Interactive Development as Pedagogical Process: Digital Media Design in the Classroom as a Method for Recontextualizing the Study of Material Culture
Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center, USA
As an institution dedicated to experimental and experiential approaches to teaching and learning, the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) has spent the last five years thinking about how best to integrate graduate-level pedagogy, digital media, and exhibition development. Central to that exploration have been the BGC's Digital Media Lab, an experimental space for working with new media; and the Focus Gallery project, a venue for small-scale exhibitions that allows BGC faculty to connect object studies and exhibition practice with their scholarly work. This paper will discuss how the BGC has used the development and prototyping of interactives for Focus Gallery projects as a platform for new ways of thinking about the role that students can play in helping shape an exhibition, and how that work can help those students use digital media to recontextualize their study of material culture.
Within the worlds of education and cultural heritage, the refrain of possibility in the digital age engenders equal parts hope and equal parts anxiety. If one listens to the loudest voices, institutions are dying left and right due to the march of 1s and 0s, and the world as we know it is always about to change at the rate of a bitstream. Museums should knock down their walls (or cease to exist), and education should be massive, asynchronous and on YouTube. Navigating these treacherous waters with a look to the future, but with an air of caution and consideration of one’s place in history, can prove to be a challenging endeavor.
As an institution that is dedicated to this kind of approach, the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) has spent the last five years thinking about how best to integrate digital media, exhibition development, and graduate-level pedagogy—the methods and practices of teaching and learning. This paper will discuss how integrating students into the prototyping and development of interactives for our Focus Gallery projects provides them with an opportunity to recontextualize their study of material culture.
2. A laboratory project for pedagogy and exhibitions
The BGC is a research institute that supports scholarly research, publications, exhibition development, and graduate programs focused on the study of decorative arts, design history, and material culture. The BGC takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of material culture. Faculty specialties include art history, design history, decorative arts, anthropology, archaeology, cultural history, and media studies, and students come from a similarly broad range of undergraduate majors. To support digital initiatives across the institution, the BGC’s Digital Media Lab (DML) was established in 2009 to provide a humane cyberinfrastructure where students, faculty, and staff can experiment with new technologies and innovate in their coursework, research, pedagogy, and exhibition development (Keramidas, 2012).
As the DML opened, we also began the Focus Gallery project, an initiative in which BGC faculty develop small-scale exhibitions that connect object studies and exhibition practice with scholarly work. Focus Gallery projects also include one or more semester-long seminars, making the Focus Gallery a central part of the BGC curriculum and a favorite attraction for students interested in careers in the museum world or in projects that bring together scholarly research with practical applications. As such, the pedagogical approaches developed in the Focus Gallery seminars have a noticeable impact on the development of the BGC as a teaching institution, especially as their project-oriented focus differs from the traditional survey and seminar-style classes that make up the majority of courses. Furthermore, as a place where the work of professors, graduate students, and academic and exhibition staff all comes together, the Focus Gallery is a unique combination of the many institutional facets that make up the BGC.
As a laboratory for a praxis-based and interdisciplinary approach to the study of material culture, the Focus Gallery has been an important venue for experimenting with digital media. The DML plays an important role in Focus Gallery exhibitions, beginning with project development, as wiki software is used to facilitate networked collaboration and resource aggregation amongst the faculty, students, and staff over the course of the project. A single wiki site can include syllabi for multiple courses; student work on wall label and interactive text copy; prototypes for interactives; virtual designs for the exhibition space; and archives of digital objects intended for research, publication, and design purposes. Erin Hasinoff, curator of Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935, found the wiki for her project such an important part of the development of her show that she included a description of the role it played in the catalog for the show (Hasinoff, 2013).
