April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Building Digital Distribution Systems For School-Based Users Of Museum Content: New initiatives in Australia and Canada

Darren Peacock, University of South Australia, Australia; Stuart Tait, The Le@rning Federation, Australia; Corey Timpson, Canadian Heritage Information Network, Canada


School-based users, both students and educators, have always been a primary target audience for museum on-line content. Museums and other cultural organisations have made significant investments in developing and disseminating content on-line to reach and engage these users. Yet despite the obvious logic of this connection, in practice it has proven difficult to build effective permanent bridges between the wealth of museum digital content and the classroom environment. While many individual institutions host outstanding educational content on their individual Web sites, this material may remain inaccessible or under utilised in a classroom environment due to technology and security constraints, or simply through lack of awareness or discoverability. We are yet to develop effective and sustainable supply chains of museum digital content from multiple institutions for use in classroom environments. In Australia and Canada two new national approaches to solving the supply chain problem have been developed by two agencies working with museum organisations to facilitate the flow of content into classroom environments. This paper examines the imperatives driving these initiatives and the lessons learned in creating an integrated national approach to developing digital supply chains for school-based users of museum content.

Keywords: schools, education, digital content, supply chain, museums.


The past fifteen years of the digital revolution have seen a transformation of cultural content and experiences through the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as the Web. These technologies have radically changed the types of content that are created and how it is distributed and used. The chains of connection from originating source to end user have been remade so as to be completely different from those of less than a generation ago.

The effects of these ‘disruptive technologies’ has arguably been most profoundly felt in the cultural and informational industries: news, entertainment and education. In the publishing, broadcasting and recorded music industries, the landscape has been completely reworked by the new digital supply chains and the business models that they enable (Benkler, 2006). Those content producers and providers that have not embraced new models for distribution on-line have been usurped or have withered where they stood. Think Amazon, publishers and book stores. Think iTunes, record companies and music stores. Think Netflix and video rental stores.

Museums have often been quick to adopt new ICTs, but generally slow to adapt to the deeper challenges and opportunities they present. There has been a wealth of experimentation but little systemic shift in how content is produced and delivered to key markets. The institutional Web site remains the primary delivery mechanism for museum on-line content, as it was 15 years ago. Collaboration between museums and other cultural institutions has supported multi-institutional sites and portals at the regional, national and sometimes international level, yet the stand-alone, institutional Web site remains predominant in the digital supply chain for museum content.

A dozen years have passed since people like David Bearman and Lyn Elliot Sherwood alerted cultural organisations to the imperative for new business models to support digital content delivery (Bearman, 1997; Elliot Sherwood, 1997). So where’s the hold- up? As the information and entertainment industries around us progress to ever more integrated, flexible and globalised digital supply chains, notwithstanding the impediments of copyright, proprietary formats and trade barriers, the museum sector is yet to achieve a basic level of integrated content distribution, much less one which encompasses peer memory institutions such as libraries and archives.

The Web’s promise of easy user access across multi-institutional repositories remains unfulfilled. While thousands of single museum shopfronts have emerged on-line, there is no simple point of access, no eBay or Amazon to broker, enable and stimulate supply and demand. In the absence of such integrated distribution, filtering and feedback systems, supply and demand - in this case for museum digital content - remain poorly aligned. As a result, would-be suppliers and potential users both lose out, as many of the possible exchanges of content and feedback never occur. A sustainable market for museum digital content can be created only when the digital supply chains joining these links are firmly established.

Aggregation and customisation are the keys to distribution in the digital era. With very few exceptions, the single museum Web site will probably always lack the range of content and level of customisation required to meet the needs of significant national or global market segments.

In recent years many museums have begun to distribute and co-create content via third-party Web 2.0 platforms such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Second Life. (Rothfarb and Doherty, 2007; Alexander, et al, 2008; Bernstein, 2008; Dawson, et al, 2008; Oates, 2008). These initiatives have shown that new distribution channels beyond the museum Web site reach a wider user base, increase content use, build user loyalty and engagement and may also attract traffic back to the institution, both virtual and physical. Web 2.0 platforms, with their rankings, ratings, tagging and recommender systems, also provide instantaneous feedback on how resources are being accessed, rated, circulated, interpreted and/or reused. Supply, demand, appraisal, utilisation and feedback are tightly linked, improving the responsiveness of suppliers and stimulating demand in a mutually reinforcing, ongoing dynamic. This is the essence of an effective business model.

