Blending E-learning and Museum Practice

Reflections from an e-Learning Officer at the Museum of London by Mariruth Leftwich...

The term ‘e-learning’ has traditionally been used in the formal learning sector to describe web-based learning where the learning delivery platform is electronic. Over the last few years, museums have started to adopt the term and begun to look at electronic forms of learning both online and within the museum.  When the e-Learning Officer post was created at the Museum of London three years ago it was one of the first of its kind, a post situated within Learning rather than IT, focusing on the creation of content for digital learners.

Today, e-learning at the Museum of London consists of three areas: web-based learning, on-site blended learning sessions using digital technologies, and videoconferencing. e-Learning is an important part of our learning provision because it enables us to reach wider audiences, cater for different learning styles and provide new and engaging ways of accessing, and learning from, our collections. We have adopted the view that technology should be integrated into our learning programmes in a way that supplements rather than replaces traditional learning methods. This article explores the benefits and challenges of e-learning in a museum context, drawing on our experience over the last few years.

Museum of London

Web-based Learning
The first phase of e-Learning at the Museum of London was based on increasing the quantity and quality of learning resources, primarily aimed at schools audiences, on the Museum’s website.  When the ‘Learning Online’ section of the website was first created in 2005, it included information for teachers to support their museum visit, fact packs of historical information and photographs, a small image bank of objects that teachers could use in their classrooms, and two microsites focusing on Roman and Tudor objects and archaeology.  While these resources were providing quality online information, this cannot necessarily be equated with online learning.  Most of the resources were actually designed to be used away from a computer, after being downloaded by the teacher.  The introduction of the e-learning initiative provided a focus for developing resources to be used by both teachers and pupils online, creating a learning environment on the website, rather than just supplying downloadable information.

The first large-scale e-learning web project was designed for a Key Stage 1 audience and allowed pupils to learn more about the Great Fire of London through an interactive story, including short games to advance the story line. This website,, was developed through a partnership with The National Archives, London Fire Brigade Museum, National Portrait Gallery and London Metropolitan Archives, and this was the first website developed by any of the partner organizations to target such a young audience. The website was designed to be pupil-facing rather than teacher centred, resulting in an interface and design catering for five to seven year olds. This decision was made after a great deal of teacher consultation, where teachers saw a need for online resources that the pupils themselves could use and interact with, rather than being dependent on the teacher to facilitate the use of the resource.  Delivering the content through an interactive story framework was inspired by a successful similar format used during museum based schools sessions, mixing real objects and accounts with an engaging fictional story.

Beyond the interactive story, there are more traditional teacher resources and an image bank.  The image bank was high on the teacher priority list during the consultations, as teachers felt that object images were an important teaching resource and could help extend their lessons in the classroom.  Suggestions for use of the website in the classroom were also included, but teachers widely felt that comprehensive lesson plans were not needed as every teacher adapts the use of the website in their own way. This website was also designed for use on an interactive whiteboard, making use of the latest technology integrated into primary classrooms. By understanding how teachers were going to use the site through consultation and classroom based user testing we were able to create an e-learning resource that combined the best of museum teaching techniques and the functionality of the web.

A current project that builds on the approach of interactive storytelling incorporates traditional classroom based storytelling exercises, allowing children with sensory impairments to participate in the story through rhythmic call and response. The online story is enhanced with illustrations that are simply animated to support the storytelling session. This story is part of a larger e-Learning resource designed specifically for SEN schools that will include accessible object pages with 3d models of objects that students may see in sessions, or that can be used independently of a museum session, with a caption and Makaton video of the caption.  This project is an example of how the possibilities of online learning both widen the audiences that we can serve and provide unique experiences, such as 3D objects, that extend our learning provision.

Blended Learning
The Museum’s e-learning programme was extended with the opening of the Clore Learning Centre in September 2009 and the creation of an e-Learning Studio, the first dedicated space for learning through technology within the Museum. This space, equipped with PCs, laptops and a variety of handheld equipment, allows us to design sessions that combine digital technologies with more traditional museum learning approaches. All of the sessions remain focused on object interpretation, the stories explored in the galleries, and the strengths of the Museum’s collection. We have adopted the term ‘blended learning’ to describe these sessions that mix the traditional with digital approaches to learning. 

Museum of London

While ‘blended learning’ has a wide variety of associations and uses, our working definition for blended learning is ‘learning that combines traditional approaches such as object handling and role play with the use of digital media devices in order to enrich the experience.’  The digital media devices used may include those for recording data, such as still images, video, or sound; manipulating that data to create a new product; and sharing that media. We believe that the technology should enhance participants’ engagement with the activity and hope that it will improve their learning as a result.

