Nodes and Connections: Science Museums in the Networked Age
Science Museums and the Internet
By Rob Semper
In the past 10 years, growing public use of the Internet has brought major changes in the way people communicate, learn, and experience the world. Dot-com excesses aside, the speed of adoption of this new medium as a ubiquitous communication network has been nothing short of amazing (see "By the Numbers," at the end of this article), and most of us are still trying to understand how to make best use of it. One thing is clear: The Internet will continue to have a significant effect on the way we work and learn and live.
Science centers have been quick to see the Web as a tool for connecting with audiences. The majority of museums now have web sites, and most use them to support membership, admissions, public information, visitor queries, and exhibition promotion. What I want to discuss here goes beyond the posting of information, however. I am interested in the potential of the Internet to support an online museum experiencesomething akin to, but not the same as, a visit to a physical museum.
The World Wide Web and museums were made for each other. It was no accident that among the first web sites ever built were a 1993 online exhibit on sharks developed by the University of California-Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology and, in the same year, "Rome Reborn," an online version of a Vatican Library exhibition at the Library of Congress.
The similarities among museums and the Web are many. Both are user-driven: In the museum, visitors browse with their feet, choosing which exhibits to explore; on the Web, people surf with a browser and choose where to go on a page. Both support two-way dialogue and community: In the museum, visitors interact with friends, family, and strangers while exploring exhibits; online, users interact with friends, family, and strangers while using common materials. Both engage the visitor through text and image and sound. Relevant content is critical to both. And both, at their best, become a personal, individual medium, almost infinitely configurable.
When we launched www. exploratorium.edu in 1993, there were still only 600 web sites worldwide. From the beginning, our goal was to create an authentic virtual museum, one rich with things to see and do. Online exhibits, multimedia exhibitions, and real-time experiences would provide interest to our web site visitors in the same way that exhibits, exhibitions, and live experiences provide interest to museum visitors. Over the years the Exploratorium web site, like the museum itself, has become a mixture of experiences with exhibits, programs, and teaching materials sharing space with a store, a library, a membership/ development connection, a magazine, and an online newsletter.
It has been interesting to see how our experience and instincts as museum designers have helped us understand how to create material for the Internet. To our delight, we found that the tools we'd developed for creating a compelling physical environment a sense of spatial design, an understanding of visitors' browsing behavior and personally attractive content, and skill in mixing sound, image, and text were equally valuable in creating a cyberworld. A key feature for us has been to think of our work as an extension of the museum. We are not floating in cyberspace but anchored in a physical exhibit place. The Exploratorium thus becomes a giant production studio for the Web, and the Internet a way for remote audiences to visit our place.
||Understanding the Online User
The process and methods of researching the educational value of web resources are very different from the classic, front-end, formative, and summative evaluation of museum-based exhibits.
For one thing, unlike museum visitor research (and more like educational television research), the specific demographics of individual Internet users are, for the most part, unknown. The best one can do is get general information about the web hosting system and the software of the user. Server logs can tell in aggregate when and from where people link into a site, how long they stay, and how much they view. They can give a detailed step-by-step analysis of how people navigate through a web site, but they cannot give any answer as to the context of use. Online questionnaires can be helpful in providing demographics and context, but they suffer a self-reporting bias.
Some of us have found that an interesting approach is to combine web server log analysis and online questionnaires with observations and interviews to develop some sort of understanding of the online user. For an application of this approach, see "Who's Out There?," a 2000 report of a study of three web resources conducted by the Science Museum, London, and the Exploratorium. Visit www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/semper/semper.html to read this paper online in the Museum and the Web conference archives. Rob Semper
Opportunities and challenges
Of course, not every museum has decided to invest its resources in web site content development. Why should science centers already busy providing on-site programs and exhibits-stretch themselves to accommodate this demanding medium? After all, the widespread adoption of the telephone and television did not significantly alter museums' conception of themselves as places to visit real things. Institutions simply made use of those technologies by incorporating them into everyday operations, both on and off the floor. But I contend that this time something is different, and that it is critical for us to examine what it means to be a science museum in a networked age.
Undoubtedly, the Web opens up opportunities in many ways. It allows museums to reach new audiences the public at home, teachers preparing for class, students doing homework, networked classrooms. It enables us to address current topics, including science research and real-time natural events. On the Web, we can offer new styles of interaction, such as conversations, debates, and discourse over time. And we can foster new collaborations, in which museums join with other institutions of science and education to present science to a broad public.
But this technology also has the potential to compete with us. Web browsing has become a major leisure-time activity, taking away from the limited time-budget people have to spend. By using the Internet, the mass media have become more interactive, more targeted, and more pervasive. Our people-friendly science and technology content is attractive to others online a fact that has not gone unnoticed by web site producers. A list of the 1,000 most-visited web sites compiled last year by Alexa Research included NASA. gov, Discovery. com, and PBS.com sites with material similar to what we offer in our science centers.
The distributed learning environment
Historically, the strength of science centers has come from unique placeness and identity. People come to a museum as much for its social and physical attributes as for its content. It is stimulating to visit a dramatic space with things to do and see and people to watch and engage with. But a focus on stand-alone space may hinder us as we consider the meaning of a networked museum.
BY THE NUMBERS
The following Internet statistics are derived from a variety of public and private sources.
