Best of the Web: Education website thoughts
While I’m on a roll coming up with bulleted lists for the rich experiences at Museums and the Web, thought I’d jot a few thoughts down on the education category for Best of the Web this year. (I should note that I was a committee member/judge for this category, but these thoughts don’t necessarily reflect those of the committee or any behind the scenes discussions — they’re just thoughts that come to mind as I reflect now on these great sites).
I especially wanted to draw attention to the Education category this year because there were so many great entries, which isn’t always the case. Here are some sites that catch my attention:
- Beyond the Chalkboard: The esteemed winner this year. I especially appreciate how clearly they define and serve their audience — afterschool teachers who are looking for activities. The museum team assessed a national/international need among a defined segment of their audience, and then developed a tool to serve that audience. That’s what “Education” is all about. And the activities themselves are gems — developed and refined over decades by some of the best museum educators in the field. Things to learn from this site: how to develop with a specific need/audience in mind, and how to draw on and package museum expertise.
- Wondermind: The runner up. What an extraordinary design and interface, with evocative audio as well. A very effective technique — to hook users with compelling games, then follow up with compelling video discussions. (I would have liked a little more control over the video rewind though). The audience for this site skews toward family (rather than school) so it has the latitude to push the boundaries on the “fun factor”. Given the family audience, there is potential to follow up with a “parent guide” to support the budding neuroscientist in the family though I didn’t notice this. Things to learn from this site: how to push the boundaries on “fun factor” and engaging interface, while tying to content goals.
- Bound for South Australia. This “digital re-enactment” retraces daily adventures of passengers who travelled from England to the new world of Australia in 1836. It’s a concept that grows on you as you peer into the lives of these travelers from one week to the next. I randomly popped into an entry on the fate of Kate the cat, who was thrown overboard, and read the poem “Who killed my cat…?” from one of the passenger’s journals. Events are tied into themes (for example, the role of pets) and classroom curriculum materials. I just wish there were an engaging 30-40 second video (or at least slideshow with swelling music) to pull me in initially, before I’ve been enticed by accounts of daily life onboard. Things to learn from this site: digital re-enactment as a technique for revitalizing chronological source materials.
- It’s Elemental. This contest elicited nearly 700 videos from high school students in 37 states, all submitting videos on an element in the periodic table. Eliciting this many videos is quite a feat for a small organization. I preferred some of the more obscure entries over the official winners: a film-noir entry on titanium, a goofy one on sulfur. Things to learn from this site: the power of using a novel and simple organizing principle for eliciting user-created content.
- Ohio as America. It struck me that this site could be a game-changer for local history museums — the museum essentially became a digital textbook publisher, providing textbook content for nearly a third of Ohio fourth graders. It’s a niche that national publishers are unlikely to fill, and one that is perfectly suited to the goals of many historical societies. Content did feel a bit dry though — would like to see more museum-like open-ended interactions. Hopefully they’ll layer more of this in in future years. Things to learn from this site: a new role for local history museums — digital textbook publisher.