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Archives & Museum Informatics

Chicago WebDocent: Web-based Curriculum from Multiple Museums

Nenette Luarca, Anna Rochester, and Craig Cunningham, University of Chicago, USA


This paper describes a collaboration among the University of Chicago, the Chicago Public Schools, and several Chicago area museums to develop Web based curriculum materials utilizing the resources from multiple museums. This project, funded by the Chicago Public Schools, aims to create high-quality engaging interdisciplinary learning activities for the children of Chicago. The project is it in its initial year, and is still working on the first set of three modules: Communications, Transportation, and Astro-mythology. Because our results are still pending, this paper focuses on the process of developing our collaboration and some of the principles by which we are operating. The presentation at the Museums and the Web 2000 Conference will also include demonstrations of modules under production.


Chicago WebDocent (CWD ) brings together educational institutions in the city of Chicago with the goal of producing high-quality Web-based curriculum for the public schools. In this, its pilot year, CWD is striving to maximize Chicagoís cultural resources by bringing some of them into the classroom. This partnership is made up of the University of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. Representatives from the various institutions are developing interdisciplinary curriculum modules on the topics of Communication, Transportation, and the relationship between Astronomy and Mythology. Although the project is in its beginning stages, the lessons and procedures we have learned, along with the relationships that have been formed, will enable the future production of educational materials geared for the cluster of Chicago Public Schools in the neighborhoods su rrounding the University.

This paper will discuss the timeline and process of creating these curriculum modules, highlighting the truly collaboratory nature of the project at all levels, and discuss the lessons we have learned during this first year. The presentation at the Museums and the Web 2000 Conference will also include a demonstration of the modules in their preliminary stages.

The Chicago WebDocent is a project of the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project. CUIP's main focus is on making computers and the Web accessible to a cluster of twenty-nine south-side Chicago Public Schools. CUIP also devotes much of its resources to teacher training. It runs a summer Web Institute for Teachers, that teaches K-12 educators how to build curriculum modules utilizing resources available on the Web. ((For more information about CUIP, see For more information about WIT, see Although this training and the modules produced by teachers have increased the use of the Internet in CUIP schools, teachers rarely have the time necessary to produce high-quality curriculum modules during the academic year. Similarly, while museums are increasingly creating Web-based curriculum materials, these materials are often limited by the scope of the museums' collections or expertise. In order to expand the reach of the museums and ensure that the educational materials are usable by teachers, we proposed a collaboration among the University, the CUIP schools, and several Chicago-area museums in April of 1999.

Funded for an initial pilot period by the Chicago Public Schools, the CWD involves three CUIP staff members, nine CPS teachers from all levels and subject areas (all from the CUIP cluster of 29 schools), and representatives from the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), and the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago (OI). (We are currently involved in discussions with the Chicago Historical Society to join as a fifth museum partner.) The CUIP staff members, with expertise in curriculum, museum education, and Web design, are working closely with the teachers and the museum representatives to write the content for the modules, which will contain engaged learning activities and will utilize multiple resources (images, information, data) from the museum collections.

For museum administrators, an exciting aspect of this project is its promise to bring the museum collections to a wider audience. While many Chicago area students visit the museums with their schools, not all of them do. For some, this is an issue of funding for field trips; for others, it has more to do with the sheer distance between the school and the museums. Even when schools do plan trips to the museums, the museumsí collections have not always been well-integrated into formal classroom instruction. CWD dramatically expands the potential audience for the collections, not only in local schools but also nationally and internationally. Therefore, the concept was quickly embraced by upper-level administrators at several Chicago museums.