While some of these initiatives have been targeted at particular user segments, often to engage new or hard-to-reach consumers, little progress has been made to date in developing extensive content distribution systems, based on sustainable business models, which directly service existing primary museum customers en masse. While Web 2.0 platforms provide a high pressure hydrant for distributing content, we still need to learn where to point the fire hose for maximum benefit, both for users and for museums.

In their recent book Thriving in the Knowledge Age, John Falk and Beverley Sheppard argue cogently that museums, “must consciously and deliberately develop business models for the new age in which we now live.” (Falk and Sheppard, 2006: 222). Further, they contend that,

the museum community’s strongest public role in this new age is as educator. [….] The ultimate mission, then, may be to use the institution’s assets to create the richest learning environments possible for as many people as possible. (226).

While these comments are primarily addressed to the physical museum space, such a focus is arguably equally valid for on-line spaces.

Given the imperative for explicit business models and the primacy of the education mission, what better place to start on the challenges set by Falk and Sheppard than with a business model for digital content that serves the needs of school-based users of museum services, a fundamental and abiding target customer segment?

The failure to establish effective and well targeted digital distribution systems for museum content is particularly apparent and regrettable in the case of school-based users, or potential users, of museum digital content and services. It represents a major unfulfilled opportunity to develop new markets, products and services and to transform institutional practice for the digital age. This paper explores how two countries, Australia and Canada, are progressing towards achieving a more systematic flow of museum digital content within classroom environments.

Why Schools Matter

School-age students, their teachers, parents and other carers represent prime, if not primary audiences for most museums. In countries like Australia, Canada and the United States, the school-age population represents around 10% of the total population. That’s about two million, three million and 30 million potential users respectively in each of those nations. Add the adults using the Web alongside those students and we are talking about as much as 25% of the total population.

For those institutions that receive significant public funding, school-based users also represent a key responsibility for museums, indeed a raison d’être, in the view of governments. They are also a significant focus for the investment of museum resources. According to a study by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) conducted in 2000-01, the 15,000 museums in the United States committed more than 1 billion dollars of resources annually to school age programs (IMLS: 2002).

There can be no doubt that museums and their funding agencies continue to consider educational users key to the success of their mission. As a target for museum on-line content, the value and importance of these users is difficult to underestimate. Moreover, there is a natural affinity and compatibility between schools and museums as well as long established patterns of relationship. As trusted sources of information and valued providers of experiential learning, museums are better placed to succeed in the marketplace of school digital content than their competitors. Similarly, schools represent perhaps the most promising and manageable market for museum digital content. All these indicators point to what should be a win-win scenario.

From piecemeal to pipeline?

Given these imperatives and opportunities, it is somewhat surprising that the digital supply chains between museums and school-based users should be so fragmented or underdeveloped. In Australia, for example, the demand for digital content resources from the nation’s collecting institutions, according to Russo and Watkins, “remains largely unrealised: [as a] lack of communication between cultural institutions and the education sector means that the significant demand pull that the secondary school [Years 7-12] could exert on cultural institutional ‘supply’ is only beginning to be felt” (Russo and Watkins, 2007: 153).

There is already some evidence of the low level of use of digital content from Australian cultural institutions within Australia’s classrooms. Research undertaken for Australia’s Online Ministerial Council in 2005 revealed that less than 2% of the content sourced on-line within Australian schools came from its cultural institutions (Collections Council of Australia, 2008). Clearly there is significant scope for improvement.

