Omeka's detailed explanation of how to edit settings and user permissions.)
One last recommendation: if teachers (or students) are planning on uploading dozens or hundreds of documents into the Omeka archive, it would be best to develop an Excel spreadsheet first. For each column heading, use the Omeka terminology for the various metadata categories. To find these categories, go to the administrative panel (or "backend" of the site) and select "Item" in the top left corner. Then, click on "add an item." You will find five different sections on the left menu. Begin by selecting "Dublin Core" and use each category name as the column header on the Excel spreadsheet. Remember: not every category needs to be filled out by users. When developing an Omeka student portfolio, for example, a user may only fill out the "Title," "Subject," "Description," "Source," and "Date." The Excel spreadsheet for this archive would only have the first five column headers.
After examining the Dublin Core categories, proceed to "Item Type" metadata and use "Item Type" as the next column header. As users populate the spreadsheet with information, it is important to use the Omeka language for "Item Type." For example, pictures are labeled "Still Image" in Omeka's Item Type categories. Finally, the last column header in the Excel spreadsheet should be for "Files." Here, users will eventually enter the location of the files Omeka will import to add to the site. This could be a folder on a computer or a web address (if the images are already hosted on another server).
Why use an Excel spreadsheet anyway? We found that entering each item into Omeka is fine if only a few items will be added at a time. However, entering data for dozens or hundreds of items takes a long time. With the aforementioned CSV plugin installed, users can instead populate their Excel spreadsheet, using Omeka's terminology for metadata categories, and save the Excel spreadsheet as a CSV (comma separated value) file. Then, users simply click on CSV Import in the admin panel and upload their CSV file. The results? Dozens or hundreds of items are uploaded at once, with all the designated information and files in place. The only information users will need to manually enter are tags and collection categories (if collections are created beforehand.) If all the items are the same "Item Type," then users can also select the appropriate item type in the CSV Import page as well.
So, Omeka's site contains a thorough step-by-step tutorial in both text and video that makes the process of creating an online archive simple, and this Tech for Teachers article shows how teachers and students can use and benefit from a more focused set-up process. Here's the more pressing question at hand: How can Omeka work in the classroom?
The Educators page offers some basic ideas for how to use Omeka in the classroom and the functionality it provides for archiving student work and primary source materials, and this review has described how a new user could follow the online tutorials and develop a student portfolio, and looked at steps that could save teachers some time. Omeka, though, has many classroom functions.
- Course site — Teachers can use Omeka to develop their entire course online. "Simple Pages" allows teachers to create standalone pages—ideal for posting a course syllabus, reading/HW list, or other class information. Each page will become a menu item on the homepage. Then, teachers can create a collection or build an exhibit with sections and subsections. These sections could be themes, units, or any other form of organization for the course. Images and other files can be attached for student use.
- Thematic/unit collection — Omeka does not need to contain an entire course. Many school systems control which programs or sites teachers can use to construct a course website. That doesn't mean, however, that teachers cannot link to their Omeka site. Teachers can take advantage of Omeka's ability to tag, classify, attach files, and build exhibits to publish specific units.
- Collaborative projects — By allowing multiple users to submit work to an Omeka site, teachers can create sites with other faculty or colleagues who teach the same history course. At a school-system level, for example, all the AP U.S. History teachers can develop one Omeka site for students to access information specific to the course: DBQs, primary sources, FRQ questions, selected images and readings, etc. Likewise, once teachers become familiar with Omeka, they can help students develop a group Omeka project to display their collaborative work.
- Online repository — Mirroring the work of museum Omeka projects, faculty and students can work together to digitally preserve materials located at their school. Historical maps, video collections, and other sources can be archived so that students and faculty are aware of the resources available for history courses. Often, students are able to bring in valuable primary sources from home which can be photographed and added to an Omeka site, with permission from the owner for educational use.
- Individual student work — Omeka is easy enough for students to use, but teacher guidance will be essential at first. Many schools require student portfolios, and Omeka allows students to upload a variety of file types that can make their portfolio a multimedia presentation. Another approach is to provide students one section of the site to create or manage—which can keep a site alive for years if outgoing students "pass the baton" to incoming students.
- Community service/outreach — A last recommendation is to use Omeka for community projects. Perhaps an old church or school building has materials worth preserving, as part of a community's local history. In this way, history students can use Omeka as a way to learn how historians preserve information, while being active on campus. Teachers should envision Omeka as a way to teach students how to think and act like a museum curator, historian, or archivist.
Here are a few examples of how teachers, groups of students, and individuals have used Omeka:
- The James Monroe Papers is a student-driven class project from Mary Washington University students under faculty supervision. This site is a good example of how students can collaboratively build an Omeka site with some nudging, prodding, and guidance from history educators. Artists, Patrons, and Japanese Art also showcases a student group project under faculty supervision.
- Mary Washington Images is another project from Mary Washington under Jeff McClurken's supervision. The goal here, though, is to help students take the initiative to preserve local history and to think like curators and historians. The project is campus-wide and invites visitors to contribute to the preservation of institutional memory.
- A similar project to Mary Washington Images was developed by a UNC-Charlotte student, under the supervision of the library staff, to record Presidential visits to the city of Charlotte.
- Although customizing Omeka is a feature for Omeka.org, Dave Colamaria's site on the Steel Navy demonstrates how one student's passion can be realized through Omeka's platform.