The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

21-Tech: Engaging Museum Visitors Using Mobile Technologies

By Keith Ostfeld
From Dimensions
May/June 2013

Society has reached a point where everyone desires customized services and products—from coffee to computers to museum experiences—that meet their needs, expectations, and aesthetics. With today’s easy access to phenomenal computational power through personal mobile technologies (PMTs) like smartphones and tablets, we have new avenues to customize museum experiences. How can we best leverage the high accessibility of PMTs to personalize and deepen the visitor experience? Over the past two years, the 21-Tech project collaborative has been investigating this question.

The project is led by the Children’s Museum of Houston, in partnership with the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley; New York Hall of Science, Queens; Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland; and the Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York. Funded by a three-year (2011–13) grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the 21-Tech project team is researching effective methods for museum frontline staff to use PMTs as facilitation tools at specific exhibits.

What 21-Tech is and isn’t

First and foremost, 21-Tech is about museum facilitators using PMTs to enhance and advance hands-on learning, not replace it with screens. Even great apps that clearly demonstrate a concept are not used if they pull the visitor away from the hands-on experience. Next, 21-Tech gathers learning and experience scaffolds for use with specific exhibits; it is not developing resources like a cell phone tour or mobile map for an entire museum visit. In addition, each focal exhibit has several associated apps so that facilitators can customize the experience for visitors. Finally, 21-Tech uses existing apps and resources rather than creating new ones.

We’ve tested over 100 apps related to the project’s target exhibits and installed many onto facilitators’ PMTs. Additionally, we’ve loaded the PMTs with existing digital media (e.g., images, videos, and websites) in order to provide multiple access points for facilitators. For example, at one exhibit, visitors are encouraged to build and test paper airplanes. In addition to an app that shows how to build several paper airplanes and another with a wind tunnel simulator, a facilitator’s PMT has images of other paper airplane designs, a diagram of an airplane’s parts, and a video of how airplanes fly. These tools allow the facilitator to work with visitors through several potential interactions.

Lessons learned

When the project launched in 2011, our team had somewhat naive notions about the ease of implementation: Buy a device, load it with quality apps, and give it to staff to use with visitors. Our learning curve has been steep, and we’ve gained some valuable knowledge that will benefit others who adopt this model of PMT use.

The 21-Tech team primarily uses iPads because, when the project started, they provided the size, speed, efficiency, functionality, and app depth that we needed. Once we identify a suitable app, our education and frontline staff develop interaction strategies and test them with visitors. When we have finalized successful strategies for app/exhibit matches, we create “cheat sheets” to familiarize staff with the app and how it relates to the exhibit’s content. Some of our preferred apps are in an “app gallery” on the project website.

Investments in infrastructure, hardware, and software are only part of the puzzle. The other critical component is a commitment to training. One of the project’s key findings is the substantial amount of training needed for museum facilitators to become adept at approaching visitors, have adequate exhibit and app content knowledge, and understand how to move back and forth easily among the apps on the device and between the device and the exhibit.

While each project partner developed their own system of training due to different types of frontline staff, all training has four main areas:

  1. Hardware training familiarizes frontline staff with the PMT device, including tips and tricks. (Allow 1–2 hours, depending on the individual’s level of competence.)
  2. Content training allows staff to explore the apps, understand and make connections to the exhibit’s content, and experiment at the exhibits. Frontline staff rate this aspect of training most highly. (Allow 30 minutes per app.)
  3. Facilitation training uses role-playing to model different approaches, methods of integration, and exit strategies for using PMTs at exhibits. (Allow 1–2 hours.)
  4. Immersion training uses a reflective practice methodology where staff pairs (one facilitating one observing) discuss visitor interactions, including what went well and points for improvement. (Allow 1–2 hours.)

Preliminary 21-Tech evaluation findings

In a recent survey conducted by project evaluator Cecilia Garibay, more than 90% of visitors agreed that the 21-Tech tablet experience enhanced their interaction with the exhibit, and 80% said they would look for facilitators with PMTs at other exhibits. All project findings to date are publicly available on the project website.

Incorporating PMTs into facilitation requires investments on many levels. However, the payoff in improving the visitor experience is immeasurable; we have found that most visitors have valuable learning experiences and can often verbalize connections to prior and future experiences. As one visitor put it, “[The app] really made it much easier to understand what [the facilitator] was saying and what the exhibit was showing me. I want to get it so we can explore it more at home.”

We post weekly updates to the project website. Please join us in the conversation and exploration. We’re happy to share your findings, as well.

Keith Ostfeld is director of educational technology and exhibit development at the Children’s Museum of Houston.


About the image: At the Launch Cage exhibit, a facilitator helps a child fold his first paper airplane, with the assistance of the Paper Plane Project app. Photo courtesy the Children’s Museum of Houston

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