Kevin Walker, London Knowledge Lab, United Kingdom
This research explores the use of mobile technology to create personalized learning trails through the capture, editing and sharing of audio, photos and text during visits to museums, botanic gardens and cultural heritage sites. I report results from several recent trials in which visitors used mobile devices to collaboratively create, edit and share trails. Visitors included 9- to 10-year-olds, as well as adults, studying the subject of horticulture in a botanic garden or relating artworks to personal experience in art museums. The overall goal is to find the appropriate levels of structure, support and focus for school visits as well as for casual visitors.
Findings so far indicate that a narrow subject focus and a manageable amount of data capture are appropriate in most cases. Audio has proven the most important mode for communication and interpretation. Voice recording not only is easier and faster than entering text, but also enables visitors who may have writing difficulties. Audio is particularly effective when used collaboratively – for example, when two people have a conversation or share their impressions while in front of the artifact or exhibit of interest.
Keywords: mobile, bookmarking, personalization, location, garden, botany, schools, education, learning, audio
Personalization and ‘bookmarking’ have become buzzwords in the international museum community, and with good reason. As early as 1992, Wolins et al reported that children remembered more when they could personalize their visit. "If learning in context is to be taken seriously," they said, "visitors need to be able to make notes and personalize their learning as they are going about their visit, as well as edit them and change them afterwards." However, Filippini-Fantoni (2003) found that people do not understand what personalization is, and even academics, curators and technicians often confuse it with adaptivity or customization.
Visitors do not usually exit an exhibition, as curators hope, having learned one or two key ideas. In museums, learning can occur at a very general level or a very specific level. Casual museum visits are generally brief and leisure-oriented, but learning occurs over the long term; therefore, people need reinforcing experiences (Falk and Dierking, 2000).
Ham (1999) has shown that in museums, the amount of information is not as important as the conceptual framework into which it is placed; indeed, such frameworks not only facilitate information integration but also constitute most of what is remembered. This is what good museum exhibitions do – present individual objects within a structure that links them together to make a larger picture. Some museum exhibitions make this structure explicit with advance organizers, orientation guides, and themed trails.
This is also what good teachers do – create, ahead of time, guided paths for their students to follow through particular topics. However, a single trail or other structure will not suit all learners, topics or situations. This is particularly true for learning that takes place out of school. But the right amount of structure can enable learners to assimilate new knowledge, personalizing it to their own experience.
Learning Objects (LOs) have become a common conception in e-learning. They are generally defined as "cohesive pieces of learning material that are usually stored in a repository, allowing teachers and learners to search for LOs of interest to them." (Schoonenboom et al, 2004).
There are formal specifications for LOs, but the descriptions are general and technical in nature. Broadly defined as self-contained chunks of learning, there is no agreed-upon definition of exactly what an LO is. Thus an LO can be a paragraph of text, a static picture, or an interactive program. A single Web page would appear to be a useful distinction, but a Web page can be very short or very long, and contain many types of media; pages are no longer static but are composed on the fly, or act as dynamic programs themselves.
Peterson and Levene (2003) proposed a model which regards trails of learning objects, not the individual objects, as a unit of analysis. This includes steps of trail ‘enactment’ or capture, editing, reflection, and sharing – creating a circular process. The core idea is that meaning is in the linkages between objects, not the individual objects themselves.
Within the trails model, as it has developed so far, there are many possible variations. Trails can be explicitly created about particular topics, or generated after the fact from data captured from random points of interest. Meaning is made and knowledge is constructed by connecting these individual learning objects into a coherent – usually narrative – representation.
Trails can also be created by learners for other learners. Trail construction can benefit the trail constructor at least as much as the recipient of the trail; making connections as part of a trail is analogous to making mental connections. Thus the value of a trail is not just as a device for navigating physical space, but also as a cognitive tool for the construction of meaning making.
A trail constructed for someone else is not an endpoint or a static presentation to be assessed, but something to be enacted by someone else: a set of instructions to be ‘run.’ As with writing a computer program, this requires thinking processually and being explicitly descriptive.
