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This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents) and Part Two in New York, with visits to the Cooper Hewitt, Met MediaLab and the American Museum of Natural History (robots! games! the Pen!). This is the final post (I promise).

The New York Hall of Science: Connected Worlds, hands on everything

science themed mini golf at the New York Hall of Science

more mini golf in museums pls

On Friday I dragged my family in a post Thanksgiving blow-out haze to the New York Hall of Science at Corona Park in Queens. I don’t think they were pleased about the hour long journey from Brooklyn, but ended up having fun playing with all the hands-on exhibits about various aspects of science. I LOVED their demonstration of cosmic rays zipping through a cloud chamber before your eyes. And I also loved the idea of science themed mini golf. The interactives may not all be the most technologically advanced, but they got you involved, and genuinely helped you understand things.

Learning about Cosmic Rays

Learning about Cosmic Rays

The main reason for going there, though, was to see the Connected Worlds game/installation about keeping an ecosystem in balance. If you are picturing something on a screen, or even a touchtable, think again. This is COLOSSAL. See the picture below. It has two vast screens around a central circular area. Between the screens is a tall screen depicting a waterfall, which then runs as a stream across the floor. Players can interact with what’s happening on the screen by making hand gestures, or moving logs around on the floor which translates into planting seeds to grow plants and move the water to where it needs to be. It appeared to get more advanced as the game, played in half hour sessions, goes on (I didn’t get a go, we didn’t have time to wait).

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

It is absolutely spectacular, make no mistake. Visitors, nearly all of whom appeared to be family groups with young kids when I was there, seemed to pick it up easily and were clearly absorbed by the interactions. It is like nothing else I have seen in a museum before, I don’t think. It’s really beautiful, and seems to work, technically, very well. The only dampener was my slight suspicion that visitors weren’t necessarily getting the most possible out of the experience. It’s meant to be about keeping the world in balance, yet I didn’t see people outside of family groups working together much.

I also didn’t get the sense that people were getting the nuances of what was happening, or making informed decisions (rather than just playing around), and given the young age of many participants, fair enough perhaps. However, I wondered if more hands on facilitation and scaffolding of the experience might make it even more powerful. For example, pointing out things that were happening to the whole group, or setting shorter term goals, adding drama, turning it into a story, etc. 

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

To be fair, I was an outside observer, and only watched one round, so maybe that does happen at other times, or maybe I just wasn’t picking up on it. In this BoingBoing article Zack Gage, who consulted on the app , does say “My biggest pushes were for ensuring that the takeaways for children were experiential (to be unpacked later with educators/family members/friends) rather than a set of point-by-point facts or statistics” which I am very much down with in general.

However, it does sometimes feel like museums assume all digital should just stand alone as an experience, when it can actually really benefit from good facilitation and a bit of direction.

The Brooklyn Museum (and Morbid Anatomy, briefly): getting answers to the questions you want to ask in a museum.

I’m almost there! We paid a visit to the fabulous Morbid Anatomy museum, with its current wax work exhibition and nice cafe and shop full of things to covet (taxidermy I wished I could afford, or have a house big enough for). And then, finally, on my last day, we went to the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a great collection, with really good interpretation, I thought. Very accessible, very clear. It’s currently running a lovely show on Coney Island, definitely worth going to see.

The ASK app in action

The ASK app in action

The work related reason for going was the ASK app, which allows you to ask questions of curators in real time. What a great idea, I’d thought, will it work? It did, with the patient Elizabeth answering my questions about the museum, its patrons, things I couldn’t find, and the collections itself. The answers were rapid, and pitched at a useful level, including links out to other resources. My family got in the habit of coming up to me to fire off questions for the app, and definitely benefited from having this helpful resource.

It is super simple to use, fitting the maxim that a good app should do one thing well. I just wish it saved the answers so I could still see them, as it seems to have removed the content now I’m out of the building.

The team have been blogging the development experience on the Brooklyn Museum website, and it’s well worth a read.

So, that was my East Coast USA #musetech experience. If you got this far, thank you for reading, I hope it was useful. Clearly, I still managed to miss many hundreds of other museums in those two cities (including the Tenement Museum in NYC, which people kept telling me about, and the Newseum in DC, which was also recommended for its use of interactives).

I guess I’ll just have to go back.

This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to  the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents). (Part Three, the final part, on the New York Hall of Science and Brooklyn Museum, now live).

By Tuesday 24th November I had moved on to New York, staying in Brooklyn with family. Since my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was staying not far from New York, she and I took the chance to meet and spend the day visiting the Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum) and trying out their Pen and other interactives, and then on to see the Met’s MediaLab. The next day I went to take a look around the American Museum of Natural History.

Cooper Hewitt: collecting, immersion and serendipitous browsing

So first to the very grand environs of the Cooper Hewitt museum, previously the Carnegie Mansion, to try out the Pen we had heard so much about (and see the collection, of course). In case you’ve missed all the discussion about it, it’s a tool to encourage visitors to be more active in the space, collecting and saving objects to view later. In some ways I guess it formalises the existing visitor habit of collecting objects by photographing them and takes it a few steps further.

picture of the pen being used with the design tool

Using the Pen to design a very impractical table

The pen itself is very nice to use, chunky but comfortable, simple to operate. It works as a large stylus at one end, and has a collecting tool at the other which you can use on object labels (with an RFID chip in them) to add them to your collection. There are large interactive tables throughout the galleries that feature a design tool (make your own chair, building, or thing), ways of browsing the collection (object pictures drift past like sushi on a conveyor belt and you can grab them to get more details, or search via related tags), and ways of pulling up what you have collected so far. After the visit you can also see your collection on the website.

picture of group using full body gestures to browse the collection

Using full body gestures to browse the collection

The staff are there to give some orientation, one of whom gave us an extra steer in using the design tool that was really helpful. I enjoyed playing with this feature (but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it once I’d messed around with it a bit, I wonder how this could be extended?). Laura and I both spend quite some time browsing objects on the big table, it’s a nice way of just seeing what grabs you and following that down a rabbit hole. You can also browse the collection by just drawing a shape, which then searches for something else with the same shape (elsewhere you can also do this on a big screen with gestures – see pic). A nice playful interaction.

It didn’t occur to me whilst there to collect objects in the cases to look up more information on them whilst there. This would probably have been useful at the time to answer questions I had about some objects. I wonder if there are ways to get at more interpretation by doing that, e.g. a glossary of terms or something. It feels like there is potential to do even more with the pen, so am keen to see how that develops.

For me, the standout was the Immersion Room, which was an experience I could have spend hours in, probably. It is linked to the wallpaper collection, something I have a particular interest in anyway, and allows you project designs from the collection up onto the wall, browse around related designs and listen to experts talking about them. Rather brilliantly, you can also design your own, which is then tiled and projected on to the wall. I made a rather slapdash effort, so being immersed in that was possibly a bit of a trial for everyone else in the room, but I bet some visitors have done some really beautiful things for it (and no doubt, some very crude things, but you can’t stop human nature). My post-visit collection from the Cooper Hewitt is here.

The immersion room

Immersed in wallpaper

The Met Media Lab: robots and other fun stuff (envy)

3D printing in the MediaLab

3D printing in the MediaLab

In the afternoon we went to meet Elena Villaespesa, who used to work with me at Tate doing clever things with analytics, and is now Digital Media Analyst at the Met. We also met Marco Castro Cosio, head of the MediaLab, who gave us a tour. They have all the fun toys – a robotic arm, telepresence robot (which has been used at some events, I think they said, so that people can attend at a distance), a 3D printer (which had been used to recreate a museum object in sugar, though no-one had had a nibble yet) and were also doing some nice stuff with projection mapping to show the true colours of an Egyptian tomb. Thank you to Marco and Elena for showing us around!

Will definitely be keeping an eye on the Met MediaLab blog in future. Apparently they are not alone, Labs seem to be quite the thing these days (h/t Lindsey).

The American Museum of Natural History: games, more robots, Opulent Oceans.

The next day I met Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH). I was particularly keen to hear about their work with games, and loved the fact that they had been working on card games such as this one, Gutsy. Card games and the like could be such a perfect fit for so many museums, and you can sell them in the shop, they make a nice gift. Win/win. Anyway, Barry gave me a tour of their new Microrangers game , an impressive piece of tech that combines AR, minigams and a kind of treasurehunt around the gallery. It just launched officially this week.

He too has a telepresence robot, and kindly gave me a demo. They had used it to bring voices into the gallery, e.g. Canadian First Nation curators based elsewhere being able to interact with visitors. Tate has done the After Dark project with similar robots, but has anyone else in the UK? I like the potential, and the way that both the Met and AMNH were using them. Very interesting, thank you to Barry for taking the time to meet!

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Also at AMNH was the very shiny and interactive Secret World Inside You, and the utterly gorgeous little Opulent Oceans exhibit of sea life themed artwork. From my twitter page, you might guess that I’m already in love with Ernst Haeckel’s work, so I was very excited to find so many other artists who had done beautiful work in this area. The latter is also collected in this book and ah, it’s Christmas coming up. So, you know…

(Part Three now live, with visits to see Connected Worlds at the New York Hall of Science and Ask at the Brooklyn Museum)

I came back this week from 10 days in the States where I visiting my brother and sister-in-law, who recently moved to Brooklyn, with my parents for Thanksgiving. By pure coincidence, my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was also on the East Coast of the US at the same time visiting family. I took the chance to see a ton of museums (ten! in total), meet up with Laura, and also meet some interesting museum folk working in digital. 

Ten is a lot of museums to cover, so I’ve split the posts up. Here are my experiences in Washington DC at the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History. It was my first trip to Washington and my goodness, it doesn’t do its museums and monuments by halves (they are all SO BIG, and the Mall? Almost overwhelming).

The National Cryptologic Museum (NSA): the power of a great docent tour

The first museum trip was out of D.C. a bit, to the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, a quirky history of code-breaking next door to the NSA’s site about 45 minutes drive from the centre of D.C. The museum itself has a few recent additions to bring some of the tech and the story of cryptology up to date a little, but most of it doesn’t appear to have been changed for quite some time. It could have therefore been quite dry, especially with such a complex subject matter, but their greatest assets are their brilliant docents, who bring the objects to life.

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

We first met the docent who would become our guide at the Enigma machine, where he was showing us how to use it (they had one that was available for visitors to play with). It was the first of many experiences at the museum where I was suddenly able to understand the purpose and function of a complex object that I’ve previously struggled to grasp. This is something that digital interactives can sometimes help with, but to be honest, I’m not sure can make up for the human touch and the ability to respond to the audience in person and answer questions. Our group was hooked, and we followed our guide around the rest of the museum as he told us fascinating stories about Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway and the Cold War.

I learnt so much, and must admit that by the end of it I was left wondering whether more museums should concentrate their efforts on hiring as many knowledgeable and passionate docents as possible and worry less about text (or digital) interpretation. With the best will in the world, consuming information visually, by reading especially, becomes tiring and difficult before too long in a museum. But when you have an engaging human being telling you stories, well, it somehow becomes very easy to take it in.

The Renwick Gallery: instagram friendliness

Picture of artwork and person taking photo in the Renwick Gallery

Wondering and instagramming in the Renwick Gallery

On to the recently re-opened Renwick Gallery, for their fantastic Wonder exhibition of large scale art installations by nine very different artists. It’s all very photogenic, clearly something recognised by the museum who encourage photography by suggesting a hashtag and featuring a screen with an instagram feed showing visitor’s pictures. This meant that the frequently seen visitor behaviour of photographing objects and artworks was in overdrive. I was unable to stop myself too. It didn’t leave much room for quiet contemplation, but I don’t know if these pieces necessarily lent themselves to that anyway. I think that’s OK, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to Brian Alpert for recommending this via twitter.

National Museum of Natural History: Skin and Bones and a standout use of AR

Next day, onto the Mall for the National Museum of Natural History (and a flying visit through the National Gallery of Art, a very grand space). The NMNH had been high up on my list to visit. Not just because I am a fan of natural history museums (the dustier and wonkier the better, IMHO) but because I’d heard Diana Marques speak about an upcoming app she was working on for them at EVA in 2013, and was intrigued. The app is Skin and Bones, and is now live. Laura and I both tried it out in separate visits.

The app was created in response to the fact that visitors can find it hard to engage with the skeletons in NMNH’s Bone Hall, since they don’t know how to interpret what they are looking at. Skin and Bones uses augmented reality (AR) to overlay animal bodies onto the skeletons or to animate them and show how they work. My highlight was the animated overlay showing how the woodpecker’s skull allows it to have a very long tongue that wraps around its brain. It’s a really really neat use of AR, appropriately used and well implemented. The only downside was that it was so great it made you want to see this for any animal in the Hall, but it’s only available for the few of the skeletons. Hopefully they’ll add more in the future, I imagine it takes a lot of work to create these.

Photograph of AR app being used with woodpecker animation

Very cool Woodpecker animation

Some other thoughts. The AR does somewhat overshadow the rest of the content, which involves activities and videos. I wonder whether people actually do those, when the AR stuff is so enticing. Also, neither Laura nor I had brought headphones, and if you don’t have headphones with you, or are sharing the device with others, you’ll need to play the audio out loud. From previous experience, many visitors are uncomfortable with this, which is why some places provide headphones, or loan out devices so that groups can have more than one (and so the experience doesn’t rely on people bringing their own, of course). I understand some visitor evaluation is forthcoming in the next year, am really keen to see it and see how it’s being used, I think it will be very interesting for anyone thinking of doing something similar.

Whilst there was a lot of signage for the app in the room, we didn’t see anyone else using Skin and Bones, or any signage for it in the rest of the Museum (though perhaps we just didn’t spot it), which seems a shame. Maybe it could be more heavily trailed elsewhere and in general marketing so that people come prepared and excited about it? Laura tried it with her kids and they also really liked it (and wanted more) so it’s a great asset, worth shouting about. If you have the chance, go check it out.

(Link to Part Two: NYC, robots, the Cooper Hewitt Pen, games)

Game type cards from previous workshops

Game type cards from previous workshops

I’m writing this to share a simple tool I created for a gaming workshop I recently ran for a museum, and also to see if anyone has suggestions for additions or improvements to it. It was inspired by another card-based tool that Danny Birchall and I created for games workshops a while back, found here. That one was designed to help people rapidly generate game ideas around a particular (museum related) subject. It was a stack of cards with a game type printed on one side and the description (generally from Wikipedia) printed on the other. I’ve used them a lot in classes and workshops since, they work well. You’re very welcome to download and use them yourself.

For the recent workshop, I was tasked with helping a room of non game designers understand the possibilities of games, and a bit more about the process behind their creation. We talked about game design, played a load of mobile games (mostly from this list of local multiplayer games) and discussed the mechanics, and then split into teams to generate game ideas, pick a favourite, create a paper prototype, play the other team’s games and feedback on it. We had about an hour and a quarter for the idea and prototyping session.

My overall aim was to focus the participants on thinking about game mechanics (rather than story etc), the effect they have on the player, and how they can be married to the intended learning or behavioural objectives. Given the limited time, I needed a way to give each team inspiration and an easy reference point for possible existing game mechanics rather than expecting them to pull them out of thin air with no experience.

Game mechanics cards selection

Game mechanics cards selection

So I created a set of game mechanics cards with the mechanic, a description, and a couple of hopefully easily recognisable examples. I gave each team a set and encouraged them to use the cards to inspire ideas. It seemed to work pretty well, with a bit of facilitation. I’ve linked to them here on Google Drive, I hope this works, let me know if you are trying to access them and it doesn’t work. The idea is you cut each one out onto its own card (a job for which I wish I’d had a guillotine).

Please download/make suggestions for improvements

Please feel free to take these and use them any way you like. If you repost them, it would be nice if you could link back here. It would also be nice if they could be expanded and improved. I’m sure there are lots of mechanics I’ve missed or better examples I could have used. Any suggestions for more mechanics to add? Please add comments below or send to me via twitter if easier. Thanks!

At some point I will go back in and tart them up a bit, they aren’t as pretty as the other cards, at which point I will add in suggestions and will also share them here.

I worked on a lovely project last year. Buxton Museum had won first stage HLF funding to do some initial development on their Collections in the Landscape project, and they wanted to use it to test how mobile could bring their museum content out into Buxton town and the Peak District sites that it relates to. This is something I know a number of museums have been trying out and thinking about recently, and it makes sense. If you have lots of artefacts from a particular archaeological site, wouldn’t it be nice if people could see those objects and hear their stories whilst they are at the site itself?

They were working with Lord Cultural Resources on this, and Lord hired me to help develop the pilots. I have to say, it was very pleasing to be working on a on a project that was a proper pilot: testing and evaluating the concept with the audience before plunging into building an expensive app. This seems like the ideal model to me, and well worth taking the time to do. As a pilot, though, the budget was limited, there were four ideas to test and no in-house expertise to build an app. We needed to find a platform that already existed to use.

I researched a number of options, there are quite a few services out there that allow you to build location based mobile tours and the like, but none were flexible enough or within the price range. Fortunately, whilst working on the Artmaps project for Tate I had met Ben Bedwell, who was part of the project team and the creator of Wander Anywhere (WA).

Wander Anywhere website screenshot

The Wander Anywhere website

Based on WordPress (which means the back end is very familiar), Wander Anywhere is a tool that allows you to create GPS based experiences: attaching text, audio, images or video to pages that can be triggered on screen as the user gets to a particular point on the ground.

