Smithsonian Learning Lab: Designing for the Classroom

Aug 29, 2016

The Smithsonian’s mission statement is wonderfully simple: “The increase and diffusion of knowledge.” The “increasing” is arguably the straightforward part – the Smithsonian has amassed a collection of over 138 million objects and specimens, and the Institution’s curators and scientists obsessively add to the world’s knowledge base, publishing papers, creating exhibitions, and sharing their expertise. But how can all this informational goodness get passed along to teachers, our nation’s most powerful “diffusers” of knowledge?

Smithsonian Learning Lab, resources in a collection.

To help tackle this problem, the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (SCLDA) created the Smithsonian Learning Lab, an online toolkit that launched in June of this year. The Learning Lab encourages teachers to make use of the Smithsonian’s collection: artworks, archival documents, and specimens, along with educational resources like videos, articles, and standards-aligned lesson plans. Teachers and students can use the Learning Lab to create and share their own collections of Smithsonian objects, using them for lessons, class projects, or PowerPoint presentation presentations. Interactive tools like “hotspot” annotations, the ability to add notes, and built-in customizable assessments allow teachers and students to examine objects and tailor their presentation or learning experience.

Before Learning Lab was even a gleam in the Smithsonian’s eye, SCLDA set out to answer a basic question: How are teachers using the Smithsonian’s existing digital offerings? The team embarked on the Digital Learning Resources Project, a multi-year effort to better understand how teachers use Smithsonian digital resources and provide a roadmap to develop better tools.

Employing an online survey of 7,470 responses and conducting interviews and observations with a group of 20 educators in California, SCLDA landed on a key finding: teachers were not using the Smithsonian’s educational resources as published. Thoughtfully crafted lesson plans and teacher guides, designed to meet specific learning objectives and Common Core standards, were being mercilessly sliced-and-diced by educators. Linear, pre-baked tools were giving way to the reality of the classroom.

“What we found was that teachers were pulling the resources apart. They weren’t using the whole resource from A–Z in the way it was designed. They were saying ‘no, this doesn’t work for my classroom’ or ‘this isn’t the right reading level,’” said Melissa Wadman, manager of program evaluation at SCLDA.

With this finding in-hand, SCLDA and development partner Navigation North pursued a modular approach that emphasized customization and allowed teachers to easily search the Smithsonian collection, organize objects as needed, and upload resources from other sources.

The team convened focus groups and conducted user testing with over 100 teachers that came to Washington, DC from across the country. Rapid prototyping, first with paper prototypes and then with a functional test site, fed multiple rounds of iterations. This work was further refined with beta testing in Pittsburgh Public Schools and surrounding Allegheny County.

Teacher at a prototyping session.

The extensive user testing and feedback sessions resulted in key observations and feature requests. One of the biggest eye-openers was that high school teachers saw the Learning Lab as a tool for their students rather than themselves.

“The high school teachers said, ‘Yeah, this is great but I’d never use this to build collections. This is a tool for my students – doing their own research and creating collections is where the learning happens,’” said Darren Milligan, senior digital strategist at SCLDA.

This discovery shifted the project. The team, keenly focused on teachers and their experiences with the Learning Lab, had not observed students using the tool. Once again, SCLDA set out to classrooms, this time to interview middle school students and conduct more prototyping and user testing.

User testing with middle school students.

Group discussion and collaboration tools for students are now in development, and SCLDA has secured a Smithsonian Youth Access Grant to study how students use existing online platforms for educational and personal reasons. These findings will be used to further prototype with middle school students and adapt the Learning Lab to meet their needs.

The Learning Lab has been live for about two months now with more than 5,000 user-generated collections made. The team, working with their research collaborators at the University of California, Irvine, is closely following the website’s metrics and feedback reports, but it’s too early to assess quantitative successes or shortcomings. That said, there is no doubt that Learning Lab is making an impact. Said Jane Joyce, a teacher at Moon Middle School in Moon, Pennsylvania, “There are so many different ways you can use the Learning Lab in the classroom and it’s invaluable that I can easily adapt learning activities created by other teachers to fit my needs. It’s helped my students and me think more creatively.”

Screen capture of the Smithsonian Learning Lab homepage.