The Steering Committee

In the fall of 1999, a meeting was held at the MSI to organize the collaboration. The roles and responsibilities of the museums were outlined and contact personnel assigned from each museum. The contact people were seen as key to the planning and implementation of the project in that they would provide access to and information about museum resources, as well as review web page drafts. Typically, the museum representatives were appointed by the head of the museum education department. For example, Kathleen Burke, director of education at MSI, invited Julie Blue, Manger of Curriculum and Professional Development in the Education Department, to play a key role. Carole Krucoff, head of education at OI, enlisted Anna Rochester, School and Teacher Services Coordinator. Julie and Anna develop curriculum guides for teachers, typically in print format, and conduct training sessions for teachers; thus they were the obvious contact personnel from the museumsí point of view. Scott Beveridge, MSI's Webmaster, is another contact person. Other museum educators involved are Chris Molzahn from department of ecology and conservation at the Field Museum, and Michael Childs from the Adler Planetarium. The museum representatives, along with the three CUIP staff members, form the Steering Committee of the project. The Steering Committee meets monthly to develop principles and procedures.

From the start, museum educators saw the advantages of collaborating on this project; however, they were also wary of a facile technological panacea. During one of the first meetings of the steering committee, Scott Beveridge (MSI) emphasized that a guiding question in the collaboration should be "What do we want to add to the world of the student?" rather than "What do we want to put on the web site?" Other thoughts expressed included how to take advantage of the Web's capacity to deliver a product that differs from curricula delivered in traditional formats such as paper. Some thoughts arose around inspiring the students to explore the world and find something they are passionate about. Many museum personnel have stories about visitors seeing the authentic objects for the first time and feeling a sense of being "wowed," or about how a visit to the museum sparked a lifelong fascination with a given field of study. These stories and others caused some members of the Steering Committee to raise questions about our project:

  • Should this project aim to inspire the student in the way that the museums sometimes do?
  • How will the Web modules give the students the tools and opportunities that will allow them to fulfill their interests?
  • Can the museums' special role in providing the "wow factor" be preserved when objects are presented on the web?
  • Will these modules provide teachers with effective resources and teaching strategies for the classroom? How will teachers incorporate them into what they're already doing?
  • How should the Web-based modules be designed so that their use is seen as a complement to, rather than replacement of, museum visits?
  • Can we design the modules to be experimental in a way that allows students to explore careers, areas of study, roles and possibilities for their own future?

These preliminary discussions and questions guided the formation of the structure of CWD and its eventual goals. Since each museum has well-developed teacher outreach programs, the museum representatives drew on their previous experiences while simultaneously breaking new ground. The museum educators recognized how dependent they were on teacher involvement during the creation of outreach programs at their institutions. For example, the teacher outreach program at the Oriental Institute Museum operated for five years with CPS teachers to successfully develop sixth-grade curriculum materials on the ancient world. But to make the OI/CPS partnership work required constant consultation with the teachers, and attention to their concerns, interests and pressures. This true collaboration took many years to develop and the outcomes were effective and useful teacher guides. CWD was fortunate to be building upon already-formed relationships between the University and the neighborhood schools, and also benefited from several prior collaborations between individual CUIP teachers and participating museums.

Several lessons are emerging from the museum perspective as the collaboration moves forward. It is clear that the technology is present to promote museum collections to a much wider audience of students and teachers. Because of longstanding earlier collaborations, there has been good will between the museums and the CPS, to take advantage of this technology. It must be admitted that both museum staff and teachers are cautious about getting the balance of content over "flash" right. Students need to find the Web-based material compelling, so that when visiting the sites, kids will be engaged enough to stay and genuinely learn from them. Teachers need material from which they can build curricula, and they are less interested in "edutainment" that distracts from the intellectual core of their own missions. Museum educators want to promote their collections to a wider audience, but not in a way that lessens the impact of their collection, or makes it less likely that people will physically visit it. While we believe it is possible to get this balance right, it will require ongoing thoughtful engagement with all members of the collaborative team.

