Distance Learning in Texas Archaeology
I first learned of Candice Cravins’ excellent work in Distance Learning at the Institute of Texan Cultures from a post on the Public Archaeology Interest Group’s Facebook Page. A quick tour of their Distance Learning site shows that Candice and the Texas folks are doing some very impressive work. She generously agreed to an interview to talk a bit more about her experience and perspective on Distance Learning.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at the Institute of Texan Cultures?
I received my M.S. degree in Archaeology and Cultural Resource Management from Utah State University in 2014, where my thesis research explored object- and STEM-based strategies for teaching archaeology to children in a museum setting. Prior to my arrival at the Institute of Texan Cultures in October 2014, I served as the Educational Programs Manager at Utah State University’s Museum of Anthropology.
As an Educational Specialist for the Institute, I wear many hats! I am primarily responsible for developing and leading distance learning programs for K-12 students, writing and coordinating online educator resources, developing and posting content for department web and social media pages, and planning and leading professional development workshops and family programs. I also assist with school group tours and community outreach events.
How do you see online education opportunities as a bridge between formal education curricula and museums?
Online education opportunities can serve to enhance the classroom learning experience by connecting the intangible with the tangible, providing real-world experiences that help bring textbook concepts to life. As funding for field trips dwindles and emphasis is placed more on developing math and reading skills than on social studies and the arts, museum professionals and K-12 educators alike are looking for new ways to bring the museum experience to the classroom. Virtual field trips, online exhibits, Google chats with experts, games, and other online learning opportunities provide the means for teachers to access museum resources without ever having to leave their classrooms. Museums are well-suited to provide these hands-on learning opportunities that teachers need while at the same time support classroom learning standards and objectives.
What do you consider your most successful recent efforts in public outreach and community engagement?
I consider one of my most successful recent efforts in public outreach to be the launch of our new TexEdventures distance learning programs – virtual tours designed to bring the museum experience to the classroom. When I arrived at the Institute in October 2014, I was tasked with producing and implementing a new distance learning plan designed to bring engaging learning experiences to K-12 students throughout the state of Texas. Prior to my arrival, the Institute had been delivering distance learning programs using IP H.323 protocol videoconferencing technology. Equipment and services were costly to maintain, and programs could only be booked and delivered with the service and support of a technology service provider housed out of a regional Education Service Center – rural, Title 1, or nontraditional students and their teachers often had limited to no access to these programs. In moving forward with new programs, I first wanted to be sure all students and their teachers would have better access to our programming. To me, this meant that programs would need to be free of charge, require minimal technology (i.e., a computer or tablet device with speakers and an Internet connection), and be easy to set up and maintain by a team of one here at the Institute. My main goal for the program was to take things that were already successful onsite and deliver them in a virtual way. I wanted distance learning sessions to be live, individualized, and interactive, giving students the chance to direct their own learning experiences.
We piloted our first new distance learning program, Can You Dig It? Adventures in Texas Archaeology last May using Adobe Connect web conferencing software and an iPad on our exhibit floor. It was a hit with teachers and students both near and far. We have since expanded our offerings and now feature programs on Native American lifeways and how to use primary and secondary sources in the classroom. We plan to further expand our offerings to feature one-time only webinars on special events and even take the technology outside to incorporate some of our outdoor living history exhibits! More information on our programs can be found at www.texancultures.com/distancelearning.
Any recommendations for the cultural heritage professional looking to begin online learning projects?
Think big, but start small! First take a look at what museums, cultural institutions, and other nonprofits are doing in your region and state. What appeals to you most about their online learning programs? Could you and would you want to do something similar for your organization, and how would new online learning projects help fulfill your organization’s mission and meet outreach goals? Have a clear plan in mind for your project from the very beginning – it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all the technology out there, so narrowing in on exactly what you wish to accomplish is key. Do you want to build a website or start a blog? If you work in a museum, do you wish to recreate the field trip experience for K-12 students online? Do you want to build an online course for adults interested in archaeology? Once you decide what you’d like to do, determine whether or not you have the staff and funding to accomplish your project. Develop a plan and timeline for your project. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things, and don’t think that your project needs to be something completely new and groundbreaking – simple is often better to start, especially for those who have limited experience working with technology, work with small budgets, and often juggle multiple projects at the office. Much of what I know now about educational technology and online learning was learned on the job – Google really is your best friend!
One of the first “smaller” projects I tackled when I arrived at the Institute was developing a plan to manage our department’s social media pages. Spending a bit of time each day developing and sharing new educational content on Facebook or Pinterest does wonders for increasing community interest and engagement – if used correctly, social media platforms can be powerful tools for online learning. Take advantage of free online tools, such as Canva, to help you create eye-catching images for your social media posts, and don’t overlook the subtle power of an iPad in creating engaging video content! The possibilities for what you can do for free are endless.
For more information, contact Candice at Candice.Cravins(at)utsa.edu