This failure to connect, to build the pieces into a pipeline, is the result of many factors. Problems at the supply end include institutional inertia, poor quality, unmanaged data and generally inadequate resources. At the consumer end, school users, or would-be users, are beset by a number of impediments, most of them not of their own making. Internet filtering and other restrictions on the free flow of content, teacher reluctance or resistance to using on-line content, and limited access to equipment or infrastructure all play a part. In a recent survey of 1100 Australian educators, respondents identified the following common barriers to using on-line technologies:

  • Poor access to bandwidth (41% of respondents)
  • Blocking or filtering of Internet content (40%)
  • Limited access to computers and Internet connections (21%)
  • Limited confidence or expertise (20%)
  • Lack of relevant resources on the Internet (12%) (, 2008)

The shifting sands of government decisions in educational policy and funding also create a complex environment, seldom conducive to co-ordinating on-line content initiatives across the jurisdictional boundaries that shape school curricula, priorities and resources.

There is also the ongoing problem of effective design of schools resources.

All too often, digital library developers create collections of resources in the absence of rigorous examination of educator and learner needs.[….T]eachers have very specific information needs relating to mastering the curriculum content and the behavioural structures of their classrooms for a diverse range of learners. (Mardis: 2009)

Despite the lack of systemic solutions, there are a number of extant and imminent initiatives that seek to address the problem of digital supply chains between museums and schools. Projects such as the Teaching with Digital Content in Illinois, funded by the IMLS (Bennett and Trofanenko, 2002), the Science Museum Collaboratory in San Franscisco (Kahn, 2007) and in Canada (Zilber and Marsh, 2007) all bring together resources from multiple institutions into on-line learning environments aimed at meeting teacher and student needs. The National Museums Online Learning Project in the UK, presented at Museums and the Web in 2008, also shows enormous promise, both in its scope, and also in its clear focus on particular user groups and a pragmatic approach to technological integration with museum back-end systems (Makewell, 2008).

Yet while cultural organisations get better organised, there are also emerging competitors in the on-line classroom space. In any marketplace, new providers will seek to fill the space of unmet demand. To circumvent the common prohibition of access to YouTube imposed in many schools, Google launched TeacherTube early in 2007 ( featuring peer-to-peer content sharing for teachers, including video, in an educationally oriented and ‘safe’ on-line environment. Such services will continue to raise the bar of expectation regarding what museums can offer educators on-line.

Two new approaches to the museum digital supply chain problem

Australia and Canada share a number of similarities: they are nations with indigenous and settler histories, they have populations that are similarly sized and widely dispersed geographically, and they have similar structures of government, where education is primarily delivered by state/provincial administrations, while the national government provides significant funding and policy directions. In both of the cases described here, a national government agency – in Australia, The Le@rning Federation and in Canada, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN) - has worked to facilitate the production and distribution of museum digital content for classroom use by collaborating with a range of museums. These projects and the work that preceded them demonstrate many of the structural, technological, content, design and organisational issues that need to be addressed to establish national infrastructure to connect museums and classrooms effectively.

This paper will discuss the two approaches taken and explore the issues, successes and future plans of these two initiatives. These examples and the learning gained offer potential models for other nations to develop sustainable, multi-institutional supply chains to support classroom use of museum on-line content.

Case 1: Collaboration between Museums and the School Education Sector in Australia

The Le@rning Federation (TLF) is a collaborative initiative of Australian and New Zealand national and state governments, established in 2001 and managed by the Curriculum Corporation ( The TLF develops digital curriculum content for use through school-based technology infrastructure at no charge. By June 2009, more than 8,600 digital learning objects will be available through TLF and distributed to all Australian and New Zealand schools; the majority of them have been developed in collaboration with the cultural sector.

The Le@rning Federation has also been responsible for facilitating agreements across education sectors on technical, intellectual property and metadata specifications to support the distribution of content. The initiative has developed infrastructure to manage the storage and distribution of content and recently launched a portal, Scootle for registered users ( Scootle has been enthusiastically taken up by teachers. Since June 2008, 12,000 teachers have subscribed and created 6,000 learning pathways that can be shared by others. During this six month period, 960,000 digital learning objects were viewed. When combined with data from other education portals, it is estimated that TLF digital curriculum content is being accessed more than three million times per month.

