On the history of decorative art, design, and film. Doing Digital Art History

Tag: modern architecture

Mapping Project final thoughts and feedback

Wow! January just flew by in the whirl of new semester business. So of course my first post of 2015 is actually going to be a final report on the digital humanities class project from last semester.

Here is the link to the google map the course made: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zDX3AIg56Xx0.kx2jSWf18o-A

  1. There are many more blue pins than red only because I limited the number of built works by female architects for each group to 15 (and for comparison the textbook had anywhere from 7-24 built works per section pinned by an individual in the first layer). Wanted them to do slightly deeper research on the women architects rather than broader. Although students did say that it was in some cases challenging to find 15 built works where they could also find at least 1 image and any useful data about the built work (including, sometimes a challenge, where it was located if it had since been destroyed).
  2. Their work on the first part of the project ranged all over the place from A+ to C (I almost never get failing students because of UNC’s generous add/drop deadline) and this was still fairly obvious from looking at their work on the map, and much of a piece with their other grades in the course. Their work on the second part of the project ranged from A+ to B+, which was a good sign that they had improved since their first try run at it.
  3. I was surprised at how much I learned from their work on the second part of the project, which brought to light, among other things, that a woman received the first patent for an architectural design (in North Carolina, no less!) and highlighted the neglected work of the first licensed African-American female architect Norma Merrick Sklarek (whose firm wouldn’t ever tell clients that she was the principal designer for fear they would bolt from the project). The students really brought a higher level of engagement to this project than I am used to seeing in previous incarnations of the course.
  4. I also took all of their data from the second part of the project and used it to create a google fusion table (found here), to which I added a field for building type (school, museum, office building, etc.) and showed them various ways they could filter the data. One of the charts I had created was a network of building type by year, which revealed that a lot of early women architects built houses and many more current female architects build office buildings—this raised questions for the class and led to an interesting discussion of late 19th female architects finding more commissions for houses precisely because of sesxist stereotypes about the association of women with the domestic realm (they would just be better at houses, because this is where they spend all of their time and provide the most socially appropriate value as wives and mothers) but also how this distribution might reflect the students’ own assumptions and biases in doing their research and choosing which 15 among potentially many other choices to add to the map for a given date range.
  5. The good: Students were asked after the final presentations to give feedback on the project as a whole. Some found the project fun (r.e. the complaint in number 6 below, one student gave the rejoinder “I don’t care, I really liked it, it was fun”), others found it made the built works much more memorable and helped them better understand how to do formal analysis of architecture, others really liked the interactivity of the exercise (being able to add video and images to the pins as well as links, and to then go explore what their peers had created, and move around the map geographically), and others found it made them feel a sense of ownership over the materials they were pinning to the map. They were unanimously in favor of sharing their work outside the class and a couple of students wanted to know if the project would continue to grow after this. One student used his newly acquired mapping skills in an Islamic art class to map artistic commissions by one particular Andalusian caliph.
  6. The bad but fixable: One student complained about the length of time it took to actually make the pins on the map (6 or 7 hours) and so we talked as a group about how to improve that aspect of the project. Most students would have preferred to just put their data and links into a google drive shared spreadsheet and then let me “make” the map with that. Based on how google maps ingests data from a spreadsheet, from a test with some of the female architect data, this would in turn require adding geolocation fields (the map just couldn’t find an observatory in the far north of Finland from the name of the town it was in, as an example), and also perhaps still adding some images via the individual pin on the map (the map couldn’t convert some urls into images and just added them as links to the bottom of the pin description—seemed to do just fine with embedding video urls).
  7. The kinda bad: I paid for Google Maps pro to allow us to put so many pins on the map and in the last week of the course they announced it will now be free. But it was only $5 a month and I can easily get my department to reimburse me the teaching expense of $20 + tax.

The Perils and Pitfalls of Group Online Work in Google Maps Beta

As promised, this Digital Art History Thursdays post is about the progress that has been made in my Modern Architecture course in using Google Map Engine Lite (now out of beta and officially My Maps) to create a group map. Phase one of the project will be finished in mid-October, but the following issues arose as we got started:

1. Google, in various ways, provides incorrect information about how to share maps in such a way that all users could edit the map. Below are the options that Google gives you for sharing maps.

Google Map Sharing

Since our map was for class purposes, and would likely have some bumps along the way, option 1 was discarded immediately. The class will vote at the end of the semester about whether to make the final map public or not. In theory, I could have used option 3 to share with all of the students in the course by entering their individual email addresses into a list and letting them access the map by signing into Google, but this too was discarded as an option because Google rejected their university email addresses out of hand (and one at a time also–I would delete an email from the list and Google would reject another, and so on) and because the task of collecting everyone’s gmail address (and because some students did not have gmail addresses, which I did not want to force them to create) would have made the sharing process too piecemeal and drawn out instead of giving everyone equal access from the first day. So I chose option 2 and emailed the map link to all of the students via the course Sakai page–they could bookmark the link and Google (supposedly) wouldn’t care what email address they had or even who they were when they accessed and edited the map. Easy, right?

But then a student tried to access the map, and this is where things were clearly not as advertised. Notice above that option 2 says “no sign-in required” and that the access level is “Can edit.” My student could view the map, and could even see a red Edit button in the top right corner of the map toolbar on the left side of the map. However, clicking the Edit button resulted in nothing. Searching for a place in the map search bar would drop a green pin on the location, but that green pin could not be grabbed and added to the map. The student could, in actuality, not edit the map. Nowhere in the Google support documentation does it indicate that sharing maps requires signing in to Google before one can edit a map, but that is the truth that several independent help forums had conclusively discovered. Every student, even the ones who had not previously had gmail or Google accounts, had to now sign in to Google to be able to edit the map.

So Google lied. But it was more like they lied out of ignorance about how their own tool was supposed to work than to deliberately obfuscate. In theory, maps work like docs on Google Drive. In practice, Google’s My Maps can be viewed by strangers (to Google) but only edited by friends (of Google). Something to consider when looking for a more open tool for classroom use.

2. We also discovered that, despite the promise of the ability to add data to a map by importing it from an Excel spreadsheet, Google only allows one spreadsheet import per layer of the map. Out of general assignment fairness, I couldn’t allow the first student out of the gate to have this ability and then deny it to everyone else. This required a bit more logistical thinking before coming up with a procedure that could be used by the whole class.

I could have had each student make a layer, and, since I have a Maps Pro account, we would have been able to have that many layers (times 2, because the students would be doing the same thing for the next phase of the project), but this would also have been difficult to read through on the maps toolbar and also open up a lot more room for importing and data entry error (data columns in different orders from layer to layer, less accurate place locations found, etc.).

Or I could have had every student send me their spreadsheet data a few days in advance of the phase one unveiling and then I could have synthesized their data into one sheet and uploaded it to the map. Since part of the goal of the project is to have the students get hands-on with the digital tool, this was an obvious nonstarter.

So, instead of adding data in sets, each student will be adding individual points to the map for their assigned “section” of the project. Already we have seen that the map search bar can find built works at their actual physically specific street address, so the pins will be very accurately placed on the map, without the students having to enter GIS coordinates. The students can still copy and paste prepared data from their spreadsheets (which is the part of the assignment that will be turned in for the actual grade). And they can more directly and easily add images and video directly from the pin editing function using Google search. Since most students will be adding 15-20 pins, taking the route of adding one item at a time is not excessively burdensome as a whole.

For the next blog post, a report on the results of phase one of the mapping project.


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