This feels like the question of the moment. As we near the end of our project and draw together the sum of the material we have digitised and created as e-resources – why does it matter and what good will it do? Probably the best way to start to answer these questions is to think back to what our intentions were at the start of the project and our sense then of the pressing need for e-resources based on the collections of university museums.
In the summer of 2011, UCL’s Museums and Collections had been consistently promoting the use of museum objects in learning for some time and museum staff were heavily involved in helping to design and teach courses which used their collections. Also, my post had been created a few months earlier: ‘Teaching Fellow in Object Based Learning’ and I was in the process of generating new opportunities, across academic departments, to use museum objects in teaching. Exciting interdisciplinary collaborations were emerging and the power of objects to convey meaning and to encourage meaning-making amongst students was being seen in a wide range of different academic disciplines. However, obstacles remained. For one, object based learning was considered by many lecturers as taking too much effort to arrange and the logistical difficulties of getting students and objects in the same room created barriers to participation. For us in museums, it seemed clear that giving teaching staff access to our collections digitally and in formats that were tailor-made to their teaching needs, could break down these barriers. The ability to use object-based e-resources at any time and from anywhere was compelling. Furthermore, digital resources could support the hands-on object based learning taking place in museums and classrooms – giving students longer-term access to collections for further research, learning, or revision. Moreover, by providing Open Educational Resources based around our collections, teachers and students in a much wider range of institutions could use the material in ways that suited them. This alone was an attractive prospect, but a helpful side effect was anticipated in the new audiences these resources might reach.
By teaming up with the University of Reading, this project forged in the first instance a fruitful relationship of knowledge sharing and – through joint staff events – we familiarised ourselves with each other’s museum collections. This process was a good example of one major impact of the project as a whole – we gained new knowledge and skills through undertaking the work of the project itself. Even more so by working collaboratively across institutions.
So, what have we produced? As planned a large source base of digital objects will be submitted to Culture Grid early next year – by current estimates we seem to have exceeded our target figure of 150,000 digital assets, which is great news. In terms of the e-resources, we have created 20, which again exceeds our initial plans. We hope to convert them all into Open Educational Resources in the next two months. The e-resources range from collections of associated images and contextual information, to resources embedded in VLEs and tailor made to the learning outcomes of particular courses. This variety should offer other teachers in the field different pluses and minuses. For example, the image collections effectively provide the raw material, ripe for adaptation to particular teaching needs, but also with sufficient contextual information that they do not lose touch with their collections of origin and historical specificity. The more tailor-made resources point to ways in which teaching can be done with museum collections, providing both the images of objects themselves, their associated information, and also well constructed ideas for use.
Any reservations? Well, naturally, yes. Until the process of conversion to OER has been completed it will be difficult to ultimately assess the value of these resources to the wider teaching and learning community. Also, the path to resource creation was littered with difficulties in terms of gaining the time and commitment of teaching staff to help develop and, subsequently, use the e-learning resources. Of course, we benefitted a great deal from much enthusiasm and specialist input, but ultimately – as Museums staff at UCL we could not closely control the level of support we would receive from lecturers at the University. At Reading things were a little more straightforward, in as much as our OER Coordinator, Rebecca, was also teaching on the courses for which the resources were designed – making the process much neater and more predictable. Still, these challenges have helped us learn about how to create successful e-resources in the future.
Scope: the project set out to create a varied group of e-resources, spanning around 10 distinct academic disciplines and that has certainly been achieved. However, the scope in terms of different fields created challenges around the sheer number of working relationships required across the universities. On the whole, we have been lucky with maintaining these working relationships amongst Museums staff external project officers, and a wide range of teaching staff and students at UCL and Reading. Moreover, through our processes of development, user testing, evaluation, and dissemination – the student input has been invaluable.
Sustainability: in terms of the future – things look bright. For one, key project officers remain in post at their respective institutions after January 2013 and are, therefore, in a position to sustain and develop the work started under this project. Moreover, from the beginning – we had the support of our institutions in this endeavour and object based learning and e-learning are still priorities for our universities’ teaching and learning strategies.
So, to sum up – I think the project was ambitious and there were risks in its reliance on such a far-flung and diverse team of people. On the other hand, the enthusiasm and commitment of so many of these people has largely secured the success of the project aims. Moreover, the creation of specifically object-based e-resources is still not usual within the Higher Education sector and, through opening these resources to wider audiences, we hope that the real value of museum collections for learning across a wide range of disciplines, will become visible to more people. We also hope that, through this process, we are able to share the particular value of UCL and Reading museum and archive collections and attract new audiences for both research and teaching.