Past Awardee

Cyberdocents: an exploration of education and guidance in and around museums

Michael Twidale

College: Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences
Award year: 2001-2002

The project will explore the concept of the 'cyberdocent' -- the use of advanced technologies to provide some of the additional information, interaction and experiences of a museum visit that are traditionally provided by, for example, a docent giving a guided tour. These docent functions 'add value' to the artifacts contained in a museum, providing different layers of meaning, different ways of looking at the artifact and its wider context, alternative ways of understanding abstract concepts, and opportunities for interaction with others both within the museum and externally.

The project will explore how PDAs can provide far more interesting and individualized tour experiences than the conventional audio tour guide. The main technological focus will be the use of wireless networked PDAs to provide information and encourage interaction and deeper understanding. As well as the use of the PDAs on their own we shall investigate their potential interaction with walk-up static computer workstations, large screen displays, conventional PCs in a media center and (via the museum's web server) the visitor's home computer. All these technologies already exist and their hardware costs are falling rapidly so that a careful examination of useful and usable applications in this project will coincide with the feasibility of testing in a future research bid, probably to the National Science Foundation and/or to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

There are many applications and kinds of interactions that could be built. However, all too often developers are tempted to rush to build the first one that occurs to them, or the one that offers the most intriguing technical challenge. The aim of this project is to undertake a principled survey of the design space, with a strong focus on usability and usefulness in order to enabled more informed decisions to be made about future research directions.

The project will involve an exploration of advanced technologies at NCSA including a detailed study of visitor use of products of the RiverWeb project, particularly at the Illinois State Museum. Using methods of ethnographic observation and cognitive diagnosis, these findings will be used to specify requirements for applications that can add to a museum visitor's educational social and cultural experience. The focus will not only be on science museums. The research will build on existing contacts with the Spurlock Museum to examine the implications of these technologies for museums of world cultures, art galleries, etc., thus spanning sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.

The project will employ scenario based design techniques to explore the design space. We shall identify a set of component functionalities that individually can work as standalone features, but that subsequently could also be combined to create aspects of the envisaged cyberdocent. Prototype demonstrators will be developed as part of the process of analyzing and understanding what can and should be developed. This analysis will lay the groundwork for future research bids to develop the features identified as offering the greatest promise for a good fit of technical feasibility, impact on visitors and overall research potential.