The wikis were also the first space where the pedagogically generative possibilities of digital media became apparent. For our first Focus Gallery, Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, Professor Aaron Glass had charged his students with the task of tagging individual objects in the exhibition using the wiki’s tagging capabilities. As the tag cloud grew with the students’ work, Professor Glass found that certain unexpected themes began to emerge, and a shift in the focus of the project was made to accommodate the newly emphasized themes (Glass & Keramidas, 2011). The shift was significant enough and the tag cloud notable enough that it inspired our first digital interactive, a touchscreen display that presented the objects and the tags with interconnecting lines. Each object and tag was clickable, and the entire network would readjust to bring the selected item to the center and reorient the connections between all of the other items in the interactive.
Objects of Exchange made it clear that digital media would be an important part of the Focus Gallery’s imperative to experiment with exhibition practice. The DML quickly became an increasingly important part of the development of each show, and conversations between curators and the director of the Digital Media Lab (myself) now occur at a much earlier stage in the process of exhibition development. In particular, the touchscreen interactives that this paper focuses on have grown increasingly complex as the Focus Gallery project has progressed. Interactives now provide alternative paths of intellectual inquiry into the objects in the gallery and information complementary to the narrative provided by the physical objects and textual information within the exhibition. As we have been able to forecast further ahead of openings the need and value that an interactive will provide each exhibit, we have begun to give students in our gallery tutorials a larger role in conceiving of and designing just how these interactives will work in the exhibitions.
3. Developing a transformative pedagogy and a space for creative recontextualization
Of Exhibitions and Databases
The pedagogical framework to allow the students to play this greater role in the conception of digital interactives has been built upon some particular characteristics of working with digital media in exhibition-centered pedagogy. Perhaps the most profound characteristic of digital media is the impact of the database as a defining ontological feature of any digital media object. Lev Manovich (2002) in The Language of New Media stated that the computer age is guided by the logic of the database and in particular its non-linearity and granularity. To this extent, Manovich’s argument is an important one in any consideration of digital media. This is evident in the field of museum studies in the work of authors, such as Ross Parry (2006), who have connected Manovich’s database logic to changes in the perceptions of museum collections and virtual experiences.
Manovich takes the logic of the database to an extreme and postulates an incompatibility with narrative experience. According to Manovich, because new media objects are non-linear aggregations of individual data points, they defy the possibility of narrative.
As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world. (Manovich, 2002, p. 225).
But by defining databases and narratives in these terms, Manovich has gone a step too far in his reduction of the database to a seemingly indiscriminately gathered set of data. For he has both overly constrained the notion of narrative experience to planned linearity and missed the point that a list also inherently conveys an order. However, if we do not stray so far against narrativity in new media and consider the logic of the database in cultural experiences that are not necessarily digital, we can begin to decipher some similar structures. For instance, exhibitions operate on a similar logic, being similarly inherently nonlinear aggregations, and museums themselves are a kind of medium, as Parry (2006) has noted. As such, exhibitions as media can be nonlinear while simultaneously acting as platforms for didactic narratives, thereby sharing a type of database logic without the binary characteristics of digital data. Exhibitions are therefore an interesting model for considering how to best experiment with the digital medium, and an important pivot point for devising pedagogies that teach digital neophytes how to construct compelling narratives within the non-linear user-centric digital environments of the twenty-first century.
Therefore, as we have conceived our pedagogy of interactive development, we looked to see what procedures of exhibition could be transferred to the development of nonlinear digital compositions. Our institutional experience with exhibitions has taught us that through curation and design, one can tell a story (or narrative) or multiple stories, without telling them in traditional linear format. Curation provides us with the tools to choose a body of objects with a preexisting common logic. This logic may be obvious (e.g., everything from the same country) or more subtle (e.g., all the objects represent the struggle of women for equality in some way), but nevertheless the understanding of the curator in the selection of the objects is the foundation of that logic, just as the inclusion of objects in a database ultimately come to define that database’s particular logic. Exhibition design then takes that curated collection and provides visual, aural, and textual cues that a visitor can divine when traveling from one object to another. These clues, along with the relative significance of placement within a space, act as the experiential platform by which a conceptual narrative can be delivered and explored no matter how the visitor may travel through the material. Taken together, curation and design practice can thus be transplanted into a pedagogy centered on developing digital interactives for exhibitions specifically and on digital composition practices in general.
