Living Archives – Reflections on an Educational project

Project launch – Monday May 26th – 10am Studio Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PE, Canada.

Living archives started as a conversation with Elizabeth Deblois about what we could do that might be interesting for the 2008 anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. She wanted to do something with technology and kids, and I’d been looking for a good project to bring some of the interesting things I’d seen on the intertubes here to the Island.

Outline of the Project
Living archives (video introduction… see all eight pro-videos for full scope of project) is a history project for middle school students headed up by the University of Prince Edward Island. The students searched through local archives and museums for information that would allow them to contextualize 19th century PEI. Following the idea that the creation of materials forces a more profound examination of materials and focuses that research the students were to create a ‘textbook’ in a variety of formats including text, images, video and Opensim. We had three classes of students, eight months and were funded by the Canadian Culture Online Partnership Fund (PCH) and had a fairly large group of project partners all listed at the bottom of each of the living archives web pages. Sometime in the next few months I’ll post a more detailed project management review…
We invited some Seniors, heritage professionals and in french, musicians (Margi Carmichael but the microphone was turned off 🙁 ) and storytellers from the community to come into the classrooms in order to try to bring some context to the research they were doing. They also spent some excellent time in the field at the Archives and the museums as well as coming to the University.

Initial Reflection
We had a number of reality checks on this project, a number of unforseen challenges that forced us to change directions or pull back to our ‘bare minimum requirements.’ The experiences of the community at large talking about their projects and my own edtech project management experience led me to only claim to be able to deliver the bare minimum of what i thought possible… in some cases we blew that away – hundreds of blog posts and images – and in some other cases we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped (peer training videos, opensim). So planning for small, make-able successes and allowing for the increase in scope to happen based on events rather than trying to force it worked out well for us.
The students and the teachers involved have all reported a very high level of satisfaction… even though we forced them a little hard through the development phases of the project. A little more work done on standardizing the language used in the web interface would have saved us many, many hours of pain and misery. There is a sense, I guess, where the scope of this project overshadows the simplicity of its basic structure. Any project like this one (where the development of curriculum and configuration of software and people workflow are done during V.1) should plan for V.2 of the project and actually show how simple it would be to integrate into the mainstream school system. I will write a report that suggests a number of ways that this could happen, but it’s not at all the same as having done it. The NO 1 response we’ve been getting from people is “WOW great project, hardly sustainable though is it.” It could be sustainable, but more on this later.

The Students
This is where the real success was in this project. The students took a very passionate approach to the work that they were doing and got very involved in researching the history. They also became committed to the idea that their work was going to be published and that it mattered how good the writing and the research was. There were several stories in this project where school folks or parents commented on their amazement on how involved the kids were and how excited they were to ‘study’. I really enjoyed the work that I got to do with the kids and was constantly amazed at how quick they were to adapt and how well they dealt with adversity. I was also (though i shouldn’t have been) quite taken aback at how much peripheral knowledge they acquired during the course of their work.

The Technology


Our main platform was based on a build out of Drupaled done by the fine folks at funny monkey. Due to circumstances beyond all of our control, we ended up getting started 4 months late, so things were built very quickly. The key requirement from the platform was workflow. There needed to be a way for the work to start out in a private garden ‘work area’ and be promoted to public. I saw that sense of ‘graduating’ the work as critical to the success of the project. Too often in a straight out blogging project you end up with ‘first draft’ work published to the website and it never gets reviewed as the work feels ‘done’ as soon as it’s published. In our situation publication was something that the students needed to earn. I would definitely do this again. Our ring leader here was a WAC professor and Montgomery scholar from NYU who worked tirelessly with the teachers and students. I’m not sure how she feels about having her name posted, I’ll ask her and update the post if necessary.

The biggest problem we had was in not having a fully refined requirements list at the outset… this was not really anyone’s fault but it really hurt our first couple of months and added a great deal of frustration on the ground. It took us a very long time to figure out that we were missing an efficient and simple teacher interface… we’d done a pretty good job with the students… just not for the teachers. Fortunately, our project manager (saviour) and our teachers persevered. If i had this to do again and I would hire a student teacher to go to the classroom once a week to reinforce the training and report back difficulties with the interface.

This idea of reportage, too, was problematic. When I think of the problems we had – wyziwyg, language standardization, insufficient training in terms of available workflows – a good (read: simple) reporting system would have gone a long way to improving the day to day feelings of all people involved in the project. There was too much distance between development and user and that extra body, that student teacher may have been the missing link that could have pulled that together.

All that being said, we managed to create a french and english version of drupal. We got literally hundreds of posts from the students, the excellent people at PARO digitized many hundred of images (not to mention the job they did facilitating the research with the kids and giving them the research tools that they needed), we created 10 3D artifacts that are available on the website, close to 100 videos, and build on the work that is currently being done in the UPEI library integrating drupal and fedora. We’ve zipped this version up (cleaned of project specific content) and will be posting it soon.

LIVING archives MUVE in Education (Opensim) see detailed reflection here
“Why didn’t you just use second life?” oh wow… am i ever happy we didn’t. First of all, it’s been very exciting to be around at the beginning of an excellent open source community. The opensim people have been hugely helpful, and we managed to get 3 very cool houses built and get the student work inside those houses.
With Second Life you are caught either on the Teen grid (no parents or adults) or on the adult grid (no teens) and, if you have a case like ours, (half of our students were 12) you get nothing. Zilch. So, in moving to opensim we managed to keep all of our data internal, created default student accounts for the kids to use, and now have no worries about possible after effects.
As the opensim with alpha software posts lays out… we had alot of challenges. But, as further work being done (say with openhabitat) is showing, it can be really helpful to have your own, personally controlled virtual world at your finger tips.

Other tech

We bought video cameras (and microphones with short cords doh!) three rear projection smart boards a couple of computers per classroom and upgraded some of our hosting hardware on the UPEI side. Had this project started six months later, I would have bought 20 eeepcs for each school and we would have been cooking with gas. Some of the computers we used were… not new… and crashed if you tried to keep two separate windows open at the same time.

Idea developments

Had some excellent help with this. Funny monkey had a great deal of influence on the webdesign… i take it for granted now because i’m so familiar with it, but the public/private website with a built in eportfolio and video/blog/audio publishing tool is second to none. Elana Langer is responsible for the increase in scope of the project as well as large chunks of the video. The folks at PARO are responsible for giving us the sense of what is possible from a research/archives perspective. Mark Leggott at the library told me about the grant opportunity with PCH and was a great deal of help in writing my first grant. Sandy McAuley was super helpful with the pulling the educational research together and getting the training and Lesson plans planned, and posted. Stephen Downes is responsible for whatever elegance this project has as he explained to me that some pieces of the project were together and that, really, they should all be connected and should look back at each other.

Project management

Bonnie Stewart is responsible for pulling together pretty much every piece of this project. Without her energy, patience and perseverance none of this would have gotten done.

ohzz… There are bunches of people and cool stuff I’m forgetting, but oscar is sick and I need to have my presentation done by launch time. SORRY PEOPLE AND COOL STUFF I FORGOT. ttys.

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