Digital Archives: Creating Effective Designs for Elementary and Secondary Educators

February 1, 1996

The phenomenal growth of the World Wide Web and the rapid development of multimedia technologies are making a wide range of information resources available to the public in ways that were heretofore impossible. Yahoo, the company that provides indexing and search tools for Internet resources, claims that there are 50,000 new Web servers coming online each week, and O'Reilly and Associates, a technology company best known for its Internet-based publications, predicts that the number of adults with Internet access will nearly triple in the next year from 5.8 million to 15.7 million.

New and emerging technologies can be powerful allies in efforts to improve teaching and learning. For technologies to play a truly comprehensive role in reshaping the nature of schooling, however, they must support a broader vision of educational change. The Center for Children and Technology has long been committed to a vision of schools and classrooms in which reasoning and problem solving are emphasized, students and teachers help each other learn, students and teachers are motivated and genuinely engaged, the learning environment is responsive to students, teachers use authentic assessment practices, and students learn and effectively apply complex thinking skills and discipline-based knowledge.

Technologies that are well designed and well integrated into instruction can help bring about and sustain these kinds of changes in our nation's classrooms. Communications technologies provide teachers and students with opportunities to share, discuss, and exchange ideas with larger communities of learners. Simulations, microworlds, and other discovery-oriented programs create environments in which students can apply thinking skills to solve real-world problems, students can work readily together in groups, and teachers--freed from certain classroom management tasks--can become guides and coaches to students. Software composition tools, such as word processors, scanners, desktop publishing programs, and video cameras, enable students to express what they know in the form of tangible products, and these products in turn can stimulate further conversation and learning and offer new forms of assessment. Digital storage media, with their great capacity and flexibility, allow teachers and students to pursue a wide range of inquiries into complex subject matter that are tailored to individual interests and needs, and this can motivate students to learn more.

Educational Potential of Digital Archives
The digital archives being developed by museums, libraries, and other archival institutions are among the most exciting resources driving educational interest in information-based, multimedia technologies. Collections as various as National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Astronomy Digital Image Library and the holdings of the Louvre are being digitized, providing classroom teachers with access to artifacts and information previously available only to specialized scholars or academic researchers. The presence of these collections on the World Wide Web gives teachers and students opportunities to work with an extraordinary array of authentic materials and up-to-date information.

It is precisely the depth, scope, and multiple media nature of such collections that makes them particularly challenging to structure and present in ways that are truly useful to educators and their students. Too often, the developers of various online educational resources have neglected the particular interests of and significant constraints faced by educators. The creation of digital libraries and archives provides an opportunity to address the design concerns of teachers and students in a challenging but highly rewarding context. This paper considers some of the current challenges and issues associated with the design and development of large digital archives for the K-12 community.

The first international research conference on the theory and practice of creating digital libraries was held in June 1994, and a second was held in June 1995. More than 60 papers were presented at these meetings, representing diverse organizations from around the world. One such paper, written by collaborators on the University of Michigan's Digital Library Project, notes that the growth of information archives has the potential to achieve the following goals:

  • Provide information at any time and in any place;
  • Provide access to collections of multimedia information that integrate text, image, graphics, audio, video, and other continuous media;
  • Make it possible for users to personalize or customize how they access and represent information for example, by "harvesting" only relevant information and avoiding information overload; and
  • Radically enhance collaborative intellectual activities, including research, learning, and design, by reducing barriers of geography, organizational distance, and time.

The Center for Children and Technology is currently involved in two major initiatives to study and improve the design and use of large archives of scholarly, cultural, and scientific materials for K-12 education. In the first project, the Center is collaborating with the Digital Archives group at the Library of Congress to explore how large collections of primary source documents related to American history can be made useful to K-12 educators and their students. The Library's collections are rich and varied and exist in a range of media formats, including graphics, text, audio, video, and still photographs. They include such resources as selected Civil War photographs from the Mathew Brady collection, photographs of turn-of-the-century America from the Detroit Publishing Company, and life history manuscripts from the WPA Federal Writers' Project.

In a second project, we are helping the American Museum of Natural History in New York figure out how to bring its unique resources to national audience of children, teachers, and parents that extends beyond the traditional audiences of museum visitors. Because the museum's resources are predominantly visual, consisting of objects and images, a main goal of its educational projects is to help people learn how find, look at, think about, and understand visual resources. The museum also has a rich store of human resources: more than 200 scientists who are world- renowned experts in natural history. As part of its educational efforts, the museum is considering how to incorporate this expertise into designs for digital resources in ways that are judicious yet responsive.

The Challenge of Design
Much of the material in archival institutions has been readily available only to a highly specialized community of researchers and scholars. In addition to practical problems of access, classroom teachers face a number of obstacles in using and interpreting information-rich resources, and making them relevant to their students. Teachers have different purposes and initially bring different training to the job.

