Making Engaging Learning Materials about History, Industry, Sociology…

Statue of St Margaret, formerly of Corah factory, Leicester - courtery of Ned Trifle on Flickr

As learning technologist working on the Manufacturing Pasts project, I have the interesting and puzzling task of coming up with ways of presenting historical artefacts such as photos, maps, diagrams and interview sound files in a way that is engaging for both experts and nonexperts, but also not very prescriptive. I am new to working with historians, and I am getting the impression that historians (not uniquely) are careful to not dictate the conclusions which should be drawn from the examination of historical sources.

But then does this mean that all we can do is present the photographs and other items and that’s all? Surely, expert and nonexpert alike would benefit from some sort of context. Just a series of photographs will be a gold mine to a researcher of very particular topics, but might just look like a set of boring old snaps to a nonexpert —unless there is context. With context, there is a story. Once a person gets involved in the story, s/he can visualise, imagine, process ideas, and draw conclusions.  The challenge to educators, academics, and librarians is how to take ‘information,’ ‘data,’ ‘research,’ and make it meaningful– and present it engagingly — without dictating interpretation.

Taking this one step further, younger learners need more guidance to process the facts and learn to draw conclusions. Perhaps a good approach might be to create, for example, a video based on a series of photos and an appropriate sound track, but do it in two versions. Version A would be pretty much just the photos, with identification of what is in the photo, when taken, and by whom. Version B would be the same but with the addition of ‘thinking points,’ or ‘questions to ponder.’ For example, alongside the photo of the St Margaret statue, formerly attached to the Corah knitting and clothing factory of Leicester, there could be questions encouraging the viewer to delve into why a saint was chosen as the company’s symbol, what ideals might have been suggested by that particular choice, what other information can be found regarding the company’s motto or founding principles. Such questions, while not appropriate for a researcher working on a PhD, could enliven discussion in a History A Level class.

Come back to this site often and see how we resolve this. Better yet, write a comment with your thoughts and suggestions.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

Building learning and research materials from image banks

As part of the Manufacturing Pasts JISC-funded OER project, we are building open-access learning and research materials initially for use in University of Leicester Urban History modules. Beyond this use, however, we want these materials to be useful to anyone with an interest in urban history, urban studies, social history, architectural history, de-urbanisation, Leicestershire, English local history — the list goes on and on, extending to uses and users we may not even imagine. The photos, maps, plans, and recordings that have been painstakingly gathered from a number of sources including the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland and the fascinating Joan Skinner are brimming with stories of industrial rise and fall, factory organisation, and architectural trends and achievements, to name just a few.

Statue of Liberty from the Liberty Building, Leicester

 The material currently can be said to take the form of an image bank, and also a sound bank. New material will be created as part of the project; photos, maps, and voice recordings will be digitised. These will be added to the banks. As is, are these OER (open educational resources)? In a sense they are, in and of themselves, as they are free and open and copyrighted for anyone to use in learning and research. But I must turn these items into excellent new OER, suitable for use in our modules and beyond. What is it exactly that I must build? I have pulled together some photos of Leicester’s ghost signs into a page which presents them beautifully, but still doesn’t add context or guide learning and research.

Yesterday the metaphor came to me of libraries and textbooks. A library holds all kinds of information, and researchers traditionally went there to search and dig and synthesise information. Our current image bank is like a library; compelling and fascinating information is there to be discovered and information synthesised. But as part of the project we need to create material optimised for learning, perhaps as a textbook is optimised for the learner to more easily digest and synthesise information.

However, our material will guide but not prescribe conclusions. Our historians Dr Simon Gunn and Dr Rebecca Madgin are very clear on the point that history is about encouraging questions, not about didactic monologue. Another difference from traditional textbooks is that our OER will be visually led, rather than heavy on text. This presents an interesting challenge for me. At the moment I am putting together some videos based on images and sounds from the source material, to present to Simon and Rebecca for their feedback. As the project progresses, I will report back here on the blog regarding the development of these non-didactic and visually-led OERs. I welcome any comments especially if you have been challenged by the presentation of learning material and have creatively met the challenge!

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

New Year, New OERs, and New Uses

It’s early 2012 and I am excited to be working on a new project, Manufacturing Pasts, combining my interests in learning technology and open educational resources (OERs) with new frontiers of industrial history, urban history, architectural history, and social history. In the project, we will be taking artefacts of the industrial history of Leicestershire and Rutland, digitising them and turning them into OER suitable for use in Urban History and other modules being taught here at the University of Leicester.

Mack's Garage ghost sign in Leicester. Photo courtesy of Colin Hyde; from My Leicestershire History

I come to this project from Beyond Distance Research Alliance with whom I have worked on several OER projecs including OSTRICH (in which we helped the universities of Bath and Derby to launch their OER repositories) and SPIDER (investigating iTunes U as a channel of OER). I feel that the movement of open educational resources and open research has a sense of inevitability about it, fueled as it is by the combination of digital media and the internet. Research data, historical information, and teaching material should be shared as much as possible so that the benefits of amalgamated knowledge can be fully realised.

One of the great things about the Manufacturing Pasts is that the project has a specific goal for its OER creation: for use in teaching for specific modules in the School of Historical Studies and in the Centre for Urban History. Especially in the early stages of the OER movement, the emphasis was on making as many OERs as possible and just getting them out there on the internet. What people would be using them for and how they would use them was a secondary consideration. Finding out if and how the OERs were used seemed almost an impossible dream. But in this project I have the privilege of working with instructors who already have wishes for the use of these OERs in their teaching. I hope to maximise the OERs’ learning value and make them as attractive, interactive, and useful to our University of Leicester users, and in so doing make them abundantly useful to everyone else.

Oh yes, did I mention we have made a site to curate articles about urban history, industrial history, and OERs which have their origin in the private sector. Please follow our site!

Do you have experience creating or using OER, and if so, do you have any top tips to make sure OERs are useful? Please leave a comment ifyou have any thoughts on this!

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester