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June 29, 2021

ICOM VoicesTurning a Pivot Into a ‘New Normal’? Online Teaching and Learning with Digitised Collections in Higher Education Contexts

Catherine Eagleton and Kamila Oles, Maria Economou, Neil Curtis and Lisa Collinson, Susannah Waters

University of St Andrews, University of Glasgow, University of Aberdeen, Glasgow School of Art

Key words: Online; Teaching and learning; Digitisation; Collections; Higher Education; University.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one for which neither museums nor universities were prepared. Nonetheless, many have been able to digitise and create digital content, supporting a dramatic shift to online and hybrid teaching and learning by universities. A group of University Museums in Scotland is working together to research this shift and to learn from it for the post-pandemic future.

Challenges in teaching online with collections

A report by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) in July 2020 showed that less than 20% of museum collections were available online, and that educational use and providing metadata for researchers were the leading goals driving collection digitisation, at 76.27% and 66.10% respectively (NEMO 2020). During the pandemic, there was unprecedented demand for digitisation of collections, which has not only accelerated longer-term change in the museum sector (for example, see Europeana ENUMERATE Core Survey 4), but has also led to a greater move towards using online collection resources to complement face-to-face teaching longer term. This, it is hoped, will improve learning experiences and support remote access to world heritage resources and education.

To make these investments sustainable and relevant, an assessment of digital engagement with objects in Higher Education is an essential part of our understanding. There is a growing body of research on collections teaching methodologies and on the ways in which digitised objects offer distinctive experiences for audiences and for those working with them, but this has only partially been applied to the specific case of university teaching and learning with collections. Good practice case studies that exist have not hitherto been synthesised in a way that allows for these lessons to transfer easily into practice.

Online teaching and learning with digitised collections using an online storytelling tool from The University of St Andrews: © The University of St Andrews

Global contexts

The International Association of Universities (IAU) Global Survey on the Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education around the World (2020) indicated that the pandemic has triggered a shift in mindset by exploring the potential of flexible learning as well as greater acceptance of online teaching as an integral part of Higher Education. These findings are particularly relevant, not only in circumstances where climate change and sustainability are likely to alter the travel ability of students and researchers    according to IAU in Europe, Covid-19 has estimated the impact on international student mobility at 95%    but also when there is an urgent need for democratisation of access to Higher Education and educational heritage resources.

However, not every museum has had the same opportunities to pivot to digital delivery during the Covid-19 crisis – according to a UNESCO report, only 5% of museums in Africa and Small Island Developing States have offered digital content during the pandemic while the IAU reports that only 29% of African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have managed to quickly move to teaching online. Remote access to digital resources can assist and support students everywhere, but especially in regions where online access to remote high-quality Higher Education could be strengthened by increasing not only the availability, but also the accessibility and discoverability, of these collections held in museums, libraries and archives.

Digitised Charter by Baillies of Newburgh to John Vallanage.

New approaches to the ‘new normal’ in Higher Education

The University Museums in Scotland (UMIS) is a group of nine university museums. Putting the collections of these nine museums together, they total more than 1.8 million items, including 32% of Scotland’s history of science collections, 24% of its fine art and 18% of Scottish world cultures collections, and they are of importance not only nationally within Scotland, but also globally. The nine UMIS museums are of very different sizes, scales, funding levels, and capabilities, and have a range of approaches to collections-based teaching and learning. During the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, members of UMIS met regularly to share information and support each other. Building on their discussions about teaching and learning online with collections during the pandemic, they secured research funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council to carry out detailed research in relation to online collections teaching and in turn provide support to museums and universities across the UK and globally in their planning for teaching with collections in the post-pandemic future.

The aforementioned IAU Global Survey shows that 67% of HEIs were able to move to online teaching, but the impact of this shift in teaching with collections, both on teachers and learners, and on museums, libraries and archives, is not yet clear. Therefore, the Online Teaching and Learning With Digitised Collections in Higher Education Contexts project will look at the existing research and combine that with case studies based on experiences of teaching and learning online with museum collections during the pandemic. It will investigate the pivot to online delivery of collections-based teaching and learning, identifying gaps in skills, tools and infrastructure, and considering what steps the sector should take next. Case studies and reports will be made freely available by UMIS, which we hope will be able to guide and support museums everywhere in developing their collections work and teaching practice.

Visual representation of unstructured text data from the project preliminary word frequency cloud.

Ultimately, this research project is using the pivot to online teaching forced by Covid-19 to understand what is currently possible and what future investment would be needed in order to deliver the best possible online teaching and learning experience with collections. We hope this will empower new approaches to teaching and learning, prompting greater uptake in online, remote, as well as blended and hybrid learning with digitised collections. We believe that learning from and sharing ideas and best practice with each other as we all plan for the post-pandemic future of museums will be vital.

Online Teaching and Learning With Digitised Collections in Higher Education Contexts project website:

Partners of the Online Teaching and Learning With Digitised Collections in Higher Education Contexts project:

References and resources

Network of European Museum Organisations. 2020. Final report. Digitisation and IPR in European Museums, pp. 3-4 and 8- 9. Available here 

Marinoni, G. van’t Land, H. and Jensen, T. 2020. IAU Global Survey Report. The impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education Around the World, pp. 23-27. Available at:

UNESCO. 2020. ‘Museums Around the world in the face of COVID-19’, UNESCO report. Paris. Available at:, p. 4.

Van den Heuvel, W. 2017. ENUMERATE Core Survey 4. Available at:

Fennis, J. (ed.) Culture 24. 2020. ‘The digital Transformation Agenda and GLAMs. A Quick Scan Report for Europeana’. Available here