The Secret Lives of Digital Museum Resources and Collections: Teaching Practice and Interactions with the Smithsonian's Learning Lab

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Museum Studies


The Learning Lab is a digital platform providing access to millions of resources from the Smithsonian's 19 museums, 9 major research centres, the National Zoo and other sources, which can be used to make user-created collections with a wide range of interactive features (such as quizzes, annotations and sorting activities). As part of its mission to provide a learning environment for "discovery, creation and sharing" (Smithsonian Learning Lab, 2021), the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access conducts extensive and continual research to inform ongoing changes to the site and related activity, such as professional development. The collaborative research project 'The Secret Lives of Museums' will build upon existing research to further investigate how educators and students are using the site as part of their teaching practices and study. It will examine current research instruments used to evaluate interaction with the site and collect user feedback; it will develop new instruments to research use of the Learning Lab's content and to gain more insights into experiences of teaching and student engagement with museum resources and online collections. The project aims to provide insights into the complex impacts on practice between the digital platform and educators who are using it, understanding the educator-user as actively shaping the platform and facilitating unique learning experiences through its use.
A mixed methods approach will be adopted to understand patterns of use/re-use and to gain insights into experiences of using/creating collections for use in the classroom and other educational contexts. Fieldwork undertaken in the US will aim to gain further insights into the connections between digital design and teachers' conceptions of the platform's impact in the context of their role. This will initially involve research into the scope, content and design of the Smithsonian Learning Lab, with a focus on usability (including interviews with Learning Lab staff on the original conception and development of the platform, workshops with staff to seek their input into the interpretive framework and initial discussions with educators). This will inform the development of interview and observation protocols for fieldwork in several educational contexts during the second trip, which will focus on investigating educators' integration of the platform into their teaching practices. In-depth qualitative research will be conducted to better understand how teachers are exploiting the unique features of the platform, investigating how museum objects and collections are translated and interpreted for educational use.
The Smithsonian Learning Lab is unique in its scope, content, tools for customisation, ongoing facilitation of professional development, continuing evolution as a platform explicitly designed for learning and status as an open educational resource which is completely free at the point of use. Through extensive research, this project aims to develop understanding of how the Learning Lab's unique design and features are experienced by educators in particular contexts and the potential implications for digital platform development and pedagogical practices in museums and schools.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000711/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2267326 Studentship ES/P000711/1 22/09/2019 29/09/2023 Gemma Cantlow