U.S. Internet demographics1,
- In 2000, 51% of U.S. households had computers, up from 42.1% in 1998.
- Between December 1998 and August 2000, the share of U.S. households with Internet access rose from 26.2% to 41.5% an increase of 58%.
- In 2000 23.5% of African American households and 23.6% of Hispanic households had access to the Internet, compared with 11.2% and 12.6%, respectively, in 1998. But computer ownership in both groups remained unchanged, at 32.6% for African American households and 33.7% for Hispanic.
Internet use in U.S. schools2,
- In 1999, 95 percent of U.S. public schools were connected to the Internet, up from 35% in 1994.
- Nationwide, Internet connection in instructional rooms (computer labs, classrooms, media centers, et al.) rose from an average of 3% in 1994 to 63% in 1999. However, in schools where 71% or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the average was only 39%.
- Between 1998 and 1999, the ratio of students to Internet-capable instructional computer decreased from 12:1 to 9:1.
Individual Web use
- In the United States, e-mail is the Internet's most widely used application; 79.9% of U.S. Internet users reported using e-mail in 2000.1,
- In July 2001, the average U.S. Internet user spent 10 hours and 19 minutes online, visiting 11 web sites in 20 sessions; the average Japanese user spent 9 hours and 13 minutes online, visiting 12 sites in 18 sessions.3,
- The small gender disparity of U.S. Internet users reported in 1998 (34.2% of men were users vs. 31.4% of women) had largely disappeared by 2000, when the figures were 44.6% and 44.2%, respectively.1,
- Internet usage by U.S. individuals aged 50 or older rose 53% between 1998 and 2001. Overall individual Internet usage during this period rose 35%.1,
- In 1997, 7% of U.S. adults reported they had tried to find some scientific or technological information on the Web; in 1999, the figure was 19%.4,
Global Internet access
- In November 2000, 407.1 million people had access to the Internet. This figure included 3.11 million in Africa, 104.9 million in Asia/Pacific, 113.1 million in Europe, 2.4 million in the Middle East, 167.1 million in Canada and the United States, and 16.5 million in Latin America. 5,
- Between January and June 2001, the fastest-growing Internet markets were Hong Kong (up 27.9% ), Spain (up 25.3% ), and Korea (up 15%). 6,
1Source: Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion, 4th edition. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), 2000 (www.ntia.doc.gov)
2Source: Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-99, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, 1999 (www.NCES.ed.gov/pubsearch).
3Source: Nielsen//NetRatings (www.nielsen-netratings.com)
4Source: Miller, Jon. "Who Is Using the Web for Information?" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 2000.
5Source: Nua Internet Surveys (www.nua.com)
6Source: NetValue (www.netvalue.com)
One of the wonders of the Web is the way it facilitates connections between people in different places, different roles, and different times. New "distributed learning environments," hybrids of physical spaces and networked experiences, have the potential to tear down artificial boundaries between institutions, blur the school-based concept of age-specific learning cohorts, and tap the potential of truly learner-centered education. In science education, this means that museums and active knowledge producers can now be linked directly with teachers, students, parents, and the public at large.
Imagine what it would be like if your museum were part of such a network. Students on field trips could collect information about exhibits on a handheld, wireless computer to be accessed later when they returned to class. A biology teacher preparing for a class on anatomy could brush up on technique by reviewing a virtual cow's eye dissection. A family on a weekend visit could converse live with Space Telescope Science Institute researchers about the work of the Hubble Telescope. On a Saturday morning, instead of watching TV cartoons, kids could explore optical illusions online, gathering ideas for a class project. Your museum's visitors and others around the world could jointly participate in an event of scientific discovery, such as a total solar eclipse in a faraway location.
Each of these events has happened at the Exploratorium, and each shows how new forms of learning are made possible as museums become nodes in a distributed learning network.
Audiences and partners
How should we, as science centers, realize our role in the networked age? Although our instincts as museum developers can point us in the right direction, it is important to strengthen our knowledge of the medium and how best to make use of it.
Research and evaluation results concerning museum web site users are generally lacking (see "Understanding the Online User," page 4). Although the marketing world has learned something about Web behavior, this knowledge has not transferred to the educational community. And questions about the role of the Web in a learner's landscape remain unanswered, beyond use statistics and wishful speculation.
I believe the field must actively pursue a two-part strategy: We need to develop and implement a strong research agenda, focused on understanding our online audience, and at the same time we must create a strong community of practice to support quality projects based on that research.
What would a research agenda look like? We need to learn more about what type of audience uses our Web resources, which design elements support effective use, and how museum-based Web resources can support education. We need to study how to make use of the new high-speed networks, how to blend physical and network spaces, and how to fund our Web work.
While we pursue this agenda, we must also develop a community of practice. This means forming partnerships within the field to explore new modes of interaction and accelerate transfer of knowledge about good practices. It means entering into collaboration with universities and industry to support the creation and study of distributed learning environments. And it means committing to provide professional development opportunities for those engaged in museum Web projects.
Science centers are already well positioned to make use of the Internet. Our content, design, and pedagogical strengths make us unique players in online learning. But if we are to take full advantage of this opportunity, it is time to develop our theory and practice to support our future as networked institutions.
Rob Semper is executive associate director at the Exploratorium,
San Francisco, and leader of the web site team that received the
2000 Award for Innovation presented
by ASTC and BBH Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.