Today, I gave a presentation/workshop in Music 250, the Music department's practicum for first-year teaching fellows, on the intersection between the digital humanities, digital pedagogy, and multimedia assignments. I'll probably post more content from the workshop in the coming days, but for now, here's a handout I'm fairly proud of: a list of 10 pointers to keep in mind when designing a multimedia assignment. It was inspired by several sources, some of which I was involved in creating at the Bok Center; see bottom.


10 Tips for Designing Multimedia Assignments

Compiled by William O'Hara, Harvard University Department of Music

It’s debatable precisely what a multimedia assignment is. For the purposes of this list, a multimedia assignment is anything other than a written essay or an in-class oral presentation. While that can certainly mean digital media—video, animation, sound recording—it can just as easily mean analog media—drawing, art, object-making—or social media—blogging, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

1. Don’t use multimedia purely for the sake of multimedia. Begin by asking yourself:

  • What value does this add?
  • Why this format?
  • How does this format help my students to learn and communicate?

Any multimedia assignment should go above and beyond the affordances of a written essay or an oral presentation.

2.Think about all the options available to you – visual, aural, interactive, multimodal. Choose your medium carefully based on the lesson, or think about allowing students to choose the medium (or media) that appeal to them, and that will best express their ideas.

  • This requires you, and your students, to think about what individual media are good at. Writing is well-suited to complex arguments that unfold over several pages, and it’s also good at analysing other writing: close-reading and unpacking an especially dense paragraph, for example. Video, on the other hand, might be good at showing many examples very quickly: you can easily show 20 examples of something in the space of a minute or two, while an academic essay is often structured around only three to five major examples. What other things might individual media accomplish? What does drawing do that video can’t? And how might different forms of media combine to allow students to think and work in new ways?

3.Beware the myth of the “digital native.” Introduce students to new software gradually; don’t assume that all them have a highly technical background, or even that all of them will have access to the hardware and software being used.

  • As a corollary, make sure to ensure that students have open access to all necessary resources through your university

4. Don’t just teach tools; teach critical thinking. Help your students to see multimedia work as academic, not just a creative playground. Emphasize that an academic argument should form the core of their project, not simply aesthetic pursuits. (This reflects back on #2, however – keep in mind that what constitutes an “academic argument” might look different in various formats!)

5. Think about how your multimedia assignment fits into your course as a whole, and how it reflects your teaching philosophy. Does this use of multimedia reflect back on and cohere with other aspects of your teaching, or is this a one-off? (If it’s the latter, start to reflect on the rest of your syllabus, or go back to step 1!)

6. Set clear goals for each assignment; use a rubric if necessary, to help set expectations for students. Communicate your teaching goals to your students, and offer specific guidance about what you want them to get out of their work.

7. Use existing resources and exemplary models of multimedia practices to inspire your students and demonstrate the capacities of a given medium. Direct them to documentaries, artworks, podcasts, etc., that you enjoy and think are especially effective.

8. Helping your students to produce a polished piece of media that they can be proud of is a laudable goal, but keep in mind that a rough prototype or sketch can be just as useful as a thinking tool, and just as valid as an assessment. Throughout your instruction and assignment design, offer your students assistance and opportunities to revise as the project goes on.

9. Value the process as well as the product. Capturing the process of a multimedia assignment can be just as important as evaluating the end product. Think about ways to help students through their work, and ways in which they can demonstrate their mastery to you as they go along (such as submitting multiple drafts, with feedback and the chance to revise). Mistakes can be valuable learning experiences—allow students the room to experiment, to fail, and to learn from their frustrations.

  • This goes for your assignment design as well! Think about breaking a large assignment up into several pieces, re-assessing and updating your own assignment design as the class moves through each phase.

10. Consider the issues of ownership that accompany any online or multimedia work. These issues include copyright and fair use, but also the proprietary or open-source status of the tools themselves. Who owns the tools that you’re asking your students to use (particularly in the case of online services or software-as-a-service), and who owns the content that they produce with those tools? Where is that content hosted? Is it private for your students or your class, or accessible to the public? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each situation?

Inspired by:

This list has been inspired by my work as a media fellow at the Derek Bok Center, my own classroom teaching, and conversations with colleagues including Marlon Kuzmick, Mike Heller, Alex Rehding, and Hayley Fenn. You might like to check out some of the following videos and blog posts, which inspired some of the individual points:


The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. “So You Want to Design a Multimedia Assignment?” Vimeo, April 2013.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. “DTF Tip: Mike Heller on Multimedia Assignments.” Vimeo, November 2013.

Jesse Stommel. “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class.” Personal blog, August, 2014.

“Critically Evaluating Digital Tools: Morning Session: Assumptions.” Digital Pedagogy Lab, 2015.