Learning objects can be classified as digital or non-digital, with museum artifacts an example of the latter (Peterson and Levene, 2003). Though the technical definitions of LOs are not meant to describe real objects, museum artifacts generally conform well as objects of learning value, generally static but filled with ‘content’ or meaning in various ways.
Locations and exhibits, as well as artifacts, can be regarded as non-digital learning objects which, when captured, can be augmented with ‘value added’ information into digital learning objects. Schoonenboom et al (2004) suggested that non-digital learning objects could link to digital learning objects in one of two ways: through a 'digital placeholder' such as a digital file on an audio tour; or through digital input generated about the object, such as notes made in an electronic diary.
Systematic recording and representation of a trail makes its use and sharing easier. To make a digital trail in a physical space, Peterson and Levene (2003) envisaged an ‘experience recorder’ to record locations and other contextual data in a space such as a museum.
There are specific problems with location mapping as related to learning, however. Location tracking technologies continue to improve, but no matter how accurate, there are always confounding factors. Without additional data it is difficult to distinguish proximity from interest (Schoonenboom et al, 2004). Which, and how many, contextual cues are appropriate for learning depends on the subject matter as well as personal experience and preferences.
One way around location tracking issues is to give the learner control over captured and contextual information. I have been collecting informal data from adult visits to museums since January 2006, asking visitors to specify locations by recording information from text labels. An initial assumption was that automatic capture of location information would be important; in practice this appears to be irrelevant in many cases. In museums, a thematic trail is more useful. In sites such as botanic gardens, however, the location of particular plants, for example, can be very important.
Focused trials at Kew Gardens, a large botanic garden in London, began in June 2006 with four classes of primary school children aged 9 to 10. Each class visit occurred on a different day. Each class was put into groups of four to five students, and each group given one mobile phone containing software enabling them to easily capture photos, audio and text, all of which was automatically sent to a Web site.
This service is called My Art Space (http://myartspace.org.uk). It has been used in other UK museums and schools, and has been approved as a tool for use with the UK national curriculum; for younger learners, this is related to the skills of collecting and noticing, and for older ones, investigating and collecting evidence. An assumption of the service is that teachers will structure visits and in so doing, influence what students create.
Using museum metaphors, learners capture ‘objects’ (in the form of photos, audio or text) which are automatically placed in a linear ‘gallery’ which provides a minimal structure for linking them together thematically. New objects can also be created in a Web browser, and photos and audio files can be uploaded or copied from a teacher's or other students' galleries. Galleries can be further customized somewhat with regard to colors and fonts.
Learners can also ‘collect’ objects that the museum has tagged with two-letter codes. When a learner selects Collect an object on the phone and enters a code, the phone downloads information that the museum has entered for that object. This is meant to provide additional explanatory or contextualized information about museum objects. The collected objects appear in the galleries students create.
Captured data has been analyzed qualitatively in relation to the task at hand. In addition, the trials were recorded with video, audio and photos, and this is treated as data – specifically, footage and photos of students conducting activities and using the system, and most importantly, students' conversations as they conducted the activities and used the system. This is augmented with interviews with teachers, venue staff (in this case, educational coordinators at the botanic garden), other participating researchers, and the developers of the system, in order to gain a comprehensive picture of the trials.
Initial Data Collection
Beginning in January 2006, adult visitors to museums were asked to record trails of objects or exhibits they visited, using text or audio recording. This project proceeds from a proposal by Peterson and Levene (2003) that captured experience trails can also support informal lifelong learning. The data thus far collected in this manner is unstructured and informal, but indicates that unless framed with a specific focus and manageable scope, trails will not be used, much less used effectively, for learning.
Another finding that has emerged from this informal data is that location did not matter in many cases; what was important was the learning objects and the thematic links between them, not the geographic links.
In the trials with schools in June 2006 at Kew Gardens, the focus of the school visits was on food plants. Particular activities were devised by Kew education staff before the technology was introduced – identifying the parts of a plant; sorting vegetables into plant parts; finding plants of the same family in the vegetable beds of the garden; and making up a drama, poem or riddle about a particular plant (without mentioning its name) for other groups to guess the plant. The first two activities were indoors; the others were in different parts of the garden.
