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What Is the Smithsonian Learning Lab?

The Smithsonian Learning Lab project is the result of a major rethinking of how the digital resources from across the Smithsonian's 19 museums, nine major research centers, the National Zoo, and more, can be used together, for learning. It is a big dream, an aspiration to make these resources more accessible and more useful to teachers, students, parents, and anyone on a lifelong quest to learn more. It hopes to deliver the Smithsonian in ways that make learning joyful, personal, and shareable.

But What IS It?

The Smithsonian Learning Lab will be a web accessible digital platform (accessible through fixed and mobile web devices) that enables the discovery, by teachers and learners of all types, of millions of digital assets from the Smithsonian's galleries, museums, libraries, and archives through faceted, targeted search, as well as serendipitous exploration. It will be a place rich with research-based tools that aid its users in the customization of its contents for personalized learning. It too, we hope, will become a community of users, both within the Smithsonian and across the world, who collaborate, create, and share with each other new resources for learning.

Users of this new platform will: Discover, Adapt/Mashup, Create, and Share.

Specifically, the new Smithsonian Learning Lab will be a platform for users to find and interact with Smithsonian digital content (such as the more than 1 million digitized collection objects, videos, and podcasts) and learning experiences (like the more than 2,000 lesson plans and other project-based learning experiences).

It will replace our existing websites designed to serve education audiences: SmithsonianEducation.org, SmithsonianEducationConferences.org, and SmithsonianQuests.org. The Learning Lab will be a place where users can:

  • Search for and Store Smithsonian learning resources (lesson plans, etc.), learning experiences (currently called Quests), and digitized museum collections, videos, podcasts, etc.,
  • Create and Share with learners and peers personalized collections and learning experiences they build using a variety of resources the Learning Lab will make available, or ones they upload and link to from other non-Smithsonian sources,
  • Participate in online learning experiences (Quests made by Smithsonian educators, or those made by other users) themselves or with others (their students, for example), and
  • Find general information about the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access.

The Smithsonian Learning Lab will launch in public beta in the Fall of 2015 at learninglab.si.edu, but you can follow along on this project blog as we share what we have learned already, what we uncover during the development process, and how we prepare to launch the site.

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How Did We Get Here?

The specific functionality of the Lab is based entirely on three previous years of user research conducted by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access (SCLDA). First, a two year audience satisfaction and definition survey (that collected data from more than 7,000 surveys) helped us define who our current audiences are (those served by SmithsonianEducation.org), their motivations for coming to our website, their activities while on the site, and where they found satisfaction, or not.

In the second phase of our formative research, we worked directly with more than 100 teachers from across the country to better understand how teachers use digital learning resources in their classrooms. Following targeted focus groups, we conducted three weeks of continually iterative prototyping with teachers representing a variety of grade levels, regions, and socioeconomic levels, developed a comprehensive literature review, and conducted a survey and analysis of industry best practices. This breadth of research aided us in the development of a semi-functional prototype that demonstrates what might be possible on a platform built specifically to improve access to and usefulness of our assets. This research, its findings, and access to the prototype can all be found in this summary post.

Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia

Why Is the Smithsonian Creating the Learning Lab?

The Smithsonian now receives many more digital than in-person visits, a trend likely to continue. We are committed to understanding and serving the needs of our diverse digital visitors and enabling them to access and use our content wherever they are and with whatever device they choose (computers, tablets, and mobile devices). The Learning Lab's features are anchored in research and best practices in three distinct realms: K–12 education, afterschool programs, and museums, as well as national needs and trends in education. Relevant research findings and trends include:

  • Teachers' need to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of students with different skill levels
  • Common Core State Standards (adopted by 43 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense schools) now require educators to adapt appropriate instructional resources to reinforce, remediate, or expand skills learned in the classroom
  • Common Core also requires that students use technology tools to demonstrate their learning (from as early as 4th grade)
  • The “flipped classroom" model has teachers looking for high-quality digital content and new ways to deliver it to students, in school and at home
  • Research that indicates educators do not use museum instructional materials as published but instead they deconstruct and rebuild them
  • New ways of identifying resources and personalizing searches for digital instructional materials are becoming essential in navigating the vast amount of resources available

About the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Under the Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, SCLDA is a central office at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., that coordinates with each of the museums and research centers to provide extensive digital access to collections, programs, and learning resources to inspire the transmission and transformation of knowledge for the public good. Our mission is to use all that the Smithsonian offers to empower learners to explore their own interests and collaborate with others to bring ideas to life.

The Center's overall digital goals are to:

  1. Improve the discoverability of and access to Smithsonian digital assets for learning
  2. Research the intersection of the needs of learners (formal and informal) and educators, and the capabilities of the Smithsonian
  3. Create youth-focused digitally-accessible learning experiences

The project team here at SCLDA looks forward to your comments and sharing with you our motivations, our thinking, and our process as we build and launch the Smithsonian Learning Lab.


Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della RobbiaImage detail: Priscian, or the Grammar, relief from the bell tower of Florence by Luca della Robbia, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy