Alexandra Milyakina (University of Tartu)

Using Digital Cultural Heritage Sources for Education on Screen

Whereas digitization of cultural heritage is in itself a difficult mission, building an effective framework for using digital resources is even a more challenging task. Lack of awareness is an important issue, since a lot of potential users simply do not know about available materials or do not understand how to use them. Moreover, given options do not always meet the demands of the audience. This problem is essentially relevant in the field of education: while thousands of new digital resources appear every year, educators still struggle to find quality materials for their needs. Education on Screen developed by a team of semioticians of the University of Tartu aims to offer a step towards a solution by building a connection between digital humanities and  school. The paper describes the experience of the team in using digital cultural heritage sources for education on the example of three platforms – Literature on Screen, History on Screen, Identity on Screen.

During the last decades Estonia has made a huge step in digitizing the resources and services. Despite a lot of effort that has been put into this field, many quality resources do not make their way to schools. Another problem is that the digital resources are not united in a coherent system. Disintegration can be seen as a general problem of culture, which is characterized by the abundance of fragmented, heterogenous and random texts. The ability to build coherent narratives on the basis of numerous pieces has become a crucial 21st-century skill (Jewitt 2005: 329). Education on Screen provides a framework that helps to build connections between different cultural texts and integrate different types of content. At the same time, it aims to promote digital literacy among teachers and students, as well as to introduce quality digital resources to schools.


From the perspective of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, a capability of self-description, or autocommunication, is seen as the most universal feature of any culture (Лотман 2000: 172). The capability of culture for autocommunication depends on the diversity of cultural languages. The more a text has been interpreted and mediated, the more strongly is it tied to the culture. For instance, films, illustrations, reviews, advertisements, annotations, interviews and other meta-texts based on a literary work can be regarded as autonomous pieces, but also they constitute a textual system. Repeating a story across different sign systems is culture’s way of remembering and increasing the meaningfulness of a given text; it is “a central technique of acquisition and preservation of knowledge” (Ojamaa,Torop 2015: 62). Thus, even the most profane retellings help to bring attention back to the prototext, enrich the cultural heritage and maintain its status.

The overarching goal of Education on Screen is to support cultural coherence and autocommunication by cultivating literacies necessary for holding meaningful dialogues with cultural heritage. Digital platforms developed by the team serve the purpose to integrate the cultural space on several levels. On the one hand, they bring together different versions of the same text: excerpts from the original novel, film adaptation, storyboard, script, examples of reader’s reception and advertisement. Since the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the platform can itself be seen as a vast heterogeneous text that generates new meanings. On the other hand, the platforms are built on the principles of transdisciplinary pedagogy, which helps to connect different subjects and reach different types of learners.


All three platforms make use of digital cultural resources and provide links to archives, libraries and databases. These can be either international resources, or national Estonian ones. The platforms feature digital cultural resources in different media forms, including texts, video, or audio. Apart from using the existing materials, the team of Education on Screen also helps to make public previously unavailable content – for instance, persuades the film crew to share film script  or storyboard for educational purpose. Also, the team collaborates with different cultural institutions in order to create shared digital spaces – thus, one task on Identity on Screen was developed in collaboration with Estonian National Museum. The following section gives an overview of the platforms and provides examples of the digital cultural heritage use.

Literature on Screen ( (LoS) is based on Estonian best-selling novel Old Barney or November by Andrus Kivirähk (2000) and its foreign-Oscar-running cinematic adaptation November by Rainer Sarnet (2017). Being deeply rooted in Finno-Ugric folklore, the novel is characterized by a peculiar style and multiple references to the cultural context. Students are encouraged not only to compare the source text to its adaptation, but also to embrace the whole lifecycle of an adaptation and contribute their own interpretations: write a script, choose a soundtrack, make a mood board, etc. At least two tasks on the platform are connected with digital cultural heritage. For instance, students are invited to look at the photos of Estonian photographer Johannes Pääsuke and establish connections to the style of November. Also, they are offered a selection of representations of kratt – a mythological treasure-bearer – in various forms of art. On the basis of the selections, students are asked to create their own version of kratt.

History on Screen ( (HoS) is based on an autobiographical trilogy (Comrade Child and grownups 2008, Velvet and sawdust 2009, The touch of a woman’s hand 2018) by an Estonian literary classic Leelo Tungal and its adaptation by Moonika Siimets. The novels describe a tragic time of Stalinist repressions through the eyes of a small girl, whose mother has been deported to Siberia. The platform combines tools for understanding the cultural heritage and developing the literacies. The second platform uses digital cultural resources more extensively. To complete the tasks, students are expected to search for specific objects in digital archives and create their own multimodal works on their basis. For instance, students are asked to visualize a scene from the script by using the resources of Estonian Museums Public Portal, Estonian film database, articles archive DIGAR, website of Vabamu museum and others. In a different task, students need to create a trailer for Leelo Tungal trilogy by using international open source resources: collections of sounds, videos and images.

Identity on Screen ( (IoS) is designed for secondary school students and is focused on the problem of identity and the general question on knowing oneself. The project is based on the 1st part of the novel Truth and Justice (1926) by a major Estonian writer Anton Hansen Tammsaare and its screen adaptation by Tanel Toom (2019). The topic offers ways for integrating different subjects from the fields of humanities as well as social and natural sciences. Being a key text of Estonian culture, Truth and Justice covers many issues related to the problem of identity: interpersonal relations, national belonging and living environment. The digital environment integrates the affordances of words, sounds, still and moving images, interactive games and curated links to other websites for immersing the class  into the topic. Several tasks on the platform imply the use of digital cultural resources. For instance, students are asked to make a story about the oldest thing in their household and upload it to Estonian National Museum digital collection Pildiait. For a different task, the need to compare old and contemporary pictures of the same place by using Ajapaik, ERR photo archive, National archive FOTIS, and others. Also, the platform makes use of very specialized digital resources, such a database Bogs in Estonian Culture.


The testing of platforms has shown that selected resources can be effectively used in classroom settings. Digital sources of cultural heritage offered by Estonian and international institutions help to enrich the lessons and provide the necessary context. The use of digital sources in education promotes the renewal of cultural heritage: digital materials inspire students to create their own new works in different media forms.The work on the project has also reviewed some problems related to the use of digital  cultural heritage in education. First one is a poor usability of some systems: the interfaces of digital archives and databases are not always intuitive, which makes it difficult to use them. Whether the team Education on Screen tries to solve this problem by offering step-by-step guidelines, this issue could be also addressed by the providers of the resources. Another problem is related to the localization, since all three platforms are also translated to Russian and English languages. It is hardly possible to find alternatives for some interesting Estonian resources – such as, for instance, a bog database. As a result, the team is challenged to find other solutions.