When John Adams looked back on the American Revolution (something he liked to do), he reflected that, “The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” The colonists’ drive to independence marked a new era of American history, Adams thought, when “Thirteen Clocks were made to Strike together; a perfection of Mechanism which no Artist had ever before effected.” Scholars have struggled to frame the experience of the Revolution in picture and on the page. How can we use digital tools to curate collections of revolutionary culture and #vastearlyamerica for use in the classroom?
Today, The Junto chats with Darren Milligan, Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, about the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which encourages us to make, use, and share new galleries of history.
JUNTO: How and why did you develop this curation tool for the Smithsonian Learning Lab? Who did you have in mind when you created it, and which institutional models did you use?
MILLIGAN: In 2003, the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies (now the Center for Learning and Digital Access), where I work, launched SmithsonianEducation.org as a central portal, for teachers to access the lesson plans and other educational resources digitally available from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, research centers, libraries, archives, and more. The Center was also an educational publisher, producing Smithsonian in Your Classroom, a teacher magazine and lesson plan series, distributed to every primary and secondary school in the United States for more than thirty years. About five years ago, we began looking both at the portal platform and deeply at how our publications were being used, and began talking about how we might improve both, as well as ensure that teachers and their learners (or anyone wanting to use the Smithsonian’s digital resources as tools for learning) had access to everything.
Our research (summarized in this article) indicated that teachers needed to be more involved in the modification of existing resources or the creation of them from the start. We needed to build an infrastructure that shared the tools for the production and distribution of educational resources between the Institution and its users. In other words, the tools a museum educator uses to search for, design, build, test, and ultimately publish new digital learning resources are the same resources and tools provided to everyone. In this way, a collaborative community might be possible. One in which we all build upon each other’s expertise. We looked to a lot of leaders in the field, from museum and general education sites, to other digital collection sites. The complete look into this analysis can be found in a two part article summarizing our environmental scan: Part 1, Part 2.
JUNTO: Can you walk us through the tech side? How large is the project team, and what was your timeline from start to launch?
MILLIGAN: The project was accomplished through a nimble Smithsonian team here at the Center for Learning and Digital Access (while the team responsible for the Learning Lab itself is small, the Smithsonian has a large number of staff devoted to digitization, digital curation, education resource development, etc, spread across the museums and research centers). Our team includes both educators and technologists. Since the beginning of our research phase (2012), we have been fortunate to collaborate with a number of external firms, primarily with Brian Ausland and Joe Hobson of Navigation North, who are our lead collaborators and have led much of the educational research and the technical development of the project (we continue to work with them on the research side of the project, looking specifically at how teens engage online with digital resources, including digitized collections). On the front end side, this past summer, we added Marc Baumgartner and Graham Dobson of Codename Design to the team, who lead the thinking on the user experience and feature design.
The project team has also included research partners, including the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard (who worked with us during the Learning Lab development to help us ensure we were following best practices for child safety online) and Mark Warschauer and his team at the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, who are conducting a two-year study looking at the impacts of teacher professional development on the usage of the Learning Lab.
JUNTO: What sort of feedback have you received? Are there any changes that you’re planning to make?
MILLIGAN: From the beginning of the research phase, the voice of the teacher, their needs, and the realities that they face in the classroom, have been at the center of our work. The basis for the features of the Learning Lab were developed out of more “traditional research,” meaning a literature review and an environmental scan, but also through weeks of iterative prototyping with teachers from across the country, at all grade levels and subject areas. We spent the summer of 2012, in rooms with teachers, with our technical developers and research team, working through a variety of scenarios that helped us understand how to improve our platform and its resources. This gave us the great luxury of, on a daily basis, responding to teachers input, rethinking our assumptions, and redeveloping a prototype. Throughout feature design and development, we worked with a number of teachers remotely, including many former Teachers of the Year, to provide us feedback and input.
Since the beta launch of the Learning Lab in October of last year, we have worked closely with teachers in western Pennsylvania (through a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, the Senator John Heinz History Center) on professional development workshops for middle school social studies teachers. These workshops gave us a great opportunity to introduce the platform and its resources to a pilot group of educators and to understand how they navigate its features. Their feedback has directly been incorporated into the beta site as it developed over the past six months. As we move now beyond our launch, the needs of our users will be the driving force on how the site continues to develop and improve.