Since 2002, TLF has worked with Australian cultural organisations to develop and digitise museum, library and archival content to facilitate school-based access and use through the national TLF Learning Exchange and other state based content distribution systems. TLF has worked with a range of Australian cultural institutions to source and describe in curriculum terms more than 4 500 digital content items.

Our experience in working with museum-sourced content and observing its use by teachers raises some important questions about how to prepare and present such information. What, for example, is context, and how does it impact on the use and interpretation of items within museum collections? How does audience perspective influence the presentation of items, particularly within an on-line environment? What opportunities does an on-line environment allow for the contextualisation of museum objects based on audience perspective and requirements?

In 2007 The Le@rning Federation and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English worked with teachers to develop units for the teaching of English to students aged 14 to 18. The teachers primarily used on-line digital items sourced from Australian museums, galleries and libraries by TLF and participating institutions. The items (digitised images, film and sound) had been selected, digitised and described to support the Australian curriculum.

These digitised museum and gallery items, called digital resources, consist of a file of the digitised item and associated metadata. The file could be an image of a vase, a film of a horse race, or a recording of an anthem. The metadata consists of text that describes the item and its educational value, spatial and temporal information and copyright and permissions acknowledgements. To assist teachers to discover the content within the search engines of education portals and repositories, keyword descriptors are sourced from a thesaurus of educational terms and topics called the Schools Online Thesaurus developed by TLF.

A review of the English units reflects the diverse range of topics and curriculum perspectives, with titles such as “Advertising”, “Ballads in Year 9”, “Heroic endeavours and relationships”, “The Me Generation”, “Ordinary people can be extraordinary”, “Poets paint words”, and “The power of protest”. The unit, “How do we use language to persuade?” is described as “selected digital content is used alongside paper and web-based materials to support critical literacy development including persuasive techniques and analysis of point of view and bias” ( secondary_english_ideas.html).

Matching museum information with teacher needs

Given such diversity of topics, it would be very difficult for a museum-based educator, Web content manager or curator to anticipate and prepare for the specific requirements of each of these teachers. The digitised museum collection has open access and potentially empowers teachers and students to interpret the items beyond the context offered within the walls of the physical museum and the culture of the museum staff. A digitised collection, when presented with the appropriate tools and flexible access, enriches the value of the collection for a wider range of audiences.

The Le@rning Federation has worked with more than twenty-six cultural and public institutions identifying and developing digital resources for on-line distribution to Australian and New Zealand schools. Schools access these items either through portals developed specifically for schools, such as Scootle, or through the institutional Web sites. Initially, the process was labour intensive as The Le@rning Federation provided the resources required to develop the digital resources to the requirements of the Australian and New Zealand school curriculum. Increasingly, however, participating institutions took on more responsibility, with TLF providing support through training and quality assurance. The development process though remained external to the core digitisation and curatorial systems within the institutions, and hence, was not sustainable. A new solution was needed to streamline the content production process and better integrate with the workflow within the cultural organisations.

In a collaborative project with three of Australia’s major public museums: Museum Victoria (, National Museum of Australia ( and Powerhouse Museum ( and The Le@rning Federation, a pilot has been established to model more sustainable processes for museums to be able to meet the diverse requirements of the education community. Key to the model is to leverage the core processes of museums whilst focusing on the requirements of teachers and students. The principles underlying the pilot are that the digital resources are discoverable and accessible within a range of on-line environments and systems, that the items are relevant to teachers, and that the context in which they can be applied allows for the diversity required, as witnessed with the English teacher project.

To meet these objectives, the participating museums are reviewing their digitisation processes and knowledge management, particularly when it comes to managing the associated text accompanying the digitised item. There has been agreement between The Le@rning Federation and museums on metadata and technical specifications to ensure that the technology maintains the integrity of the data. TLF is supporting the museums through providing feedback on the quality and relevance of the metadata and information on the use of the digitised items by teachers and students. Finally, the pilot is investigating the pedagogical application of selected Web 2.0 tools such as chat, wiki and collaborative content creation.