Blended learning sessions have been developed for a wide range of audiences from early years to adults. The schools programme includes primary sessions where pupils can create their own film about the Great Fire of London or have the opportunity to use green screen technology to step back in time and see themselves in a Victorian photograph.  SEN pupils can handle and explore objects from more than 350,000 years of history and then create a multimedia memory of their visit.  Secondary students can explore the galleries using digital cameras and select evidence in order to create an online exhibition based around a line of historic enquiry. The Museum also offers IT and digital photography courses to adults and is continuing to integrate digital technologies into its family programme with ‘create a comic’ and animation sessions and the chance to make your own digital story or soundtrack.

Beyond the facilitated sessions, we are exploring the use of handheld technologies, including iPhones and PlayStation Portables (PSP) to provide visitors with direct links to multimedia content in the galleries.  Our trials using Quick Response Tags to embed images, video, and directions within the galleries have proven to be a popular and easily adaptable way of integrating content based on the needs of the visitors.  All of the sessions and handheld media provide a variety of ways for interacting with content, catering for different learning styles and allowing access to information at different levels according to the prior knowledge and interest of users. Blended learning provides opportunities for visitors to truly personalise their learning, and in many cases produce a creative product that captures their museum experience. 

Evaluation and feedback has been positive from both teachers and learners, as they find the mix of traditional museum learning and digital technologies to be rewarding. A secondary pupil described what they liked best about the online exhibition workshop as ‘researching using artefacts and displays, and creating an elaborate piece of work using up to date technology.’ A teacher who brought their class for the workshop commented that the session enabled him ‘to reflect on what is important about history teaching’ and that the creation of online exhibits ‘is a really good way to encourage active learning at Key Stage 5.’  For families, evaluation indicates that the use of technology is proving to be a memorable and rewarding experience for visitors.  After a family session focused on creating comics from a trip to the gallery with cameras, participants were asked what aspect of their visit they would remember most and responses included ‘how the use of technology can enhance learning history’ and ‘that my children can be creative.’  During the same activities, 96% of participants agreed with the statement that technology enhanced their museum visit. 

While these responses are encouraging, it is important to note that feedback has also underscored the concern that technology be usefully applied and not be used gratuitously.  In the trial for one the primary schools sessions, which uses a PSP to guide pupils through the gallery activity, a teacher commented that the novelty of the technology wore off and the activities were essentially a worksheet on a handheld device.  If technology is to replace the traditional gallery trail sheet, it must function in a way that meaningfully extends the act of looking, interpreting and recording in galleries. A trial using handhelds with secondary pupils is being developed which hopes to alleviate some of the ‘these are only worksheets on media devices’ issues. These trails will include a feedback and response system through an iPhone App which will provide a key element that gallery worksheets omit, immediate feedback and support while the pupils are in the galleries, rather than once the work is completed or back at school.  At the primary level, we are now working on a system that will include a traditional paper-based activity sheet used along side a Quick Response Tag technology that will embed rich media in the galleries, which will be used to inform and direct their paper-based trail. Continued evaluation and trialing is an important part of our e-learning programme, aiding the development of sessions and resources while also helping us understand the impact of technology on museum learning.

Challenges and Conclusions
There are certainly challenges when it comes to building and maintaining an e-learning programme, including the obvious issue over the cost of acquiring and maintaining equipment or delivering web-based learning resources.  Perhaps more fundamental than the cost of equipment though is the challenge of finding the right type of equipment, software and delivery platforms for the learning outcomes we hope to achieve.  We have spent almost two years trialing a wide variety of devices and software, with new possibilities being introduced to the market virtually everyday. In the end it often comes down to how creative we can be when using a very versatile device, such as an iPhone or PSP, rather than finding a particular piece of equipment perfectly tailored for each audience or programme.

A challenge that was not fully understood or appreciated at the outset of designing blended learning sessions is the issue of copyright.  We have had to deal with concerns of copyright and intellectual property rights on a number of levels, both understanding the copyright and loan agreement terms of objects in our collection and galleries and considering how we deal with the rights of visitor generated content.  We encourage visitors to take photographs and video recordings in the galleries as part of their sessions, which act as the stimulus for the creative work in the e-Learning Studio. This process requires that we are conscious of both how the objects in the galleries may or may not be protected by copyright and the rights involved with this newly created work.  While this has proven difficult at times, it is an important component to building an e-learning programme and ensuring that both our collection and visitors are safeguarded in this realm of digital learning.

While technology has the power to inspire and enrich learning, the technology itself should never be prioritised over the learning outcomes, or indeed over other forms of museum learning.  Our experiences have shown that digital learning approaches can be successfully integrated within a larger museum learning framework, broadening the way that we reach audiences rather than replacing the more traditional techniques of museum learning.  A time will come when the term ‘e-learning’ is no longer needed to differentiate this approach to learning, as it will become more embedded in our practice and will become simply another facet of ‘traditional’ learning.

Mariruth Leftwich, e-Learning Officer, Museum of London