Exhibiting History: OBL Assessment Online

from our “Wilde 13” section

Abstract: This article explores online, authentic assessment simulating object-based learning (OBL) as a site for public history. Students produced a museum audio guide and written label contextualising examples of fascist material culture, displayed in a virtual museum. Practitioners at the Sydney Jewish Museum, and course content, modelled the broader historical analysis skills of OBL. A selection of the resulting work will be included in an online teaching resource for secondary schools.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21035
Languages: English

How do you authentically assess public history online? We designed a virtual object-based learning (OBL) assessment to simulate work-based learning. Upper-level history students produced an audio guide and details board by analysing examples of material culture displayed in a virtual museum, enabling students to virtually navigate and engage with their peers’ contributions. Examples of material culture use, and instructional videos from museum professionals, scaffolded the task.

The Course

Fascism, War and Genocide is an in-depth third-year course with a strongly cultural history approach. Since 2021, it has been offered concurrently online as part of the University of Newcastle’s fully-online Bachelor of Arts. Online-only learning presents challenges to maintaining student enthusiasm and engagement, and to providing authentic work-integrated learning opportunities, above and beyond those in the traditional face-to-face classroom.

We also needed to develop appropriate assessment techniques suitable for both face-to-face and online environments, and to create and scaffold a task that assessed deep understanding and not isolated technical skills.[1] However, frameworks for authentic assessment tend not to explicitly address how to incorporate digital literacies,[2] so guidance was limited.

We also wanted to move students away from relying solely on text-based historical sources. We teach and model broader source use skills extensively, but without direct prompting, students rarely apply them themselves – which is needed for students to develop those skills further. OBL encourages students to think of the past as materially embodied, to engage with a more diverse range of experiences of the past.

Material culture has been shown to reinforce both curiosity and engagement,[3] by evoking “the historical circumstances that created and transported [the object] through time”.[4] OBL increases student engagement by giving students confidence in reading a variety of historical sources, bringing empathy to the study of history, and prompting students to consider how we memorialise the past. OBL also develops skills transferable to other disciplines.[5]

The challenge was how to deliver this online. As Ellinghaus et al. have shown, responses to OBL also occur when the artefacts are not physically present but are viewed virtually. We wished to make this as “real” an experience as possible for online students.[6]

We additionally aimed to: diversify from essay-based assessments; take advantage of new technologies made more familiar by distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic; and engage students through an exciting, authentic and interactive format that meaningfully develops students’ critical digital literacies and multimodal skills. This emphasis also enhanced the inclusivity of the assessment, for digital formats offer increased accessibility and possibilities for student-directed assessment (as opposed to traditionally teacher-directed assessments i.e., examinations).[7]

Finally, we wished to provide authentic work-related learning opportunities that ask students to use the same digital knowledge and skills that they would apply in a professional public history context; and create an item for an electronic portfolio—providing final year students with tangible artefacts holistically representing their public history skills and knowledge.

The Assignment

At the beginning of the course, students sign up for a weekly topic. They are then asked to select an artefact or object relevant to that week, and to produce an 8–10-minute Audio Guide explaining what the object reveals about the social, cultural, economic and/or political history of fascism.

The artefact may be a badge, a flag, a poster, photograph, building, book, radio or other technology, currency, medallion, sheet music, etc. Students provide a photograph of their object, usually obtained from a list of recommended online sources. They produce a brief written description and museum label for their artefact covering such details as date of origin, size, materials, provenance, current location, etc, and a research bibliography.

Audio Guides have a recommended structure, and models/exemplars are provided. The format, however, provides a high degree of flexibility. There is no requirement to provide special effects, but many students include music or atmospheric sounds. Most students simply record on their mobile phones—we did not specify the recording medium to make this element of the task more accessible and to increase the level of student choice.

