03 November 2013

Teaching with ORBIS #lawdi

On the last day of our Linked Ancient-World Data Institute this summer, sponsored by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, I argued that it was important to show how all this exciting work could have practical implications for what professional classicists (and other ancient-world types) spend a lot of time on, teaching. To that end, I promised to do a post describing how I had assigned my Classical-archaeology students some short homework using Stanford's great new tool, ORBIS. What's ORBIS? In the words of the site, ORBIS "reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity." More simply it allows you to map routes between two places in the Roman world given certain constraints for cost, time, and type of route.

Naturally the fine people at ORBIS did a nice upgrade to the service after I made that promise, but before I got it completed, so I had some more work to do before this post. (Fair enough, I dragged my feet for too long anyway. Nemesis strikes!) But finally here it is, suitable for framing (or at least bookmarking).

A Very Short Guide to Using ORBIS in your Classical-Archaeology Course


Make sure that you understand as much as possible about ORBIS, what it is, how it works, and so on. You don't need to be an expert, but you should at least be able to do more than your students will by the time they finish the assignment. It won't take more than an hour to read the "Introduction to ORBIS", "Understanding ORBIS" and "Using ORBIS" tabs on the website. Don't miss the nifty how-to videos. Although there's more there to read, these three sections will get you far enough for step 2.

2. Make sure you know how to use it

Play around a bit yourself on the "Mapping ORBIS" section. Try to get from one place to another. Change the various parameters. Use all the controls, so you know how to change the views of the route and so on. Click the buttons and links and sliders. Go nuts. Depending on your technological prowess, this will take you a few hours at most.

3. Demo it in class

Once you're confident that you can show your students the basics of the site with confidence, have your student read those same three sections of the ORBIS website that you read up in #1 in preparation for a short demo of ORBIS that you'll do in class for them. Nothing fancy, just enough to show them the basics. I like to point out to them how long travel takes when you don't have motorized vehicles and how much faster travel over sea is than over land, but be sure to walk them through creating a route and choosing the various options, no matter what extra details you cover.

4. Assignment 1 of 2

Have your students use ORBIS to find a simple route between two places that you specify. Have them do it under multiple conditions. (I used three different sets.) Then have them either print out or take a screen shot of the result, with all routes shown. Here's one with routes between three sets of cities, one taking the fastest route, another the cheapest, and the third the shortest.
Since you've set the parameters, you'll know what the correct routes should be, and thanks to the different colors, it's easy to tell at a glance whether the student got it right. Successful completion of this will indicate that your students can handle using the basics of ORBIS. Make sure they all successfully complete this first assignment. Then they're ready for part 2.

5. Assignment 2 of 2

This part is up to you. Depending on which section of your course you're using ORBIS in, you'll want to find some question you can answer, or some issue you can illuminate via ORBIS. I actually did something that was completely out of ORBIS' chronological span.

To help my students understand the rationale behind some of the placement of early Greek colonies in the west, I had them examine routes between Delphi and Naples. The latter was used as a proxy for the earliest colony of Pithecoussae. (This was actually a variation on an assignment I had made up years ago using a QuickTime movie with links to the Perseus website.) The biggest travel difference between the later Roman empire, the time in which ORBIS is "located", and the geometric period was the roads in use. Obviously none of the vast Roman road system was in place, and so I made sure the students used only routes that avoided long portions over land. (I want to use this assignment again, so I'm not giving away all the details!)

6. Put the students to work

If you subsequently have your students come up with their own ORBIS projects, odds are they'll find something useful and interesting to do, perhaps something you hadn't quite thought of. A set of mine, for example, used ORBIS to explore the different travel experiences of three characters from the ancient world with differing socio-economic backgrounds, complete with clever backstories!

And there it is. Hope this encourages you to use ORBIS and other terrific ancient-world-related DH tools in the classroom! I'd love to hear in the notes about your experiences with ORBIS or with any other tool.