The informal museum data consisted mainly of audio. But the ability of My Art Space to add photos in addition to text and audio was thought to be important for a botanic garden, where images could help with plant identification, for example. The ‘collecting’ capability of My Art Space would provide access to photos and data uploaded by Kew staff.
The four school classes collectively uploaded more than 700 individual ‘objects.’ For analysis, the collected objects for each group are plotted chronologically in a spreadsheet and classified by media type and relation to the task. No attempt is made to quantitatively measure learning outcomes; the main goal has been to assess qualitatively how data was captured and used.
The device was introduced to students not as a phone but as a scientific instrument for data collection. Overall they loved using it in this way, and generally were able to easily use the technology in meaningful ways. There was concern by the Kew education staff that the technology might interfere with learning – a familiar concern expressed by many museums – but in fact, it was agreed afterward that this was not the case. In fact, the head of education at Kew praised it as an easy way to take memories back to school and home. The schools were just beginning to study plants in the curriculum, and the technology was seen as a good way of 'hooking’ the students.
There were a few cases in which boys tended to dominate the devices, but adults tried to ensure that everyone had a chance to use them. Each group of four to five students had one phone, and generally shared it around; in some cases a group delegated one student to record everything.
One surprising finding was that the number of phones provided was deemed sufficient. If we had had enough phones, we would have given one to every student, but the teachers said afterwards that such a 1:1 ratio of device to learner would have discouraged collaboration. However, using them in groups makes it difficult for individual students to identify their own contributions, and collaboration generally runs counter to personalization: this is discussed later.
Use of Photos
Many pictures were taken – of food plants, of other plants encountered, of information panels, of other students. One teacher said she appreciated the ability to take photos because she would not otherwise have been able to provide enough digital cameras for the students. The device was seen as enhancing students' observation skills, particularly when they took photos (as any camera tends to ‘frame’ experience).
"They [the students] said it made them look really closely at the plants," said one teacher. Teachers pointed out specific students who they said were not normally so observant. This can be seen in the students' uploaded photos, and in the video documentation, where, for example, a group of boys carefully arrange for a photo a group of vegetables that they think are in the same family.
Photos were generally used as a means of collecting evidence: when the students found a particular plant they thought to be in their family, they took a picture of it. One group photographed a student standing under a fennel plant as evidence for their estimate that it was two meters tall; after that, the group gathered around the phone to assess the photographic evidence.
Use of Audio
The audio capability was said by teachers to be useful for explaining evidence. Part of the activities involved learning specialized terminology (related to plant parts and taxonomy). Students often had to think first about what they were going to say. The audio recording facility proved – surprisingly – to be the most popular and the most useful. Teachers praised the function because children could easily input information – especially those who might have difficulty in writing. Teachers and students also appreciated the fact this was a much quicker way of entering information than typing or writing text – an important consideration in any mobile context. Comparatively few students wrote anything on paper during the trial; although they had worksheets, they were not required to fill them in.
Students used audio in different ways. The system requires that each audio clip be only 15 seconds long, and students treated this limitation in one of two ways. Some students (especially girls) would carefully script and rehearse their recordings, while others (especially boys) would simply press record and if they didn't like the result, discard it and start again. The system plays back audio recordings before uploading, and students were thankful for and amused by this function.
Audio was particularly effective when used collaboratively – for example, when two students had a conversation or shared their impressions about a particular plant. Some students (especially girls) interviewed each other. This form of journalistic inquiry appears particularly effective in constructing trails for others to follow.
At the same time, audio was praised for enhancing individual inquiry learning. One teacher said:
It just made them much more independent. And anything that came into their head straight away, they didn't have to write it down.... In science we spent a lot of time just getting them to write stuff down, and for less able kids who are actually quite good at science, quite good at the vocabulary, it's really frustrating for them because they don't have the literacy skills to transfer over into science.
Audio was seen as having a role in personalization. Kew's head of education said, "It's my view, it's not a piece of technology taking a picture. It's what I have to think and say about it, and that's a very personalized thing. So I actually think that the vocal part was incredibly strong."