CUIP Staff

At the University level, the Chicago WebDocent team members are university employees, and serve as mediators between the museums and teachers as well as primary content authors. The three staff members, Craig Cunningham, Nenette Luarca, and Mitchell Marks, were all associated with CUIP before the inception of CWD, and it has proved most beneficial that the initial groundwork has been done by people familiar with the CUIP mission and neighborhood. Craig, Nenette, and Mitch have experience in curriculum development, museum education, and web design, respectively. Given the limited resources and time that constrain the project, each CUIP staff member has been key. Nenette, the Museum and School Liaison, has met throughout the project with each participating teacher and museum representative. These informal, individualized meetings gave participants a chance to voice expectations, clarify their roles, and formulate some clearer ideas about the purpose of the projects. These meetings typically happened at the representativesí museums or in the teachersí classrooms. As the only full-time participant in CWD, Nenette acts as the mediator between the different institutions and people. Museum staff members and teachers are busy with their respective programs and duties, and in order to maximize productivity, the CUIP staff guides the museum educators and teachers towards effective use of their time on the project.

The Curriculum Committee

The main role of the teachers on the CWD Curriculum Committee is to initiate the topics of the modules, and ensure their usability and relevance to the Chicago Academic Standards and Frameworks. (For access to these Standards, see Choosing motivated and qualified teachers was extremely important to the success of the project. We spent nearly two months inviting nominations from the participating museums and from CUIP, looking for teachers with moderate to high levels of computer and web literacy along with enthusiasm for and a commitment to teaching. We also looked for a range of grade levels and subject areas, and considered prior interactions with museums on curriculum development a big advantage. Teachers who had previously participated in the Web Institute for Teachers summer program at the University were especially desirable. Nine teachers (three from the primary grade level, three upper-elementary/middle school teachers, and three high school teachers) from CUIP schools were invited to participate, and all nine accepted. (The teachers are paid $20 per hour, for up to ten hours of work a month, including monthly meetings of the Curriculum Committee.)

Progress So Far

The initial meeting of the museum representatives and teachers in October of 1999 consisted of acquainting the teachers with the resources of the museums and the timeline of the project. A set of goals and a process for attaining those goals was finalized during November of 1999:

  1. The project's overall goal would be to develop three or four Web-based, (or more accurately, "web-enhanced") interdisciplinary curriculum modules. By "curriculum" we mean a "plan for a sustained process of teaching and learning" (Pratt, 1994, p. 5). "Web-enhanced" curricula are plans that incorporate the World Wide Web for at least a portion of learning activities and resources (Kahn, 1997). A curriculum "module" is set of teaching and learning activities related to a single topic, or theme, and designed to be undertaken as a unit.
  2. Each curriculum module would be developed following a process taught in CUIP's Web Institute for Teachers. The process emphasizes curriculum planning, and includes the development of a detailed "curriculum guide" as a blueprint for the development of a "curriculum web" to support the given curriculum. (See Cunningham et al., 2000.) The guide includes the following elements:
    1. Introduction
    2. Aim
    3. Rationale
    4. Audience
    5. Pre-requisites
    6. Description of Subject Matter
    7. Materials
    8. Goals and Objectives
    9. Instructional Plan
    10. Plan for Assessment and Evaluation

    (Current drafts of the curriculum guides for the three modules are available by visiting During the development phase, the draft modules are password protected. You may use username=guest and password=arsenic to view the modules.)

  3. Teachers would initiate the subject matter for the modules based on their needs and the deficiencies that they see in existing curriculum. We decided that our modules should not reproduce curriculum that already exists on the Web, but should be uniquely suited to CUIP students while utilizing the resources available in multiple participating museums.
  4. The full Curriculum Committee would eventually be broken down into topic groups, or sub-committees, based on interest or grade level. Each subcommittee would concentrate its efforts on one module.
  5. Each module should be flexible and easily adaptable to different grade and learning levels since many students in the CUIP schools are below grade level in some disciplines. The resources should be accessible in different ways depending on the user. The idea here is that once a resource is digitized and placed in a structured database on the CUIP server, it can be accessed in multiple contexts within multiple modules.

