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A Golden Heritage Online: Interactive teaching and learning about heritage places

Michael Ots
Heritage Victoria

A Golden Heritage Online poster


A Golden Heritage Online has been designed as an interactive resource based upon a Heritage Victoria travelling developed to the discovery of gold in 1851. This paper outlines the context of the project and reviews the findings of a student survey designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the web site as an online educational resource. It will consider how digital technologies can provide students with learning experiences based upon web interactivity.

The paper will argue that the issues of web site architecture, interface and navigational design are significantly related to effective student engagement and online instructional design. Intuitive student awareness of web interactivity is identified as a key element influencing student acceptance of online educational resources. These issues are considered within the context of the study of history, student awareness of heritage significance, the design of 'virtual space' and the development of a web-based approach to interactive learning.

Cultural organisations, online delivery and education

A range of studies have recently examined the delivery of online resources by cultural organisations. Lee Adendorff, in his paper Joining the dots : Museum trails and online cultural tourism, has considered how web-based projects may be conceived as a means of promoting online tourism. In his discussion of the online project, Art Trails through Victoria's Regional Galleries, Adendorff described how visitors to the web site can preview six trails through art galleries with each including a short summary of historical and geographic context. Other sections provide virtual reality panoramas and descriptions of galleries, collections and local communities. While recognising that
'the technology allows us to add several layers to the user experience that would not be possible in two dimensional formats',
he also concedes that a significant challenge remains when considering
'the intelligent fusion of intuition and cognitive thought ....with the excitement and creativity generated by the 'new ways' of showing'.
Jennifer Condon, National Informatics Director with Enterprise Ireland, has suggested that organisations utilising digital technologies may be differentiated on the basis of creativity, culture and innovation.
'The challenge will be to find how we can work together, learn from each other, to maximise the potential for digital opportunity'
Kevin Sumption, in his paper A critical analysis of change management strategies for cultural portal development - a case study of Australian Museums On Line, has provided some of the most interesting recent reflections on the dynamic between web interactivity, cultural organisations and the education community. Outlining the range of cultural heritage portals within Australia, Sumption highlights the key importance of educational audiences for all organisations considering the future development of online projects. In particular, he refers to the recent Australian Museums and Galleries OnLine (AMOL) initiative - Discovernet - which provides access to all web based education resources produced by museums and galleries for 8 to 12 year olds.

When considering the nature of their audience, he has suggested that different users may require different navigational and content interfaces. He argues that organisations should

'embrace approaches that allow you to utilise the interactive potential of the web. These are the experiences that allow users to customise the way they access and ideally contribute to your portal ...It is ultimately activities that promote an exchange of information between portal and user which sustains interest and encourages repeat visitation'


To evaluate the effectiveness of the online exhibition as an educational resource, two sets of educational support materials were introduced to two school communities - a Grade 6 class and a Year 9 Australian history class.

The educational resources designed to accompany the online exhibition were developed as 'exhibition trails'- a series of analytical questions and activities designed to measure student understanding of the themes raised in the exhibition. Each 'exhibition trail' draws upon the observation, description and comprehension skills of students through a series of questions and activities. In evaluating student understanding, the trails were designed to measure factual knowledge, awareness of cause and effect, understanding of chronological sequence as well as considerations of the concepts of 'heritage', 'significance', 'cultural value' and 'symbolic meaning'. They included examinations of visual material, 'mix and match' exercises, multiple choice questions, comparative exercises and short writing activities providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate historical empathy.

The 'trails' address learning outcomes in the Victorian Curriculum and Standards Framework 2 (CSF 2) Key Learning Areas of English, the Arts and Studies of Society and Environment. The Teacher Advice materials accompanying the trails identify the relevant learning outcomes at Levels 4 and 6. They also include specific reference to the relevance of the online exhibition for those studying 'Outcome 2: The Gold rushes' within the VCE Australian History course (Unit 3, Area of Study Two - The Colonial Experience: 1850-1900). An extract from the VCE History Study Design identifies the associated Key Knowledge and Key Skills.

At the completion of these sessions in each school, two focus groups of eight students - one Primary, one Secondary - volunteered to complete a survey examining their impressions of the exhibition. The survey comprised ten questions which addressed a range of themes including :


The architecture of a virtual space

Within a virtual world, the possibilities for discovery appear to be without limit. The pathway into the space may be common, but as each new virtual threshold is crossed the parameters for movement seem to disappear. The possibilities for exploration appear to be without frontier.

