Last summer we announced a Mellon funded project to study how higher education instructors are adapting their practices of teaching with cultural heritage materials during the pandemic. In this post we share how our project is developing and the issues we are tracking as our research gets underway.

Why are we doing this project?

We remain in a similarly unprecedented landscape six months later, as the COVID-19 virus remains a terrible threat. Technology has allowed certain types of activities to carry on, and Ithaka S+R has documented, through a variety of studies, the ways in which higher education institutions have evolved to continue enrolling, educating, and graduating their students, without any certainty as to the duration of this disruption. Students and their instructors are tasked with learning how to learn in this environment, in addition to their curriculum.

It is not obvious how instructors who teach with cultural heritage materials can most effectively adapt their curriculum to remote learning. Zoom cannot replicate the experience of visiting a museum or opening a box full of archival materials in dozens of beige folders. On the other hand, remote learning may afford new opportunities to increase the breadth of objects available to study, as well as the methods of contextualizing these objects.

Partnering with Eight Institutions to Understand Instructor’s Needs

In order to better understand the barriers and opportunities confronting those who teach with cultural heritage materials during the pandemic, we are interviewing roughly three dozen instructors across eight higher education institutions in the United States. We selected partners that serve diverse populations, and do so with differing degrees of access to institutional resources. At each of these institutions, we have identified strategic partners who work to make library and museum collections available to students and instructors. These strategic partners are helping us to identify instructors for interviews at their institutions:

    • University of Michigan
      • David Choberka
      • Cinda Nofziger
    • Spelman College
      • Anne Smith
    • University of Hawaiʻi
      • Keahiahi Long
      • Annemarie Paikai
    • University of Puerto Rico
      • Lisa Ortega
    • CUNY
      • Colleen Bradley-Sanders
      • Jessica Wagner Webster
    • University of Texas San Antonio
      • Stephanie Noell
      • Kirstin Cutts
    • University of Missouri
      • Kelli Hansen
    • California State University Northridge
      • Ellen Jarosz
      • Nicole Shibata

Recognizing the importance of sharing experience and knowledge while navigating the pandemic, we convened the strategic partners at the end of 2020. In this meeting, the cohort had an opportunity to discuss the ways the pandemic has impacted them in relation to their work supporting students and faculty. Throughout our discussion, partners demonstrated their expertise, and deep commitment toward identifying and implementing best practices in accessing cultural heritage during this period of remote learning.

In this meeting, strategic partners discussed a set of questions in breakout rooms, and shared highlights from their discussion with the group. These questions concerned their institutions’ responses to the pandemic, and how collecting units continued to engage with their student and faculty communities. Our partners shared the significant challenges that they have faced in their own roles, but emphasized that they are most concerned about the impact the pandemic will have on student experiences. The difficulties confronting students with insecure housing, with limited access to the internet, and with challenging environmental factors often eclipsed curricular concerns. The practice of supporting student learning has increasingly become blended with understanding and addressing the wellbeing of vulnerable student populations. These perspectives confirmed research findings from our colleagues, which has illustrated the complexities of teaching through a public health crisis. At the same time, there is a clear expectation that funding will be reduced for many campus units as colleges and universities grapple with losses from reduced enrollments.

More recently, strategic partners have worked with us to identify instructors who would be ideal candidates for interviews. These instructors teach in a variety of disciplines and have a history of using institutional collections in their curriculum. In some cases, our strategic partners are aware of new ways these instructors are collaborating with the museum or library to adapt their curriculum. In other cases, the strategic partner does not know whether or how the instructor is adapting their coursework.

Looking Ahead

Over the next few months, we will interview these instructors in order to gather evidence about the opportunities and barriers they have encountered in the shift to remote learning. We will be particularly interested in how their relationship to their own institution has evolved, in comparison to using openly available digital resources. How has discovery and curation of materials changed? And in what ways have institutions expanded or facilitated access to cultural heritage materials for their instructors?

From this evidence we hope to learn about clever ways in which instructors have adapted to our current moment, as well as how they have struggled to replicate learning outcomes from previous years. We look forward to sharing findings from this research at the end of the year. Please feel free to email with any comments or questions about the project.