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Archives & Museum Informatics

Can Your Web Site Go the Distance? Integrating the Web to make distance learning programs go further

David T. Schaller, Educational Web Adventures LLP and Chris Tower, Bell Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota, USA


How can museum distance-learning programs incorporate the Web into their programs? In recent years, the University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History's Bell LIVE! program has used the Web both to enhance its program and increase its marketing efforts. By developing content-rich online resources and activities, such as eco-games, nature field guides, and discussion forums, Bell LIVE! attracts thousands of potential new subscribers to its Web site each month, while serving its educational mission. Bell LIVE!ís experience is relevant to museums as well, since its approachógiving Web visitors a tasty appetizer to lure them to the main courseócan serve as both marketing and outreach for exhibits and other programs.

Distance-learning programs are becoming increasingly common at museums. Not everyone can physically get to the museumómany factors, including the cost of a field trip (always increasing), school bus shortages, and time limitations all conspire to keep students away. So museums must bring their educational message and programs to their audience.

Distance learning programs share one key characteristic with the Webóthey offer virtual experiences, since they are often presented via television through interactive TV networks, satellite broadcasts and teleconferencing. So the Web is well-suited to be integrated into these programs and used as a distance delivery method in itself. This paper will look at how the Web can be used to enhance and be integrated into a distance learning program with dual goals: to further the educational mission of the program, and to help market the program to new audiences.

While our focus here is a distance-learning program, we think these examples and lessons could easily be applied to museum exhibits, since the goals are much the same--to give your Web visitors a tasty appetizer in hopes of luring them to the main course, whether it's the subscription program or an exhibit.

Bell LIVE! and educational outreach

Bell LIVE! was developed to solve two educational problems. First, science programs in upper elementary and middle schools do not always have the tools to engage students in science that is relevant and meaningful to their lives. Secondly, there is a lack of resources for school field trips and an unequal distribution of who gets to visit natural areas and science centers. Access to real research by scientists is not always available to make the connection to this group of students so that they can realize that science can be a viable option for a career. Many middle school students lose interest in science at this time in their lives due to the perception that science is hard and has no relevance to their lives.

Minnesota IDEALS ( at the Bell Museum of Natural History produces a curriculum and electronic field trip called Bell LIVE! This program provides a solution to the above problems. Through three hours of live satellite broadcasts, interactive Internet components, and a comprehensive curriculum, Bell LIVE! links schools and other organizations to places where discoveries are made and real research takes place. It allows students the chance to participate in live environmental studies that can make an impact on their lives and future.

Bell LIVE! takes students and teachers on a live science expedition. Along the way, students are able to apply what they have learned in the classroom from a hands-on inquiry based curriculum to a live scientific broadcast. During the live satellite broadcast, students are able to interact with the researchers through live telephone calls, e-mails, discussion boards and faxes. The students are able exchange data and ask the researchers questions.

In the past few years, Bell LIVE! has turned to the Web with a dual purpose: to extend and enhance its educational program, and to help market the program to potential subscribers. In many ways, we can kill two birdsóor rather, provide a healthy habitat for two speciesówith one Web site. We're providing our audience of teachers and students with high-quality, interactive educational programmingóand what better way to attract new subscribers than by letting them experience that programming first-hand? That's why we decided to keep the entire site free, rather than restricting it to subscribers as many other distance-learning Web sites do.

Enhancing Bell LIVE!s educational program with the Web

The primary goal was to create a Web site that complemented the curriculum and broadcast while offering educational resources that could only exist the Webóto offer things that would be impossible to offer in any other medium. We didn't want to give away the storeóthe broadcast and curriculumóbut we did want to give people a strong reason to go to the Web site and enhance their educational experience.

So we had several educational goals for the Web site:

1) Offer additional information resources about the topic;

2) Give students a way to communicate with each other, and with our

scientist researchers;

3) Create valid educational activities that were interactive, in-depth and immersive.

What did we develop to reach these goals? A set of Web-based resources and activities that extends and enhances the educational goals of each yearís broadcast. Our "On the Prairie" site ( was launched last summer in conjunction with our 1999 program. We will focus mainly on this site, although we will also examine our efforts in the preceding year to show the evolution of our goals and methods.

Figure 1: On the Prairie home page

"On the Prairie" offers a variety of resources and activities designed to meet the above goals:

1) Additional information resources. Although the curriculum was 200 pages long, there were still many things we could not include in it because of cost or the nature of the print medium itself. For example, the curriculum examines Native American life on the prairie, and we wanted to help students learn a bit about the Ojibwe language. But a pronunciation guide is cumbersome for students. So we created an audio pronunciation guide on the Webóclick on a word to hear it pronounced. The Field Guide was something else we couldnít have done in the curriculumótoo many pictures, too many pagesóbut on the Web it works well and, even better, integrates nicely with the Build-A-Prairie game.

2) Student interactionóstudent-to-student and student-to-researcher. A key feature of Bell LIVE! is the opportunity for students to ask questions of scientists during the live broadcast. We wanted to expand this interaction in several ways:

  • allow students to communicate directly with other students around the country;
  • allow students to communicate with the scientists in additional settings
  • than the live broadcast;
  • allow students to ask us questions before and after the one-hour broadcast.