As many students entered A Golden Heritage Online, the potential offerings of the virtual space - conveyed through the opening animations - established for many a sense of anticipation. Once within the exhibition, students were often keen to establish a sense of the framework of the virtual environment. While new themes and images continued to appear with the touch of a 'rollover' button, students clearly entered an orientation phase in their experience of the virtual space. At this time, they quickly glimpsed a variety of areas within the site and trialed a single pathway through a theme and into the sub-themes before returning to the 'home' page.

At this point within their visit, the importance of understanding the structure of the 'home' page assumed precedence in the minds of many students. This page was designed as a composite of four elements :

This on-screen design format was developed to provide for full flexibility within the navigational structure. Visitors could proceed through three levels within each theme - from a 'theme contents' page, to a 'text and thumbnail images' sub-theme page, to a series of enlarged images of heritage places with accompanying explanatory captions. If the visitor wished to move away from a specific heritage place and explore an associated sub-theme (or another theme altogether), each option was available from the keywords and phrases located on the horizontal bar and vertical column. If the visitor wished to return to the full exhibition contents page, this could be easily achieved with a simple 'click' on the 'home' button.

It also appeared to be very important for students to have an understanding of the 'base level' of information. At this level, the historical themes of the exhibition were related to a selection of key heritage places. This was the 'arrival point' of the virtual journey - discovering how an historic building, lighthouse, railway bridge, water system, public garden, shipwreck or archaeological site related to the study of the gold rush and colonial society. At this point, direct connections were being made between heritage places and their cultural significance. Being aware of the 'three level cascade' structure exhibition - from theme, to sub-theme, to heritage place - meant that the visitor could then experience a sense of 'arrival' before proceeding off on their next chosen virtual journey. While this navigational structure had not been outlined in writing, the successful journey of discovery to a point of arrival had been achieved in an intuitive manner.

As the text is being read on a screen rather than within a book, information clearly relating to the selected theme and associated visual material is highly valued by a young audience. Relevance, brevity and clarity of expression are often seen as the touchstones of an effective web page. When the visitor has arrived at their selected destination, the outcome needs to be viewed as worthwhile and satisfying. The text needs to specifically address the theme under consideration, a 'thumbnail' image needs to lead to an attractive full visual display.

Intuitive awareness

After they had established a sense of the parameters of the virtual space, many students clearly displayed an intuitive awareness of interactive multimedia devices.

For many surveyed, no written explanation was required describing the function of a 'pop-up' dialogue box or a 'rollover' flash image. Students were aware that buttons, keywords or phrases which slightly increased in size at the touch of mouse provided the opportunity for further exploration. If the cursor changed from and arrow to a pointing hand, they were aware that they could 'click' and move further into the selected area of the exhibition. Toolbar features already in place within the web browser - in particular, the 'back' and 'forward' arrow buttons - were used freely by many students to assist with navigation. If difficulties were being experienced with the reading, some students would simply 'click and drag' to highlight a selected passage and improve the visual clarity of the text.

The desire for engagement and heightened experience

Students were also very attracted to interactive devices that featured visual 'transformation'. The introductory sequence of animations - which included a 'zoom' image of the Heritage Victoria logo and sponsorship acknowledgments - created a cinematic quality that appeared to be most attractive for many students. At the main entrance page to follow, the automatic sequence of visual transformation changed to a single page with six boxes and a single word, 'Enter'. Each of the boxes featured a rotation of three images - each representing a different heritage place. At this stage of the introduction, it was anticipated that students would pause before entering, enjoy seeing the range of images and anticipate some of the content of the site.

Upon choosing to 'Enter', students were then presented with an introduction outlining the context of the exhibition, appearing as a 'drawn curtain' of text moving across the screen from right to left, with an historic picture fading and forming a 'watermark image' behind the text. At this point, all visitors would have experienced a common 'entrance' pathway into the exhibition. After choosing to proceed further, the range of themes within the exhibition were presented for selection on a contents page designated as 'home'.

Many features of the exhibition seemed to provide students with a heightened experience of engagement. Aware that the functionality of their mouse could activate various dynamic features within the site, students were keen to explore the interactive elements of the text and the visuals. When they had discovered that a 'rollover' image would gradually fade up into view upon touching a keyword or phrase, many explored as many sub-themes as possible, glimpsed the associated visuals and wanted to 'see what happens if we go here'. Many others also enjoyed the transformation which occurred when they would 'click' on a cropped thumbnail image and proceed to see a full and enlarged view appear on screen.

