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How much is too much technology in a science center or museum, or is the sky the limit? Does it engage or distract?

This is an extended discussion of the question that appeared in the Viewpoints department of the January/February 2014 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Good examples of technology gone bad can often be traced to poor design. Does the design of an interactive cause visitors to isolate from others, or does it support social engagement? Does the design of a mobile app focus visitors’ attention away from an exhibit, or does it deepen the awesome moment of that particular time and place? We can never escape the potential for digital media to engage or distract. That struggle is unavoidable, especially when visitors can carry in their own devices. But we can support visitors to develop an intentionality in their use of technology and support them to mediate their visit in ways that connect them with the exhibits and the social and physical spaces around them.

Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning, American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Technology is a tool, and the correct tools must be matched for each unique job. To me, coming from an exhibit development background, the hands-on, minds-on visceral immersion into an experience is sacrosanct: Technological applications that act as distractions to pull the visitor out of that moment of exploration and discovery create issues that need resolving. However, tools that can be utilized by visitors to dig deeper into a phenomenon or experience potentially enhance the experience, especially opt-in technologies that permit customization of the experience, whether through deeper explanations, games, challenges, questions to consider, tools for investigation, activities to do at home, additional resources, real-life examples, etc. Therefore, I would posit that rather than a wholesale judgment of technology as either an enhancement or a distraction to the museum setting, examine whether the individual deployment of technology enhances or detracts from the visitor experience.

Keith Ostfeld, director of educational technology and exhibit development, Children’s Museum of Houston

I try to begin exhibition projects as a “technology agnostic,” as the most suitable technologies often emerge from the content. That being said, our exhibits hang around for several years and have budgets that are a tiny fraction of the games industry. We need to think very carefully before offering user experiences that feel too much like something you can get at home. If it looks like the web, or feels like the media in our living rooms (or what that may be in a few years), are we really adding any value? Sometimes the answer is yes, but not as often as you may think.

Andy Lloyd, special projects manager, International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, United Kingdom

A science museum should be a living, breathing, organic space that seamlessly integrates technology as we would use in our daily lives with the scientific concepts being presented to the public. As a microcosm of the real world in which we live, science museums should replicate the intricately intertwined webs that are created by the interplay of daily transactional life and varying levels of dependence/reliance on technology. The exposure to technology should be both age appropriate and cognitively appropriate.

While technology does enhance the experience of the learner—the tools in themselves are engaging and encourage independent learning—there are concerns with users not gathering any real depth of knowledge through use of the tech tools or developing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The human interaction facet of learning is therefore required to develop higher order skills and deeper knowledge from the visitor experience. That balance between technology and human interaction is determined by the local context.

While science centers should showcase where technological advancements are going, they also need to be responsible for stimulating the human genius and our innate creative capacities. Our new center will have a major role to play in promoting national development and economic diversification. It will not only showcase technological advances, but will also offer visitors myriad opportunities to nurture and develop their creative abilities using science and technology. In today’s world of conflict, science centers globally also need to focus on the aspects of behavioral science that are critical for building a peaceful society by engaging participants in group interaction and human-to-human learning experiences.

To conclude, the real question is not just about technology, but also about what we wish to accomplish and the human aspect in the equation.

The National Institute for Higher Education, Research, Science, and Technology (NIHERST), Trinidad and Tobago

For me, the most important question is, “What is the right tool to engage, enlighten, and delight your audience relevant to the science content?” For some subjects, having an animated presenter and a couple of great specimens is all it takes. For other content, a 3D animation and a tablet might do the trick. Different audiences have different interests, attention spans, and comfort levels with digital technology. And the “perfect technology” is always going to be shifting and evolving. In general though, “too much technology” would be when the tools don’t connect with the scientific content or process you are hoping to instill in the visitor, i.e. screens for screens’ sake.

A microscope is a powerful piece of technology, a window to another world. A joystick interface that allows the public to control an actual microscope, and have that image displayed on a large monitor for many visitors is even more powerful.

Rik Panganiban, senior manager of digital learning, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

There are multiple questions there, but the reality is that it is not about having the most technology in your science center or museum; it’s about having the right technology to engage learners while they are in your institution, and to give them something to remember, or even to engage with, once they have left your institution. Today’s designers need to ask themselves what they want to achieve with the learning experience and how technology might help. Assuming the technology in question is new technology (remember a pencil is a piece of technology), designers can help learners to document their learning through opportunities to collect, analyze, and synthesize data. This raises a larger question: What data do your learners need?

Eileen M. Smith, director, E21 Creative Studio, Institute for Simulation & Training, University of Central Florida, Orlando

Too much technology in a science center occurs if the hands-on aspect becomes lost, or when visitors can no longer say “I do and I understand,” as Confucius once taught. For technology to truly engage, it should be used as a tool to encourage creativity and meaningful interaction. For example, touchscreen technology is really nothing special for guests anymore. Nothing they can’t do at home, or on a friend’s phone. Often even the largest touchscreen interactive, loaded up with amazing videos, graphics, and content, will simply lose out or “distract” when juxtaposed next to a plain old hand crank. Yet something like an infrared camera feed projection, displaying body movements and patterns, directly expresses the user’s creativity and engages them in a new and meaningful way of “doing.”

Jeff Rosenblatt, director, Kansas City’s Science Center, Science City & Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium, Missouri

We have wrestled with this question since 1922, when Science Museum director Sir Henry Lyons argued that the needs of “the ordinary visitor” should be placed ahead of those of specialists, and came up with the innovation of a Children’s Gallery. Since that gallery opened in December 1931, we have constantly tested technologies to see if and how they can become a tool in the museum’s interpretive armory to bring our objects and stories to life in an engaging way.

Dave Patten, the museum’s head of new media, recently worked with Google on Web Lab, which was enjoyed by 6.7 million people online as well as 580,000 museum visitors. In November, we launched Collider, where digital artist Finn Ross uses video to immerse visitors in the science of the Large Hadron Collider. Thanks to the rise of the smartphone, visitors can now use an augmented reality app, or contribute to 1000 Hands, an art installation for our new Media Space. And Daniel Evans, head of web, will soon release our collections in the form of open data so that any creative spark anywhere can blend and mash our data for the benefit of anyone. I’m sure that Sir Henry would have approved.

Roger Highfield, director of external affairs, Science Museum, London

Ideally, every project starts with the story, the message. As the details of the content are fleshed out, the creative challenge is to figure out the best way to share that story—whether that includes technology or not. If you start with a technology and try to fit a storyline around a certain piece of equipment, the technology can overshadow or dilute the narrative. The same can be said about “gamification.” Many groups today are trying to attract younger audiences with the same kinds of games that kids are playing on consoles and handheld devices. If the content is genuinely compatible with that form of communication, then by all means—Wii me! But if it isn’t, I would look for other creative ways to deliver your message.

Phil Hettema, president and creative executive, the Hettema Group, Pasadena, California

When deciding on the technology to introduce or use on the floor, the question really shouldn’t be centred on “quantity” but on the fundamental questions like how does it help support and contribute toward the aspired learning experience for our visitors? If done and used well, the technology will be integrated into the overall experience to the point of being “invisible.” Egregious technology use on the other hand includes dumping loads of content into a digital repository that no one bothers with such as on an iPad, and using technology for its own sake.

Daniel Loy, director of strategic planning, Petrosains, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The above statements represent the opinions of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of their institutions or of ASTC.

 

About the image: Youth in the American Museum of Natural History’s Virtual Wonder Cabinet program use tablets and VoiceThread to collect items for their online exhibits. Photo courtesy AMNH/R. Mickens