Just-in-time learning

In my former job as an educational technologist, we talked quite a bit about how best to reach faculty who were too busy (or reluctant) to use technologies that might genuinely prove useful to them or their students. Eventually, we figured out that faculty don’t want to hear about technology until they need it–and then they want to learn about it immediately. It’s what I’ve seen described elsewhere as the “What I Want, When I Want It” (WIWWIWI) syndrome.

I definitely have WIWWIWI-itis when it comes to information and knowledge. On the one hand, I inherited my father’s incredible patience for the bricks-and-mortar world. I can wait in line without complaining, as long as no one cuts in front of me. I can wait for packages, and I don’t tend to complain when they’re a few days late. But all that patience goes out the window when it comes to learning. I’ve been spoiled by the Internet and by my university’s extensive online databases. Having to order a book through interlibrary loan is agonizing to me. If I want to know something, or learn something, my first stop is Google. Even though (and maybe because!) I earned a Ph.D., I have little tolerance for the tortuous prose of scholarly articles in the humanities. Give me an abstract, stat!

I suspect I’m not alone. (No, really!)

My museum-going hangups

This combination of real-world patience and my insistence on WIWWIWI when it comes to learning makes museum-going a wee bit dangerous. I’m an unpredictable visitor. I can stand in front of an African-American quilt for 20 minutes, lost in the pattern, hearing jazz in the improvised shape of each piece. In such situations, I feel additional information would be intrusive. I know something about quilts, enough to satisfy my visual consumption of such a piece. But place me in front of a contemporary painting, and I’m flustered. Regardless of whether I think I “get” the piece or not, I want some quick information. How have other people–amateurs and experts–interpreted this work? I want to absorb multiple interpretations, and I want them immediately.

When I walk into a science center, I want to try the manipulables. And I’m happy to read the labels’ explanations of the phenomena on exhibit. But often I also want to find out more about a phenomenon while I still have the manipulable in front of me. The best way for me to do this would be an Internet search or a chat with a very knowledgeable explainer. But docents and explainers tend to have a superficial knowledge of the phenomena on exhibit–because that’s all many visitors need–or they have a scripted explanation that I find tiresome. (This is true of history museums as well as science museums.)

WIWWIWI on the exhibit floor

How do we deal with people like me? I suspect all visitors experience this frustration from time to time.

The answer is not, I suspect, simple or singular. But I’ve heard of some innovations and I’ve brainstormed a few (though I suspect they aren’t truly new). So here’s my list of just-in-time learning aids that might be tested in your institution. I’ve tried to include tactics that benefit your institution through increased goodwill and greater contact hours with patrons (and potential donors).

Give me WIWWIWI materials.

  • Provide docents or explainers that not only know the exhibit script, but who are truly passionate about the pieces on which they’re elaborating. Assess your front-line staff’s and volunteers’ interests to be sure they’re in the best place for them. Use “mystery shoppers” to help you determine where individual staff and volunteers perform best.
  • Similarly, provide docents with notepads so they can take notes about visitor interests and jot down visitor contact info to marketing or education so they can follow up with specific visitors. If I can’t learn something right now, at least reassure me that you can–and will–point me to further resources. I’ll be grateful, you’re getting my e-mail address or phone number, and you’ll have an opportunity–and permission–to make further contact with a patron.
  • Docents might use these same notepads to write down titles of books, URLs, names and contact info or sister institutions, or other resources for visitors. Tear off the sheet of paper and hand it to me, the happy visitor.
  • Alternately, place little pieces of paper and golf pencils throughout the exhibit. Let me take notes and take the paper with me or leave comments for you in a dedicated box.
  • Give me access to a kiosk where I can learn more about a specific work. These kiosks should allow touch-screen browsing, as well as provide me with a place to enter my e-mail address so that your institution can send me more information on subjects of interest to me–but only subjects I indicate are of interest.
  • If your visitors are the kind who carry PDAs, then be sure they can access the Internet (or at least a museum intranet) so they can enrich their own learning.
  • Provide mobile-phone-friendly web sites for your visitors so they can learn more by browsing on their phones. Give them numbers to call to learn more about specific artifacts or works of art.

Combine WIWWIWI materials with resources for further learning.

  • Give me a way to get additional information on specific pieces or activities in your exhibit–whether that be a series of web pages, a resource list I can pick up in the exhibit, an audio tour, or via a series of follow-up e-mails.
  • Host an adults-only discussion cafĂ© once a month where visitors can meet and greet and discuss the exhibits. Let your marketing and development people circulate among the groups to hear what people are saying and to encourage further involvement with the institution.
  • Set up a del.icio.us account for your museum so that visitors can browse–and even subscribe to–the tagged pages your exhibit team might have used while researching the exhibit. Encourage visitors to return the favor by using the del.icio.us “for:” tag to send interesting web-based resources your way.
  • Give me a list of terms I can use to search the Internet. Sure, it’s nice when you provide me with a list of specific resources on residential restoration in my region. (Enough r’s for you there?) I’m happy to explore carefully selected websites on the particular challenges of restoring a Craftsman or Victorian home. But I may also want to know how to incorporate some of those Craftsman- or Victorian-era pieces into my 1970s ranch house. Tell me to search for “architectural salvage.” Give me a few fish, but also teach me how catch them myself.

Let me contribute.

  • Next to a particularly interesting or popular exhibit or artifact, place a keyboard and screen where visitors can type their comments. Once the comments are screened by staff, the comments can rotate on the same screen between visitor entries or you can have select, particularly moving phrases projected onto the wall. If I’m in an exhibit about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, for example, I’m probably itching to tell you that my disabled great-grandmother, then a very young girl, had to be carried from the rubble as my great-great-grandparents fled the ensuing fire. It’s a small anecdote, but I’d feel better having shared it, knowing that I’ve contributed some knowledge to the larger institutional project.
  • Solicit (multimedia) reactions from me. Let me draw, ask me for family photos or artifacts for an upcoming exhibition, let me record audio. Provide me with a venue to share my insights or expertise with other visitors. If they want to listen, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. But there should be unobtrusive ways to hear other visitors’ thoughts. It’s the same phenomenon I’ve observed in my university classrooms: I’m more likely to share my own thoughts if I already know what someone else thinks. That’s why I have my students blog–and comment on one another’s posts–before class discussion. Students already know what others think, and they come prepared to engage with them–they’re a couple steps beyond where they would be if we went into the class “cold.” The same might apply to your visitors. Let them download particularly interesting audio from other visitors both before and after their visit to your site, or incorporate such visitor reactions into your audio tour.
  • Let me have a vote on future exhibits. I’m more likely to come back for another visit if I get a sense of what might be on your docket for the coming year(s).

What are your thoughts, both as a museum-goer and as someone who works within an institution, on just-in-time learning (and its follow-up)?

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