As noted above, these lessons of curation and design are central to much of the work done in the BGC. This has allowed us to use exhibition development as a useful point of departure for not only the integration of digital media in the Focus Gallery, but also throughout the institution, as more and more students and faculty begin to work with these new technologies. In the DML, we are therefore able to create models of pedagogical practice that take advantage of both the logic of exhibitions and the specificity of digital media throughout the BGC. Furthermore, we can use this focus on curation and design as an important reminder that the new possibilities of the digital age are not so much revolutionary as they are a logical evolution of many of the practices that have been utilized in cultural heritage and academic institutions for a very long time.
Towards A Pedagogy of Digital Exhibition Interactive Design
Once the Objects of Exchange exhibition was completed, a number of things happened that led us to start thinking about how to involve students in the development of digital interactives for the Focus Gallery. First of all, the success of the wiki as a course tool and exhibition-development platform caused institution-wide uptake of the wikis, and soon every course and Focus Gallery project was using a wiki. This provided each project with a multimedia, collaborative platform within which to work. Secondly, with the success of our first touchscreen, curators of future exhibits began asking what the possibilities were for their show, and students became increasingly interested in participating in the process.
As the Confluences exhibit soon began to come together, a large corpus of texts, still images, maps, video, and audio relevant to the exhibition began to take shape. The curator and Focus Gallery staff quickly came to the conclusion that digital media would be crucial to organization and collaboration, and that digital interactives would enhance the exhibition design. In order to facilitate the project, the curator and students used the project wiki intensively, making it easier to gather resources and share materials with the staff. When it came time to develop the interactives, it was determined that one would tell the story of the itinerary of the expedition up the Chindwin River that the exhibition was about. A second would use the digitized version of an expedition member’s notebook as a platform to describe the planning that went into the journey. As the project progressed, the curator and I began to discuss how we might bring the development of these interactives into the class, and how to approach involving the students in the conception of and prototyping of the interactives.
We wanted to provide the students with a sound foundation upon which to experiment with digital media, so we constructed a pedagogical model that leveraged the features of digital media that enable for rich experiences no matter what the content or context. Randy Bass, founding executive director of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, has described six ways that different types of learning can be enhanced with information technologies:
- Distributive Learning – the combination of growing access to distributed resources and the availability of media tools by which to construct and share interpretation of these resources allows for distribution of classroom responsibility to students.
- Authentic Tasks and Complex Inquiry – the availability of large archives of primary resources online makes possible assignments that allow for authentic research and the complex expression of research conclusions.
- Dialogic Learning – interactive and telecommunications technologies allow for asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences and provide spaces for conversations and exposure to a wide array of viewpoints and varied positions.
- Constructive Learning – the ability to create environments where students can construct projects that involve interdisciplinary, intellectual connections through the use of digital media that are usable.
- Public Accountability – the ease of transmission of digital media makes it easy to share work, raising the stakes of participation due to the possibility of public display.
- Reflective and Critical Thinking – in aggregate, learning as experienced within digital media now available to pedagogues contributes to the development of complex reflective and critical thinking that educators wish to instill in their students. (Bass, 1997)
These ways in which information technology can enhance quality learning were goals/benchmarks feasible in the course we were planning. The wiki for the course enabled authentic tasks, complex inquiry, and dialogic learning to take place, through the research and aggregation of materials, and communication of that work with the class. Distributing learning was achieved by asking the students which project they wanted to work on, splitting them into one group of two and one of three, and making each group responsible for a tangible set of deliverables. At a constructive level, the students had to go through a series of creative steps, first writing a proposal for their interactives and then executing prototypes that would demonstrate proposed functionality. Public accountability was easy to achieve, as the students knew that their work was headed to the exhibition. In toto, this approach provided a foundation for a high level of reflective and critical thinking, with the students expressing as much in their class evaluations at the end of the semester.
