Seven keys to unlocking digital heritage for use in education

Author: Steven Stegers
17 February 2016 Comment

There is a wealth of digital heritage available online. World renowned galleries, archives, museums and libraries provide online access to their collections, and many local initiatives make digital heritage more widely available. As access to the internet improves, and more people own smartphones and other similar devices, these collections can be accessed online by students and educators with fewer and fewer technological barriers. So far, however, this has failed to lead to the improvements in education you might expect. Why is this? And what can be done to unlock the potential for the (re)-use of digital heritage in education?

To answer these questions, the “Europeana Taskforce for Education” - a cross-domain group of professionals working in the field of digital heritage and education - was set up. Here, we present their conclusions.

The Drawing Lesson, Abraham van Strij, Rijksmuseum, public domain.

The recommendations are presented in the form of seven keys to unlock the potential for re-use of digital heritage in education:

  1. Relevance of digital heritage for educational purposes. Collections should be used to enable specific learning outcomes.
  2. Discoverability of digital heritage. For digital heritage to be easily found, ensure metadata includes search terms that educators and students use.
  3. There is sufficient context information about the source, for instance, essential information such as maker, author, date, translation.
  4. The source is of sufficient quality (e.g. texts are readable, essential details visible).
  5. Copyright allows for re-use. It must be legally possible to use the digital heritage in open educational research that can be shared.
  6. Easy and reliable access: the sources can be used beyond where they are found, for example through direct links or embed functions, and links don't change.
  7. Interoperability: use via different learning platforms is possible, e.g. the standards used in the digital collections are are interoperable.

Significant investments are needed in order to create these conditions, and business models [1] are lacking. In addition, a variety of key stakeholders must be involved, and their interests are sometimes conflicting. [2]

How can educators help cultural institutions?

Content providers - the cultural institutions with collections to share - are not the only ones that can help stimulate the re-use of digital heritage in education. Educators have an important role to play as well.

To begin, they can work with content providers to identify the items in their collections that have great potential for educational purposes. They can then outline what kind of extra information they’d like to see added for this.

In return, it is good practice to always acknowledge the cultural institutions that have opened up their collections so that students know where items come from.

What have we already learned?

There are no clear-cut answers to removing all these barriers, but there are lessons learned.

The Europeana for Education Task Force has started to collect information about what different stakeholders promoting the re-use of digital heritage in education have tried so far. These case studies either emphasise the problems that they tried to solve, or the conditions for re-use that they hope to create. These will be published on Europeana Pro using the hashtag #Europeana4Education.

The case studies we plan to share need to be understood in their current context. The changing nature of education and technology [3] means we will need to regularly update information so they should be seen as working documents.

Future directions

The case studies collected so far are the result of two international meetings bringing together specialists from digital heritage and education, and working in museums, archives, NGO’s, local and national providers. This collection only scratches the surface of the experiences that are out there.

Because the complications are great, the potential benefits are high, and because the challenges are unlikely to be solved quickly, it is important to continue to share examples, learn from them and help one another avoid mistakes.

We invite you to share your experiences and lessons learned in the re-use of digital heritage in education using the template that the Europeana Taskforce for Education has developed.

You can also help the #Europeana4Education community by advocating for change using the Europeana Recommendations for Education and Learning (download them here).

For more information, please contact Milena Popova or Steven Stegers.

1. Business models are lacking

Investments are needed for the development of digital learning resources, but it is difficult to create returns on these. Depending on the type of educational re-use, investments can include web-development, quality control, curation, and copyright clearance. Educators are often pressed for time so providers of educational resources, even those that are free, must be able show the educational value of their product almost instantly.

At the same time, investment in digital learning resources lags behind investment in hardware and printed learning resources. As a result, the most common business model for the provision of digital learning resources is institutional support (by organisations willing to make investments in quality educational resources because this fits their mission or because of the social value this creates).

2. Conflicts of interest

One challenge for creating a fertile environment for the re-use of digital heritage in education is the conflicts of interest that exist between stakeholders and within institutions. In the case of copyright regulations, a balance needs to be found to create access to culture in education while protecting the rights of cultural producers. A similar dilemma is posed by opening of collections an institution increases its visibility, but at the same time loses a level control over its collection. It is our aim in these blog posts to share the different ways organisations are dealing with these conflicting interests in practice.

3. The changing nature of education and technology

A recurring challenge for the re-use of digital heritage in education is the changing nature of both education and technology. These occur naturally: both education and technology providers are always looking for ways to improve. In practice this means that some services are no longer supported.