In order to achieve these goals, the teachers needed to become familiar with each museum and its resources in order to formulate potential subject matter. The teachers did some "homework" involving searching the Web for existing curriculum materials and looking at the standards they had to address with their students, while keeping the museum partnersí resources in mind.

The Curriculum Committee reconvened in December with ideas for topics. At this meeting, it was decided that the group would concentrate on creating three modules because of limited time and resources. A set of criteria were developed for deciding on the topics for these three modules.:

    1. How much material is already out on the Web regarding the topic? Would creating a module on this topic duplicate existing resources?
    2. Would this topic make use of more than one museumís resources?
    3. Is this topic approachable from different grade and ability levels? Would the module and subject matter be easily adaptable to different learners?
    4. Is the subject area specific enough, so that it is fairly easy to decide what should be covered and what should not? (We're not completely sure we've applied this criteria very well in the general topic areas we have decided upon. See below.)
    5. How widely usable would the module be within CUIP schools and classrooms?
    6. Does the topic address Chicago Academic Standards and frameworks?
    7. Is the topic conducive to engaged learning activities? (Specific criteria for "engaged learning" are available in Jones et al. 1994).
    8. Does the subject lend itself to activities that utilize the Web, as well activities that take the students beyond the Web, into the museums, community, and larger physical world?

The Curriculum Committee utilized these criteria to select three topics: Communication, Transportation, and Astronomy/Mythology. Initial statements of "Aim" were drafted for each of these modules. These "Aims" indicate the primary educational goal and audience:

  • Communications: This curriculum module enables Pre-K through 6th grade students to analyze how various forms of communication affect individual, social, cultural, and technological change, and how these factors have in turn affected the development of communication. (This module will be developed initially for 6th grade, which is the usual time for Chicago Public School students to study ancient civilizations. The module will use ancient Egypt as one example of a society greatly influenced by advances in communication. Once the 6th grade version is complete, the module will be modified to suit younger audiences.)
  • Transportation: The Transportation Module will guide K-6 students through the historical progression of various modes of transport, encouraging students to analyze the connections between transportation and the development and expansion of civilizations and cultures. Special emphasis will be placed on the role of transportation in the growth of Chicago. (The history of Chicago is normally taught in the 3rd grade, and the Transportation module will be initially designed for that level, and then later modified for both older and younger students. Our selection of this topic led more urgency to our desire to include the Chicago Historical Society as a fifth museum partner.)
  • Astro-Mythology: The purpose of this module is for High School Students to explore the relationship between astronomy and the mythologies of various cultures, with special emphasis on the use of mythology to explain astronomical observation. (We expect this module to be utilized by both high school language arts teachers teaching mythology and by earth science and physics teachers teaching astronomy. We recognize the heavy departmentalization of the high school curriculum as a potential barrier to wide use of this module.)

Once these topics were selected, field trips were planned for each subcommittee of teachers to visit the relevant museums, in order to meet with curators and exhibition designers, tour both public collections and artifacts not currently on view, and make initial selections of resources to be included in the modules. This task has been more difficult that it might have been if the topics had been more specific. "Transportation," for example, seems to include a lot more than it excludes, and choosing the specific learning activities and resources from MSI's vast "Transportation Zone," for example, has proven difficult.

As the curriculum committee worked to choose broad topic areas and then to select specific resources from the participating museums that could be incorporated into each module, Mitch Marks, the CWD Technical Coordinator, was working on the technical infrastructure for the eventual CWD web site. He examined a number of different "looks and feels" and developed a framework for storing and accessing digitized images. Together with a local art teacher with experience in web design, Mitch and Craig choose a general color scheme and background design, planned the entryway, and began to sketch out both the file structure and metaphorical architecture of the site.