Along with the importance of digital media, which is foregrounded in Bass’s categories, there is an implicit privileging of experience as a tool for learning. John Dewey (1938/1997) is perhaps most famous for arguing for this type of pedagogical methodology in Experience and Education. Dewey believed that learning that occurred within intelligently constructed and loosely controlled activities would allow for enrichment through discovery that was superior to lecture and exam-style learning. Dewey argued that within experiential activities, students develop a stronger sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of content and materials because they are allowed a freedom of expression and the ability to participate on their own terms within the educational environment.
It was this experiential quality that we knew would make the course particularly attractive and rewarding to the students. By allowing the students to develop the interactives, we engaged them in two levels of experiential learning. The first was the benefit of guiding oneself through a learning process and the possibility of improvement through self-discovery. The second, however, involved providing the students with a model of experience that might parallel work they would do later on in their careers, therefore making that experience more relevant and valuable.
Dewey wrote that “in a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality” (Dewey, 1938/1997, p. 47). Following this sensibility, we wanted to ensure that working on this project would prepare students for more expansive experiences, and we looked to impress upon them the value and challenge of situating material traditionally destined for a research paper in a different medium. Going through these kinds of experiences would then better prepare them to work in collaborative, deadline-based environments like those found in the museums in which many of the students would seek employment. Further to that, it would provide them with a unique combination of experience, skills, and language to help them bridge the gap between curators and developers that often hinders the uptake of projects like these. This combination would not only enhance their overall educational experience at the BGC, it would also prepare them for the next generation of museum growth and provide them with a highly marketable skill set.
Working from Bass and Dewey, we approached the class in a way that would introduce the students to design issues while they continued to research the topics they were working on. Because of the short time schedule and the students’ lack of familiarity with formal design practice, the process was structured to focus on a more humanistic and intuitive approach to developing materials. Students were encouraged to explore and think openly with whatever tools and media they felt most comfortable with at first, and to move towards more refined digital representations as the project progressed. Of the two interactives, the itinerary ended up being the more complex and developed. What started as a paper prototype with Post-it notes and stickers (Figure 1) evolved into a rich interactive with text, images, audio and video (Figure 2). The interactive successfully integrated many assets in a hypermedia environment, while at the same time directly referenced physical objects in the exhibition. We consciously remind students that one of the strengths of interactives is that they can play a role in enhancing the experience of the physical objects in the exhibit. In the case of Confluences, there was a rich sense of connectivity between the two interactives and the objects. For instance, a mule saddle, which was in the center of the room and represented the mules and muleteers that were vital to the expedition, could be seen multiple times in both the notebook and itinerary interactive. This range of materials provided users with a platform to both experience a new part of the exhibition narrative and expand upon the stories that were being told in other parts of the exhibit.
Refining the Process of Recontextualization
The course and interactive development for Confluences were successful endeavors. The students replied positively both in retrospective conversations about the class and in anonymous course reviews, and the interactives were noted as highlights of the exhibition, drumming up further interest in digital media throughout the BGC. But, in its own right, the whole process was a prototype that we have continued to improve upon. In particular, we now more explicitly define the structure of the courses to enhance the impact of the pedagogical tenets described above.
Our most recent endeavor has been the process of designing the interactive for our upcoming Carrying Coca exhibit, which highlights chuspas, bags traditionally used to carry coca leaves in Andean South America. The interactive for Carrying Coca would be developed to address the complexities of having coca leaves, which are illegal in the United States, as a central topic of the exhibition (Keramidas & Sharratt, 2013b). A course just completed this past fall was based on the experiences of the Confluences project, but also added new structures and features that incorporated exhibition development procedures and encouraged the students to actively recontextualize research done for a previous course.
The Carrying Coca class had three students, all of whom had taken the previous course project curator Nicola Sharratt had taught on the history of Andean textiles and the place of chuspas within that history. Each had researched objects that were to appear in the exhibition, along with further research in the field for a final paper. Whereas the first course was based on a process of reading, review discussions, and paper writing, the second course focused on a series of creative exercises that asked the students to take the material they had read and written about and recontextualize that material in a new medium for an exhibition audience.
