Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


Keeping the Virtual Social

Larry Friedlander, Stanford Learning Lab, USA


How can we effectively integrate physical sites and virtual environments? As web-based initiatives in museums, schools, and other public institutions become more ambitious and innovative, our attention switches from the world within the screen to the world of the user. Increasingly we are designing websites to function as centers for collaboration, interactive projects, and community building. It is therefore necessary to not only design, support, and broadcast programs on the internet, but to smoothly integrate these web activities with user experiences on site, carefully aligning the virtual and the physical environment.

At Stanford for example, we are planning projects where groups of students, faculty, and outside researchers will be connected over four or five different sites-in labs in remote sites, on ocean going ships, in research centers, in student residences. All these participants will be not only be sending data and comment back and forth but will be feeding this data directly into Stanford labs and classrooms. Students will be holding conversations with a variety of collaborators in the distributed world, while simultaneously joining in team work and group projects in their physical setting. Some students, for example, might be conducting an experiment using data transmitted live from the web, while the entire experiment is projected in a classroom for students to comment on and interact with the on-going event. . How are we to analyze the structure of such a hybrid experience, and how do we design this kind of complex space? How do we integrate media rich environments with people-rich ones and make them human, warm, conducive to learning? How do we organize these experiences for the user so they make sense without robbing them of their inherently rich and spontaneous quality?

It is clear that traditional workstations and physical can no longer adequately such a variety of spaces and actions This is the challenge that the Stanford Learning Lab (SLL), intends to explore through a range of solutions (architectural, micro structural including furnishings, and technological) in a prototype experimental building, designed as a laboratory for the exploration of interactive learning environments..

Background on the new Wallenberg Center

The SLL is committed to maintaining the highest level of learning experience for students even as its promotes technology-mediated learning. Space design emerges as an agenda of importance for itself and for other groups or institutions that seek to interconnect the vast worlds of public cultural space to the equally vast worlds of distributed experience.

The center is committed to developing collaborative projects on a global scale. There is a sense of urgency that drives this effort. Globalization is upon us, but do know what it means to teach and learn in a global, distributed environment? How will people with different cultural traditions and work habits learn to collaborate with each other? Can they create joint projects and exchange information and personnel? What tools, spaces, management techniques, protocols, languages are needed to help integrate an international community? Such large questions demand wide and embracing solutions: how space is organized must supplement how ideas are connected; how people work and talk must be aligned with how they study and teach.. At the WGLC, theoretical exploration of these issues will be married to an intense schedule of practical undertakings. Research experiments will take place in the midst of ongoing courses at the University, for the Lab grounds its consideration of theory in the everyday activities of students. Theory will inform practice and practice will correct and advance theory.

Situated at the historic front entrance to the Stanford Campus, this building will serve as a showplace for the teaching and learning that is the basic activity of the university The PWLC will be both a working site vibrant with classes, workshops, student and faculty projects, and a laboratory for the future, offering a glimpse into the innovations in space and curricular design sponsored by the SLL. The space will accommodate researchers from Stanford and abroad, while offering the casual visitor to the campus a glimpse into the ever-changing life of a great university. Innovative technology will support intensive collaborations between members of Stanford and far flung international partners, while permitting a global audience to share events, ideas, and activities. This will be a permanently unfinished space, adapting and re-imagining itself to the changes in teaching and learning brought on by new technologies and by revolutionary global alignments. Planners and administrators will participate in on-going experiments that will explore and evaluate the learning tools of tomorrow.

Experiments and goals

We may begin by asking where, in fact, in the world are we when we are on line. Are we in our chair, in our room or office, in an exhibit hall, or are we floating in some ethereal realm of bits and bytes? The answer is most probably neither one nor the other: the virtual experience seems to transpire in a kind of hybrid space, both virtual and real. While we feel as though we are suspended in cyber-space shooting out threads of sticky connection in all and sundry directions, hoping for a series of juicy hits or connections, we are also quite aware that we are firmly planted somewhere in real space, responding to an environment that affects us strongly.

And neither the virtual or the real worlds are simple in themselves. The former contains a variety of sub-spaces: purely personal reflective spaces, structured work spaces, tightly limited communication channels designed for use by two people , and free-form open -ended social spaces inhabited by numerous transient visitors. And in the real world, we may be working alone, or with a group; sitting. standing. moving, talking to others, sharing an experience; playing with the computer while using the phone or fax, examining an object, re-arranging the furniture, drinking coffee, or leading a meeting? The WGLC, because it is committed to the exploration of global collaborative experience, will focus on developing models of these hybrid experiences that can be tested in a new building specially designed to promote full user involvement in real and hyper space.

The PWLC will consist of a spectrum of spaces --- formal and informal, distant and on-site, research and instructional --- that interact with one another; providing the university with a wide variety of test sites for its planning process. These spaces will include: formal, technically-augmented, learning spaces; smaller, informal group learning spaces; private, student-owned, working areas; meeting places for eating, talking, planning; integrated office and working spaces supporting collaboration; exhibit spaces and galleries for both student and faculty work; dramatic presentation spaces for distributed performances and events; research labs and prototypes areas; and finally production and support facilities.

