GLAMi nomination: Smithsonian Learning Lab

nominated by: Darren Milligan, Smithsonian Institution, USA
institution: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
category: Groundbreaking

Beginning five years ago, educators and technologists at the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access began to redesign the existing “For Teachers” web portal developed for the museums and research centers that make up the Smithsonian. What we quickly learned is that we knew very little about how our assumed users were utilizing the two thousand resources (i.e. lesson plans) we then made available. This launched a series of iterative research and evaluation projects (whose findings were published via MW in 2015) to help us understand educational preferences for both digital learning resources, but also the platforms on which they are presented. This research, as well as inspiration from our colleagues (such as the Rijksstudio from the Rijksmuseum) led to the development of the Smithsonian Learning Lab, launched in June of 2016.

The Smithsonian Learning Lab is a major rethinking of how the digital resources from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, 9 major research centers, the National Zoo, and more, can be used together, for learning. Its purpose is to inspire the discovery and creative use of its rich digital materials—almost two million images, recordings, and texts. The goal was to make it easy for anyone to find something of interest, and when they’ve found what they were looking for or just discovered something new, make it easy to personalize it. Users can add their own notes and hotspots, incorporate discussion questions, create interactive student experiences, and save and share what they have made. The Learning Lab was designed to make the personalization of our digitized collections and resources simple through a set of tools that sit atop an aggregated database of all the Smithsonian’s digital content (including not only digitized collection objects, but also blog posts, podcasts, music recordings, video archives, websites, lesson plans, and more).

By encouraging users to aggregate and share personalized “collections” of Smithsonian assets and user-generated resources (users can upload files or link out to content not found at the Smithsonian), the Learning Lab aspires to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge, ideas, and insight. As users publish their purpose-built collections (nearly ten thousand user-generated collections have been made since launch), others users can discover them, copy them, and modify them to their own needs.

More than 20 Smithsonian departments (museums, research centers, libraries, or other programmatic offices) are now using the tools of the Learning Lab (for educational, outreach, curatorial, and fund-raising purposes) to get their work done, joining the community of more than ten thousand registered users creating content and nearly two hundred thousand visitors using content on the platform.

What is exciting is that digitized museum collections are being used in ways that we would never imagine, or could never have the time and resources to develop (e.g. one collection uses a series of paintings from the National Portrait Gallery to teach a geometry lesson; in another a sequence of videos from different museums were aggregated into a lesson on media criticism). We now have the tools, on the backend, to observe this happening and use this knowledge to inform decision making on education, digitization, and outreach.

Use of the Learning Lab is currently being researched in depth in a variety of ongoing studies (designed to inform future development of the platform). Research addressing how youth make use of digital museum content will be published in the proceedings of the MW2017 Conference. Another large study, in collaboration with the University of California, is analyzing more than one thousand user-created collections to better understand strategies to make it easier to find teacher-created resources, supports needed to deepen the educational use of online museum content, understand the use of teacher-created metadata, and more. These results will be disseminated to the field in the near future.

To learn more about discovering resources on the Lab, check out the quick animation here:

To learn more about creating collections on the Lab (including adapting other users’ collections, making new collections, and adding customized features), check out the quick animations here:

To learn more about sharing on the Lab (including publishing your work, social sharing, and assigning collections to students), check out the quick animations here:

We hope that you would consider this project for both the “Education Program” and the “Groundbreaking” categories.