Of interest to TLF is exploring and promoting pedagogical strategies when using Web 2.0 tools. Educators are continually encouraged to adopt the latest technologies, but little is shared on how to apply these within an educational context. Teachers are wary of adopting new practices unless evidence can demonstrate that learning was improved. TLF is working with teachers from 16 schools in this pilot to review the strategies they use to exploit the museum content and utilise the tools within Scootle.

One strategy is for teachers to set the scene for students through using deep questioning techniques. For instance, “Should bridges be designed primarily for their aesthetic or structural value?” In this type of questioning, there is no right or wrong answer, and students are encouraged to research and debate their viewpoints. Within the Scootle environment, groups of students will be able to discover, select and annotate relevant content, debate their viewpoints, and collectively present the groups’ findings. The teacher will be able to view each student’s input to the evolution and final version of the presentation. The Le@rning Federation will collate the teaching and learning strategies developed through the pilot for distribution to the education and museum sectors.

Figure 1 describes the architecture of the pilot where museums make metadata available to The Le@rning Federation using Open Search protocols, which in turn distributes the metadata to educational portals. For the purpose of the pilot, the portal developed by The Le@rning Federation, Scootle, is being used. Scootle’s search and browse interface allows teachers and students to discover digital resources using broader and narrower educational terms and topics, timelines and Google maps. Embedded Web 2.0 tools allow students to collaborate over their assigned work and for the teacher to review the collective and individual student contributions.

figure 1

Fig 1: The architecture of the collaborative pilot between museums and The Le@rning Federation describing the flow of metadata and feedback mechanisms

Challenges for the pilot are many and have exposed issues of knowledge management and quality, student engagement with the digital content, and teachers’ capacity to utilise on-line technologies through effective pedagogy.

One key finding has been the need to manage the information associated with a museum object, such as its acquisition data, significance information and curatorial notes and labeling. Participants have found that the voice for each type of information varies and rarely forms a coherent narrative when combined. The default practice for writing information about collection objects focuses on collection management and within the context of exhibitions. As yet, the practice of describing content for an on-line audience does not occur for the bulk of digitised items in museums. It is anticipated that the feedback mechanism from student and teacher use of the content will inform the museums on the best way to prepare the content for the schools’ education audience.

In an ideal world, teachers and students should be able to discover and use digitised content that is authoritative, relevant and presented in a way that allows them to engage with the content in the creative ways that good teaching and learning encourages. Museums are ideally situated to be key repositories of quality resources. In the transition between the physical and the digital collections, legacy practice and systems are being reviewed and aligned to support a more integrated digital production process. This pilot will inform this process, particularly when considering the requirements of two key audiences, teachers and students.

The findings of the pilot will inform further projects between the Australian school sector and museums. It has already shaped knowledge management processes within the participating museums. Australian museums are using this pilot to inform their own agreements on technical and metadata standards. The tools developed for this pilot will be made available to all teachers registered within Scootle.

Case 2: Virtual Museum of Canada’s Teachers’ Centre

In Canada, CHIN has established its Teachers’ Centre project as part of its successful Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) initiative ( The Virtual Museum of Canada is a portal that brings Canada’s rich and diverse cultural heritage into Canadian homes and schools. The VMC gives more than 1300 partner museums of all sizes and disciplines the ability to reach Canadians and an international audience via the Internet.

The VMC features a guide to Canadian museum services and events, as well as a repository of more than 600,000 digital artefacts. Visitors are able to view and interact with more than 500 on-line exhibits and games, create and manage personal museums, send electronic postcards, watch cultural videos, and listen to podcasts on a variety of art, natural science, and culture-based subjects. With over 50 million visits from more than 200 countries since its launch in March 2001, the VMC is now established as one of the world’s premier heritage gateways.

Through user testing and feedback analysis obtained from visitors to the VMC, it was determined that a significant number of VMC visitors were from educational institutions and had specific learning-based needs. These included students completing homework assignments and professionals doing research.

The VMC, since its beginning, has had the goal of showcasing Canadian cultural content. Evolving social technologies, Web behavior, and user expectations also made it apparent that new aspects and functions of the VMC would have to involve active user participation, contribution, and collaboration.