The obvious use is to create mobile tours, but you could do something quite playful with it as well. We attempted this at a workshop Ben ran last year which invited a varied group of people (researchers, digital practitioners and museum staff) to use the platform to create something over two days at Wollaton Hall. This slightly silly Wollaton family fun tour was the result of my team’s efforts.

If you’re looking at the site on a non-mobile browser, it will just look like a collection of web pages. But, when viewed on mobile, the functionality is completely different: it gives you options for different ways to explore a site (using a compass, or map), and the pages are only triggered when you are in the right spot. A simple mechanic, but one that has lots of potential applications, I think.

Now, this is not an app. It is a completely web based experience, running on the phone’s browser. So it has its limitations, requiring a data connection and GPS to work. However, it is really very easy to use. You could put together a mobile tour in an hour, maybe less. For me, this makes it a brilliant prototyping tool, providing you are testing in a site that has a reliable data connection and good GPS coverage. Also, it’s a research project, not a commercial tool, so it’s free.

The

The “Mysterious Arbor Low” tour on the Buxton Museum apps site

For Buxton, it seemed like the best option. We ended up using WA as the basic platform but Ben did some extra development work on it to style the pages and tweak it a little. As one site, Dovedale, has absolutely no mobile signal, we decided to do a PDF family tour there instead that could be downloaded in advance, but the rest are WA based. The result is the Buxton Museum apps site here (best viewed on mobile for the full effect), which was launched and trialled at the beginning of 2014 (but is still live).

They are fairly simple, but each tries different things: Buxton Shops features wonderful reminiscences from local residents and asks for contributions from users, Buxton Waters is GPS triggered, Arbor Low is packed with extra content and set at a remote stone circle and barrow site. This meant that Buxton could evaluate the success or otherwise of the different features. For example, I think it’s fair to say that the GPS triggering proved difficult in a small town area. Lesson learned.

Buxton’s Collections in the Landscape blog is well worth reading, they’ve been very open about the whole process. There are a couple of posts on there about the trials they ran with the mobile tours (here for Dovedale, and here for Arbor Low) and many others on aspects of the funding applications, other digital experiments (e.g. with History Pin) and general museum objects and stories. And the good news is that they’ve been successful in securing second round funding, so the full project is now well under way.

Wander Anywhere carries on doing good stuff. Ben told me:

We’re currently in the middle of running a Creative Visiting Masterclass, which is a set of 1-day workshops looking at a range of different visiting technologies (including Wander Anywhere, but also visual markers, NFC, iBeacons, and so on): see http://wanderanywhere.com/cvm15/ . In terms of projects, it is currently at the Venice Biennale: see http://em15venice.co.uk (there is an on-location experience, via http://wanderanywhere.com/em15/) and we’ve got a few projects at proposal stage to look at cultural heritage applications.

I highly recommend having a play around with WA. Having the opportunity to try out a locative experience before a huge amount of build begins is really very valuable. I’d also love someone to come up with a game for it, at the workshop we were very taken by the fact that if there are multiple media points overlapping at one site, it will deliver one at random. There’s got to be a game in that, any ideas?

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in various qualitative research projects relating to teachers and how they interact with museums and use their educational resources, especially mobile or online resources, whether on a visit or in the classroom. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common themes coming up again and again that might be useful for other museums considering how best to work with and provide for schools.

A note: these are undoubtedly generalisations, and you will find teachers who do not conform to this, but these responses have been consistent enough throughout several different projects for me to think that if you want to be most effective for most teachers, you will need to consider these things.

Also, you are going to notice one word coming up a lot: “easy”. Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

Make online resources easy to find

Teachers, by and large, are extremely time poor. They do want to find great new resources to use, activities and games to help them teach literacy, images to illustrate a historical topics, etc, and actually already spend a great deal of time looking for them. But they are swamped, and will tend not to look beyond well-known resources sites such as TES or “teachers pay teachers” (or corporate subject specific sites, sometimes that they are subscribed to) or Google. And when they google, they tend to use the key stage as a search term (or “primary/secondary”), the subject, and a word like “game” or “poster”.

Whilst some do go to a museum website that is well-known to them as having resources on a particular subject (e.g. the British Museum for Egyptian history), for the most part teachers are not going to trawl through lots of potential museums to see what resources they may have. So, your stuff will have to either be prominent on a resources portal, or high up the search rankings to be seen.

Alternatively, you will have to work harder to reach teachers directly, but when you do so, remember that:

The benefits must be easy to see

Again, always assume that teachers have no time (or energy) to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out whether your resource or session is what they need, whether it is appropriate for the age group, what it covers exactly, what is required to use it, and how long it is expected to take. Make this easy for them, by spelling it out up front, and by including good images such as screenshots of it or that show it being used.

