When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, instructors had to adapt quickly to new teaching and learning environments. For those instructors who teach with cultural heritage materials, the shift to remote learning was even more complex. They had to discover new ways to incorporate archives, museum collections, special collections and place based learning within restricted learning environments, and often they had to contend with uneven levels of access to adequate technology while doing so. Through these challenges, instructors identified barriers to effectively teaching with cultural heritage materials remotely and learned to adapt. In a new report, we document those lessons. 

This report grows from a previous project, undertaken prior to the pandemic, that documented practices for teaching with primary sources. When the pandemic struck, Ithaka S+R, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, sought to understand its impact on these teaching practices. Working with a cohort of seven institutions, we interviewed instructors across several disciplines. 

Our findings revealed that, in many cases, instructors relied on colleagues such as library and museum staff, archivists, and curators to be present on campus in order to digitize and grant access to their collections. They also incorporated open access digital collections into their curriculum. They adapted their assignments to include lectures from heritage professionals, and, in some cases, they changed assignments to invite students to produce materials that reflected their own stories during the pandemic. We also found that instructors predictably relied more heavily on digitized materials, but that this sometimes posed challenges with respect to discovery and access. 

While digitized collections and virtual engagements have grown more robust as a necessity of remote learning, our interviews revealed that the pandemic has been disproportionately challenging for the most vulnerable students, often students of color. Institutions must consider how to apply the values of equity and inclusion to their remote teaching protocols and technologies to prevent minoritized student populations from facing unfair and unnecessary challenges while attending school remotely. In some cases, technologies such as learning management systems and content platforms were inadequate for remote learning, producing bandwidth issues, glitches, and access problems. These barriers create serious disruptions when remotely engaging with cultural heritage. 

We also found that instructors fear that remote learning has prevented their students from gaining important experiences within cultural institutions, encounters that can give them access to resources that legitimize their scholarly work and provide familiarity with exploring archives, special collections, and museum galleries. More work is needed to replicate the experiences that are generated from interacting with cultural heritage materials in person, in order to continue to inspire this generation of students through object based learning. We provide more observations and recommendations in the full report. Please reach out to me at liam.sweeney@ithaka.org with any questions or comments.