Scaffolding the Assignment

Analysis and presentation skills need to be scaffolded and supported. We benefited from the professional assistance of curators and educators from the Sydney Jewish Museum,[8] with whom we recorded videos discussing artefacts as case studies. These videos put both object and curator front and centre, to help students think about their role in presenting the past. In other videos, curators discussed the curation process itself, outlining what they consider important when presenting an artefact.

Producing these videos required respect for the objects being discussed whilst engaging the students to investigate further themselves how artefacts come to be displayed and how to tell their story. A montage can be seen on YouTube.[9]

We sought an accessible platform maintaining the illusion of a physical environment – and maintaining engagement. This choice reflected the future realities of not only the history discipline but also the increasingly digital world. It was also important to give the assessments an audience by encouraging students to engage with the digital products created by their classmates, so their work isn’t just being “read” by the marker.

As no off-the-shelf solution then met all requirements for the assignment, we custom-built Museé, a web-based, single-page JavaScript application. Since that time, off-the-shelf solutions have become more flexible, such as Mozilla Hubs[10], widening possibilities for similar projects. The museum can be viewed on YouTube.[11]

Impacts and Reflections

The assignment generated strong, positive responses, as indicated by anonymous student feedback, which praised Museé as engaging, enjoyable and interactive, as well as for fostering of creativity. We also saw increased use of non-textual sources in other, longform written assignments. Museé has been adopted by other history courses at UON. We’ve also had requests from former students to use Museé as a display for a capstone assignment in another course, and as a secondary school teaching asset.

Conversely, the platform required a high degree of staff support to run the assessment, which we hope will be lessened with off-the-shelf platforms. There are ethical, copyright and data retention issues around assessment artefacts being made permanently available on the internet or making them public,[12] particularly for subject matter as sensitive as the history of fascism.

While the digital format offered a creative and accessible avenue for students to demonstrate their knowledge, some accessibility issues remain—virtual museums require a good internet connection, and may not deploy well on devices using screen reader software. We would also have liked to integrate peer review directly into the museum.

Great Potential of OBL

Overall, however, our experiences reinforce that OBL has great potential, even in an online environment: it can foster engagement in the past, broaden transferrable skills, and simulate an aspect of workplace-based learning, modelled and guided by professional practice.

The advantage of a virtual museum is in making the experience as “real” as possible, reinforcing the illusion of physicality of the objects, providing the assessments an audience, and creating an assignment that is directed by the student to a greater degree compared to traditional assessment formats.

We are currently working with colleagues across several courses to curate the best student submissions as a learning asset for secondary school teachers and students, and as an enduring asset for students’ digital portfolios.


Further Reading

  • Bunce, Louise. “Appreciation of Authenticity Promotes Curiosity: Implications for Object-based Learning in Museums”, Journal of Museum Education 41, No. 3 (2016): 230-239, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2016.1193312
  • Ellinghaus, Katherine, Beth Marsden, Una McIlvenna, Fiona Moore and Jennifer Spinks. “Object–based learning and history teaching: the role of emotion and empathy in engaging students with the past”, History Australia 18, No. 1 (2021): 130-155, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2021.1881911
  • Laurillard, Diana. Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. Chicago: Routledge, 2013.

Web Resources

  • Nieminen, Juuso Henrik. “Assessment for Inclusion: Rethinking Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education”, Teaching in Higher Education: Critical Perspectives (2022). DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.2021395
  • Nieminen, Juuso Henrik, Margaret Bearman, and Rola Ajjawi. “Designing the digital in authentic assessment: Is it fit for purpose?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (2022): 1-15.  DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2022.2089627