There is abundant evidence demonstrating that access and training are key factors that consistently complicate efforts to integrate technology into the classroom. Gaining access to technology resources--particularly the high-speed network connections required to connect to the World Wide Web--is often the first hurdle that schools must overcome. Limited finances and lack of community awareness can make this a significant hurdle for school districts. It is also well documented that the ongoing training of teachers in how to integrate technology resources in the curriculum is just as important as basic access. Professional development opportunities are often the first items cut from district budgets, leaving teachers in the position of having to seek training and support on their own. While these issues continue to be chronic challenges for technology integration efforts, two related problems are particularly relevant to thinking about the design of online resources for educators: teacher time and limited contexts or incentives for intellectual exploration.

Teachers lack the kind of time that many scientists and scholarly researchers take for granted. Anyone who has spent time researching a paper in the library knows that the process of serendipitous inquiry is often at the heart of discovery--previously unrecognized connections are made and ideas grow through the contemplative process of browsing. But teachers are often hobbled bureaucratically in their opportunities for the kind of intellectual exploration that is a hallmark of the jobs of scholars and scientists. The nature of schooling is such that most teachers are required to teach a curriculum that they played little or no role in designing and have only limited opportunities to adapt. Our educational system tends to foster a form of intellectual disempowerment in which K-12 teachers are commonly viewed as implementers of state- and district-mandated curricula rather than shapers and interpreters of powerful ideas and methodologies. Often teacher education is built on these assumptions as well. These constraints are brought to the fore when teachers begin to work with the kinds of resources that academic scholars and scientists use. It is the job of scholars and scientists to make new knowledge based on their engagement with these resources. And yet, our education system commonly limits teachers from engaging in precisely this kind of work.

If digital archives are to be of genuine value to elementary and secondary educators and their students, we must think differently and creatively about how best to support them in making substantive and relevant use of these resources. We believe that three key design considerations are central to this task. Our preliminary work in this arena suggests that in order to make large digital archives accessible and engaging for the K-12 community, the following issues need to be addressed: teacher ownership, student engagement, and education-relevant search engines.

Teacher Ownership
Developers of print and multimedia educational materials often assume that for their products to be used productively in K-12 classrooms, they must be made "teacher proof"--designed in a way that leaves little or no room for experimentation or invention by teachers and students. For example, teachers' guides, rather than creating opportunities for interpretation and ownership, often contain lockstep approaches to teaching and learning.

This approach is being challenged widely by educators and researchers who advocate classrooms based on active, constructive teaching and learning processes: solving problems, communicating, reasoning, exploring, inventing, and proving. Increasingly, professional teaching associations and groups involved in education reform are seeking to articulate standards for students that emphasize thinking over memorization. Although these efforts have gone a long way toward reshaping our understanding of the classroom teacher's roles and responsibilities, the publishing industry is still heavily dominated by a mindset that discourages inventiveness in teachers and students.

The decentralized architecture of the Internet offers opportunities to build resources for teachers that are not governed by the preconceptions of educational publishers. The World Wide Web has the potential to serve as an alternative forum, in which developers and designers can experiment with formats that enable educators to bring archival resources into their curricula in ways that make sense to them. We have found that ownership--the process of generating ideas and strategies that make sense within the particular circumstances of one's own classroom and curriculum--is a key to successful use of digital archives.

One possible design approach is to provide teachers with an analytical tool kit that can support different kinds of analyses of resource materials. Analytic tools--such as story boards, spreadsheets, image analysis tools, databases, timelines, templates that describe the content and structure of documents, and resource tools that enable teachers to construct relevant content links--could help teachers evaluate and assemble their own information resources. For example, if teachers and students are studying the history of the civil rights movement and have access to a digital archive containing photographs of key historical events associated with this period, they can use a timeline tool to construct their own understandings of the narrative events that define the era. If students are studying the growth and decline of the bluefin tuna population, they could use a spreadsheet template to chart, visualize, and help interpret the collected information.

Rather than building lesson plans that tell teachers how and when to use archival materials, designers of digital educational resources could develop activity templates that illustrate potential uses of their tools, and could make them available through the World Wide Web. In some cases, as with story boards or image analysis tools, the templates would be the tools themselves. In other cases, the templates would illustrate ways to use archival materials with off-the-shelf spreadsheets, databases, and timelines.

Online conversation spaces would be a key component this tool-based approach. Here teachers could generate and share ideas online about how to use analytic tools with different types of information archives. Discussion groups, organized by topic, grade level, and approach (for example, scientific analysis, visual literacy, or historical understanding) would be an essential part of these online resources.

