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UT Austin’s Learning Technology Center helps Native American children gain access to virtual tour of Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The Learning Technology Center in the College of Education has helped Native American children create a virtual tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

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AUSTIN, Texas—The Learning Technology Center in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin has helped Native American children create a virtual tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The tour, which features panoramic photographs of museum exhibits, was unveiled on the Museum’s World Wide Web site at http://www.conexus.si.edu/VRTour.

The Learning Technology Center has provided technology assistance and training to Native American schools through its partnership in Four Directions: An Indigenous Education Model, a technology project funded by a U.S. Department of Education Challenge Grant for Technology in Education. The five-year project helps 19 isolated schools overcome their remoteness and preserve their cultural traditions by providing training in the use of computer and telecommunications technology and its integration throughout school curricula.

It has received Government Executive magazine’s national award for outstanding and innovative use of technology. The project is managed by The Pueblo of Laguna Department of Education. Other partners include the University of Kansas, the University of New Mexico, Haskell Indian Nations University, Research and Training Associates, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Dr. Paul E. Resta, director of the Learning Technology Center and principal investigator of the UT partnership, worked with the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to develop the virtual museum project. Students from two of the Four Directions schools, Santa Clara Day School, a Pueblo school near Espanola, N.M., and Nah Tah Wahsh Private School Academy, a Hannahville Potawatomie school near Escanaba, Mich., were chosen to travel to the museum in New York City to work on the virtual tour last spring.

NMAI has the world’s largest collection of Native American artifacts and is a national leader in museum programs that promote the indigenous heritage of the Americas. Before going to the museum the students on the teams pored over the museum’s exhibition catalogues to select several objects they wished to research and digitally display in the virtual tour.

The virtual tour makes extensive use of QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR), a new digital medium that uses photography to create virtual spaces that may be explored and virtual objects that may be manipulated on the computer screen.

Recent advances in affordable digital cameras and software have made QTVR practical for use in elementary and secondary education. Mark Christal, a Learning Technology Center researcher, has trained Four Directions teachers and students in the use of QTVR and has developed a web-based QTVR tutorial for educators available at http://www.edb.utexas.edu/teachnet/qtvr. The student teams were trained in the use of digital cameras and QTVR software before arriving at the museum.

Marty de Montaño, director of the NMAI Resource Center, coordinated the students’ work at the museum. Museum staff had to carefully remove the chosen artifacts from display cases and place them on turntables to photograph them as QTVR object movies. Students also shot QTVR panoramas that enable visitors to tour the museum and virtually pick up and examine the featured items from the museum displays.

Other students researched and wrote essays on the objects, assisted by the NMAI Resource Center staff, many of whom are Native American and were able to supplement the Center’s information with personal knowledge of native lore. For example, two Seneca staff members were able to explain the significance of the feathers and headband used in a Seneca headdress. The students also were helped by Four Directions researchers Dr. Loriene Roy, Amy Stout and Sebastian Hierl.

The Virtual Tour of the National Museum of the American Indian includes 19 QTVR panoramas and 26 objects. This spring another Four Directions school will go to New York to expand the contents of the tour, and a new virtual museum project will partner the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona with two Navajo schools and one Pueblo school.

The Four Directions project will continue to facilitate museum/school collaborations for the creation of virtual museums as a culturally responsive teaching strategy by locating regional museums willing to open their collections so that students may “digitally repatriate” cultural objects invaluable to their communities. The virtual museums these students are building will help preserve their cultural heritage for future generations and give the world a glimpse of Native American cultures through the eyes of native children.