At first, students were asked to develop separate interactives, with the caveat that at some point we as a class would decide which interactive was the most successful and move together as a group to more fully develop that interactive. Here is the series of assignments:
- First assignment: Write a 350- to 700-word proposal that describes how material from the exhibit can be enhanced through the use of an interactive. Think about what content the interactive would address, how it would be displayed and interacted with on a touch screen, and how it would relate to the physical objects displayed in the gallery and the overall design of the show.
- Second assignment: Create some kind of visual representation of your design proposal. This visual representation can be digital (using tools like Prezi, Powerpoint, Illustrator, or Photoshop) or analog (using paper, markers, crayons, stickies, etc.). In this representation, be sure to create one general look that provides us with an idea of layout, navigation, etc., and two to three examples of how interactivity may work.
- Third assignment: Refine your prototype based on conversations from previous class. Be sure to refine the visuals used, expand your examples of interactivity, and begin thinking about how to incorporate sections of text, as well as audio and/or video elements. (Keramidas & Sharratt, 2013a)
These procedures were structured to provide students with an awareness of the challenge of devising interfaces in a digital medium. The database logic of these interactives, coupled with the non-linear possibilities and user-guided experience, requires a more complex way of thinking about how different forms of knowledge dissemination work. Students must consider how their choices as authors (broadly defined) are interpreted differently under different circumstances, and how to best orchestrate aggregations of non-linear information in a way that allows for numerous, but still relevant, narrative experiences. Going through an iterative process with multiple critiques also provides insight into how to craft knowledge constructions that work well from a user’s perspective. Students get to think about how context shapes interpretation and how media design can define that context. Finally, it forces them to think creatively and expressively rather than simply analytically.
For the class session following the third assignment, we invited the full Focus Gallery staff and development team. At this meeting, the students presented a further refined version of the chosen interactives (we ended up presenting two of the three interactives because the student work was so strong) to allow the staff and developers to provide input and ask questions. This was an opportunity to take the process out of the comfortable space of the classroom and expose the students to the types of procedural meetings, organizational conversations, and open critique that are critical to successfully executing such a project.
At this meeting, we decided to move ahead with the student project that used a quipu—a type of textile used to record data contemporary to the chuspas—as an organizing structure for approximately thirty objects, people, and events that provide historical connections and context between the chuspas and coca leaves. The choice of the quipu is an example of the value of the recontextualization that this process affords. The student who had chosen the quipu did so because it provided a visually compelling way to organize the group of objects that was also topically connected to the exhibition as a whole. Her first version of the interactive had used a traditional timeline and as a result did not leave a strong impression. After going back to her studies from the previous semester, she found the quipu a more compelling alternative to the timeline, but with a structure that afforded similar organizational possibilities (Figure 3). In this way she was able to apply knowledge gained in a more traditional seminar and recontextualize that learning through a creative process.
The student work however was not yet complete. Over the course of the final weeks, the students moved from design-oriented questions to the process of object selection, research and text drafting. Each student proposed fifteen to twenty objects to be placed on the quipu, and from that collection, the curator, students, and I came to a final list of thirty-seven objects. The students then split up those thirty-seven objects (somewhat along the lines of their research focuses from the past semester) and spent the last weeks of the semester researching each object and aggregating metadata, images, and drafts of text for the interactive on the course wiki.
By the end of the semester, the students had gone through the process of prototype and critique numerous times, experienced the operational work that exhibition teams perform, and generated the materials that would be passed on to the developers to populate the prototype. The experience is one of the more unique ones we can provide students. It both challenges them with unfamiliar modes of creative and intellectual work and gives them the rare opportunity to produce classwork that will make it into a publicly viewed exhibition.
Reflecting on Process and Practice
Perhaps the greatest expression of the impact these kinds of courses can have comes from the reactions of students and curators, as gathered by the author through informal email correspondence. Corinne Brandt, who participated in the Carrying Coca tutorial and came up with the quipu, noted the value of changing her perception of how her coursework can apply to “real world” situations.