Web technology is perfectly suited for these one-to-one interactions. We developed a Water Quality Database, where students can input data form their field studies and compare it with data from other students around the country. Some classes hundreds of miles apart even collaborated on their field studies, incorporating each otherís results into their lessons.

We rented a chat room for a month and held a series of live chats with our researchers, giving students a more relaxed and in-depth opportunity to talk with the scientists. Chat rooms are very inexpensive to rent and easily modified to meet your specific needs.

We implemented a bulletin board forum so all students ask their questions for weeks before and after the broadcast day, extending the interactions into a month-long period. There are many types of bulletin board programs, but most are cheap and easily set up.

2) Online educational experiences. The Web has the potential to be even more powerful and effective than television as an educational medium. We wanted to start exploring and exploiting that capability by creating online educational experiences, not just resources.

The power of the Web as an educational medium is that it gives the user control over her experience. This has long been exploited by hypertext linking, allowing users to navigate through the material according to their interests. But the Web offers many greater opportunities for active learning, through the use of simulations and similar types of games that let users explore the subject, evaluate information and images, and make decisions in order to accomplish a goal.

Our first attempt was for the 1998 program about watersheds. We developed an ecosystem management game called The Watershed Game. ( This game asks students to choose the best management practices for a range of situations and environments within a single watershed. The answers are weighted, rather than being strictly right or wrong, to show the trade-offs implicit in ecosystem. management. Student choices are scored, so the game also serves as an evaluation tool for teachers.

Overall it worked pretty well, particularly in the way it took advantage of the Web's capability to track individual users choices. However, it didnít take advantage of the Webís other strengths as immersive, interactive hypermedia. For one thing, it was at its core simply a multiple-choice testóand it looked like it. We managed to photograph or create an image for each management situation, but even so, the game remains an illustrated multiple choice test. Students have no idea how well theyíre doing until they finish each section, and thereís little sense that this is an ongoing management simulation, a la SimCity.

Figure 2: Build-A-Prairie home page

For the 1999 program about prairie ecology, we developed another gameóBuild-a-Prairieóas part of the "On the Prairie" Web site. ( The goal for this game was to encourage students to learn about prairie species and habitats. We decided to use a decision-making approach, like the Watershed Game: The student takes on the challenge of restoring a healthy prairie by choosing the best plants and animals. But we wanted to do several key things differently:

First, we wanted to create more of a goal-oriented activity to give students something to do, something to accomplish. The Web isnít naturally suited for true constructivist learning activities, but we wanted students to have the sense that they were involved in a scientific endeavoróin this case, the prairie restoration process. Hence the title: Build-A-Prairie, and the structure of the game.

Second, rather than selecting one best answer out of a choice of four or five, students must choose the four best prairie species out of a set of six. This is far more complicated task, and much less susceptible to guesswork, so most students refer to the integrated Field Guide to the Prairie, where theyíll find the answers. While this may seem like an easy shortcut, it actually accomplishes our goal - we wanted them to browse the Field Guide, and the game gives them a goal-oriented reason to do so.

And third, we wanted this game to be much more rewarding visually than the Watershed Game had been. We wanted to show students the beauty of the prairieóespecially since itís one of the less appreciated landscapes. To this end, we created beautiful and scientifically-accurate animations for every step in the game. Choose the right combination of plants and watch those plants grow up out of the ground. Choose the right combination of birds and watch those birds fly and walk into the prairie. These animations are simply feedback, but they help the student feel she is part of the scene. And the illustrations are far more effective than photographs in expressing the behavior and charm of prairie plants and animals

Of course, Build-A-Prairie has its weaknesses. Itís still a form of multiple-choice test, rather than a true simulation revealing a complex web of choices and consequences. Because students canít progress in the game until they answer correctly, thereís no opportunity to let the consequences of their choices play outóto watch the prairie overrun by quack grass and Argentine ants, for example. We considered this option, since it would create a richer and less linear experience for the students. We decided against it for several reasons:

1) By letting a series of poor choices stack up, we couldnít offer step-by-step interpretation, so the gameís conclusion would have to carry the burden of all the interpretation. Yet by the time students have finished the game, they may not remember (or care) about their choice of forbs or herps earlier.

3) For better or worse, our priority was for students to learn the contentóprairie plants and animalsórather than experiment with ecosystem dynamics.

2) A true simulation would make the game much more complex, and we simply didnít have the budget for such an ambitious project (in fact, we didnít have the budget for what we did do).

Marketing Bell LIVE! with the Web site

The future of Bell LIVE! depends on it becoming more self-sustaining. The registrations of the satellite broadcast must eventually cover at least fifty percent of the production costs. To achieve this, we have to go beyond traditional marketing efforts, such as direct mail, conference exhibits, face-to-face school presentations, trade publication advertising, and distribution of informational videos.

