March 2010: In East Texas, the TIDES Bring Digital Resources to Students
At the turn of the 21st century, access was a problem for people in East Texas who wanted to learn the history of the area – and for teachers who wanted to teach about it. Museums and cultural societies had limited visiting hours, and none of their collections were online.
To make historical resources available on the Web, the Ralph W. Steen Library at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches launched the Texas TIDES Digital Learning Consortium project in 2002, funded by a state grant. The Library worked with five local museums, libraries, and archives to start a digital collection of resources – documents, photos, and oral histories – focused on East Texas history. The resulting Web site contained lesson plans for fourth- and seventh-grade history teachers, more than 10,000 digitized primary resources, and a fully searchable database.
In 2005, the Library received a three-year, $570,000 National Leadership Grant for Libraries to expand the Texas TIDES digital collections and develop interdisciplinary learning communities.
Serving the K-12 Community
The TIDES (Teaching, Images and Digital Experiences) project focused on two audiences: K-12 educators and students, as well as colleges and universities.
During the grant period, most of the Library’s efforts revolved around the K-12 audience. The TIDES team worked with 20 schools in East Texas, hiring teachers to create lesson plans, training teachers to use the digital resources in the classroom, and providing cultural resources in the form of virtual expeditions and bilingual material.
Partway into the grant, the Library discovered that what teachers really needed was Hispanic cultural content, to connect with the growing population of Hispanic students and have them participate more in class. To get that content, the Library created partnerships with four Mexican schools, sent some East Texas teachers to Mexico, and had Mexican teachers come to East Texas.
"We worked with K-12 teachers in East Texas and in Mexico and really brought them in and got them involved," explained Rachel Galan, Associate Director for Library Information Services at the Steen Library. "So they were involved in virtual field trip creation and they created lesson plans for the classroom."
Seven Texas teachers participated in nine Teacher Expeditions over the course of the project. These included trips to Mexico as well as to local institutions, such as the Tyler Museum of Art and the Caldwell Zoo.
The Library also formed two Curriculum Development Teams of teachers who used material in the TIDES collection to create lesson plans. One was an art teacher, which turned out to be a plus, because the local school district had slashed or totally eliminated art programs in elementary schools.
"Having an art teacher on board who could add that component into lesson plans that the subject area teachers were creating got everybody very excited," said Galan.
The Library gradually expanded the TIDES Web site, adding science and world history resources and creating portals for each type of user – teachers; elementary, middle, and high school students; and university folks.
"We did a lot of that work ourselves," explained Galan. "We went out, we photographed, we did the metadata. We didn’t ask institutions to do that work."
The Library worked with small, local institutions, such as the Piney Woods Native Plant Center and the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, because the larger collections were being handled by the University of North Texas and the University of Houston.
"When we brought in teachers from Mexico, that really opened the door to all of that Mexico content and cultural content that is available now. And as the graduate students got involved, they started adding content and their fellow graduate students and their faculty were more willing to get involved at that point and add their own research collections. So it just kind of snowballed person by person," said Galan.
In addition, the team experimented with social media, including Facebook and Twitter. The Digital Projects director writes a blog and the team is building a Flickr site for photographs.
Educators Surf the TIDES
The results were incredible. The Web sites received 31 million hits during the grant period and the TIDES database now hosts more than 22,000 primary source images and documents, 222 videos, and more than 200 lesson plans.
Beyond the numbers, the Library’s ability to keep TIDES going may be the most important result. Galan noted, "I think the sustainability of the program is most significant, because now we can really continue to look at the needs of the community, the university community and the local community, and build on what we started. And we have a really great staff."
The Digital Projects team includes a librarian, a library metadata specialist, an educator, and a database manager.
Another key result was that teachers reported a new connection with their Mexican-American students and increased openness from them.
"I think the biggest impact on the community was really in bridging that kind of cultural divide that is in the classrooms now. We took teachers to Mexico and they came back and shared with their schools, and parents were excited and the Hispanic kids started opening up and talking," said Galan. "And it really bridged, for the teachers and the students, that divide."
Challenges and Lessons Learned
During the grant period, the Library had three directors and Galan was moved to a new position, heading up a new department – Digital Projects. The changing leadership and job shuffling presented a bit of a challenge.
"There was lots of administration and staff movement, but once we got the Digital Projects department established, we had money – and a place – to bring students in. So students started contributing work and getting really excited about the community piece and working with the schools," said Galan.
One big lesson was that the Web site needed to have separate interfaces, or entry points, for each type of user.
"What we realized is the availability of the material is just a minor thing. I mean it really has to be user focused. The whole Web interface to get in, the metadata that’s used with the collections, how you guide them to what they want to find. So each individual user group needs its own individual access," she said.
The team also learned that teachers will participate in an online community only if they are required to. Initially, the Tides Learning Community that the Library set up for teachers barely got any use.
"The teachers aren’t comfortable at all in that realm. So I wrote it in their contracts that they needed to get involved. And then we started posting weekly discussion questions to get them talking, and that helped," said Galan.
Another lesson was that the greatest community needs may be apparent only once the project is underway.
"We thought we knew what the needs were in the community, I mean we did focus groups and needs assessments and we thought we had a good grasp on it, but the greater needs we didn’t really discover until we were in the project," said Galan.
Working with the University
After the IMLS grant ended in 2008, the Library made sure Digital Projects was fully staffed and also migrated TIDES to a new database system. The project’s next steps include integrating TIDES at the university level and creating a community-access portal.
"We are creating the framework to create an institutional repository here at the university, which will be really that research portal that was underdeveloped in the IMLS grant," said Galan.
She continued, "We’ve gotten involved in a couple other big grant initiatives on campus, and one of them is a National Park Service grant, a Preserve America grant. And that’s allowing funding to create that community Web interface into the collections."
New partnerships within the university continue to blossom and many people are getting excited about adding their research collections.