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I-RITE Statement Archive
About I-RITE

Making the Grade: Using Digital Archives to Improve Education

Monica Langerth Zetterman
School of Education
Uppsala University
June 2002


In my research, I will explore how faculty and students can be given opportunities to separate what is learned from how it is taught. The main aim of my research is to explore and study how information and knowledge can be made accessible and applicable for many different purposes in education. A variety of investigating methods will be used and the studies will be made in different academic disciplines such as the humanities, social science, and natural sciences.

Nowadays, since more and more information is available on the Web, it is common to use the Internet in many different teaching and learning situations in higher education and for research. Yet the information on the Internet is not very easy to survey or to use or reuse for students, faculty and teachers. It may sound strange, but despite the billion-plus pages on the Web, there is still too little information available. Hardly any information exists about the information itself, and all Web pages are treated in the same way in the eyes of a search robot.

In my research area, higher education, not much attention is given to how we could manage and improve education by separating the subject matter students are supposed learn from its publication and presentational forms. My interest is in the use and reuse of portable and modularized information and digital content on the Web. If the content is separated from its presentational forms, one can easily imagine how the same information could be used in many different occasions and for several different purposes in education. Similarly, if the content is produced and stored in digital archives with no predestined use or predefined teaching method, the same content could be used and reused in different teaching and learning situations. Using these kinds of digital archives also means that the same original content can be personalized and accessed by teachers and students at different educational levels or even for different subjects.

The kind of activity needed to accomplish portable and modularized digital archives in education can be called "content design." This is not the same as what graphic designers or publishers usually do when they prepare books for publishing, but rather it is something new, something that faculty, and even students, will do in the future. Content design is about adding information about information with so called "metadata," which is a careful description of the information that makes it possible to separate the actual content or information from its structure, future use, and presentational form or kind of publication.

Teachers and students, however, need skills in metadata methods and standards for organizing and structuring information for content design. Many of the metadata- supported tools and methods for adding metadata are used and considered valuable for many research communities but not in educational practices. There are several reasons for this. The first is that teachers and students are not used to separating what is taught from how it is learned. Instead, most teachers tend to regard content as hardwired into the syllabus of certain courses. The second reason is that courseware publishing houses and software producers are reluctant to deliver portable content since they prefer to keep the customers tied to the vendors' proprietary solutions. The third reason is that procedures, methods and tools for organizing and structuring content often seem too difficult or tedious for most users.

My presentation is an outline of a recently begun research project, and, because I have just started my studies, I do not yet have any results to present. A variety of investigating methods will be used, such as studies of publications and documents, analyses of curricula and syllabi, interviews, participant observations, and user studies on the application of certain information technology-supported tools. The main aim is to explore how we can make information and knowledge accessible and applicable for many different purposes in education. Therefore, my forthcoming studies will be focused on the following questions:
1) What kind of content design activities are in fact used in different research and learning communities? This initial step will result in an overview of current projects and other initiatives, which have implemented metadata standards for educational purposes. Here I will analyze, compile and compare project reports, project Web pages, and evaluation reports.
2) How do research communities and education make use of different digital archives and Web repositories? This second step will result in case studies where I will use participant observation from research communities and courses within two or more academic disciplines. The main task will be to understand and make comparative analyses of how existing digital archives and shared Web resources are used within the communities. This will be realized by interviews, observations, and content analyses.
3) How might faculty and students benefit from different content design activities and from research communities' knowledge and usage of digital archives and shared Web resources? Aside from the previously mentioned more "neutral" mapping of actual practices within research, I also wish to understand and, to some extent, promote the application of a few tools. This will be accomplished by user studies and the testing of some existing digital archives and shared Web resources, as well as a few newly developed tools and methods for content design.