To Touch It or Not: Inserting Technology Into Museum Learning

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

In recent years, the adoption of several hands-on interactive technologies has taken many ‘Do Not Touch’ signs out of museums. These tools have made so-called ‘boring’ and ‘unapproachable’ documents and displays more accessible and available. In some cases, however, they can overshadow the authentic objects they are designed to make appealing, leading visitors to ignore the significance of the actual artefacts and making museums somewhat like an educational theme park. On the other hand, one can also argue that this is hardly a bad idea. Museums are places many of us visited as children, and places to which we return when we have children—like Disneyland, only with shorter queues and fewer nausea-inducing rides.

The imbalance in museum budgets—particularly the large expenditures on technology—has been discussed and debated in many museum-learning studies. How does one increase young visitors’ engagement with a museum, anyway? The traditional kid’s activity handout pales beside an interactive interpretation station—after all, which would the average ten-year-old prefer, a word search about a naval battle or a computer game giving him the chance to sink his classmates’ armadas? There is no disputing the fact that we live in a digital world, but one persistent question is whether we employ technological devices to their full potential as learning tools. Several large public museums, such as the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, the Natural History Museum of London, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, have spent enormous sums on reconstruction and renovation, including millions budgeted for technological innovation and collaboration in an effort to ‘update’ the museums and increase visitor attraction. But how much of an impact have these changes rendered, and how much do visitors learn from these devices? Many researchers have remained sceptical that technological devices can fully enhance authentic objects—if you can be inside a real spaceship, they argue, why go to the fake one?

Of course, not every museum has a real spaceship, and even those that do may not permit visitors to play inside them. In many museums, new technologies make it possible for visitors to virtually interact with artefacts unavailable to the public. For example, many artefacts in the Churchill Museum in London are far too delicate to touch—consider the damage that could be done to Winston Churchill’s school report, letters, and childhood photograph if visitors were allowed to handle them. What the museum did was create a huge digital table consisting of document from Churchill’s life, thereby allowing visitors to safely browse through them. Thanks to technological innovation, the doors to the old ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can be opened and its contents examined, if only virtually.

At the end of the day, the question is not whether a museum should use technology or not, but rather how technology can be best employed, which depends on the collection, the exhibit, and the curator. Learning in museums should be informal and experiential. Museums are not places to test one’s memory, nor simple theme parks, but research institutes. Still, research is most effective when shared, and sharing this knowledge with visitors by using technology somehow still seems more exciting


Filtering as a Political Tool

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

In Saudi Arabia, public access to the Internet was delayed until 1999, by which time an elaborate national system had been established to filter out any inappropriate and unwanted content. This filtering, irrespective of whether it is seen as a positive or a negative step, indicates a degree of political wakefulness by the authorities. Such wakefulness should clearly also be seen at the individual level. That is, individuals as cognitive beings need to be politically wakeful, practising a kind of filtering to sieve inputs and to shape them for their needs and interests.This filtering is crucial if individuals are to stay in a good healthy condition. That is, if individual citizens continue to act as consumers of information without applying any kind of filtering, they may end up being mentally unfit, suffering from information obesity and turning out to be merely politicised objects. Such filtering, which can be regarded as a kind of life-long learning, is an ongoing process of transforming information into knowledge and generating knowledge from within knowledge. Such filtering, which can be done individually, collaboratively and/or collectively at a micro and/or macro level, differentiates those fluent in ICTs from those who are merely ICT-literate. It is, moreover, a privilege of the upper class in an information society.

Personal filtering can conflict with wider filtering. Luckin, in speaking of the ecology of resources, suggests that the proliferation of ubiquitous and pervasive technologies necessitates looking beyond the resources officially available. The practice of choosing from this ecology is a type of filtering. In Saudi universities, however, choices seem to have been already made for members through what is made ‘officially available,’ imposing one way in which things are to be done. Blackboard, for instance, is what is official and readily available. This very accessibility may discourage members from taking the time and/or trouble to look beyond this official filter and select another resource. This may also discourage members from practising any kind of critical reflection and gradually transform them from professionals into merely practitioners.


