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Learning with digital technologies in museums, science centres and galleries

Roy Hawkey, King’s College, London

The full version of this review is available to download in pdf format - see box below. On this page you'll find the executive summary.

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Learning with digital technologies in museums, science centres and galleries (pdf, 522KB)

Executive summary

1. Introduction and background

As institutions for the general public, museums pre-date schools yet the popular
assumption is that schools are for learning (and for preparation for the future) while museums are for the preservation of the past. The reality may well be, however, that it is museums that have embraced new technologies and approaches to learning while schools focus on delivering an outmoded curriculum.

Museums are a heterogeneous set of institutions whose original twin functions of scholarship and education, once inseparable, but subsequently divorced, are being reunited by digital technologies. Such technologies also encompass a wide variety, including multimedia, simulations and presentations as well as the internet. Not only do they facilitate and/or accelerate long-established learning tasks, but, critically, they permit activities that would otherwise be impossible. This includes new approaches to learning by different audiences and for different purposes.

Despite reservations about access – with social class the major determinant – digital technologies for learning are available to the majority of UK households and to almost all UK schoolchildren. Museums, galleries and (especially) science centres are among the most enthusiastic providers of digital learning opportunities. Virtual visitors to museum websites already out-number physical (on-site) visitors, and many of these are engaged in dedicated learning activities – as even a cursory glance at the 24 Hour Museum website will confirm. Indeed, so rapid and widespread has been the growth – in both provision and uptake – that the extensive survey of UK museum education activity in 1999 did not include websites and conflated audio-visual guides with printed materials.

2. Learning in museums

Museums have a number of philosophical and practical considerations when planning learning opportunities, namely to:

  • engage in learning as constructive dialogue rather than as a passive process of transmission
  • take on the role of privileged participant rather than that of expert
  • carefully evaluate the significance of the formal school curriculum (and its assessment process)
  • facilitate lifelong learning by providing a free-choice learning environment that permits a plethora of pathways and possibilities.

Museums have an important role to play in facilitating lifelong learning, in terms of creative, cultural and intellectual activity beyond any merely vocational aspects. Lifelong learning, museums and digital technologies share many of the same attributes, with emphasis on learning from objects (rather than about objects) and on strategies for discovering information (rather than the information itself). Such a view of learning as active engagement is supported by The Campaign for Learning in Museums and Galleries (CLMG) and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), who also celebrate the important (if different) outcomes of informal learning.

Many of the informal learning opportunities offered by museums, through digital technologies and in other ways, sit uncomfortably with the formal education system. Indeed, far from reducing tensions between the formal and informal learning sectors, the drive for ‘learning objects’ may create further stresses.

3. On-site learning

Objects are the unique attribute of museums and galleries, their USP, yet many museums and science centres apparently seek the Holy Grail of interactivity. Most of the learning issues are similar, whether interactives are mechanical or digital, on-site or online. In any case, poor examples, of whatever type, do little to promote the learning potential of interactives. While some authors question the compatibility of objects and interactives, there are key principles emerging. Beyond the naïve assumption that digital technologies are inevitably interactive, there are strident demands for clear learning objectives, for learner choice and initiative.

After interactivity, the goal of many museums is learner participation. This may involve simple feedback (often digital voting), digital storage of images and ideas (for subsequent remote retrieval) or even contributing directly to the museum’s own exhibits and interpretation.

Digital technologies facilitate many kinds of collaboration – between museum and learner, between different institutions and among learners themselves. Exciting examples include those between real and virtual learners and of learners creating their own associations within and between collections.

In many ways the opposite of collaboration, digital technologies also facilitate personalisation. Freed from the constraints, both physical and interpretative, of the curator and exhibition designer, the learner can use appropriate technologies to provide a dedicated and personal mentor. Examples from a science centre (the Exploratorium) and from an art gallery (Tate Modern) highlight the learning potential of a versatile and mobile information source that is under the control of the learner.

4. Online learning

Museum websites are possibly even more diverse than museums. Apart from obvious differences of content and design, their underlying philosophies and approaches to learning differ considerably, sometimes (but not consistently) reflecting the views of the museum itself. The extremes are represented by the ‘interactive reference’ type and by creative applications with learner-created outcomes.

The accounts in the literature, although largely descriptive, do give an indication of the types of learning made possible by the variety of websites already on offer. Examples from the major national museums, heritage organisations and other institutions reflect the diversity of approaches, from encyclopaedias to games, but include innovative and imaginative products driven by underlying theory and some that actively encourage participation in knowledge creation.

Webcasts are seen as a way of introducing the human dimension to the digital, as a bridge between on site and online, and as a step from a deficit model of learning towards greater dialogue.

5. The future

Museums have already achieved many of their aims in developing digital exhibitions and learning resources. In this limited sense, the aspirations of A Netful of Jewels and Building the Digital Museum have largely been exceeded.

A new set of relationships is emerging, between objects, learners and digital technology, in which museums are, above all, places of exploration and discovery. In the museum of the future, distinctions between real and virtual, already blurred, will matter even less as both museums and learners better understand the processes of inquiry and of learning itself. The real key to future development is likely to be personalisation: of interpretation to significantly enhance social and intellectual inclusion; of technology to free both museums and learners from many of the current constraints; of learning to finally facilitate an escape from the deficit models so prevalent in educational institutions and release untold potential, as the individual learner is able to use technologies to exercise choice and to take responsibility for his/her own learning.