The system's Collect an object capability was used in the trials, with particular vegetable beds tagged with information that could be downloaded. Both students and teachers liked this function – for the teachers, it relieved them of the need to deliver some information, and for the students, it was like a treasure hunt to find the correct tags.
However, this points up a problem, as identified in an evaluation of a previous evaluation of My Art Space:
This leads us to think that the task for the visit needs to be more structured, and more preparation to meet the learning goal of the visit is necessary if the collection is to be a meaningful task requiring reflection and decision making rather than a frenzied activity of collecting items "just in case" (CETADL, 2006).
In many cases, the student who entered the code was asked to read the downloaded information aloud to the rest of the group. Downloaded information was most effective when linked to narrative; for example, Mandrake root was described as having a role in the Harry Potter books, and students remembered this information perhaps most of all.
Collecting also acts as a means of location tracking, since the location of tags is known. The tags were particularly useful in the outdoor activities. One activity had the students explicitly looking for individual plant traits among many unknown other plants, and the blue and white tags were much easier to look for than particular traits; most children are unused to identifying plants because plant science in schools can be very limited. Additionally, tags made it easier for children to share the location of plants.
Students learned very quickly how to use the mobile phones. At the start of one trial, a student asked me how to take pictures; before I could answer, one of his classmates grabbed the phone and showed him. There were some inevitable technical problems, with the software sometimes logging out unexpectedly, for example. Generally the software is simple to use, and there is no easy way for students to access the phone's other capabilities. (The phones were restricted from making calls and sending text messages.)
One problem with the service is that everything captured cannot be accessed again on the phone, only on the Web site. In the drama activity, students captured data as part of research to be used again later that day, but could not access it again from the phones.
Both students and teachers wanted to record video, or at least audio together with photos (currently, an uploaded ‘object’ is comprised of only a photo, audio clip or block of text). No one asked about the ability to communicate with other students over the phone or access others' data, but this capability has been suggested by the developers. It may be useful in collaboration situations.
In September 2006, another trial was conducted at Kew Gardens with 13 adult students studying for a Diploma in Botanical Horticulture. These students were from a very diverse range of countries representing Africa, Asia and Europe.
I designed a task to exploit this broad cultural experience, and also to address the shortcomings of the previous trials and lessons learned. With the focus on food plants as before, students were asked to visit the vegetable beds, choose six to eight plants, and for each, record one photo and one audio clip which was a conversation about how they used that plant in their home countries.
Since the goal of the diploma course is to enable students to effectively deliver education programs in their own countries, this trial was not designed to teach an aspect of botany, but to act as a ‘tool for thinking’ to help them reflect on the process of creating their own educational materials for visitors. As such, the product they were asked to create was a multimedia tour for visitors, focusing on food plants.
The ‘collecting’ function was not used, but it was explained that at each stop, visitors would be able to download the content that the students were creating.
The students worked in pairs, with one phone per pair. This was intended to exploit the important role of conversations that was observed in the previous trials. Since each diploma student was from a different country, this also provided each pair with two diverse sets of cultural knowledge.
The students spent one hour in the vegetable beds recording data, then one hour in Kew's computer lab editing their trails. The trails were then presented by each pair to the rest of the class. Trail editing and sharing steps were explicitly included to address a major shortcoming of the previous trials – that captured data was not revisited by the classes afterward. In their original trails paper, Peterson and Levene (2003) describe "ampliative learning" as consisting of trail refinement through reflection and editing. Although the captured data in the previous trials was plentiful and substantive, it was not possible to plan for the successive editing and sharing steps. Thus in the adult trial the editing and sharing was done by the students while at Kew Gardens, directly following capture.
Collectively the students created a total of 101 objects. Though the focus of the task was quite narrow, the pairs were creative in constructing the resulting trails. For example, one group called its trail, "Growing a salad," and focused on salad plants, while another focused not on food-related uses of the plants but on medicinal uses.
The structure of the task – specifying one photo and one audio clip for each plant – addressed the problem of decontextualized objects resulting from the previous trial. A trail that is merely captured but not revisited and edited simply does not make much sense without some additional interpretation. The My Art Space system allows learners to enter text when they capture a photo, but this facility was used for only a handful of the hundreds of photos uploaded in the school trials. Although the photos and audio recorded in the adult trial appear as separate ‘objects’ (a shortcoming of the My Art Space system), the student pairs were able, in the editing process, to ensure that they were at least placed in the right sequence.