Student Engagement
In order to make large archives of materials engaging and relevant to students, designers of resources and activity frameworks must take into account where children are cognitively, socially, and emotionally, and where they are capable of going. The Center for Children and Technology has worked closely with teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in developing multiple media materials for teaching and learning. Our experience suggests that the most engaging materials are developmentally relevant--they recognize the understandings and concerns of students at different age levels.

In the elementary grades, a student's sense of self is very important, and students develop better understanding in all disciplines when they can connect the subject of study to their own lives. In elementary social studies, for example, teachers might use photographs, diaries, and other historical artifacts to encourage students to compare what life was like at a particular time in the past with life nowadays. Students might also use timelines, maps, and other visual aids to put past events in chronological order, draw connections among them, and make sense of a sea of information.

Designers and teachers might also highlight themes that younger children are passionate about such as "How do animals protect themselves?" to guide student forays into biological databases or archives. Designers of resources for the elementary level can make concepts that often seem abstract and remote more familiar and accessible by building in creative ways for children to look and investigate.

Middle school students require a different approach to teaching and learning. Students at this age enjoy inquiries and arguments, and archival materials can become evidence for solving a larger intellectual quest or puzzle. Middle school students relish problems of interpretation; by piecing together information from a number of different documents or artifacts, they can begin to develop a better understanding of the meaning of each source and can draw conclusions based on the evidence. In the humanities, for example, historical narratives, documents, photographs, oral histories, and art can be used to build hypotheses about the historical context in which the sources were created. One compelling way to use archival materials with this age group is to construct a mystery that students answer by hunting for and piecing together clues contained in or across digital archives; this kind of information hunt can be part of a larger inquiry.

At the high school level, students are capable of sophisticated inquiry; they also need to feel passionate about and connected to the issues they are studying. Building connections between the subject area being studied and the issues of real concern to high school students is of paramount importance. Issues of fairness, leadership, and responsibility are examples of themes that can stimulate students to engage with archival materials. For example, students can use scientific databases as core resources for local environmental projects. Or they can use archives that contain historical advertisements to compare past representations of women with their contemporary portrayals.

In sum, to make digital archives accessible, designers must carefully consider the developmentally relevant cognitive and affective characteristics of students at different ages. The best informants for developers are likely to be the students and teachers themselves.

Education-Relevant Search Engines
One of the most complex tasks associated with using archival materials effectively is the ability to search and browse through large quantities of information in a way that makes conceptual and logistical sense. Indexing schemes that work well for a classroom teacher are likely to be very different from those that function effectively for a scientist or scholar.

Many of the indexing schemes currently used by digital libraries and other archival institutions are based on a standard bibliographic categorization system (the same one that exists on the bottom of library index cards). Institutions that digitize material find this to be the most efficient way of referencing materials while preserving traditional categorizing system familiar to researchers, scholars, and archivists. But this system was developed during an era when people had to come to libraries, and materials had to be physically organized on shelves.

The digital world redefines the concept of categorization and offers new possibilities. To make the best use of the more extensive and flexible digital resources, teachers and students need to be able to build their own approaches to cataloguing archival materials. As teachers work with an archive and become familiar with its contents, they need to be able to generate their own categories of key terms or thematic topics and use them to organize materials. This not only saves time, but enables teachers to build interpretations of the material that are relevant to the curriculum and to their students' strategies for learning. For example, a middle school teacher could build an index organized around themes that are central to the study of the Civil War, such as bravery and heroes, or could organize a database on polar wildlife around such themes as habitats, hunting practices, and survival strategies. Because these alternative search schemes require teachers and students to think through their systems of categorization, they also have instructional value.

A number of issues must be addressed if new cataloguing tools are to have pragmatic value. Sharing teacher-built pathways over the World Wide Web is one way to make a wide range of different approaches to and uses of materials broadly available to the education community. Since this process will undoubtedly lead to differences in interpretation--where one person sees poverty, another may see instances of self-determination--teachers will need opportunities to discuss and debate their approaches. Ideally, a comprehensive program of research concerning the use of customizable search tools will help clarify these and other issues.

This paper is an attempt to begin a conversation about how to make large digital archives genuinely valuable to the K-12 community. The three design considerations addressed here are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather are meant to initiate conversation about how to design resources that are responsive to the needs of elementary and secondary educators. Successful efforts will provide enough structure to make archival collections useful to teachers and students, while preserving the atmosphere of serendipity that is key to imaginative discovery.

This piece was assembled by Margaret Honey and Jan Hawkins. Many CCT staff are responsible for the ideas developed in this paper, including Cornelia Brunner, Han-hua Chang, Jeanne Houck, Laura Jeffers, Katie McMillan, John Parris, Nancy Ross, Bill Tally, and Bob Spielvogel.


Margaret Honey