Mitch also researched and selected some of the underlying technologies to be used on the CWD site. Information about the many images we expect to include will be contained in a mySQL database, accessed through ZOPE, a web-oriented object database implemented in Python, an interpreted, compilable scripting language. Each item will include information about its history, significance, and current location; students and teachers will be able to choose how much of this information to see. Mitch developed a prototype curriculum module by taking one of the modules developed in the Web Institute for Teachers and "retrofitting" it to these specifications, so that Craig, Nenette, and other participants could get a sense for how this implementation would work.

In addition to planning the eventual web site, Mitch has also worked to ensure ongoing communication among all participants in the project. A set of mailing lists were established to keep the larger group and certain sub-groups in touch between meetings. After each meeting, detailed minutes are sent out to the general list. There is also a Curriculum Committee mailing list that is used to inform teachers of meetings, as well as acting as a discussion forum for sites people may have seen that they would like the larger group to view. The CWD organizational web site, at, is a center for information about the project for both participants and outside parties that are interested in the initiative. There, one can find contact names, lists of participants, the project timeline, agendas and minutes from past meetings, information on the mailing lists, and a growing list of museum-related links.

The Project's Future

As CWD moves into its second phaseócurriculum developmentówe find ourselves in uncharted waters. Never before have these museums agreed to pool their resources for common educational aims. Each museum has its own administrative structure and procedures for gaining access to its collections, so the museum representatives are key in identifying proper procedures and key people. Some of the collections are already digitized and formatted for inclusion into the curriculum modules, however, other objects need to be photographed and scanned before they can be included in any web site. As of this writing (February 2000), CWD is in the process of identifying the resources that will be needed, and this is a learning process for both museum educators and the CUIP staff. Issues of copyright will inevitably arise, and by April, we will be able to more accurately address our experience with them.

Our goal is to have the Communications module drafted by the end of March, so that we can use it to demonstrate the value of our collaboration to prospective funders of the project. The other modules will be drafted by April or May. We will field-test each module in the classrooms of members of the Curriculum Committee, make any changes that seem necessary, and then recruit other CUIP teachers for a more formal evaluation of the modules either in late spring or during the next academic year. After the curriculum has been tested in classrooms, teacher feedback and evaluation will be vital to improving the usability and content of the sites. Criteria for evaluation of the entire project include considering the projectís productivity given the resources, whether or not something new and unique is being done, the effectiveness of the current number of created curriculum modules and the scope of subject matter.

The Chicago Public Schools is interested in CWD because of the potential for the project to develop high quality, engaging, educative learning activities for its students. The eventual goal is to make these modules accessible to all CPS schools by including them in CPS's "Infusion Exchange," a highly-sophisticated tool for CPS teachers to create, share, and access curriculum modules via the web. CPS sees Infusion Exchange as its primary technique for both delivering curriculum and for supporting teacher development of curriculum, so as to increase the infusion of technology into the curriculum in multiple schools. (More information about Infusion Exchange and CPS's Technology Infusion Planning Process can be found at


CWD started out more slowly than most of us thought it would. However, the time that it has taken to establish relationships among the museums, teachers, and university staff has been very worthwhile. Since this project is unique in many ways, in this first year, we have allowed ourselves the time to figure out the projectís development process.

All of the participants value the collaborative relationships that have been formed through CWD, and would like these partnerships to continually expand their outreach to CUIP schools and beyond. By the springtime, we should have a better idea of the lessons learned from this project along the way and its status for the future. We are hopeful that this initiative can serve as a model for other museum-school-university partnerships.


Cunningham, C., Dairyko, E., & Boxer, F. (2000). The Web Institute for Teachers: Engaging Teachers in Developing Web-Based Curriculum. In D. A. Willis, J. D. Price, & J. Willis (Eds.), Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education Proceedings 2000. Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Also available at

Jones, B., Valdez, G., Nowakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. (1994). Designing Learning and Technology for Educational Reform. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Kahn, B. (1997). Web-based Instruction (WBI): What Is It and Why Is It?. In Kahn, B. Web-based Instruction (pp. 5-18). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Pratt, D. (1994). Curriculum Planning: A Handbook for Professionals. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.