More importantly, a great deal of text information was added to each photo during the editing process; some pairs augmented this information with Internet searches, and one even added Latin names of the plants. The resulting trails are generally coherent and stand alone as narrative threads.
Research in cognitive psychology (Moreno and Valdez, 2005; Mayer and Moreno, 2000) shows that audio is a more effective mode than text for delivering information related to a visual object under study. Present research suggests its effectiveness not only for delivery but also as a constructive tool for learning – particularly in collaborative situations.
The value of conversations is well known in museum learning (Leinhardt et al, 2002; Hensel, 1987). In mobile contexts, learning is perceived as being as much about conversations as content (Sharples, 2005; Taylor, 2003). This could be seen directly in the Kew Gardens trials in the students' recorded conversations.
The trails created by the 9-year-olds were structured only by questions on printed worksheets prepared by teachers, and were not directly related to the mobile phone technology introduced. The most relevant data uploaded in those trials appears to have come from planned and self-structured collaboration within groups. For obvious reasons, collaboration runs counter to personalization. But the right structure could foster both, through conversation and sharing. Collaboration could be further structured to stimulate productive interactions through the use of scripting. Kobbe et al (2005) have detailed the specification and standardization of such collaboration scripts, and they have been used in mobile contexts (see Stegmann, 2004).
Journalistic inquiry appears to be effective not only as a method but also as a product of the trail capture, editing and sharing process. Future trials may frame tasks in terms of news stories or audio podcasts to be created and shared. A traditional journalistic approach utilizes structured interviews to collect multiple viewpoints on a given topic, and frames a product as a structured narrative in an ‘inverted pyramid’ style in which the most important ‘who, what, where, when, why, how’ information is given at the start. A collaboration script could support this process by assigning roles to students (interviewer, interviewee, writer, researcher, fact-checker, editor); by structuring and sequencing tasks (interviewing, researching in a library or on-line, editing, etc.), and by allocating access to resources. This could be derived from a ‘jigsaw’ script in which different roles are assigned different parts of a larger ‘picture’ and participants must work together to put the pieces together (Aronson et al, 1978).
Downloading contextual data, as with the ‘collecting’ facility in My Art Space, could be used not just for providing information about an artifact, but also for posing questions, or specifying scripted tasks or roles at each tagged location.
My Art Space is based on the assumption that teachers will structure the students' activity. But it is clear that teachers would benefit from access to the technology beforehand to know what is possible and to plan the activities. This requires some pedagogical as well as technological know-how. Scripting could help teachers to structure learning in this regard.
The service was created especially for museums, and its broader use in botanic gardens and elsewhere may require different types of representations of user data. For the trials described here, however, the museum metaphors of ‘objects’ and ‘collecting’ have been sufficient. Though it was not created specifically with trail theory in mind, the representation of learner-collected data in linear (though editable) galleries makes it appropriate for studying learner-constructed trails. The results from this research, in turn, are generating recommendations for further enhancements of the service. I have no direct connection with the developers, and the service is being used for research purposes only; the research is not restricted solely to this service.
While this work was done primarily with schools, it is envisaged that even for casual museum visitors, trails which are narrowly focused and somewhat structured will be more effective for learning than trails merely captured from visitors' wanderings. Brown et al (2003) found that imposing such an artificial task – questions designed to provoke discussion –was effective; they recommended a combination of open and task-centered behaviors.
Czikszentmihalyi's (1991) notion of "flow" depends on clear and manageable goals. "Perhaps one of the major underdeveloped functions of museums is to provide opportunities for individually meaningful experiences that also connect with the experiences of others" (Czikszentmihalyi and Harmanson, 1999). Information overload is well known in the museum community. "People are as likely to be trying to contain the amount of info they have to take in, as much as they are trying to expand it" (ibid.)
Visitor-constructed trails, with the appropriate amount of focus and support, could provide a structure for relating learners' personal experience to new experiences and information.
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