Deciphering M-learning

October 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

M-learning is a term coined to cover a complex array of possibilities opened up by the convergence of new mobile technologies, wireless infrastructure and e-learning developments.  As with any emerging paradigm, there are many attempts to define its essence. M-Learning can basically be defined as the intersection of mobile computing and e-learning: accessible resources wherever you are, strong search capabilities, rich interaction, powerful support for effective learning, and performance-based assessment.

Because mobile phones are increasingly becoming part of the everyday lives of the poor, it is argued that they have potential to become a low cost accessible delivery channel for learning services, thus facilitating innovations including m-learning. Existing initiatives (Keegan, 2003) are already demonstrating the viability of such services in developing country environments. Research also suggests that the poor majority are in need of, and are increasingly demanding, a broader range of micro-learning services that could potentially be delivered via mobile phones or via mobile phone operators. These have been specified as low cost solutions that can underpin regular savings, facilitate informal learning, reduce the digital divide and deliver knowledge. However, studies also caution that the learning needs of the poor are fungible and embody a complex set of interactions across a broad portfolio of predominantly informal learning settings. There is a primary requirement, therefore, to more fully understand the interrelationship between the suggested potential for mobile phone applications and the reality of the educational preferences and behaviours that the poor majority exhibit.

There is an indication, with some exceptions, that knowledge and understanding of the learning needs of poor communities have not been sufficiently linked to existing m-learning research or to the development and implementation of initiatives.  This may be due to the fact that most, if not all, m-learning initiatives are commercially driven by the mobile phone industry as a value added service that is primarily designed to expand market share and generate revenue.  Consequently research has been informed by business models that emphasise market development rather than social models that may put greater emphasise on community needs assessment.  This orientation is followed by the current actors in the field of research, whose primary focus is system functionality and business value, focusing on technical and organisational aspects, rather than on the disruptive or ripple-effects.

Despite a rapid expansion of research into mobile phones and learning applied to developing countries, there has been no systematic attempt to review how this research has progressed both conceptually and methodologically.

Overall, the existing research body suggests the following practical implications as stated by this article:

  • A high level of practitioner involvement and the high level of positive interaction between the donor community and the mobile phone industry. This has set in motion a research agenda that seeks to seriously address the potential of new technologies to serve the needs of poor communities via m-learning.
  • Specific attempts to develop theoretical models, and create a deeper understanding of m-learning applications, most noticeable in the area of application development and technology adoption.
  • A small number of primary research studies that have developed rigorous methodologies for data collection and analysis, and where those approaches and lessons learned have been documented and shared.

The following remarks should be taken into account for the progress of m-learning:

  • That the research area has become too overtly ‘technology-led’ and driven by a mobile industry-donor nexus which (and in the absence of a strong evidence base) has tended to over-‘hype’ the potential of m-learning applications for poor users.
  • There has been lack of focus on assessing learning needs a priori to specifying m-learning solutions, and by and large importance has not been attached to analysing the relationships between the technical and systemic aspects of m-learning services and the behaviours and preferences of poor users.
  • In this respect there has been lack of focus on methodologies that emphasise user involvement such as participatory methods and action research, or where these approaches have been used they remain undocumented.
  • The research area overall is unbalanced in terms of methodological approach, with use of surveys and quasi-experimental techniques outweighing qualitative approaches – which could be used to build in-depth case studies that can form the basis for theorising.  With a few notable exceptions, the research reviewed tends to lack depth of evidence and analysis.  Issues of validity of findings and attribution of causality have yet to be addressed sufficiently.
  • Overall, there is lack of geographical diversity, with the state of current knowledge based upon a relatively narrow evidence base.  There is also lack of published research being conducted by developing country institutions and researchers.

Maybe it is time to tap into the potential of mobile phones for m-learning.

Stop frightening the children

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

On the surface of things, it would seem difficult to object to an organisation whose chief aim is the protection of children. But not everyone is sorry to see the back of Jim Gamble, who has just offered his resignation as head of CEOP (the Child Exploitation and Online and Protection centre). This was in protest at government plans to merge CEOP with the new National Crime Agency. His argument is that it will lose its distinct identity. Many people in the Internet industry are quite glad, though, to see him go because they see him as “an extremely aggressive person” and a “loose cannon” who “loves the media spotlight”.
CEOP’s approach to the whole business of young people and the Internet was vividly demonstrated by the scare-mongering performance of a Gamble supporter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week, who talked about the “unimaginable evil” that is waiting for children on the Internet in shocking terms: “children being raped, .. sex with babies, children being tortured or forced to have sex with animals”. You can’t help wondering whether throwing around such notions on national radio at 7.30 in the morning in such an uncontrolled manner might not constitute a rather more disturbing invasion of young minds than anything most of them might encounter on the Internet. It was the kind of thing you would also often hear from Gamble’s own media performances.
I have observed some of the CEOP guidance being offered to a group of looked after children when being presented with their very own laptops (through the last government’s Home Access Targeted Group programme) last year. By the time they had been shown the appalling CEOP movie clip called “Where’s Klaus?” and heard a whole litany of truly dire CEOP warnings about what was waiting for them online, most of these already vulnerable children looked like they would prefer to leave without their lovely new laptops after all.
There is a confusion of roles here. CEOP is a police agency, and was set up in 2006 to find and convict paedophiles, a serious and important task. Since 2006, it has safeguarded 624 children by arresting sex offenders and breaking up networks, which is clearly an excellent achievement, as well as an accurate representation of the specialised scale of the problem. At the same time, it has also placed itself at the centre of discussion of how the vast majority of young people should use the Internet. But it is not an educational agency, and shows little understanding of how to help and encourage young people to benefit from the Internet in positive ways. By relentlessly demonising the Internet, CEOP has led the way in unnerving parents and children alike, to the extent that young people are in danger of becoming unnecessarily fearful and tentative in their uses of it (something increasingly evident in our own recent research). Maybe a change of leadership and identity might in fact prove very timely.

Setting sights on Second Life

October 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Over the weekend, there have been speculative rumors spreading on the Internet that Microsoft has plans to buy over Linden Lab as well as the virtual world, Second Life. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but what is certain, is that both Second Life and Linden Lab have been reported as going through a number of changes over the last couple of months, perhaps more so for the latter than the former, as seen from its recent staff layoff and office closure.

Second Life is a social virtual world developed by Linden Lab. The concept of a social virtual world is not new, but giving users the autonomy to create content and build objects is novel. Almost everything that you see in Second Life has been designed and built by the users (often referred to as Residents) themselves. Since its launch in 2003, Second Life has been able to attract consumers, educators, researchers, designers, librarians, archivists, businesses etc. to have a go at creating a virtual presence. Some of them have since left, but those who remain, continue in their attempts to leverage the potential of Second Life.

Without a narrative or back story like most game-based virtual worlds, users of Second Life sometimes find it difficult to find a clear purpose to be there. It seems, however, that the main draw of Second Life is its social and community-driven nature. It is not hard to see that there are many groups and communities in-world. What is difficult though, is locating them and finding events that are worth attending and places which are populated. Sure, there is the search engine which one could use. That said, it is not unusual for one to do so and yet find an empty sim (or region) or an inactive group.

Having spent some time (more than a year now) in Second Life, I have managed to find a number of groups which seem to be growing, particularly in size and regularity of events. Many people whom I spoke to have often mentioned that the groups that they belong to have helped them integrate into the Second Life community and is the main reason why they continue to log in to the virtual world. They have, it seems to me, created their own narrative or back story – a more defined purpose for them to be there.

Like most Residents of Second Life, I’m waiting to see what Linden Lab or the future investors have in store, as this would certainly have an effect on the virtual world and what goes on in-world. Being amongst and talking to Residents, it would appear that some of them are trying out other alternatives to Second Life (some in fact have migrated to other platforms), but the majority of them remain optimistic about Second Life and are not prepared to leave yet. I think, it is perhaps time, for Linden Lab or future investors or bosses to work hand-in-hand with the in-world community in ensuring the continued operation of the virtual world.

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