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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Enhancing K-12 Access to Digitized Cultural Heritage Resources through Adaptive Systems Technology: Findings from an Exploratory Research Project

Besser Howard, Sheila Afnan-Manns, Dale Ann Stieber, Dominique Turnbow.

Do different user groups have different ways of accessing and using information? To what extent must diverse users adapt themselves to singular, one-interface systems, and in what ways does this impede access and use? Will a system that adapts to a user's age, knowledge level, and other characteristics improve access to and use of cultural information?

In a perfect world, the backend architecture structuring digital information would be accessible through multiple user interfaces that support the literacy levels, technological capabilities and other characteristics of different user groups.

To explore this issue, a research design was developed to compare a one-interface system with an adaptive system that would provide three unique interfaces for 4th graders, 12th graders, and their teachers. A partnership was established with the California Digital Library (CDL) for several reasons: their Online Archive of California offered a robust system for usability testing and potential scalability of the research findings; their California cultural heritage content was well suited for the K-12 population of interest in this study; and, CDL was equally interested in improving K-12 access to their rich repository resulting in a mutually beneficial partnership.

However, several obstacles impacted the feasibility of the original research design, including inconsistent metadata resulting from a federated repository with no resources for retro-cataloging as well as changes in CDL's backend delivery system that undermined the capacity for pure comparison in an adaptive systems research paradigm. The research design was therefore modified to test an equally important question for cultural heritage resources: that is, the effectiveness of the finding aid for broad user access. In spring 2002 a set of 4th graders and a set of 12th graders were pre-tested by administering to them a usability test to find information through the existing finding aid interface. Findings from the pre-test together with relevant literature informed the development of a prototype interface. Post-testing was conducted in fall 2002 to compare the effectiveness of the finding aid with the prototype in accessing cultural heritage information for 4th and 12th graders.

Creating broad access to digital collections implies significant collaboration across different communities. In many ways this research project serves as a case study to inform real world practice beyond the empirical findings. The findings, however, support the need for further research into adaptive systems technology as a way of shifting the burden of successful access away from the specific characteristics of diverse user groups and onto the functionality and design of flexible information systems.

For the first time, digital technology offers the opportunity to provide broader democratic access to the world's rich cultural heritage repositories that has been historically limited to scholars and other elite users. There is growing interest in providing access to these collections to the K-12 community to support progressive pedagogical models centered on critical thinking and project-based learning. However, the findings of this study confirm that in order to realize the goal of broader access, users cannot be expected to adapt to print-based models of information control. Finding aids provide an excellent example of one community's historically determined way of describing information that was developed in a print world but that does not translate well to digital format if broad access is the goal.


Besser Howard  (United States)
Associate Professor
Department of Information Studies, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

Howard Besser is Associate Professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies where he teaches courses and does research on digital longevity, multimedia, image databases, digital libraries, intellectual property, instructional technology, and the social and cultural impact of new information technologies. He is Co-director of the Pacific Bell/UCLA Initiative for 21st Century Literacies and currently on leave from UCLA to develop a Masters Degree program in Moving Image Archiving at New York University.

Sheila Afnan-Manns  (United States)

University of California, Los Angeles

Dale Ann Stieber  (United States)

Dominique Turnbow  (United States)

  • Adaptive systems
  • User centered design
  • Cultural heritage
  • Information system design
  • Usability testing
  • Digital collections

(60 min Workshop, English)