Understanding Free-Choice Learning: A Review of the Research and
its Application to Museum Web Sites
According to the USA Weekend web site on December 14, 1997, nearly 8,000
museum web pages existed, some representing actual museums around the
world and others existing solely in cyberspace. During a recent 'surf'
on the Net using one of the standard search engines, 144,232 museum-related
items were found. Although probably not all of these represent museum
web sites, a fraction of these would still be a large number. Even the
American Association of Museums now includes a special section on web
sites in its Official Museum Directory published each year. Museums
have met the Web!!!
What this means is that now daily as people explore the Web they
have the option of selecting a museum-oriented web site. The question
that we would like to raise and discuss in this paper is why would
someone choose to do so? In other words, do we know anything about
the potential expectations, interests and behaviors of these web users?
Is there any research that can guide developers as they attempt to
design effective web sites?
At first blush, the answer might seem no. Specific user research
in this area is very much in its infancy and, if done at all, is most
often formative in nature, focusing for example on whether the screen
will be user friendly or the instructions clear. However, if we step
back and attempt to put this activity into a larger context we see
that there is a large body of very pertinent literature, the literature
of free-choice learning.
Current research would suggest that people seem to learn under one
of two conditions: 1) when they have to learn (compulsory learning);
and 2) when they want to learn (free-choice learning; Falk and Dierking,
in preparation). Like many dichotomies, this one is not always clear
cut but by and large, it adequately separates learning experiences
into two groups. Free-choice learning is learning just for the sake
of learning, learning for fun, learning if and when the internal motivation
strikes. This is the type of learning that motivates someone to browse
a museum web site or read National Geographic Magazine, watch the
Discovery Channel or The History Channel or travel to foreign countries
to explore ancient cities, rain forests or coral reefs. It is the
type of learning that predominates most of daily life. People today
are finding it increasingly necessary and enjoyable to actively and
knowingly engage in such free-choice learning. Simply put, people
are more and more seeking out free-choice learning opportunities.
So what does the literature about free choice learning tell us about
the potential web user? Much of the research in this area has focused
on museum visitation and it is this research with which we are most
familiar. This literature documents why people go to museums, what
they do when they are there and what the long-term impacts of these
experiences might be (ASTC, 1994; Balling & Cornell, 1985; Borun,
Cleghorn & Garfield, 1995; Dierking & Falk, 1994; Falk, 1988;
Falk, 1993; Falk & Dierking, 1992; Falk, Balling, & Liversidge,
1985; Graburn, 1984; Horn & Finney, 1994; Kimche, 1978; Kimmel
& Maves, 1972; Yellis, 1985). In addition, there is a growing
body of literature documenting the specific use of multimedia in museums
(Thomas & Mintz, in press; Dierking & Falk, in press). Although
the specific findings of these two areas of research may not apply
in all cases, there is much that is relevant.
Visiting museums and museum-like settings is one of the most popular
leisure time activities in America (Naisbitt & Aburdene, 1990).
A recent American Association of Museums survey (American Association
of Museums, 1992) found that 565.8 million people visited U.S. museums
in 1988; averaging out to nearly two visits per year for every man,
woman and child in the country. Who are these visitors? Traditionally,
this question has been answered demographically, using variables such
as age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, income and occupation.
Although these variables provide some insight into the profile of
a museum visitor, as suggested by Falk (1998), demographic variables
are unlikely to adequately describe, let alone predict, a behavior
as complex as museum-going. Instead, additional dimensions must be
considered, including psychographic variables such as leisure time
interests and preferences, personal history and value variables such
as early childhood experiences and attitudes towards learning and
education, and a range of environmental variables such as recommendations
from friends and family, cost, time and museum marketing. Taken together,
these demographic, psychographic, personal history and environmental
factors begin to reveal some interesting patterns and relationships
that relate to the complex behavior known as museum-going.
A variety of studies have utilized what are called psychographics,
psychological and motivational characteristics of individuals, to
understand museum-going. Individuals with similar demographics (age,
gender, race/ethnicity, education, income and occupation) can possess
very different psychographics. Hood (1983, 1993) has consistently
argued for the use of psychographics in addition to demographics in
the characterization of museum visitors. For example, it is now known
that museum-goers possess the following psychographic profile: they
value learning; seek out the challenge of exploring and discovering
new things; and place a high value on doing something worthwhile in
their leisure time (Hood, 1983, 1993; Falk, 1993; Horn & Finney,
1994; Hushion, et. al., 1994). Such characteristics are shared by
a variety of people, including peoples of all race/ethnicities, incomes,
level of educational attainment, age and gender. Museum visiting can
be characterized as a more active, challenging leisure experience
than traditionally passive leisure pursuits such as television watching
or movie-going. Most of the Americans attending museums believe that
education is an important life-long process. They perceive that there
are few more interesting and important things to do in their leisure
time. They are also likely to perceive museums as places that afford
opportunities to expand their own and their children's learning horizons.
