Cooperative Learning, Interaction, and Creation in a Networked Educational Environment: Organization and Access for Multiple-Cultural Users

Christopher Zegers
University of Michigan, USA

M. Sam Cronk

We hope that this presentation will bring to light how certain archival principles of description and organization, coupled with the evaluation of the information found in cultural artifacts, can benefit networked information services for research and education. Emerging out of a community in the making, there is a sense that there is little communication or cooperation between efforts, an overshadowing of the complexities brought to the virtual fore by the very nature of cultural products, and, in turn, an all-too- frequent occurrence of what many librarians, archivists, and museum curators lovingly refer to as "stuff."[1]

The Musical Heritage Network is an example of a collaborative educational service community in a networked environment. The mission of the Network is to serve as a distribution center for ethnomusicological materials that can be used in physical and virtual classrooms. The Network is responsible for organizing materials created in-house and donated in the most efficient and dynamic scheme possible so that educators and students have resources for learning and teaching; resources more immediately accessible than ever before. Access, in light of the fact that materials will come from a wide range of sources, covers a wide range of topics, is in a variety of formats, and is much more complex than meets the eye. We hope that this paper will elucidate the issues needed to be addressed so that more cultural initiatives can be realized and developed in progressive ways. In addition, we intend for our analysis to be applicable to collaborative projects outside of ethnomusicological education.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the teaching process in itself is going through problematic times. Schools around the continent are continuously faced with larger budget cuts, which become manifest in textbook shortages and high teacher-student ratios. It is not difficult to associate the lack of access to valuable information, via textbooks, and the lack of time evaluating and assisting each student with low test scores, low graduation rates, and the overall disinterest in education expressed by many students. However, the project in which these authors are involved is not claiming to solve problems with textbook, student-teacher relationships, and student interest. Instead, this project serves as one model for future classroom resource use which will assist with the teaching of culture through music. As an inevitable side effect, this project pushes the boundaries of how networks have been used and how multimedia can be integrated into curricula.

How do we approach and incorporate cultural products in digital initiatives? How do we avoid transforming cultural materials into static collections devoid of any context?

These are the questions we are faced with at the Musical Heritage Network, and they are in essence the same questions cultural theorists, anthropologists, historians, ethnomusicologists, museum curators, and archivists have battled with throughout the twentieth century. How culture is represented is a problem that technology is not likely to solve without the help of scholars and without the consideration of existing traditions of organization and access. Certain archival and museum description and organization practices can be applied to developing virtual repositories. However, the multiple cultural nature of the repository/network necessitates a deconstruction of what information could exist in the multimedia materials in order to use any organizational foundations. This deconstruction must consider what data values exist in each artifact and where the data lie in the overall structure so that contextual information will be retained. In this way, what needs to be created is a proactive descriptive and organizational system, much like ones electronic records archivists are proposing. [2]

Of what value are the materials?

From an ethnomusicological perspective, the transfer of sound, artifact and idea into a print or electrified medium is nothing particularly new. And there is a proliferation of emerging theoretical perspectives that frame such content-oriented issues as cross-cultural dialectics, multiple community access, and the authority or marginalization of individual and community voices--issues that do in fact relate directly to materials presented on the web and other forms of mass media. Although we rarely speak of data values or document type descriptions (DTDs) in these professions, as artists, musicians, and educators we do address many of the same challenges in effectively providing access to context-rich materials.

To remain viable on the web, information must be relevant and accessible at many levels to many users. Of course, the longevity/success of a particular database is not ensured by the quantity of indexable, cross-referenced fields of information for a given entry, or exclusively the choice of software, programming or technology we manipulate. But what digitized information is relevant, and for whom? We suggest that these questions are particularly challenging for education-oriented websites that are not intended to archive or market products for a specific target audience.

The overarching goal of the Musical Heritage Network is to engage and sustain interactions among a new virtual community interested in diverse musics and cultures. This ideal can and should be realized as a kind of ongoing dialogue among information providers and website users. Rather than fitting all text and media into a single EuroAmerican-oriented classification scheme, our challenge is to create a database flexible enough to encompass multiple fields of information and the varying emphases that diverse cultures place on these materials--essentially, a structure that is capable of expanding and contracting as needed. Of course, no site can be all things to all people, but in this rapidly expanding virtual network, it's important to provide alternatives to static electronic filecabinets.

In terms of musical instruments, it is useful not only to encode a soundfile, an image, dimensions and organological structures; we also include fields that may be uniquely significant to a particular instrument or musical culture. What makes a harpsichord relevant to most web-browsers is not its quill mechanism or double keyboard action, but rather its function in society as a decorative medium important for the social upbringing of young ladies of a specific class and era. Alternatively, Ojibwe (First Nations) musicians might value the symbolically decorative color scheme or materials of hand drums more than their sonic qualities, and may request that images of such instruments not be included on the website out of respect to their religious practices. Sometimes it's the blanks in the database--what we choose to leave out--that can be the most relevant, the most informative about musical traditions.

How do we represent these values?

In an effort to standardize information exchange, archivists working with the Berkeley Finding Aid Project set forth a standard generalized mark-up language (SGML) DTD written specifically to handle the exchange of information inherent in archival finding aids.[3] Briefly explained, all of the sections of a finding aid (title page, biographical/historical note, scope and content notes, container list) are tagged and all of the data elements within these sections are tagged according to information they provide (place names, people's names, organizations' names, subjects) and where they are in the structure of the finding aid (scope and content, container, box, series, subseries.) This tagging makes the data elements searchable, and when retrieved, the user is shown in what context the data exist. By setting this standard, archivists hope to boost the dissemination of detailed descriptions of collections. While MARC cataloging and dissemination of catalog records through RLIN and various NOTIS systems have broken important ground in the archival arena, the information found in a finding aid is often what researchers need to examine to know if the collection will be useful to consult.