In 2007, CHIN created a new educational application for the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Teachers’ Centre. The Centre currently contains more than 360 Learning Resources and several Web applications allowing educators to create and manage virtual classrooms, create lesson plans, use communications tools like blogs and wikis, and share content with students and other educators.

Addressing the educational pursuits of our audience and actively involving them became the basic initial requirements upon which the new Teacher Centre application was created.

With the VMC Teacher’s Centre, CHIN has worked closely with 21 museum partners and many educators to create modular digital content items and associated learning objectives. Museums have contributed more than 1,800 digitized media files (image, audio, video, Flash, text) in the form of more than 300 Learning Objects. The VMC Teachers’ Centre application allows teachers and students to deconstruct the modular learning objects and create their own lessons with the museum content. Additionally, Teachers are able to set up virtual classrooms, create and manage student accounts, and use blogs, wikis and messaging systems to complete their virtual learning initiatives.

CHIN has worked with many educators in and outside of the classroom in order to create learning scenarios and lesson plans. The VMC Teachers’ Centre now has more than 430 registered teacher and student users.

Lessons learned from thirty years of service to museum education

CHIN has been helping museums to digitally expand their educational outreach for the better part of its thirty-plus year existence. Previous to the VMC, in 1998, CHIN launched Learning with Museums. This was an on-line tool by which museum professionals could catalogue virtual exhibits and highlight the educational content found within. They could also highlight pre-created lesson plans. General users (including educators, teachers, and students) were able to find the catalogued resources through a public interface. This Web application facilitated the dissemination of cultural content to an audience with specific education-based needs.

In 2006, CHIN started planning the new Teachers’ Centre. This involved defining high level business requirements and eventually a broad concept. In order to advance our thinking, we ensured the projects CHIN undertook at this time also contained specific educational components. One such project was Massive Change in Action, based around the Massive Change exhibition created by Bruce Mau and commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. CHIN created a supplemental project working with Bruce Mau, the Toronto District School Board, and several teachers and classes.

This project allowed us to begin defining what a learning object would be; how on-line activities could be structured; how learning resources could be used by teachers before and after visits to the exhibition; and as well to address several other conceptual aspects regarding what our virtual learning environment might be and how it might be used.

Following Massive Change in Action, we finalized our definition of a “learning object” as a stand-alone entity that can be coupled and decoupled in multiple ways to create various learning or training scenarios. Every learning object must contain specified learning objectives. We also further defined the concept for our virtual learning environment in preparation for it to eventually become the new Teachers’ Centre. This led us to launch a project in collaboration with six art galleries from across Canada. We asked the galleries to provide us with their ideal learning objects based upon our definition. This project was very revealing in that what we received differed enormously from one institution to the next. The six learning objects varied greatly in size, depth, technologies used, level of interactivity, and intention. While all six learning objects contained very valuable educational content, none of them could interoperate with the others. This project provided us with something to consider and discuss, and really helped us determine how to go about structuring and assembling content.

Founding principles for the Teachers’ Centre

The research undertaken over the previous years taught us many lessons.. These lessons became fundamentals upon which our new Teachers’ Centre application would be constructed.

We recognized the need to better address the education-based needs of museum audiences. We also knew the importance of allowing our audience to truly participate. This led to the first founding principle of our project: “learning by doing”. Museum educators needed to be able to create their own learning objects, educators needed to be able to create their own lesson plans, students needed to be able to create their own projects, and all these people needed to be able to interact with one another.

We also understood the need for standards. Every aspect of the project would be based on standards – technical, methodological, and content-based. As we wanted users to be able to couple and decouple museum-contributed content, standards in structure and technology were crucial in the development of interoperable learning objects. Additionally, as we wanted people to be able to find content and have it reflect their expectations, then metadata and content creation standards were also required.

Research and development project: Agora

Originating from the Greek word for “meeting place” and with the “go” in Agora branded to reflect active participation, the VMC Teachers’ Centre’s new research and development project, titled Agora, was underway by the end of 2006.

