Balancing Visionary Resources and the Realities of Access

Sun Associates has recently begun working with the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center on a fascinating new resource that promises to put terabytes of digitized historical maps into the hands of teachers nation-wide.  This developing resource – supported in part by a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services – is targeted squarely at the need for teacher-curated primary source materials.  LMC’s digital map portal, when completed in the spring of 2017, will allow teachers to not only access digitized historical maps, but then to annotate those resources and assemble them into primary source “map sets” suitable for K-12 student use.  While many teachers will no doubt still want to find a way to print the map sets they create, LMC’s resource is in fact designed to produce the sort of online digital resource that is increasingly replacing the static print-based texts and workbooks that have long dominated social studies and history classrooms.

LMC’s work is part of a new wave of tools that museums and other informal educational institutions are developing to help teachers and students move beyond textbooks (see resource links below).  Imagine being able to not only show students a historical map of New England contemporary with the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter of 1690 but then to enable students to explore and overlay the various maps of the region as these maps developed and changed from the 17th century to the modern day.  Such exploration – possible when LMC launches its portal in 2017 - provides the basis for investigating a wide range (appropriate across multiple grade levels) of topics and questions germane to social, political, and cultural history, economics, and even science and engineering subjects related to transportation and the physical activities of exploration.  Moreover, the value of the actual hands-on student activity of manipulating the online resources for the purposes of investigation extend well beyond those subjects traditionally associated with history or geography. With interactive materials in the hands of students, a teacher is able to support student directed learning more effectively than would be the case if students were only shown a print or projected resource.  As most teachers know, the key is in the individualized student-centered investigation.

But as most teachers also know, in order to make full use of such resources students need free and reliable access to the technology tools and networks that facilitate exploration.  The ideal scenario for student access to interactive online resources is neither the computer lab nor small slices of time with the shared laptop cart. Restricted access to technology limits the hands-on and just-in-time use that is critical for students to integrate and explore information that spurs learning. Resources need to strike a balance between being useful in limited access environments and still having an overall design that encourages teachers to utilize them to support student-center learning. A similar dilemma confronts planners of digital learning efforts at the district level. Which should come first --the resources/skills or the technology?  Can digital learning initiatives be successful if they do not push the envelope beyond what teachers and students can currently access and use?

In our evaluation work, we grapple with this dynamic constantly, and I feel that the evaluation process itself offers one way to find an effective balance. There’s not one universal answer for when a district should expect that its teachers and students have access to, and use interactive digital resources within a highly personalized learning environment.  Likewise, how students and teachers make use of resources such as the LMC portal (or any of the other growing number of similar resources) will vary on nearly a case by case basis.  Some teachers will want to print out historical maps, while others will use digital map sets as part of a 1:1 online learning environment. Significantly, both of these usage scenarios will simultaneously exist in a single school.  Therefore when evaluating the success of a digital learning endeavor it is important to understand the spectrum of use that will exist in any given environment and to build an accommodation of this spectrum into the relevant evaluation indicators. Creating indicators that strike an effective balance between the realistic and the visionary requires input from multiple stakeholders who can represent the range of perspectives and concerning the definition of success for your initiative. At Sun Associates, we make this point – about using the evaluation process to drive consensus – in our work with both the developers of education resources (such as the LMC) as well as with users of resources in schools and districts.  This is part of the evolutionary, iterative process that moves developers and users ahead in solving the many conundrums inherent in making and implementing change.

For more information on the LMC digital map portal:

·      The Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

For more information on digital primary source sets:

·      Digital Public Library of America

·      Teaching – Primary Source Sets on the Web

For more information about moving “beyond textbooks”:

·      In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History

·      Moving Beyond the Textbook

·      Some Resources for Moving Beyond Textbooks

·      Teachers as Curators of Learning (Edutopia)

For more information on Open Education Resources

·      What are Open Educational Resources?

·      Open Educational Resource Commons