The fact that it was created by a museum does give it some authority, but generally teachers will use whatever works, whoever it was made by, if it is easy to use and find.

Registration is a barrier that most teachers won’t bother getting over, especially if you can’t trial anything first, so don’t make that a requirement unless you aren’t bothered about losing a lot of customers.

Make the visit easy, don’t ask them to prep for it

Teachers don’t generally prepare for museum visits. Even if directly asked to check out the app they will be using, to recce the gallery, or to send over information about the students before a booked visit, they rarely do. See above re time and energy, but whatever the reason, instead of wondering why teachers don’t do this, and why the visits are sometimes chaotic as a result, better to just not rely on this preparation for the visit to work.

So, make sure any activities you have planned work without prep; make sure any digital resources come with a good introduction and, ideally, direct facilitation (seriously, this is what makes digital work well in these situations, a good facilitator); give teachers information they might need on the spot when they arrive (suggested activities for free time in the galleries, background info, questions and themes etc). Make it easy for them, and I’m sure they will appreciate it.

If you need information in advance, be proactive in seeking it out, don’t wait for a teacher to email. Also, I have noticed that teachers generally do not use email a great deal, especially out of term time, so find a better mode of communication if you must get in contact, probably by phone. But when you do that, don’t forget to:

Be mindful of the time of year

I was trying to reach teachers for interviews in December last year. Major error. The build up to Christmas was apparently frantic, almost nobody answered my calls and emails, and I began to despair of ever being able to get hold of people. In January I tried again though, and it was much easier. Exam times will have similar issues. Out of term time is probably hopeless. But at the end of the year, teachers will be looking to September, so that may be a good time to give them some new ideas for the new year.

Make it flexible and modular

You might have a grand online interactive planned or a beautiful mobile app that will teach the history of the Tudors in a single game, and so this might be hard to take, but chances are that won’t be nearly as useful to teachers as a really good image bank.

When teaching in their own classroom, they have their own way of doing things. Curriculums vary, especially at primary level, student needs vary, and teaching methods vary. For your activity or resource to work, it will be more use if it can be modified, broken apart, or flexible enough to be used in different ways. Rigid lesson plans that make assumptions about how teachers teach the subject and how long they spend on it are also likely to be unhelpful too.

So image banks are great for teachers, they can be used in presentations for teaching from the front or by the students in projects, they can be used to illustrate or enliven. If they can be provided on an open licence, all the better, so they can be repurposed and edited.

There is a bigger point here, too:

Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice

If you are trying to make teachers do something out of their normal way of doing things, it is probably doomed to fail. If they usually teach the Tudors with plenary classes (that are exactly tailored to their and their students needs, because they designed them that way) and an essay writing activity, your Tudor history game is unlikely to fit in here. It might be great for giving to students as homework, mind, which could be valuable in and of itself, but not much cop as a classroom activity, so don’t market it that way.

Generally, it pays to do the legwork to find out how teachers are already teaching a subject, and what the gaps and opportunities are, rather than making assumptions and finding out too late that your idea just isn’t practical in the time available. This is especially true of secondary schools, where there is a lot to cram in, and time is short.

Also, don’t assume all schools have access to ipads (other tablets are of course available, just not used that much, as far as I can tell), or that the ones that do are using them in the same way. Some are 1:1, many are using them in groups, or swapping them between classes.

Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. They have a working busy life, a big class of students to keep engaged, a long week ahead and they just spent their whole Sunday marking. On Monday morning, they have to teach a tricky area of their subject, that students always struggle with, so they go in search of something that might help.

Can you give them something that will help solve this problem? Some great pictures, a short and exciting video introduction, some suggested live games to play, or, yes, maybe, a flexible interactive tool that will engage them but do more, perhaps track progress, or allow teachers to choose different bits for different students or be genuinely fun enough that kids will go play it in their own time.

Better yet, can you make it look really good? Because it does help, the students and teachers both appreciate high production values.

The best way to make sure that your resource works for teachers? Research their needs, and test it with them. I’ve found a lot of teachers very happy and willing to share their thoughts, and even just a few interviews will be invaluable for shaping your decisions.

So, I hope that’s useful. If any teachers come across this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything I’ve missed, or misrepresented? If any readers want to hear any more detail on any of the research behind this, get in touch.