Personal history and values play a major role in museum-going as
well. On the whole, individuals who go to museums have explicitly
chosen to attend not because of some theoretical interest in learning,
but out of a concrete interest in a particular area or areas of learning,
whether science, history or art (Dierking & Holland, 1994; Dierking,
Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996; Falk, 1993; Falk & Holland,
1994; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992; Taylor, 1986). A disproportionate
number of museum-goers go to museums expressly for the benefit of
their children ( Falk, 1993; Rosenfeld, 1980; Taylor, 1986). We also
know that many American museum-goers share some common experiences
in childhood that appear to directly relate to museum-going (Falk,
Individuals interested in art go to art-oriented museums; individuals
interested in history go to history-oriented museums and individuals
interested in science go to science-oriented museums. For example,
well over 90% of visitors to science museums express a high to moderate
interest in science; the 10% who indicated a low interest claimed
to be visiting with someone with high interest (Falk, 1993). Although
there is overlap between audiences at various types of museums, most
art-lovers do not regularly attend science museums and plant fanciers
are not usually frequent zoo-goers. It is non-trivial that visitors
self-select an institution to visit because they perceive that it
will satisfy a basic and very personal need they have to learn more
about a particular subject area. Whereas most visitors profess high
to moderate interest in the subjects presented at the museum, the
same individuals profess only low to moderate knowledge (Dierking
& Holland, 1994; Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996;
Falk, 1995; Falk & Holland, 1994). However, it is important to
note that very few people go to museums to become experts. Rather,
museum-goers are interested, curious lay people, going to generally
improve their knowledge, not specifically improve their knowledge.
Museums are helpful environments in which to satisfy that desire for
personal exploration of the arts, history and/or sciences.
Transcending personal interests and values, much of any individual's
leisure behavior is influenced by early childhood experiences and
parental modeling (Kelly, 1974, 1977). From a variety of studies,
we now know that one of the most important determinants of adult free-choice
museum-going behavior is whether or not the adult went to museums
with their family as a child (Falk, 1993; Holzer, Scott & Bixler,
1997; Kelly, 1977; Smith, Wolf & Starodubtsev, 1994). In addition
to family behavior, other childhood leisure behaviors seem to be correlated
with adult museum-going. These behaviors include reading, taking family
trips and participating in clubs, associations or scouts. Although
none of these activities in and of themselves could be said to result
in museum-going, it seems that the type of individual who was likely
to read in their free time or participate as part of a club or scouts
is more likely than one who did not engage in such activities to grow
up into a museum-going adult. It also seems that parents who took
their children on trips, much as going to a museum, provided appropriate
role models for things to do with children, indirectly resulting in
an increased propensity to become an adult museum-goer.
Most visitors arrive at the museum with expectations about what
will actually occur (Falk & Dierking, 1992; Falk, Holland &
Dierking, 1992). Museum audiences, whether families, adult couples
or singles, agree on a few characteristics: 1) the best museum is
the one that presents a variety of interesting material that appeals
to different age groups, educational levels, personal interests and
technical levels; 2) whether visiting as a group or alone, visitors
expect to be mentally engaged in some way by what they see, in other
words, they expect to be able to personally connect in some way with
the objects, ideas and experiences presented and often expect to do
more than just look at things, perhaps even become physically engaged;
and, 3) people visiting in groups, either families with children or
all-adult groups, expect an opportunity for a shared experience, as
the members of the group with their varying interests and backgrounds
exchange and communicate their knowledge and excitement for what they
see and experience. In addition, there are also some built-in assumptions.
Paramount is the knowledge that this is the real stuff or about the
real stuff; consequently, visitors believe that there is an inherent
sense of integrity to the objects, ideas and experiences presented
within the museum (Falk & Dierking, 1992; Shoup & Associates,
Probing further and asking what makes a museum visit engaging, some
visitors refer to "hands-on" or "touching" experiences,
others indicate a desire for a human presence in the galleries to
respond to specific visitor questions and to provide explanations,
and many refer to the role that media can play in fostering interactivity,
particularly CD-ROMS and computer interactives. A universal theme
emerges from these descriptions: all reflect a reciprocal relationship
in which the visitor is given choices, makes choices, becomes involved
and ultimately is an active participant in the experience. This is
true whether the visitor is curious and asks a question of a facilitator
on the gallery floor, experiences something new by encountering or
touching an object for the first time or in a different way, or simply
chooses among options on a computer terminal.
