Tim Roberts Internship posts Internship post 6: comparing theory & practice, or what real public history work is like

Internship post 6: comparing theory & practice, or what real public history work is like

The bulk of my internship has involved scouring Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian websites for attractive educational features, and documenting those features in summary reports I have supplied my internship supervisor and her team in the Office of the Undersecretary for Education. I haven’t really had the opportunity to put digital skills
While I haven’t really had the opportunity to put digital skills introduced in coursework to use in the internship, when I explored various Smithsonian websites for their educational content and mission statements, I used Voyant-tools to generate word frequencies and associations as a way to visualize references to and contexts for “education.” And to develop a profile of websites’ best practices, I drew on some course readings as well as websites that courses used as examples.
I think a difference between the Smithsonian’s current educational content practices and prescriptions for effective website content that my coursework offered accrues partly from the duality of the Smithsonian’s great heritage of “increasing” and “diffusing” the world’s knowledge: As, at least partly accurately, reflected in its unofficial nickname “America’s Attic,” for most of its history the Smithsonian has focused on accumulating artifacts. Only perhaps in the last few decades has it given equal attention to sharing those artifacts in ways appropriate and valuable for students. Evidence for this dichotomy shows up on the Smithsonian’s websites, even those pages marked for educational resources, which often seem crowded and may have the effect of overwhelming users, especially students. This disconnection between a museum’s physical collection and what and how it presents artifacts online is probably not peculiar to the Smithsonian.
On the other hand, there have been several consistencies I have noticed between coursework and Smithsonian practices. The Smithsonian’s desire to update its online educational outreach has some parallels to a web revamping undertaken by the National Archives, on which there was a course reading. In organizing collections of resources into multimedia history lessons accessible through the Learning Lab website, I encountered metadata assigned by Smithsonian staff to the resources, which practices I had learned about previously. And a Smithsonian (and perhaps open-access websites generally) practice is the challenge to collect meaningful feedback from users regarding website effectiveness or ease of use. In a course, I built an Omeka platform to house curated historical resources, and originally wished to have a function to invite users to leave feedback and make suggestions for adding resources. The course instructor counseled me about the difficulty of making such a function really operable, and advised instead development of a linked Facebook page, which provides space for users to leave comments as well as for me to announce new content. Likewise, the Smithsonian, while it occasionally organizes teacher focus groups, and has a “provide feedback” pop-up on the Learning Lab pages, does not have a survey that gathers a high volume of feedback from users interested in educational resources.
Probably the central insight from coursework I have kept in mind when thinking about effectiveness of Smithsonian and non-Smithsonian educational websites in is the need to view them from the perspective of target audiences, in this case, K-12 students and their teachers, and, in particular, the different needs of those audiences. Should resources be searchable by users’ grade level, by topic, or by the desired learning skill? Should resources be searchable by discipline – arts, social sciences, natural sciences – or in a way that encourage interdisciplinary thinking? Should “things to do at home” include home school learning activities, or focus on fun, after-school activities?
While audience differentiation and anticipation of audiences’ needs is more complicated than I had thought about previously, studying websites particularly for aspects of educational functionality, I have noticed features that I may have missed in coursework assignments. In reviewing metadata of online resources offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, I noticed some of its font and even content seemed designed for a student audience, which I take as a reflection of the Met’s anticipating a student’s perspective and needs. Likewise, the National World War II Museum has a message on its resources search page to the effect of, “Writing research papers can be hard. We can help.” That also feels like a student-friendly effect.
Meanwhile, drawing on a practice from a course in which I designed a web project, and in light of the fact I myself am not a K-12 student or teacher, I have invited students and teachers I know to visit the Smithsonian’s websites and share their reaction. I have also asked them about what websites they often use, if any, for teaching and learning. No teacher or student I have consulted, so far, has reported a perception or awareness of the Smithsonian as a relevant educational resource. While it is anecdotal evidence, that lack of awareness may suggest the challenge to the Smithsonian’s new educational outreach.

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