Thanks to the museums I’ve worked with for letting me share this research as well as the fabulous Teach Your Monster to Read team for whom I carried out research into classroom phonics resources.

This post first appeared on the Royal Institution’s blog.

Who are we reaching, and how do we reach further and have greater impact? This was what the Royal Institution wanted to know about their new ExpeRimental project: a series of free online films that aimed to encourage and support parents (and also teachers) to do science activities with their children.

The first ExpeRimental film published

They commissioned me to put together a report that would do this, evaluating the audience and their reaction to the films, but also looking at what they could do to better reach and engage with an audience that they strongly suspected was not watching the films: those were less confident or knowledgeable about science. This followed an initial piece of research I carried out for the Ri that evaluated the pilot (which was used to help develop the full series of films, a very useful process in a project of this nature).

In this post I’ll share the process and some of the key findings, which I think could be very relevant to anyone embarking on a science communication project, or perhaps even any subject-specific digital engagement work. Spoilers: the non-science savvy are probably not likely to seek out your online content, no matter how good it is, and to reach them you are going to have to work a bit harder. If you do only one thing, it should be to try and reach parents via their children’s schools.

Phase one

The first task was to look at the current audience, and try to find out more about who they are, and what they think of the films. To do this, I looked at analytics from YouTube and the Ri’s website, and put together an audience survey that asked for opinions of the films, as well as questions about their expertise and confidence in discussing science subjects.

One thing to note about the research: there were over 20 films in the series, but most had already gone live. The survey was linked to from most of the films, but the vast majority of results will come from the last three that went live (during Science Week) after the survey was published, skewing the results to those, and to people who came to them and the survey via subscriptions and social media (ie probably those who were already “fans” in some way of the Ri and who wanted to be helpful). Whilst we had over a hundred responses this does mean the results can only be indicative rather than a fully significant and complete picture of the audience. The lesson there is to capture viewer feedback from the very beginning.

That said, some of the results were pretty striking. First, the good news. The audience was overwhelmingly positive about the films themselves and fulsome in their praise for them. When asked what could be improved, the most common answer was “nothing”, closely followed by “have more”. A few wanted to see more “further reading” links, such as related videos or ways to extend the activities, but for the rest there were only a few minor criticisms or suggestions.

The audience loved that the presenters and settings were relatable (they showed “real people” and “real family homes”), and that they depicted kids actually doing the activities. They said that the videos were clear, and the activities were easy to do.

A pleasing number had also picked up on the fact that the activities were less about imparting factual information but were instead aiming to depict a more questioning approach, that it was asking the questions that was the most important thing. Perhaps the most encouraging stat was that 60% of parents had already done the activity with their kids or students, and of the rest, only one person said that they weren’t planning on it.

However, the less good news was that the audience appeared to be very much from within a particular science “bubble” – they were very science savvy. Not a single respondent said they were “not at all confident” discussing science with their kids or students, over 70% said they were “very confident” or “quite confident” doing so (compare this with the results from the Phase 2 recruitment survey where only a little over 30% from a more general audience were “very confident” or “quite confident” and about 20% were “not at all confident”).

Respondents were asked about their level of science studied, and over 55% had a degree or post-graduate qualification in science (again the phase 2 recruitment survey would show that less than 20% had a degree in science, over 50% not going beyond GCSE science). So, as suspected, there were clear indications that the current/existing ExpeRimental audience was somewhat unusual, and that there could be a huge untapped audience of less science-confident parents out there. Which leads us to the next phase of research.

Phase two

The next question was clear: how does the Ri reach this audience? Their promotional plan so far had included use of social media, distribution via third parties such as AOL, national media coverage including TV appearances such as a slot on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and a piece on ITV London news, a Huffington Post blog series, hospital newsletters, promotion via Brownie groups and parenting blogs, and collaborations with organisations such as a link to British Science Week via the British Science Association and training sessions for play-workers via London Play. Whilst this had resulted in some strong numbers for a few of the videos, it apparently was still preaching to the converted, for the most part.

Looking at the analytics, discovery type varied between videos, some on well-known subjects (making playdoh, or bubbles) were being found by search on YouTube and others were mostly being found via YouTube recommendations or subscriptions. One or two had seen a lot of traffic from online articles such as on the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. On the website people were arriving via various searches along the lines of “fun activities for kids” or “science for preschoolers” (most science related queries appearing to be school related, including “ks2” or “kindergarten”).

