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University Collections as a Tool for Teaching Multimedia Literacy

Dr. Cornelia Weber
Humboldt University at Berlin
Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik
Unter den Linden 6,
10099 Berlin, Germany.


In today's world the rapidly growing use of digital media demands adequate multimedia and information technology skills. Students without sufficient media literacy are often in need of further training. University collections provide a setting particularly suited to teach these much needed skills. There, students can take advantage of the many opportunities to employ various techniques (digital photography, Web sites and databases for example) in real-life projects of long-lasting value. At the same time university collections profit from the fresh ideas and appealing Web sites created by the students. Last but not least, students develop a genuine interest in the collections.

University Collections

University collections have always been assembled in view of a particular purpose. Traditionally, the founding of a collection was frequently accompanied by the founding of a new academic discipline or department. For example, we are acquainted with the "apparatus" for the viewing of material by the lecturers, study collections as working tools for research, teaching collections for the education of the students, and collections with devices and instruments for the realization of experiments. As long as a collection fulfills the original intended goal of its foundation, it will usually be recognized by the university as an aid for teaching and researching and consequently will be supported. As soon as the original goal of a collection ceases to be applicable, however, the collection is relegated to the domain of the meaningless and in the worst case scenario it is dispersed. Consequently, the purpose is fundamental and intrinsic to a university collection - only the purpose legitimates its existence. (Of course there are exceptions, such as collections connected with a famous scientist, commemorative & artistic objects related to the history of a given university.) Recently, the issue of a collection's purpose has become problematic for many colleagues. As soon as a collection loses its original purpose, it becomes difficult to convince administrators to maintain the collection and to continue supporting it financially. Often the only choice that remains is to develop a new role for the collection. Many collections or objects could for instance be used as evidence for the history of science and document the development of a particular subject. Or the collections could become "windows into science", aimed at the public understanding of science and of the humanities. Since universities compete with one another, collections and museums could serve to highlight differences between them and the creation of a distinct profile for a given university. In any case, what usually happens during the search for a new function is an orientation towards established collections and museums outside of the academic sphere. The result is the forced abandonment of the distinct character of the university collection in favor of the traditional museum concept.

The Application of New Media

At the Humboldt University in Berlin we are attempting to adopt a strategy that is specific to our university and are testing new possibilities to integrate collections sensibly into university life. Above all, we offer interdisciplinary courses, for instance in the context of a general course of studies. One of the many possibilities is the use of the collections as a tool for teaching media literacy.

Our everyday life - both private and professional - is being increasingly defined by digital technology. Today, computers are used throughout the university setting. Digital cameras are used instead of snapshot cameras for photographing objects from our collections, which has the advantage of pictures no longer being developed and categorized. Instead, pictures are saved on hard disks and within seconds made available to other persons and departments, often comprehensively categorized with the help of media management systems. Databases replace in many instances the painful and time-consuming index card work - from the simple administration of literature to the wide-ranging documentation of collections. The application of new media in research and teaching requires scientists and students to possess skills and competencies which usually, at least in Germany, are neither adequately developed nor adequately conveyed. In the case of university teaching this is particularly evident. Multimedia projects, which are often developed for teaching purposes and supported by government funding, cannot be realized as planned due to the absence of important pre-requisites, namely basic knowledge of the new media. Indeed, teaching these abilities is not frequently included in the curricula of a university. However, a certain level of competency in media technology is absolutely necessary in order to bring digital media into the areas of teaching and research.

In the university, not all departments are ready to adapt to the utilization of the new media. Individual disciplines are therefore thankful when this mission is centrally organized and realized. Here resides an unique opportunity for university collections to assume additional and extremely important functions within the university. In this way, their position will be consolidated and enhanced. At the same time, the interest of the students for the collections will be reawakened.

Teaching Multimedia Literacy

Currently, at the interdisciplinary Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik1 at the Humboldt University, one course and one complementary tutorial is being offered every semester in the area of general studies. The themes include "The Application of the New Media in Cataloguing and Presenting Collections", "The Use of Multimedia in the Sciences" and "Learning Museums on the Internet". The Teaching and Learning Center of Multimedia at the Humboldt University is paying for the tutor costs. Currently, the Multimedia Center is supporting numerous projects which are improving the application of new media in research and teaching. Additionally, it is funding the required digital equipment. For the time being there are numerous possibilities to get financial support for multimedia projects inside and outside the university.

The goal of the courses is to convey vital knowledge for a competent interaction with new media in an exemplary way, aided by collection-specific subjects. In view of this goal, the material basis of the university collections plays an important role. Below are a few examples from the course "The Application of New Media in Cataloguing and Presenting Collections":

Internet, WWW and Multimedia:

Museum Presentation:

Collection Management:

Multimedia applications, Web presence, collection management - these concepts all belong to the daily business of the collection staff of today. Why shouldn't this valuable knowledge be passed on to the students? And if this special knowledge is not incorporated in the collection, one can work together with a colleague, for instance from the computer science department.

Other, more general aspects that play an important role in contemporary daily life could also be included in this framework, for instance:

Insights into current practice are offered by an accompanying tutorial in which the students develop multimedia techniques through qualified teachers and by working on their own projects. Students will also be able to practice presenting scientific information in different new media:

There is more than enough material for practical projects in the collections. Ideally, students will have fun creating Web sites for collections or objects, perhaps even associated with the preparation of a paper. Often students are searching for an exciting subject to create a Web site and are thankful when they can work on a real-life project of long-lasting value. In this way, university collections can profit from fresh ideas and appealing Web sites created by students.


1. University collections can be placed into a completely new context and eventually play new meaningful roles in the university.

2. The recognition of collections as important teaching tools in the university creates in the long term a deeper appreciation and support for collections from lecturers and students.

3. A one-time chance is being offered in classes dealing with new media:

It goes without saying that a good scientific collection serves primarily as the basis of the corresponding academic discipline and this is a valuable goal in itself. Everything else can and should be recognized as additional benefits. In this case, the advantages for both collections and community are clear. Let us not waste this chance! Let us offer our collections as tools for teaching media literacy and give the community the opportunity to support us.


1. Unfortunately, the translation cultural technique does not carry all of the connotations present in the German term Kulturtechnik.

© September 2003
Dr. Cornelia Weber