Some visitors are very knowledgeable about specific aspects of the
museum collection; others are relatively uninformed. Some visitors,
even if lacking in subject matter knowledge, are curious about the
objects and ideas represented by the museum; some are not. Some visitors
are experienced museum-goers; some are not. Adult-only visitors share
many of these same expectations. Although adults' expectations are
frequently more subject-matter driven, they too are likely to have
social motivations (Adams, 1989; Dierking & Falk, 1994; Falk,
1993; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992; Horn & Finney, 1994;
McManus, 1987). Families go disproportionately to science centers,
natural history museums, historical sites, children's museums, zoos
and aquaria. Adult-only visitors are disproportionately represented
among the public visiting art museums, historical homes, craft and
design museums, botanical gardens and arboreta. Schools bring children
on field trips to all these sites, but more heavily visit the institutions
included in the first (family) grouping.
As suggested earlier, the public does expect science museums to
generally provide information on science, contemporary art museums
to display contemporary art, historical sites to be about a specific
historical period, botanical gardens to include a wide variety and
assortment of plants, etc. Most visitors are not experts in these
subjects, but rather highly interested novices (Dierking & Holland,
1994; Falk, 1995; Falk & Holland, 1994; Falk, Holland & Dierking,
1992). Accordingly, the public is seeking interesting, informative,
but non-technical exhibitions. In all cases, interesting and informative
are relative terms -- relative to the needs, background and prior
experiences of the visitor. Thus, there can be no absolute definition
of what is "interesting and informative."
Although much of what the museum visitor encounters is subject-specific
information related to science, history or art, as reviewed by Falk
and Dierking (1992), much is not. Visitors also have other less subject
matter-oriented expectations of the rich social, physical and personal
contexts museums afford. For example, various studies have documented
that beyond "content," museums afford opportunities for
social interactions (cf. Dierking and Falk, 1994), for escaping from
the normal hum-drum of the work-a-day world (Graburn, 1977; Yellis,
1985) and for the experience of interesting and unusual built or natural
environments (Falk, 1988; Kimmel & Maves, 1972). Visitors, particularly
to science museums and science centers, also increasingly expect to
encounter some type of multimedia experience at a museum. This could
be an IMAX film, a computer interactive, or a video disc; the particular
media is not the issue as much as the fact that such experiences are
increasingly an expected option for museum visitors. Visitors appreciate
the use of multimedia, recognizing that computers, CD-ROMs and other
technologies can provide both varying degrees of depth of information,
as well as options that facilitate visitor flexibility and choice
(Shoup & Associates, 1995).
What does the audience research reveal about the use of media in
museums? Probably the one major generalization is that media use is
highly self-selected. In a number of studies that we and others have
conducted, not all visitors have interacted with all of the media
elements in any exhibition, in the same way that few visitors read
all the labels or look at all of the objects in an exhibition either.
For example, during a study of a decorative arts exhibition at Winterthur,
in which many visitors were enthusiastic about the computer interactives,
there were also a number of visitors who expressed no interest in
using the interactives at all or only interacted with them minimally
even though they were designed to enhance visitors' ability to look
at the objects nearby (Dierking & Harper, 1995; Dierking &
Marcum, 1994). Typical responses by this group were: "I would
rather spend my time looking at the objects themselves." and
"I work with computers all week and so when I come to a museum
I don't choose to do so."
Similar results were observed at several science centers as part
of a series of studies of the computer interactives in the AIDS traveling
exhibition "What About AIDS?" (Falk & Holland, 1992;
Falk & Holland, 1993; Holland & Falk, 1995), of a film and
videodisc in the Spirit of the Motherland exhibition at the Virginia
Museum of Fine Arts (Dierking & Spencer-Etienne, 1995; Dierking,
Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996), of films in the American Encounters
exhibition at the National Museum of American History (Falk &
Holland, 1994) and of films and video loops in the Liberation, 1945
exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (Dierking, Falk &
Abrams, 1996). These are very different institutions, yet very similar
results were observed. It is important to note, of course, that in
each of these studies there were also a number of visitors that spent
a great deal of quality time interacting with the media elements.
These results support the notion that media is an important option
for some visitors.
Are media users different from non-media users? Media users tend
to be younger visitors, children and youth, often those visitors who
feel comfortable with media, especially when one is considering visitor
use of such media as computer interactives and videodiscs. Gender
is an interesting factor also when considering media use. Only a limited
number of studies have investigated the relationship between media
use and gender in the museum setting. In one study, more males were
direct users of the computer, but both genders were equally represented
as indirect users (Pawlukiewicz, Bohling & Doering, 1989). In
another study utilizing touch screen computers as an orientation device,
65% of the users were males (Sharpe, 1983). In a 1991 study by Morrissey,
investigating an interactive videodisc in a special exhibit on birds,
groups with boys were twice as likely to use the program as groups
with girls, although the results were more equivocal when adults were
in the group (Morrissey, 1991). In a formative evaluation of a computer
interactive for the "How Things Fly" gallery we conducted
at the National Air & Space Museum (Abrams & Dierking, 1996),
71% of the self-selected sample were males, while in a summative evaluation
of an interactive videodisc in the Spirit of the Motherland exhibition
at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, users were more prevalently female
(Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996). Obviously gender is
not a straightforward variable when it comes to media use.