Being found via search was clearly very important to the success of some of the videos, but this only works if it is something that people might actually be searching for (almost nobody is going to be searching for “balancing structures”, the subject of one of the videos, for example). If it isn’t on a popular subject, then it is competing with all the other results for “fun activities for kids” that might come up when a parent gets desperate on a rainy bank holiday. Which is an awful lot of competition.

Social media is obviously likely to result in getting a message out to the like-minded (existing Facebook or Twitter fans and followers, and their similar connections). You’d expect that more general press and especially an appearance on Sunday Brunch might reach a more general audience, but it hadn’t translated into lots of views. A new strategy was needed.

In my experience, getting to the bottom of questions like this requires a more in-depth, qualitative approach. Surveys will only get you so far, and can be a bit self-selecting. I needed to find people in this target audience, and have a long chat with them. To do this, I posted a recruitment survey to Mumsnet and the East Dulwich Forum (a very active local forum), that was looking for parents who were not at all confident discussion science subjects with their kids.

I would note at this point that the two forums I posted the survey on are known for having a fairly middle-class demographic, and they are naturally going to be an audience that are very active and engaged internet users. We had discussed reaching an even broader audience with the research, but it would have taken quite a lot more resources and we decided that it was beyond the scope and means of this evaluation, at least for the moment. Also, the Mumsnet/East Dulwich Forum audience is likely to be a good fit for the videos, so it made sense to focus on them. As it turns out, I think the strategy suggested by this research will also help reach a wider audience anyway.

Interview findings

I found eight parents who fit the criteria (“not at all confident” and mostly educated to GCSE science level or below) and who were willing to be interviewed, in return for a £15 Amazon voucher. The discussions I had with them were extremely informative, and whilst some of the insight may seem obvious in hindsight, it certainly didn’t beforehand. It’s also useful to just have some suspicions confirmed, and evidence to bolster the case for a particular strategy.

Firstly, when these parents did watch the videos (after our interview), they really liked them. They all planned to do the activities with their children afterwards. So there was nothing about the actual content of the video that was putting off this less science-savvy audience. That was a good start.

However, most of our interviewees just would never have considered doing science experiments with their children at home. If it had ever crossed their mind, they wouldn’t have known where to start looking, and would be nervous about “getting it wrong” and misleading their children. Instead, they tended to focus on doing more arts and crafts activities, general play, or sports and outdoorsy pursuits, because this was what they were comfortable and familiar with. It was clear that this audience were never going to find the videos by search, or by seeing them shared on social media, it was going to take something more direct, and something that addressed their concerns.

When I asked what they thought would be a good way to reach them, every single parent said something along the lines of “get a note into the kid’s school book bags”. The schools were the key, they said, they respected information that came via that route, and they paid attention to it. Whilst a mailshot to every school with leaflets for every child would require a pretty huge marketing effort and budget, the basic message of “go via the schools” suggests other possible avenues (via school newsletters, targeting teachers as ambassadors, or encouraging schools to send out emails or texts, perhaps).

Other possibilities mentioned included holding community events or targeting community centres, trying to reach after-school science clubs, tapping into childminder networks on Facebook and elsewhere, getting mentioned on general parenting blogs and forums, and via museums (the Science Museum and Natural History Museum were mentioned often as popular destinations for family visits). Nobody felt that Facebook or Twitter would be particularly good ways to reach them directly as parents.

The other important aspect of this is that if you did manage to reach this audience with a promotional message, it had to feature some key information. It had to be clear that the activity would be easy to do, use things that you would already have at home, or be straightforward and cheap to buy, that it wouldn’t take a lot of time to prepare (and then take only 5 minutes to do), and that they were be supported in answer the kid’s questions. One of my recommendations from this was to test future marketing messages directly with this audience, to make sure it does all of these things.

The parents particularly wanted to know the context of the science activity. What subject did it fit into, especially in terms of the school curriculum? What was it related to, and why was it relevant to their lives (i.e. is this really about electricity, or sound waves)? They also wanted to encourage their kids to spend time outdoors, so activities that could be done in the park or garden would be seen as a good thing.

Lessons learned

What I love about doing research of this sort is that moment where someone says something that suddenly seems so obvious, but that somehow hadn’t been before. It’s usually a good sign that your findings are plausible. So, it now seems very obvious that you have to be pretty confident and aware on science subjects to be seeking out experiments for your kids to do at home. It now also seems very obvious that schools are the best route to the audience that isn’t. Somehow, it wasn’t obvious at all when I started on this, but hopefully it will be useful for future ExpeRimental films and perhaps other science communication projects too.

Click here to browse the full set of ExpeRimental films.

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