[1] Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. (Chicago: Routledge, 2013).
[2] Juuso Henrik Nieminen, Margaret Bearman, and Rola Ajjawi, . (2022). “Designing the digital in authentic assessment: Is it fit for purpose?”, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (2022) , 1-15.  DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2022.2089627
[3] Louise Bunce  “Appreciation of Authenticity Promotes Curiosity: Implications for Object-based Learning in Museums”, Journal of Museum Education, 41, No. 3 (2016): 230-239, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2016.1193312
[4] Lainie Schultz, “Object-based learning, or learning from objects in the anthropology museum”, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 40, No. 4 (2018): 282, DOI: 10.1080/10714413.2018.1532748
[5] Katherine Ellinghaus, Beth Marsden, Una McIlvenna, Fiona Moore and Jennifer Spinks, “Object–based learning and history teaching: the role of emotion and empathy in engaging students with the past”, History Australia, 18, No. 1(2021): 131-133, DOI: 10.1080/14490854.2021.1881911
[6] Ellinghaus et al, “Object–based learning,” 140-143.
[7] Juuso Henrik Nieminen, “Assessment for Inclusion: Rethinking Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education”, Teaching in Higher Education: Critical Perspectives (2022) DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.2021395
[8] Sydney Jewish Museum (last accessed 23 January 2023).
[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzSwoixBLtU (last accessed 23 January 2023).
[10] Mozilla Hubs (last accessed 23 January 2023).
[11] https://youtu.be/t6kqAPA4M3I (last accessed 23 January 2023).
[12] Nieminen et al, “Designing the digital.”


Image Credits

Museé platform. Image provided by Dr Sacha Davis, University of Newcastle.

Recommended Citation

Davis, Sacha, Michael Kilmister, Adrian Mereles, Adam Khamis: Exhibiting History: OBL Assessment Online. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 1, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21035.

Editorial Responsibility

Tanya Evans / Heather Sharp

Copyright © 2023 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).

Categories: 11 (2023) 1
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21035

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    Significant Challenges

    Both online assessment and the assessment of object-based learning (OBL) carry significant challenges for educators. Achieving any kind of authenticity in assessing OBL – something that is by definition experiential and tangible — seems to fly in the face of what online learning and teaching offer: the capacity to learn across distances; in spaces apart from traditional spaces of learning; and with every task and interaction mediated by technology.

    What arguments about the ‘inauthenticity’ of online learning seem to ignore though, is that much of our work ‘in the real world’ is today mediated by technology. So it isn’t such a stretch to consider the assessment of OBL online to be a useful approach to gathering evidence of history students’ capacity to apply what they know to practice. The approach outlined in “Exhibiting History” reveals the considerable potential of engaging students in meaningful assessment online.

    Students completed tasks that were embedded in the professional practice of historians and curators; they acted as interpreters of heritage objects, applying both historical and technical skills to create a resource for engagement with the past. No doubt they grappled with the complexity of interpreting the challenging past for diverse audiences, asking the very real questions museum curators and educators must ask every time they invite visitors into encounters with objects. How will this be received? Who are my audience? How can I translate my own expert knowledge into a form that will be engaging and accessible to people who are different from me?

    It is clear that the architects of this approach to OBL assessment have thoughtfully reflected on the multiple facets of what online learning offers. The online space was used to enable peer engagement and connection through sharing and exposure to others’ work. Online tools were crafted to be fit for purpose. The assessment task was designed to be useful and usable, and that in itself contributes to its authenticity.

    The authors outline a series of strategies for online assessment that could be applied in many contexts to ensure that tasks are authentic, meaningful, and engaging. The task was designed with the requisite skills and knowledge in mind; technology wasn’t an afterthought, nor was the task restricted to a specific online space. The task design enabled student choice and agency in both content selection and the medium of representation. There is connection to the real world of work related to the subject of study. Careful thought was given to the right platform for producing and sharing the assignment; when it didn’t exist in the necessary form, it was created. Student engagement and sharing with peers were clearly prioritised from the outset.

    The approach also highlights the demands of crafting authentic assessment in online learning. While there’s a common assumption that online education reduces the need for teacher labour, the reality is often the opposite. As the authors of this piece demonstrate, effective assessment of OBL requires considerable thought, effort, and skills. The paper presents a very useful case study — complete with clear guidance on the strategies we should employ — for designing meaningful, engaging, and authentic online assessment of OBL.

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