Museum curators are also looking for standard ways to structure data about their collections. They are faced with a more difficult task, in that they do not have finding aids or any equivalent that organizes descriptive information according to a hierarchy, nor are there any standards for data structures and data values as there are when using MARC. Speaking for the Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI), Joseph Busch explains the nature of museum information, pointing out the necessity for descriptive practices to represent the variety of values of each item and the multiple possibilities for its relevance to research. He writes:

There are many forms of museum documentation from wall labels...similar to object exhibition catalogs and other types of publications which are much more complex. Such published (and unpublished) documents are very complex, including a lot of textual information broken up into discreet sections, as well as figures, charts, references, and often many black and white illustrations and color plates. For such a diverse set of materials to be able to be transformed into a coherent information resource, a cultural heritage database, the cultural heritage community has a basic underlying problem to develop ways to talk about and think about this diverse set of types of materials in a common way.[4]

The CIMI-sponsored project, Cultural Heritage Information Online (CHIO), has proposed a DTD to standardize the exchange of two particular "genres of source documents"--the exhibition catalog and wall labels.[5] In addition, their efforts have identified two necessary components for the dissemination of complex documents: use of authority files and mediated search capabilities.

The documentation plan they have put forth, briefly explained, calls for the tagging of information in exhibition catalogs and wall labels according to what values each piece of information holds. Dates, place names, people's names, material names, subject-access points, and other designations are all tagged. The contexts in which these elements are tagged (a chart, a wall label paragraph, a list) are also represented by tags. All of the elements within these tags will correspond to their appropriate authority files. The search process gives the user the opportunity to search according to the wide range of data values defined in the DTD. Their intention is that a controlled vocabulary search will facilitate retrieval of information relevant to the informational values deemed necessary for the search.

How does the dissemination of information about physical collections via artifact surrogates relate to the management of a collection of digital artifacts?

The most obvious answer is that it points to a need for online resource centers to invest time in detailed description of the materials they are presenting. Descriptive practices are essential to having any large body of materials available and accessible. Using SGML as a descriptive tool not only encourages adherence to descriptive standards, it allows for information found in records to be identified more accurately and precisely and related to each other in more dynamic ways.

As the question implies, the models put forth in the archival and museum communities do not completely relate to the needs of a multimedia digital resource network, in the fact that these models are designed to disseminate document surrogates rather than actual documents. Document surrogates will be created, but they will be attached to each digital artifact, enabling search results that will retrieve a long or brief description of the artifact values as well as the actual artifact.

Considering the variety of media formats and data values that will comprise a collection of ethnomusicological materials, a new DTD is being written to reflect the ways in which this information will be useful for research and education. This DTD will not be entirely original. Like the museum DTD, it will be based on the generic Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) framework, which provides a "reasonable set of tags without excessive overheads" to ensure that it will be possible to communicate with the museum DTD as possibly another "genre of archival materials."[6]

Corresponding to the DTD will be a cataloging form in which controlled vocabulary descriptive data will be entered for each sound, video, graphic, and textual artifact. These cataloging records will be attached to each digital artifact. When they are retrieved, users will not only see the artifact at hand, but will also be given information that will help them understand how the artifact relates to the rest of the collection and to the rest of the retrieved items. This useful information is much like what electronic records archivists refer to as "meta-data,"--information about information presented in order to compensate for the lack of contextual and relational information inherent in digital storage.[7]

The search form will resemble the data entry form, giving the user the opportunity to search according to the various values of the artifacts. For instance, a search could be made for video material made by people in Nigeria about the musical relationships between marriage ceremonies in Nigerian cultures and Ethiopian cultures. In addition to retrieving the seminal video work on this subject, other related video materials will be retrieved, videos dealing with marriage ceremonies, Nigeria, Ethiopia. If the search is broadened to include materials other than video, the primary items retrieved will be any images, text, or music relating directly to the search variables, followed by other related materials in descending order of relevance. The search variables will ultimately allow researchers to draw relationships between materials in the collection that are unforeseeable as the collection is developing. This takes the burden of representing the dynamic nature of the growing collection away from the cataloger, archivist, or collection manager. In archival terms, this proactive approach to collection development is the only way the changes continuously occurring in the system will be documented for descriptive purposes.

Creating dynamic, proactive models for multicultural websites requires effective communication among many players: academics, musicians, programmers, archivists, educators, designers, all parts of a team that at times co-exists more comfortably on paper or in virtual settings than in a media lab. But the issues we all address are directly related--how to create an accessible and resilient database that meets the changing needs of a diverse community of users. We hope that our discussion provokes questions if not answers at this forum, encouraging a richer discussion of network structures that encompass multidimensional perspectives.


[1] Busch, Joseph A. "SGML for Cultural Heritage Information." URL: Busch explains, "Increasingly, museums are mounting these digital files on World Wide Web sites at low cost and without adding much value to them other than minimal hypertext linking....While museums are quickly creating a public face, the problem of searching these multiple, distributed resources is not being solved simply by putting more "stuff" up on the web."

[2] Bearman, David and Margaret Hedstrom, "Reinventing Archives for Electronic Records," Electronic Records Management Program Strategies (Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics) 1993: 82-98. Other authors include Terry Cook, Jo Ann Yates, Luciana Duranti.

[3] More information can be found at

[4] Busch, Joseph A. URL:

[5] Busch, Joseph A. URL:

[6] Busch, Joseph A. URL: For more information on the DTD, consult Richard Light's "Getting a Handle on Exhibition Catalogues: The Project CHIO DTD," at URL:

[7] Bearman, David. Electronic Evidence (Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics) 1994: 240.