Designers and Developers as Scholarly Collaborators

At the heart of the Greenhouse Studios design process is the concept of “collaboration from the start.”  All too often collaborators are brought on board at a late stage merely to implement or put the finishing touches on scholarly projects, not to conceptualize them.  This is particularly true with respect to designers and developers, whose labor and expertise are typically used in a service capacity to support the work of credentialed faculty researchers.  There’s nothing wrong, of course, with hiring a developer to build a website for a scholarly research project, or having a design technologist create colorful and engaging data visualizations.  Indeed, designers, developers and other technologists can enhance conventional research outputs, especially at the publication and dissemination stages, by making them more accessible, more engaging and more comprehensible to broader audiences.

But what happens when collaborators with expertise in design and technology are part of a project team from the very beginning?  Moreover, what happens when technologists work alongside other diverse researchers, whose respective fields may lie adjacent to one another, but rarely overlap?

Charles V|R

Answers to these questions began to emerge with our first cohort of “collaboration from the start” research projects. The Charles V|R project team, for example, which first came together in early 2017, includes a musicologist, an art historian, a filmmaker, and a design technologist with experience in 3D animation. Taking advantage of their respective skills and areas of expertise, the team ultimately produced a virtual-reality recreation of the 1530 coronation Mass of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Using contemporaneous accounts of the event, Charles V|R recreates the sights and sounds of this momentous religious and political ceremony, including historically authentic recreations of the original artwork, architecture and music.

It is unlikely that any one project team member working on his own would have been able to fully design and implement the Charles V|R experience. The musicologist and the art historian had no prior experience with 3D animation, for instance, while neither the filmmaker nor the design technologist were experts in Renaissance art, architecture or music.  What enabled this unique scholarly output was deep collaboration between humanities scholars and technologists.


With the success of Charles V|R, we wondered what would happen if this same model of collaboration were used to advance an already existing project.  One of these existing projects, Lé, is a web-based tutorial for learning to read and translate texts in Early Modern Irish. Léamh (pronounced LAY-uv) is the Irish word for “reading” or “to read.”  The purpose of Lé, which launched last year at UConn, was to mitigate a lack of available resources for learning Early Modern Irish and to make historically important texts written in the language accessible to a much broader readership.  The website includes a grammar, a 7,000-word glossary and a selection of early modern texts accompanied by interactive annotations and translation.

For the Greenhouse Studios iteration of Léamh, we brought together a project team that included two of the scholars behind the original Lé website, an outside collaborator with expertise in Early Modern Irish, a visual artist, a metadata librarian and a design technologist.  While Lé continues to be updated with additional material, the charge of this new Léamh project team was not merely to augment or improve the existing website, but to fundamentally rethink and reconceive the relationship between Early Modern Irish and pedagogy.  To that end, the project team underwent the same design process that any other Greenhouse Studios project undergoes, including the initial Understand phase.  The Understand phase promotes divergent thinking about ideas for the project, but, crucially, also involves an assessment of project team capabilities and a careful consideration of audience.

Now in the middle of the Build phase, the Léamh team is currently working on a stand-alone grammar game for teaching and learning Early Modern Irish.  The notion of gamifying the language arose in part because the design technologist on the team had previous experience building digital games.  As with Charles V|R, the design of the project was shaped, from the start, by the diversity in the team members’ skills, expertise and perspectives.

Work-in-progress wire frame image.
Work-in-progress wire frame image.

Work-in-progress wire frame images from the Léamh grammar game.


Though a grammar game can’t fully replace a conventional descriptive grammar, learning Early Modern Irish by means of a digital game has at least two distinct advantages. For one, gamification provides built-in psychological rewards that encourage the user to maintain a regular program of learning.  Secondly, a digital game allows for the collection of aggregated data on learners’ progress through the game, thereby helping to identify aspects of the language that learners find particularly difficult or for which they simply need additional time to master. In turn, this data can be used to improve the grammar game itself, but can also provide valuable information about language pedagogy and language acquisition more generally.  In contrast to the “additive” model of collaboration, where design technologists and librarians assist faculty-led projects, the Léamh project thus demonstrates the possibilities for emergent knowledge in the context of diverse project teams, flattened hierarchies and a “collaboration from the start” approach to design.

Wes Hamrick
Mellon Fellow, Greenhouse Studios