JUNTO: Digital projects, including those focused on early American history, generate a vibrant community of makers and users. How can the Learning Lab facilitate their exchanges?
MILLIGAN: The Learning Lab was built upon the idea that others should be able to easily personalize our resources to meet their particular needs, whether that be in the classroom (a teacher adapting language or images, for example, to better connect with her students) or anyone anywhere who wants to use the resources of the Smithsonian. There are some simple features built in that help support this. Any “published collection” on the site (“collection” is the word we use on the Learning Lab to refer to any aggregation, structured or unstructured of resources: images, videos, texts, etc.)—currently there are about 600 published collections—can be copied by any other user and adapted, in any way. If you find another user whose work or interests connect with your own, you can favorite them, and see what else they have made.
We have received a lot of feedback about the potential of collaborative collection building, mostly from teachers. Maybe your readers might be able to offer some additional information on how they might use a feature like this?
JUNTO: OK, time for the test drive. In roughly one hour, I curated an American Revolution gallery (13 Revolutions) as a public history workshop, and I know it needs more work. How can I improve at the discover/share/create mode that Learning Lab recommends? Better filters? Upload resources like a syllabus? Crowdsource some inspiration online? All tips welcome!
MILLIGAN: Congratulations on your first collection! It looks very cool. Pulling together resources from across the Smithsonian’s collections is a great first step. The next one all depends on how you and others might use the collection. You might use the Annotation tools (“Info/Text” buttons) to comment on why you included each of the images within your collection. You could use the Learner Response tools (“Quiz Questions” buttons) to directly ask your users to input their reflections or upload additional resources. Or you might use the Image Hotspot tools to highlight specific parts of each image that you think directly connects with the theme you are exploring. There are a lot of ways you could take this, and the great thing is that you can take it in more than one. Duplicate your own collection and try out a couple of alternative paths.
JUNTO: Something we’ve been thinking about here is how digital work drives the humanities. Is there a project that you’d love to do, but the tech/tool just doesn’t exist yet?
MILLIGAN: I am very interested in how a project like the Learning Lab can drive digitization. The more we understand about how educators, students, scholars, researchers, etc. make use of existing digitized collections, the more we can use this data to drive future prioritization. The Smithsonian has more than 138 million objects (of which only about one million have been digitized), so we need insights, data-driven insights, to be part of this conversation.
JUNTO: How did you get started in digital history, and what advice do you have for beginners?
MILLIGAN: Well, I most certainly developed my appreciation of history from my father, who was a U.S. History teacher, and my grandfather, who taught the same before him. In fact, education is kind of my family business as grandparents, aunts, and cousins have all been educators. My sister is currently a modern languages teacher in Pennsylvania. This meant that I not only developed an appreciation for “lifelong learning,” but also for the places and objects that document our shared history. My mother, when I was young was a COBOL programmer, so, even before the days of widespread personal computers, there was always a PC in our home (that I mostly used to connect to the mainframe and play Colossal Cave Adventure). The digital/web piece came later as I worked at a conservation nonprofit (one of my undergraduate degrees is in biology/ethology) and learned how to code HTML and build websites. Through a winding path I ended at here at the Smithsonian.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in the digital space is the community that supports it. Perhaps because, in the early days of HTML, we all were learning ourselves, helping each other, that this community became so strong (my own is centered around digital heritage practitioners through two organizations, Museums and the Web, and MCN). The best advice I could offer would be to reach out to members of this community via Twitter or whatever platform they may use, offer your time and experience. It’s the best way to learn.
JUNTO: Finally, what’s next for the Smithsonian, in terms of the Learning Lab and digital initiatives?
MILLIGAN: There is incredible digital work going on at the Smithsonian. A couple of great projects to check out: the Smithsonian Transcription Center (digital volunteers are ensuring that digitized historical documents and biodiversity data are transcribed and discoverable), Smithsonian Rapid Capture Digitization (high-speed digitization), Smithsonian X 3D (3D digitization), and the Linked Open Data Project at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For the Learning Lab, we are working on some additional features (such as YouTube-style embeddable content and other interoperability features, sorting/timelining tools, and deeper user insights into how others are finding and using your collections). We will continue to research, evaluate, and talk to our users to grow the site and adapt it to their needs.