This hybrid conglomeration will encourage interactions on many levels. Students and faculty will move easily from structured instructional areas to working areas for projects and hands-on work, to intimate one-on-one 'nooks' and rap and discussion corners. Learning will be complemented by living:, inhabitants will find facilities for social interaction, even for eating and napping. Students should make this a home, available 24 hours a day. Our focus is on the use of technology to create dynamic physical environments, endowed with some kind of "memory" and/or some level of "intelligence," and capable of flexibly responding to the changing requirements of the different communities and activities within them. A visitor should be able to find out at any moment who is present in the building, and what is happening. Students should be able to retrieve earlier work and leave traces of their own activities when they depart for the day. Key to this design are a series of transitional spaces that will serve as bridges between public & private spaces, providing opportunities for interaction between individuals and activities, and as centers for information about what is happening in the building. All spaces will have a virtual component, and distributed experience will be integrated as firmly as possible into the ordinary life and activities of the building.

Research will be supported by reconfigurable lab environments designed for the study and assessment of the new technologies and learning tools, and will be staffed by faculty who are affiliates of the SLL.

To sum up: the design of these different areas will be informed by goals that arise out of our vision of personal and active learning. We will create spaces that

  1. promote self-organization of learning communities and activities, on a local and global scale;

  2. provide for different levels of formal and informal interaction in public and private venues;

  3. allow for rich interaction in physical and virtual digital environments;

  4. are in some manner 'transparent' or otherwise 'viewable to visitors on site or in distant locations;

  5. that are 'smart' and responsive to the activities taking place and which have a 'memory' of their own experiences, and can document and recall people, configurations, and activities;

  6. that are able to configure themselves to accommodate the needs of the activities that they support;

  7. that visually and kinesthetically instantiate learning principles in the design;

  8. that permit 'around-the-clock' usage and frequent change-out and upgrading of systems.

Design Approach and Process

It has become clear that the design process for such a multi-purpose building must be strongly collaborative featuring a strong partnership between the SLL and innovative space planners and technologists from varied sectors.

The Lab will engage in a series of "technology visioning" sessions as a part of the design process. These sessions will allow the Lab to consider what kind of technologies might be incorporated into new learning spaces.

Interaction during the design process with architects is crucial. The SLL will need to develop a research activity to explore relevant issues in learning environment design. It will be important to identify the best "surrogate minds," both internal and external to Stanford, to participate further in the Learning Lab efforts . The Lab needs to consider the technology vision in parallel with the physical architectural details. Technology systems may draw significant resources, even in comparison to those required for the interior fit-out, as technology will be a major component of Lab activities and will change rapidly throughout the "lifetime" of the spaces. Finally the Lab needs to more actively engage students and other potential "non-traditional" occupant communities in the design process to gain their perspective on the features of the design.

APPENDIX: An Incomplete List of Possible Space Metaphors

As a part of the Learning Lab's internal brainstorming and discussions, several metaphors have been proposed for the kinds of spaces that might support the kind of experimental learning environment envisioned at the Lab. These metaphors suggest many of the characteristics of the spaces deemed to be valuable in the promotion of learning communities and environments. Several of metaphors are listed below, but this list should not be considered comprehensive:

Learning piazza - a large open courtyard area dominates this form of space, with smaller, more intimate spaces distributed along the outer perimeter. Some form of organizing element might be located in the center of the space to act as a visual point of interest as well as draw social interactions.

Design Loft - the loft space notion emphasizing the continually changing dynamic and the evolution of space. As projects proceed, successive generations of artifacts are developed and appear. Tools appropriate to the design tasks are in close proximity to the space. Individual work areas take on characteristics that reflect the personalities of their occupants; group gathering places emphasize informality while providing work surfaces for sketching and other forms of collaborative communication.

Art Studio - a wide variety of materials are available for creation of artistic forms in many media. Models and artifacts are brought to the space to stimulate the creative process and perhaps to be incorporated into the artwork. A largely undefined space, the furnishings, artifacts, pedestals, and other movable elements of the space create the 'organization' in response to the projects that are underway in the space.

Showcase - displays are created and installed in the space in such a way as to suggest a 'flow path' that takes a visitor through the midst of the exhibit. Interpretive signs, audio guides, and electronic displays explain the nature of each of the exhibit elements. In some cases, these elements may offer an interactive component that allows the visitor to take control of their own experience and create a 'take-away' or 'token' of the interaction.

Grand stair - a very wide staircase might wind its way around a large atrium-like space. Periodic 'landings' along the staircase are each able to accommodate some form of activity, whether it be individual workspace, small group meeting areas, or exhibit space. As one climbs the stair, it is possible to observe and/or participate in these 'public' activities.

Theatre stage - in this environment, 'sets' are constructed to serve the specific needs of a particular performance. A number of different effects can be created using a common set of elements (trap doors, backdrops, props, etc.)

Circus tent - a simple canopy defines a space and provides isolation from distracting environments. Simple to set up, portable for set up at many different locations, yet distinctive enough to draw attention of passersby.

Exhibit gallery - a space in which visitors can experience artifacts, interactive displays, and simulcast events. Such spaces provide interpretation of the exhibits, transform to accommodate new touring shows, and may provide 'take away' materials for later contemplation and application (e.g. gift shop, informative books, reproductions, etc.)

Philosophy cafe - modeled after the French phenomenon where a discussion topic is posted outside a cafe with a meeting time and date. At the announced time, a group of individuals interested in the topic comes together for discussion.

Photo shoot staging - scaffolding is used to easily create temporary setups for visual effect or to support equipment. Advantage is that equipment can be staged and disassembled quickly, while total flexibility is possible.

Rotating stage - a rotating platform supports one or more walls of a space. The wall can then be rotated quickly to present a new 'scene' prepared earlier in a back area.