The inquiring mind

While many students found the engaging multimedia elements and design features of the exhibition attractive, they also displayed a discerning awareness of the distinction between 'surface appearance' and 'valuable depth' within the web site. They valued a contemporary web design, yet they also appreciated the opportunity to extend their own investigations beyond a single level of content. It was the belief of many students that both style and content made for a good web site or online exhibition.

In their survey responses, many students displayed a keen desire to extend their knowledge of historical themes. Their inquisitive interest in exploring heritage places was also matched by a preparedness to enter unfamiliar linguistic territory. It was agreed that the reading level of the exhibition text was clear and accessible to a wide audience. At the same time, some words or concepts occasionally presented new challenges for those with a more limited vocabulary. As their interest in the content of the exhibition increased, many students seemed very pleased that the exhibition was written in a 'mature and challenging' manner. They were quite prepared to offer suggestions for 'learning aids' (such as a glossary), extend themselves and then gauge the level of their new understanding through quizzes or evaluation exercises.

The learning imperative

Students widely approved of the 'exhibition trails' featured within the education resources. The division of the trails into a series of theme-based questions enabled many students to feel secure in the knowledge that a selected 'virtual pathway' would lead to an actual answer. While independent investigations were encouraged, students were not abandoned to the depth of exhibition content without the guidelines provided by the 'trails'.

At the same time, in addition to the familiar structure of answering different types of questions, many expressed a keen interest in completing activities with an enhanced interactive element. These recommendations included games, puzzles, 'hands on' tasks and word-searches as well as 'virtual tours' and 'tour guides'. Other recommendations for evaluation activities included quizzes, questionnaires and multiple-choice questions. In this respect, the learning imperative was of paramount importance for many students. They had clearly displayed an interest in educational materials that provided:

A sense of the past: heritage places and historical imagination

No single section of the exhibition had made explicit reference to the importance of protecting and conserving heritage places. At the same time, this understanding was the unifying element of the exhibition. Built heritage - post offices and hospitals, cultural institutions and schools, lockups and court houses, mills and landscaped gardens, bridges and railway lines - were each viewed in terms of the transforming nature of the gold rush upon the development of colonial Victoria. They each were presented as places retaining elements of the past within their fabric and context.

These attitudes towards the value of heritage places were reflected in a range of different student responses. Some students displayed a sense of engagement with heritage places due to their personal familiarity with a particular site. Others recognised the significance of heritage as key reference points and defining elements of metropolitan, regional and rural communities. The responses of these student reaffirmed the value of heritage as places for cultural tourism. Many clearly demonstrated a strong commitment to heritage places regardless of location or personal identification. These students conveyed an understanding of heritage as being those places reflective of a shared past. Within this context, they exhibited a strong belief in custodianship based upon a sense of collective inheritance


In evaluating the effectiveness of the web site as an interactive educational resource, the student survey provided a series of insights into student perceptions of web interactivity, their own preferred learning styles, their understanding of historical themes and their awareness of heritage issues.

Web site architecture, interface and navigational design each played a significant role in maintaining student engagement and providing for effective interactive learning. Students valued a virtual space that provided freedom of movement within an established online framework of themes, keywords and matching phrases. It was also important that the 'arrival point' of the virtual journey established direct connections between historical themes and heritage places. This was facilitated through a clear 'three level cascade' structure within the exhibition - from theme, to sub-theme, to heritage place. Students valued relevance, brevity and clarity of expression as the key elements of effective web design. Many also displayed a clear intuitive awareness of the interactive multimedia and were attracted to devices that featured visual transformation.

When asked to consider their own sense of the past and the significance of heritage, students expressed personal attitudes and values that considered the importance of heritage protection and conservation. A belief in custodianship and shared memory was also reaffirmed in the minds of many students. In this manner, the study of the heritage places within A Golden Heritage Online had provided students with a heightened sense of historical empathy through examinations of the 'actualities' of another time and another place.


The following papers were delivered at the OzeCulture : Getting it Online Inaugural Conference held in Melbourne in June 2001. The Conference was organised by Federal Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

Adendorff, Lee, Joining the dots: Museum trails and online cultural tourism.
Condon, Jennifer, Enterprise Ireland.
Sumption, Kevin, A critical analysis of change management strategies for cultural portal development - a case study of Australian Museums On Line.

Please cite as: Ots, M. (2002). A Golden Heritage Online: Interactive teaching and learning about heritage places. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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