Agora's two main components were a Web application for museum professionals and a Web application for educators and students. The Learning Object Input Template is a tool that was created to facilitate the interoperability of learning objects. Rather than burdening museums with innumerable standards, we created a system that allows museums to upload content, fill out metadata schemas, and produce content that can easily be broken down and reassembled by educators and students.

Every piece of content, which we call a “media file”, is combined with metadata based on the GCED standard. This is the Government of Canada Education Standard based on Dublin Core and Cancore profiles. The implementation of metadata compatible with universally accepted metadata standards allows for interoperability of our content with other e-learning initiatives (such as provincial curriculum-based initiatives to disseminate educational content to school boards, undertaken by the Governments of Ontario and New Brunswick). Museum professionals upload files, fill out form fields, and save their work, all on-line. Once content has been entered by the museums, the resulting learning resources are published by the application for use by educators and students.

The “Learning by doing” theme is central to the public aspect of Agora as well. The Virtual Classroom allows educators to create student accounts, manage classes of student accounts, and use a variety of Web communication tools. The heart of the application, however, is the content aggregator. This is what allows educators to save museum created content, in whole or in part, and reassemble content (from a variety of sources) into personally aggregated lesson plans. User-created content can be added to these compositions as well. These lesson plans can then be assigned to classes and shared with other educators.

Validation and evolution

From Agora’s earliest conceptualization through design and development, CHIN has been conducting testing. These activities included consultations with CHIN members and advisory groups, concept testing, usability testing with teachers, usability testing with students, formal focus groups with teachers, formal focus groups with students, technical testing, and user acceptance testing with teachers, students, and museum professionals. From all of these activities, feedback was compiled, analyzed, and used in order to tune Agora into what users wanted and expected.

Once construction was complete, and many policy and business issues resolved (such as handling copyright, access and registration of minors on-line, and content moderation) the soft launch of Agora took place in the fall of 2007. It was launched as a research project and was not fully integrated in the Virtual Museum of Canada. This was done so that the third phase of the Agora project could begin: the applied research phase.

With Agora live on the Internet, CHIN undertook many different testing and use scenarios in an attempt to determine how the new VMC Teachers’ Centre would take shape. While this was taking place, public users were free to use Agora, and this provided us with even more relevant data.

The differences in teaching methodologies, technical support, and technical aptitude between schools and teachers are phenomenal. As such, the first applied research activity CHIN undertook was the use of Agora by teachers in the classroom. From simply printing out learning objects to full virtual use and distance education, this process provided excellent insight into the variety of ways in which Agora could and would actually be used. At the end of this research activity, teachers were asked to fill out questionnaires, and again the feedback received was excellent. No matter how great the iterative design and testing method was during the construction of the application, very valuable technical and user requirements for the next release of the application emerged through this process.

After the in-class testing, CHIN undertook several other activities. Heuristic evaluations of the application were completed by usability experts, researchers, and teachers. Information sessions and demos took place at conferences - both for museum professionals using the input template and for teachers and students using the public application. In the past few months, CHIN has also started hosting webinar sessions. The first was directed at teachers, but more are planned for museum professionals as well as students.

In the past year of evaluation, these activities have produced excellent feedback in the form of both criticisms and validations. The data that has been developed has been compiled and analyzed, and a plan for evolution has been put in place. At the same time, new users of the application have been steadily growing in numbers so that there are now more than 500 registered users, while museum content contribution to the system has become a formalized process that has evolved based on feedback as well.


Some of the lessons learned through the in-class testing are not related to general usability or technical concerns. One issue was our use of nomenclature. Educators and students often use different terms than museum professionals in reference to things like “media files”. How we would address this took careful thought and planning since the input template of our application was designed for use by museum professionals, and the public virtual learning environment was addressed to educators and students. One global standard for nomenclature is not enough.

Within the virtual classroom, the two main tasks are finding content and using content. The use scenarios revealed a disconnection between the two tasks. This is something that hadn’t been revealed through any previous testing but was confirmed when a larger number of people actually started using the live product. We had to bring the two activities closer together so that they became part of the same task. Users could find content as they were constructing content aggregations.