The process of the class, which went from the brainstorming to prototyping stage of development, offered a freedom of creativity that I had not experienced in more traditional classroom settings. The collaboration among the students and faculty was also unique to some of the more solitary practices of academia. Not only did this class and method of study open my eyes to new possibilities of interpretation and avenues of inquiry that can be explored through digital tools, but personally the experience helped me gain confidence in my own ideas through the “real word” conditions of working as part of a team, and accepting constructive criticism among peers. (Brandt, 2014)
Zahava Friedman-Stadler, who participated in the development of the Confluences exhibit, expanded on that notion, stating that “as students we got to work with the BGC Gallery staff, which created an environment somewhere between the classroom and office. This aspect pushed our (the students) abilities to be creative, solution-oriented, and professional within demanding deadlines” (Friedman-Stadler, 2014). For some students, the paradigm shift that occurs in these classes can roll over into other educational experiences. For Antonio Sanchez, the designs that his cohort developed for Carrying Coca class influenced his work in other classes, changing his research approach and leading him to remark that “this class and the exercise of prototyping a digital interactive became for me a laboratory in which, visual, material, and conceptual approaches came together articulating questions beyond the task of organizing engaging information for an exhibition” (Sanchez, 2013).
For the students, one of the most resonant experiences is making something that will go into an exhibition, no matter how much it changes once it leaves their hands and moves through the final development process. Sarah Pickman, who worked on both the Confluences and Carrying Coca exhibits, noted that “even though in both classes I took, the exhibition’s curator still provided the overall scholarly voice and direction, it was very satisfying to be able to point to something in the exhibit and say that I had put my stamp on that” (Pickman, 2013). This value of student ownership of the process and product of the class was not lost on curators either, although it can be equally unfamiliar to them. Ms. Sharratt noted that
As an educator, the process of involving students in the development of a gallery interactive has been a learning journey for both the class and myself. By turning over responsibility, first for coming up with creative ideas, and then for thinking through and crafting ways to convey those ideas, to the students, I think that the class format led to the students feeling really invested in, even proprietorial (in a good way!) over this component of the exhibition. It was their ideas, their work, that was at the core of the (soon to be) finished product. (Sharratt, 2014)
If there is proof in the pudding, it is how the skills and experiences that this kind of work promotes can help students achieve in cultural heritage institutions. Rebecca Mir, who worked on one Confluences interactive, felt that she “was able to experience firsthand the joys and challenges of researching objects, writing interpretive labels, and prototyping digital in-gallery interactive media. The opportunity to develop these skills has allowed me to better understand how to work collaboratively and effectively in a museum setting, and has helped me feel both competent and technologically-savvy as a museum professional” (Mir, 2014). Ms. Mir has recently gone on to earn the position of associate manager, digital media and online learning, at the Guggenheim, in no small part due to her experiences in the Focus Gallery project and at the BGC.
The Digital Media Lab, Focus Gallery project, and our pedagogical approach to developing interactives are important indicators that the BGC is an educational institution committed to improving the study of material culture through rigorous intellectual inquiry and curricular experimentation. As such, we continue to look for opportunities to introduce students to the relationship of digital media and exhibition development across a variety of experiences. These experiences are not intended to train the next generation of digital developers, as our program will always focus more on the process of research and composition at the core of scholarly inquiry than on training in the media arts. However, we do wish to inculcate in our students an understanding of where the history of cultural heritage institutions intersects with the future of digital media and teach them to become conversant in both sides of that intersection. In this way, we look to develop a diverse critical and creative fluency that will allow our students to not only participate in the future of media of museums, but also to play a role in the innovation of the field.
I would like to thank the students from the Confluences and Carrying Coca projects who provided feedback on their experiences in the tutorials: Corrine Brandt, Zahava Friedman-Stadler, Rebecca Mir, Sarah Pickman, and Antonio Sanchez. I would also like to thank curators Erin Hasinoff and Nicola Sharratt and Professor, Curator, and Head of the Focus Gallery Project Ivan Gaskell for their help in preparing the paper.
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