In the last month I have compiled two surveys for the Smithsonian Office of the Undersecretary for Education, which it requested as part of its project to revise the educational outreach web pages of the Smithsonian museums, centers, and Learning Lab. The goal is to make the Smithsonian online educational resources more utilizable by K-12 teachers, students, and caregivers – an investment in that part of the Smithsonian’s historic mission to “diffuse knowledge.”
The first survey provided information on user-friendly features of educational content on websites of selected museums and other public history or educational organizations. Determining what websites to study and what features about them to describe was subjective; I was to approach these educational websites as a teacher or home school parent might.
I decided to study a mix of websites of history museums (National World War II Museum, Tenement Museum, US Holocaust Museum), historic sites (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association), art museums (Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum), science museums (The Science Museum (UK), Georgia Aquarium), and a community-building urban project (Gates Foundation #InProcess).
For background materials on effective websites, I drew on materials from prior GMU coursework and some other guidance provided by Ashley, my internship supervisor. These were:
• Brad Baer, Emily Fry, and Daniel Davis, “Beyond the Screen: Creating interactives that are location, time, preference, and skill responsive,” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014, https://www.slideshare.net/bradbaer/museums-and-the-web-2014-beyond-the-screen-creating-interactives-that
• Rachel Gonzalez, “Keep the Conversation Going: How Museums Use Social Media to Engage the Public,” Museum Scholar, http://articles.themuseumscholar.org/vol1no1gonzalez
• International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, “Webby Awards: Education,” https://winners.webbyawards.com/winners/websites/general-websites/education
• Museum Computer Network (MCN), “Ultimate Guide to Virtual Museum Resources, E-Learning, and Online Collections,” https://mcn.edu/a-guide-to-virtual-museum-resources/
• Organization of American Historians, “Digital History Reviews,” https://jah.oah.org/submit/digital-history-reviews/
• Tim Roberts, “The Relationship Between Audience and Content in Public History Projects,” blog post, https://timroberts.org/blog/uncategorized/the-relationship-between-audience-and-content-in-public-history-projects-2/
• Lynne Spichiger and Juliet Jacobson, “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield, The Many Stories of 1704,” Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, ed. Jennifer Trant and David Bearman, https://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/spichiger/spichiger.html
Based on these broad criteria I determined the following features were attractive website aspects that the Smithsonian might consider:
• Warm (brown, yellow, orange, red) colors, not white background
• Slightly large cartoonish icons that look like a carnival and invite clicking (like, “ready? let’s go!”) are appealing
• A different appeal is three-dimensional images of a resource
• Headings that convey and encourage systematic or scientific thinking and problem-solving
• Statements conveying that the museum has anticipated the user’s less-than-ideal circumstances, and can help: generally, ‘choose resources that we think fit specific curriculum requirements’
• Redundancy or multiple portals to a resource is good
• Sense of humor and whimsy
• Have the presence of a docent when education users encounter online exhibitions
• But aspire to users’ “self-constructed knowledge”
• Student-friendly annotative language and fonts/fonts
• Offer interdisciplinarity, inter-museum collaboration, and citizenship training through service learning, suggested additional activities, and models of team (both experts and students) research projects
• Limit to 3-4 options and images on the main web page
• Embed reminders that actual visits to the Smithsonian for education are possible
The second survey provided information on user-friendly features of educational content on some current websites of Smithsonian museums. I decided to gather examples based on the same criteria I had developed for the non-Smithsonian websites.
On that basis, I compiled a list of K-12-attractive features in use by the Smithsonian Learning Lab, the Natural History Museum, the 3D Program, the African American History & Culture Museum, the Science Education Center, the American Indian Museum, the Gardens, the American History Museum, the Air & Space Museum, the Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, the Smithsonian Affiliations, and the National Portrait Gallery.