Bell LIVE!ís educational target audience is fourth- through eighth-grade students throughout the United States and Canada, with a heavy concentration on our own backyard, Minnesota. Therefore, our target audience is the teachers and administrators of these students. This is, of course, a huge market to attract with a limited budget. But, as businesses around the world have discovered, the web offers an economical way to reach tens of thousands or more people. So by offering exciting educational opportunities for teachers and students, we hope to attract more attention to Bell LIVE!ís curriculum and broadcasts.

Bell LIVE!ís marketing approach has focused on three areas; goodwill marketing, e-mail lists and partnerships.

Goodwill Marketing

Our online eco-games (the Watershed Game and Build-a-Prairie) as well as our ecosystem field guides, water quality databases, chat sessions and other online activities are all quality products that relate to our core product, the curriculum and broadcasts. We have attempted to leverage the appeal of these resources to take advantage of "goodwill" marketing. In the past year, the JASON Project, Yahooligans, CyberSurfari, and (a popular feature in the Sunday comics) have all linked to our eco-games. These sites have driven a substantial number of visitors to our eco-games, raising our profile among our potential subscribers.

Figure 3: Visitation to Key Pages of Minnesota IDEALS Web site

As Figure 3 indicates, the eco-games are tremendously more popular than our Minnesota IDEALS web site. Fewer than 1000 people have visited the Minnesota IDEALS home page each month, while up to 8000 people per month have visited our eco-games. The peaks occur during the Bell LIVE! and JASON (a related, national program) broadcasts, when many thousands of students are focused on the curriculum.

Last spring, when we realized the disparity between visitation to the home page and the Watershed Game, we modified the Watershed Game home page so it would serve as an introduction to Minnesota IDEALS in general as well as the game itself. This page, now called the Eco-Games Gateway, continues to grow in popularity. A key tactic was to keep the URL the same when we revised that page, becauseóas is the nature of the Webóonce a URL is out there, the number of links to it will increase month-by-month. Itís far more effective to continue promoting an existing URL than try to seed the Web with a brand-new URL. Since last fall, the Eco-Games Gateway has featured both the Watershed Game and Build-A-Prairie, as well as an introduction to Minnesota IDEALS in general. As you can see, visitation to the Eco-Games Gateway shows no correlation to either JASON or Bell LIVE! broadcast periods, indicating we are reaching new audiences through that page.

We also are marketing our program on the Web in more active ways. Once users have found our site, we want to take advantage of the opportunity show them what our program is all about. Since Bell LIVE! is a satellite-based broadcast program, we have digitized short video clips and promos from past and upcoming broadcasts and put them on the site to give visitors a taste of our actual program. These digital video clips will become increasingly important marketing tools, since they give potential subscribers a good look at the very core of Bell LIVE!, the live broadcast.

While video will remain the core of our program, we understand that, for many users, video over the Web is not an ideal medium. We are developing alternate promotional experiences to complement the promo video that we typically produce and mail out each year. As of this writing, this alternate promo is in the early stages of development, but we hope to show it at our conference session.

Email for Promotion and Communication

Email is the killer app of the Internet, and we employ it in several ways on our Web site.

First, we have a "Recommend-It" page, where users can easily send an email to several friends or colleagues recommending the Web site. Once installed, this script offers an effortless way to spread the word about our Web site and our program.

Second, we solicit ideas and suggestions from the public for upcoming programs. We are currently soliciting suggestions for our 2000 program, A Superior Adventure, and we also receive comments, suggestions, and the occasional correction about past program content.

We have found this feedback to very helpful in regards to what we can do better or differently and suggestions for content.

Our most active form of traditional marketing is through direct mailings of brochures. We purchase certain mailing lists in an effort to target key educators. Although this has been effective for us, it can be very costly and can result in a lot of wasted mailing. To supplement this effort, weíve created a mailing list about upcoming programs. Teachers who are genuinely interested in our program can easily sign up for it from the Web site. We just recently established this tool, but it is already building up speed with a few inquiries each week. We expect the list will grow rapidly this spring when teachers begin planning for next year.


Partnerships are extremely important to Bell LIVE! The high-quality content for the curriculum, the broadcast, and the eco-games comes from educators, organizations and scientists in partnership with the Bell Museum. These partnering organizations also help market Bell LIVE! by promoting the program through their own educational channels, and by linking to our site. Partnerships have included groups such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, the JASON Project, various colleges and universities involved in our programs, and program funding institutions. Our eco-games and other resources have increased the appeal and utility of our site to these organizations. For example, the JASON Project linked to our Watershed Game during their 1999 program, drawing thousands of students and teachers to our site each month last winter. Since this is our target audience, it was a perfect demonstration of the importance of these eco-games to our marketing strategy. These teachers and students certainly wouldnít have come to our site without the attraction of the game.

In short, weíve found that we can satisfy two needs very effectively by developing these educational Web sites. Our eco-games have raised our national profile substantially and introduced our program to tens of thousands of potential subscribers, while simultaneously furthering our educational mission. We believe that this confluence of education and marketing willóand shouldógrow and spread in the coming years as the Web secures its place as a vital, dynamic medium between schools and museums.