In February 2020, Northumberland Archive received a £5000 grant from The Collaborate and Innovate: Archives Testbed Fund to run a pilot digital learning project.
The initial aim was to develop an interactive learning platform with digital learning resources to be used by schools, families and lifelong learners, showcasing four core topics from our collections – Crime & Punishment, the Victorians, First World War and Second World War.
Our archives service at Berwick has run a successful education service for many years, however we didn’t have this at our Woodhorn base and were keen to develop our educational reach county-wide. Since Northumberland is a geographically huge county, we wanted to do this in an innovative way that would provide schools with access to archival resources in their classrooms. Most importantly, we wanted archives to become part of schools’ learning and to raise their profile as an important resource for cultural heritage.
We aimed for the topics to be cross-curricular, relevant to key areas within the National Curriculum across Key Stages. A lot of curriculum research went into the early stages of the project to find out which core topics are studied by different year groups and where that would cross over with our collections.
We planned to work collaboratively with schools, who unfortunately closed for the remainder of the academic year mere weeks after the project launched. However, this coincided with the uptake of digital learning and the increased need for digital resources, showing the value and benefit in what we were trying to achieve. Having now spent over 12 months relying heavily on e-learning and digital resources, this will likely impact the way that teachers and the learning community will expect to find resources moving forward.
Nine schools from across Northumberland, along with two lifelong learner groups, took part in virtual focus groups to influence the direction of the platform and resources. Six of the schools hadn’t worked with archives previously. This not only gave teachers the chance to introduce students to new content, but also to introduce themselves to new ways to access cultural resources.
Teachers were keen to emphasise local heritage in national topics, particularly those looking at the First and Second World Wars. Using resources relating to people from their local area allowed to create a real-life context for their students. This was echoed by students in feedback sessions. Cross-curricular practical learning, stretch & challenge, developing inference skills and thinking like a historian were also important to teachers.
We developed a wide range of cross-curricular resources for each topic. Crime & Punishments covers the Medieval period up the 20th Century and includes documents relating to witchcraft; criminal wanted posters; information on prisons and reformatories. Victorians includes photographs, and documents relating to the workhouse and child employment. First World War includes photographs of and correspondence from the trenches; propaganda posters and content relating to women and the home front. Second World War includes oral histories; diaries; and pamphlets about air raids. The resources are available as webpages on the LEARN platform, as well as downloadable in Word and PDF format.
Each resource has a context written about the document followed by between 1 and 3 sets of activities. Each activity set is broken down into a See, Think, Do format.
See promotes comprehension. To answer these questions, students must read the context and scan of the document.
Think promotes stretch & challenge. The students take what they’ve answered in the See section, and expand on this to include inference, bigger concepts and wider research.
Do expands on this further and promotes practical learning activities, extended writing and research tasks. There is also a resource section which provides links to external websites for suggested additional research or support connected to each activity.
Because of the challenges of lockdown, we were unable to connect with schools the way we originally planned. Initially, we aimed to launch the project in three schools per half term for three half terms to test the content in the classroom. The project took place in three schools during the Autumn term, and remotely in two schools during the Spring term.
Since the students couldn’t visit the archive, we developed videos including an overview of the archive and a 25-minute ask the archivist video responding to children’s questions.
A real challenge was finding ways to engage with schools in real-time. This has definitely been a learning curve but a useful one. We have tried video calls talking to multiple classes for Q&A sessions, and working with individual classes for activities such as quizzes and creating human bar charts. We would definitely recommend only working with one class at a time.
Developing the digital platform has been a steep learning curve for us. Everything has been designed and developed in-house using WordPress. This suffered several delays, so participating schools were sent PDF copies of the resources to use with their students. We are now gearing up to launch the LEARN platform at the end of April 2021.
Creating content is an ongoing endeavour providing a lasting legacy for LEARN. Along with adding additional videos, item loan boxes, and galleries, we are actively developing additional topics – mining; cookery with performing arts company November Club; photography with Berwick Photocentre; and diversity with Heritage Schools and Historic England.
We’ve found the project to be a resounding success despite the challenges. The benefit of the Testbed funding is being able to try new ideas without the pressure to succeed. This has paved the way for a national audience to access local and regional content, which thanks to a great deal of curriculum research, is applicable in schools across the country not just in Northumberland.
Megan Wilson, Northumberland Archives Project Officer.