Using museums’ online content in student e-portfolios

[Update: A couple months ago, I began a new job as an academic technologist in higher education. While I miss teaching undergraduates, it’s nice to be free of grading and late-night class planning. Instead, every day I get to think about pedagogy and technology. I help faculty think about how technology can help them meet their teaching and learning goals. While I am learning and thinking about all kinds of technologies, I’m primarily supporting my institution’s rollout of Sakai, an open-source course and project management system packed with useful tools.

Accordingly, I’ve been thinking a lot more not just about how educators–and, by extension, educational institutions like museums–might use technology in support of learning, but also how students of all ages might create online learning portfolios packed with resources from museums and archives. By extension, anyone might use the same tools and content to create and share their own portfolios about their passions.]

I may have a different definition of student portfolios than do most people. Traditionally, student portfolios contain one or more of the following: a few examples of a student’s best work over a term, work that demonstrates a student’s improvement over a term, a student’s reflection on her improvement over the period represented by the portfolio, and examples of work that illustrate a student’s advancement toward a goal.

In an age of social networking, however, it’s important that students also demonstrate social-technological literacies, including the ability to collaborate online and to use web-based distributed knowledge to craft original work. The focus, in other words, is not on an individual student’s product, but rather on the process of successful learning.

In this vision of a portfolio, then, students would collect digital resources, communicate with others about these resources, and create an original project (an essay, video, photo essay, wiki, etc.) based on these resources. The goal is for students to demonstrate they can use the wide variety of resources and communication tools available online, and–more importantly–that they can synthesize information from these sources into a well-argued research paper or multimedia project.

In creating such a project and documenting her research process, the student is also creating a new, valuable resource on which future students and researchers might build.

So, for example, a college student might undertake research on the polio epidemic in the U.S. in the mid 20th century. The portfolio might include:

– The research paper, collection of podcasts, video, or other project created by the student.

– A digital research trail tracing the student’s research across various digital resources, including, for example, Google Scholar, Technorati, and library databases, along with a description of why the student chose to pursue the resources and paths she did.

– A collection of RSS feeds to resources she used, for example this feed on polio from Google News.

– Existing or student-created video (or, in the case of copyrighted material, links to videos) or audio interviews with people who were afflicted with polio.

– Text or audio interviews with developers or users of medical devices and drugs related to polio prevention and treatment. She might link, for example, to the “Cool Things” podcast about a polio brace at the Kansas State Historical Society.

– Photos, or links to photos, from historical societies’ and museums’ online collections.

The question for museums and archives is this: How can institutions encourage such educational use and synthesis of their resources? And how should they handle issues of copyright and the provenance of images when students want to use their resources?

I’m not sure we can trust such a task to history professors; at this year’s Educause Learning Initiative conference, I attended a session (liveblogged here) that focused in part on history faculty and visual literacy. One presenter said history faculty, while meticulous with texts, are too casual (or even ignorant) about the provenance and copyright issues surrounding images and their use of them.

As a historian who has undertaken research in museums’ physical archives, I’m very excited about the digitization of collections. But digitizing collections is, of course, just the first step. How can we encourage people–and not just scholars, but passionate, thoughtful web users, including students–to disseminate news of institutional collections and resources by creating new resources based on museum artifacts and ephemera?

Teaching students to find online resources and assemble narratives and collections is, I think, an excellent first step. Such an assignment asks them not only to develop technoliteracies, but also to engage with history in ways that make it relevant to their own lives and the lives of their peers. And the more primary resources museums and archives make available online, the greater the chance that some object or document will spark a student’s passion for a subject.


  1. Anonymous says:

    I find this idea as very inspirative, especially for higher age groups of students. Some tips on SW tools or on-line services?

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