While conducting a remedial evaluation of the National Gallery of
Art's Micro Gallery, a separate gallery area on the first floor of
the West Wing designed to provide videodisc access and more in-depth
information about the Gallery's collection, we tried to determine
how many people used the Micro Gallery and whether they were representative
of the usual visitors to the National Gallery. Results suggested that
there was a great deal of self-selection going on at the entrance
of the gallery in terms of who entered the Micro Gallery once at the
museum and who did not. For the most part, the visitors to the Micro
Gallery were relatively representative of other gallery visitors,
the main difference relating to their level of ease with technology
or their interest in delving in more detail into aspects of the National
Gallery's collection via a videodisc (Adams & Abrams, 1995). In
the course of observing and interviewing over 100 visitors, there
were only a few visitors that expressly had visited the museum that
day to visit the Micro Gallery.
This study, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Winterthur
studies, also provide data that reduces, if not eliminates, a major
concern that many skeptical museum professionals have about the use
of media by visitors in exhibitions. There is no evidence that visitors
choose to use a media element rather than look at objects and read
labels in an exhibition. In fact, there is some modest evidence suggesting
that some of these media presentations, such as the Micro Gallery
at the National Gallery of Art, the Spirit of the Motherland videodisc
and the Experience Africa film at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
and the connoisseurship interactives at the Winterthur, actually served
as resources and incentives for visitors to look at objects again
or in more depth after engaging in the media experience. The media
presentation alone was not the museum experience for visitors; they
had come expecting to look at and examine objects and/or phenomena
and they did so.
In the minds of visitors, what are some of the pros and cons of
media use in museums? Obviously, visitors are interested in the fact
that media can increase their options and choices, particularly when
considering media such as computers and videodiscs. They recognize
that in many cases technology is the solution to becoming more interactive,
especially for museums wishing to serve children and youth. They recognize
that computers and CD-ROM technology can provide choices in terms
of the depth of information presented, as well as what is presented
and, in many cases, how it is presented. Visitors have concerns about
technology also. They would like media options in museums to be more
"user-friendly," assisting them in knowing what options
are available and once the appropriate choice of interest has been
made, they want to be able to successfully experience the option.
What insights does this literature offer for those designing museum
web sites? As we suggested, we do not know how much of this research
is directly relevant--it is unclear at this stage how much of an overlap
exists between the museum visitor and the potential museum web user.
Our sense is that there is some overlap, particularly when it comes
to the psychographic profiles and expectations of these individuals,
but quite honestly we don't know. Beyond the specifics presented here,
however, what probably is an important take-away message is how important
it is to understand the profiles of your potential users in order
to create a web experience that is meaningful to them and to recognize
that most likely web use is as complex a behavior as museum-going.
It goes without saying also, but it is critical to insure that the
integrity and quality of what is presented in a museum still is present
in the web site. As we suggested earlier, visitors do assume that
there is an inherent integrity to the objects, ideas and experiences
presented within the museum and most probably extend those expectations
to a museum web site so there is an obligation to uphold. Remember,
visitors have freely chosen to visit your web site, consequently you
want to be sure to use the media well, exercising the same high standards
of integrity that you would in any of your endeavors.
This integrity includes communication integrity. One can have created
the most wonderful web site in the world but if users do not know
it is available, understand how to use it effectively, or make sense
of the content presented, all that effort has been wasted. Whenever
possible, front-end testing of concepts and formative testing of interfaces
should be conducted with users during the development of the web site.
This testing can be modest but ensures that there has been some effort
to determine whether concepts, directions and graphics communicate
well and clearly to potential users.
There is also a great need for specific research to understand the
role that the Internet and web use is playing in people's lives and
the potential it has for interpreting museum objects, phenomena and
associated ideas to users. As we suggested, much of the free-choice
learning research has focused on museum visitation. Very little research
on free choice learning has focused on who is drawn to the Internet
or the role that the Internet and museum web sites can play in communicating
ideas; studies of this nature would be exceedingly useful as a guide
for this burgeoning activity. Potential interesting questions might
be: Are their particular types of ideas that lend themselves to web
site presentations? Is there a profile of a "typical" web
user? And What types of web experiences support user learning? It
would seem that there is tremendous potential in this media to extend
the museum experiences of current visitors and to potentially attract
new users. The Internet promises to be the ultimate tool of the Learning
Society, if we can learn how best to harness its potential. As we
begin to develop a better body of knowledge about the interpretive
role of a museum web site, we will be in a much better position to
wisely use this media to support positive user experiences.
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