Another lesson learned has been the use of third party software. Many teachers and students have their own blogs, use their own e-mail, have Flickr accounts, etc. While our system provides these services, many users would prefer to be able to integrate the software solutions they are already using. We are currently designing the Teachers’ Centre to be a more open and interoperable system, yet at the same time continuing to adhere to all the intellectual property, copyright, and privacy constraints we have to abide by and which are often stricter that those held by private industry.

The New VMC Teachers’ Centre

The evaluation phase of Agora is now complete, and the research and development project titled Agora has ended. The application has been validated and is being brought into the VMC as an official product. Its first real evolution (in software terms) is currently underway. The spring of 2009 will see the launch of a redesigned, re-conceptualized Virtual Museum of Canada, complete with a newly integrated VMC Teachers’ Centre application.

Evaluation and evolution of the Teachers’ Centre will, however, not cease. CHIN has several use and testing activities planned in order to continue to better meet the educational needs and expectations of our audience. In fact, based on the lessons we continue to learn, the next planning phase of the Teachers’ Centre evolution is already underway.


The purpose of this paper has been to stimulate discussion about the best models for improving the distribution of museum digital content for school-based users. The examples here show some of the dilemmas, obstacles and possibilities in building integrated and sustainable digital supply chains to support this relationship. In both instances, a national government agency – in Canada, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, and in Australia, The Le@rning Federation- has worked as a broker in the relationship between museum producers and school-based users, for the benefit of all parties. The new distribution and feedback systems they have created are still in their infancy but show great potential. Of course, these are not the only, or necessarily the best, models for all nations. However, they do demonstrate the capabilities of integrated systematic approaches to deliver content on the industrial scale required by the education sector, but with suitable levels of customisation and flexible functionality.

What the two cases presented here demonstrate is that:

  • Integrated and efficient digital supply chains for museum schools content are viable;
  • Sustainable business models for museum digital content need to span multiple institutions;
  • Agreed standards for content design and interoperability are critical;
  • There is a high degree of variability in the way teachers use on-line content;
  • The needs of educational users of museum content are highly diverse;
  • Effective teaching and learning requires the capacity of teachers and students to create and engage with the content;
  • Digitisation of content broadens access and use of museum collections, and a flexible publishing model will account for audience expectations and other museum requirements;
  • Cross sectoral partnerships are necessary to stimulate change.

The challenges for government policy makers and educational administrators are to:

  • Support significant investment in digital content distribution systems that are based on sustainable business models;
  • Foster cross sectoral projects to challenge default practice;
  • Provide support for teachers to investigate new pedagogies that will exploit the technologies young people access;
  • Overcome the technical and administrative impediments that inhibit access to on-line museum content;
  • Establish feedback processes to inform museums on the use of their digital content in schools.

The challenges for museums are to:

  • Realign their priorities and work practices and consider the audience early in the supply chain;
  • Establish processes and culture amongst staff that encourage the flexible use of digital content that Internet users expect;
  • Understand the technical and educational context of the schools sector;
  • Ensure copyright permissions allow for flexible use of content within an educational setting;
  • Understand that to support wider use, museum digital content must be able to be used in a range of non-museum contexts.

The rewards for establishing sustainable digital supply chains for museum content for school-based users will be significant and long-lasting. Not only will the interests of quality, variety and efficiency be served, but the new interactions between producers and users made possible through systematic feedback will also spur greater creativity and innovation. Conversely, the costs of continued failure to forge these connections in an integrated and systemic way will be borne by both the museum and the education sector. Investment in distribution systems such as those described here will ensure that both sectors do not miss out on the potential synergies streamlined production and distribution systems offer to fulfil their missions in the digital era. The projects presented here show the emergence of a new approach that will enable the much anticipated potential of museum digital content for school-based users to finally be fulfilled.


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Cite as:

Peacock, D., et al., Building Digital Distribution Systems For School-Based Users Of Museum Content: New initiatives in Australia and Canada. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted