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Pittsburgh: Supporting Digital Innovation in Education with the Learning Lab

The Smithsonian Learning Lab launched quietly in public beta on October 30, 2015. It will officially launch at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference on June 26-29, 2016 (more on the events planned coming soon to this new site). Learning Lab project director, Darren Milligan, and I will be leading a workshop at the conference for teachers as well. In the eight months between the public beta launch and the official launch of the Smithsonian Learning Lab, our team wanted to learn more from teachers about how they might use this new platform in their classroom: What worked well? What features and tools did they wish the Learning Lab had? What supports might be needed to help teachers use the site in their classroom?

This past school year (2015-2016), thanks to a generous grant from the Grable Foundation, the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access has led four professional development workshops for middle school social studies teachers, English/language arts teachers, and technology/media specialists in Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh has been an ideal city for us to host these intensive workshops. In case you missed it, Education Week highlighted Pittsburgh in January 2015 as a model city for supporting digital learning. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Senator John Heinz History Center (a Smithsonian Affiliate) have been our partners in this program for everything from recruitment of our 18 teaching teams (33 teachers total) to leading breakout sessions based on teacher feedback and needs.

Over the next few weeks, three of my colleagues, who have worked with me throughout this school year in Pittsburgh, will share their experiences and some examples of Smithsonian Learning Lab collections that have been created throughout this workshop series.

  • Kate Harris is one of two Smithsonian Learning Lab coordinators based in Pittsburgh. She serves as a coach and a sounding board for the cohort of teachers on the creative and effective use of Smithsonian digital resources in their classrooms. She is a former high-school-level U.S. History teacher with experience in online coaching and use of digital tools.
  • Linda Muller is also a Smithsonian Learning Lab coordinator based in Pittsburgh. Linda supports the teachers' innovative classroom ideas and helps them align their ideas into engaging lessons and activities for students. She is a former Instructional Technology specialist with experience in curriculum design and creating Pennsylvania standards-aligned experiences for students.
  • Tess Porter is the newest member of the Washington, DC-based Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access team. She researches and develops learning resources focused on the topics of world history, geography, culture, and art.

This relatively new approach of using digital objects and media in the classroom presents its own set of challenges and successes. Exploring the Learning Lab's impact with these teachers has helped us improve the site and our future offerings. In an opening activity using a Learning Lab collection, we explored how objects can help tell the story of a place, namely Pittsburgh. This led to much discussion about the objects individually and as a collection and we explored what elements were missing to tell this object-based story.

In addition to the work supported by the Grable Foundation, we are researching the types of teaching supports a large-scale digital platform should include (through a generous grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York). We have been fortunate to work with Dr. Mark Warschauer and his research team from the University of California, Irvine. His team includes Doron Zinger and Nicole Gilbertson, who have synthesized and analyzed teacher feedback, performed classroom observations, and offered support at each of the workshops in Pittsburgh, PA.


Pittsburgh, by Elizabeth Olds

Image: Pittsburgh, by Elizabeth Olds
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution