Sunday, December 4, 2011

Technology in Service of the Audience

If you look around at discussions of technology in museums, you will often hear some variation on the concept that technology should be used only in the service of the content: that it should only be used if if will complement or further the message in some way.

As much as I agree with this concept, I would like to propose another concept that goes hand in hand: technology should be used in service of the audience. With an ever growing array of new technologies to choose from, not all technologies are right for every audience, and what is right for your audience today, may end up obsolete tomorrow. By keeping your audience in mind anytime you consider developing a new technology initiative, you are more likely to succeed in communicating your content.

Several years ago, I was asked to develop a new technology initiative for the museum I was then working at, a small local history museum. I proposed a cell phone-based audio tour, and after a bit of research, began a pilot program. I signed up for a free trial with a company that handled the technical end, wrote and recorded a couple of stops based on a handful of the museum's artifacts, and placed signage around the museum in time for a large anniversary event. The feedback from the staff and volunteers was good, but after the event, I checked the analytics, and discovered that not a single visitor had called in for any of the stops. 

Thinking back, I've asked myself many times why the cell phone tour failed to attract any attention from the visitors that weekend. My conclusion is that I failed to keep the audience in mind when I chose to develop a cell phone audio tour. Most of the visitors to this particular museum are local residents. The history of the town is their history. A better use of technology might have taken that into consideration, and offered visitors a chance to share their own stories instead of providing information that they may have already known. 

When developing programs using new technology, it is important to keep in mind that not every initiative can be a success, just as not every technology will appeal to every visitor. It is important to approach new initiatives with a sense of experimentation, a willingness to fail, and to deconstruct what worked, what didn't, and how it could be done better next time.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Going Mobile Part 2: Using QR Codes Effectively

If you've read Part One of this series, you've asked yourself if you should be using QR codes, and I'm guessing if you're still here, you answered "yes" or at least, "...maybe?"

In this post, we're going to look at a couple of examples of museums that have used QR codes highly effectively, overcoming some of the barriers to entry mentioned previously: not knowing what a QR code is and what to do with it, having to download a QR reader to a smartphone or other mobile device, and motivation to do so.

A couple of examples of museum QR code projects that are successfully overcoming these barriers are the Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.

The Brooklyn Museum is well known for its use of technology to drive its community-centered mission. Shelley Bernstein, the museum's Chief of Technology, describes in a blog post the museum's many different uses of QR codes. Key take-aways from this blog post include an emphasis on ensuring accessibility, which they do by providing the same information via kiosks for people without smartphones, providing introductions and explanations for the QR codes in various forms, and the importance of experimentation and testing with new technology initiatives.

Meanwhile, Nina Simone of the Museum 2.0 blog, and Executive Director of The Museum of Art & History, focused on another significant barrier for audiences: why would a visitor want to scan a QR code in the first place? When adding QR codes to a special exhibition at MAH, they found a simple solution. By using a brief line of introductory text at each QR code, such as, "Scan the QR code to see the inside of this cabinet (1 min slideshow)." they introduce the concept of QR codes, as well as entice audiences with a description of what the QR code leads to.

Have you seen any other examples of effective QR codes in museums (or elsewhere)?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Going Mobile Part 1: Should Your Museum Be Using QR Codes?

(Hint: Are your visitors?) 

From the QR Designs exhibit at Artisphere.
Barely a day goes by that I don't see at least one QR code, if not five. From pizza boxes to the pages of magazines to ads on the subway and even in television commercials, those square barcodes (the QR stands for "quick response") are everywhere. On the content producer's end, they are a quick and easy way to link to information--most commonly, a webpage, Facebook page, or online video--requiring nothing more than cheap or even free software and a print product with a little bit of real estate. For that reason they've become ubiquitous, particularly in advertising.

Museums are starting to get into the mix as well, and more and more, I'm seeing QR codes on labels or other museum displays. But are they effective? The downside of QR codes is that the barrier to entrance for the end-user is comparatively high. In order to take advantage of a QR code, the visitor has to a) know what it is, b) have a smartphone, c) download or install a QR reader on said smartphone, and most importantly, d) be motivated to do so.

This series of posts is going to tackle two issues. In this first part, who among your visitors are using QR codes… and who aren't?

A comScore study published in August 2011 concluded that 14 million Americans scanned QR codes during the month of June. This population tended to be younger, with 53% between the ages of 18 and 34, largely male (60.5%), and comparatively wealthy, with over 36% having an annual household income of $100K or greater. (Though I highly recommend checking out the entire study if you have any interest in using QR codes at all.)

Looking at these numbers, it is clear that if your audience fits this demographic, QR codes have the potential to be a very useful tool in your toolbox. Other metrics might also be useful in determining if your audience is likely to be familiar with QR codes: if you have analytics tools (such as VisiStat or Google Analytics) for your website, how much of your website traffic from mobile browsers? If you go into the galleries, do you see people in front of your displays with their smartphones in hand?  Depending on your answers to these questions, you may find that your audience is already comfortable using QR codes.

But what about everyone else? Are the rest of us doomed to be left out of the QR craze? Not necessarily. Although 14 million is a large number, it is only a small portion of total smartphone users in the U.S., which was up to 78.5 million in June (as seen in another comScore study) and steadily growing. There is a much higher number of visitors who have the technology available to them to use QR codes, but are not for one reason or another. (See Part Two of this series for more on that.)

But in all these statistics and numbers, one thing that hasn't yet been mentioned are those who do not have access to a smartphone. It's easy to get caught up in the "ooh shiny" excitement of any new technology, but it is important to remember that the technology is just the vehicle for delivery of the message. This is doubly important when relying on visitor-provided technology to access the content. Museums have long tried to refute the perception that they are only for the upper-class, the rich, and educated.... even though smartphones are becoming more common, an over-reliance on smartphone technology to deliver content could lead those who don't have smartphones to feel excluded and unwelcome.

When considering accessibility, often the solution is to provide alternate or additional means of communicating the message. For example, in the case of QR codes, one high-tech solution is to also provide video screens or displays that can access the material linked to in the QR code--a simpler, lower-tech solution is to provide take-away materials with the QR coded links so that someone could access that information on their own time.

In part two of this series, we are going to explore this question further by looking at some approaches that can help your audience (whether they are QR savvy or not) get past some of the barriers to using QR codes that I mentioned earlier in this post. In the meantime, though, I urge you to consider your audience before jumping on any new technology bandwagon--is the technology going to help, or hinder, your message?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Digital Toolkits

One of the greatest ways museums can capitalize on technology is to take advantage of digital toolkits. Oh, and a lot of them are free, did you know?

Digital toolkits are easy to use and very manageable. They range from Google docs to Wordle to Flickr to Garage Band--anything that allows you to do everyday things...but digitally. The argument that I make for digital toolkits is this: they help you address learning issues. Some audiences need more interactive platforms. Others learn by capturing and sharing photos. Still others can't learn unless it is fun. So consider a learning issue that you'd like to tackle whether that's creating and fostering social communities for learning or an activity where visitors can produce something from their experience (a photo collage, story, etc.) And I guarantee you, there is a digital toolkit for that.

This post will highlight two digital toolkits and suggest ways that they can be implemented in museums.

1. History Pin
History Pin is a place where people from around the world can share about their family, cultures, country, etc. and foster relationships and communities. A number of museums and other public institutions have already joined! The iPhone app is also easy to navigate. Watch the short introduction to the site and how it works.

Some potentials for this toolkit:
  • The museum can become part of the community and use the site to post collections and even digital tours. 
  • It can be a place where visitors can tell their stories. Specifically, families that are generations apart can come and share stories about a place with which they are both familiar. Historypin did a project with a school in the UK and has experience enormous success. 
What other potentials can you think of?

2. SCVNGR - a scavenger hunt game design that allows you to go places, do challenges, earn points!
This is a great way to get tourists and locals alike to experience the museum in a fun and interactive manner.

Watch the video below on how to play SCVNGR.
Museums can benefit from this by creating challenges that will help the visitor learn more about the place and objects. Rewards such as a discount at the museum store, museum admission, museum cafe can be offered for earning points.

Museums may draw in people that never intended on coming but wandered in just because they were nearby and were intrigued by the challenges and rewards.

Some thoughts to consider are--how would museums convince visitors to download the app in the first place? How would they know that these options exist? And that is easy--hopefully the museum is already connected via social media. More popular avenues such as facebook and twitter are great ways to advertise these digital toolkits.

If you have a smartphone, download the apps discussed here (totally free!) and write a comment on your experience and how you think it can help museums. Even if you don't have a smartphone, you can join HistoryPin (you can use your Google account) and upload your own photos. Try them out and drop a comment. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, November 28, 2011


The GPS (Global Positioning System) is handy in so many arenas: travel, traffic, geotagging, military ops, etc. However, the GPS does not work indoors. According to this article, there are two groups that are striving to make IPS (Indoor Positioning System) a reality: a team of Stanford students and an Australian firm called Locata

The team of Stanford students have launched WiFiSLAM to locate indoors by way of existing wireless networks in buildings and smartphones. Some applications that they are working towards are step-by-step indoor navigation, to product-level retail customer engagement, to proximity-based social networking.

Locata recognizes the shortcomings of GPS and strives to expand its potential. The Locata technology works both indoors and outdoors. 
Locata Technology animation

Here's how it works: "Conceptually, Locata’s solution is very simple.  Just place a LocataLite (our equivalent of a GPS satellite) in an area where GPS signals are unreliable and the LocataLite “fills in the holes” in GPS coverage.  This seems like a logical and intelligent thing to do given the evident demand for an improvement to GPS."

Of course, many other companies are working on IPS, and as they do, museums should consider the possibilities:

1. Visitors no longer getting lost in a museum
2. Personalized tours (available on a smartphone app) that visitors can choose
3. Scavenger Hunt mania! Knowing where other teams are can offer a whole new experience
4. Conversations on social networks and live feeds about objects in the museum. For example, if visitor A is looking at an object and posting great comments, and then visitor B, who is at another part of the museum, is intrigued by the conversation and wants to see the object, too, visitor B can pinpoint where visitor A is and simply follow the indoor positioning signal. 

What other possibilities/applications can you think of? Consider our introduction post on ubiquitous computing (and learning) and how this blurs the spatial and traditional boundaries to learning, how this can be a platform for different modes of representation for learning, and how this will address the individuality of visitors. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Introduction: Technology in Museums

It is without a doubt that technology is revolutionary. And while there are debates about whether technology enhances or impedes the process of learning, we assert that in the context of museum education, education should be at the forefront while technology follows education trends.

New paradigms are now in place concerning learning: learners move from passive to active learning and learners can create their own knowledge, publish it, and engage with the global community. According to Bill Cope and Mary Kalazntzis's article in the book, Ubiquitous Learning, (learn more about Ubiquitous Learning here), there are 7 "moves" that helps take advantage of ubiquitous learning. (The full article can also be found here). 

NOTE: the article focuses on ubiquitous computing which is defined as "the pervasive presence of computers in our lives". Ubiquitous learning is the overarching concept that learning that happen anywhere, anytime. 

1. Technology has the potential to blur traditional institutional, spatial, and temporal boundaries of education. Education can happen anywhere and at anytime. Furthermore, education is lifelong--it is not confined to a certain age group. 

2. The teacher is no longer the sole fountain of knowledge. Each learner has the capability to access information with the touch of a button. This also enables learners to move from passive to active learning.

3. In a society where we value individuality, differences (learning styles, personal backgrounds, etc.) among learners can be properly addressed and met through technology. 

4. Modes of representation are numerous thanks to technology. Educators need to understand and utilize as many modes as possible while incorporating traditional modes of learning.

5. In order to become a part of ubiquitous computing, educators must first master the language of technology in order to use it to its full potential. Therefore, ubiquitous learning helps develop conceptualizing capacities for both the educator and learners. 

6. In a world where we allow technology to do more of the thinking for us (i.e. phone remembering numbers or calculating simple math), educators will need to find new ways to evaluate learners' capacities. 

7. Ubiquitous computing makes possible peer-to-peer interactions in a global context. Anyone, anywhere, at anytime can access public information, publish comments, and start a conversation. This idea of "collective intelligence" can happen across social networks, creating inclusive and safe environments to share knowledge. 

Please stay tuned for examples from museums and our thoughts.
Please feel free to comment on our posts. Remember that this is an inclusive and safe environment where learning is encouraged!