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For Better Or Worse …

Like Superman, technology possesses “super-powers.” Unlike Superman, however, technology’s powers may be used for good or ill. As a concerned educator, who has strongly-felt opinions about technology’s role in museum education, I’d like to express my cautionary thoughts and then offer a few suggestions for its appropriate use.

It is said that we live in the “information age.” People have access to more information, and have greater ways of retrieving it, than ever before. The various technologies that support and deliver this information reservoir are, in themselves, intriguing and seductive. Interactive computers, video presentations, holographs, and other wonders capture our attention and imagination with their impressive capabilities.

All this available information can be a blessing or a curse, however. If a mind is primed and ready, information can satisfy curiosity, answer questions, and lead toward new avenues of fascination. But, if that mind has little exposure, background, or understanding, then information can confuse, distract, frustrate, or overwhelm.

Ironically, casual visitors to our institutions search for information in their quest to understand and value what they see. They hope that by gathering facts, their understanding and interest will be super-charged. Unfortunately, simply being given information rarely satisfies unprepared or dubious minds. (Consider how reams of information can fail to legitimize some works of modern art and may even increase the general public’s feelings of hostility or insecurity.)

A Few Strongly-Held Opinions

Simply being handed information does not lead to understanding or valuing because, when speaking about education, we can’t own what we haven’t earned. Museum objects yield their “secrets” by aggressive pursuit. Examining and appreciating a work of art, an historic artifact, or scientific specimen requires an “act,” an active participation in gathering thoughts, retrieving and organizing ideas, and constructing meaning.

This process of pursuit, also know as inquiry or inquisitiveness, requires asking relevant questions and seeking answers. Many museum visitors seem discouraged when they discover that they must put forth such effort, and few have any notion of how or where to begin. But, the process demands personal involvement.

Works of art, historic objects, and scientific specimens are “dense.” Rarely do they have the entertaining qualities and immediate impact that films, television, or computer-enhanced graphics have. Nevertheless, the subtleties of our collections have great significance and unfold in their meaning as they are examined and considered.

While technology can aid in the pursuit of information, it can also preempt the mental rigors and disciplines of the inquiry process if it delivers information without requiring the formulation of questions, cultivating the desire to know, or demanding the expenditure of personal involvement and effort. And, while it is tempting to create a bigger “bang” of stimulus by using technology, it can actually overload and inhibit the learning process.

For all but scholarly audiences, educational programming in museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, parks, and gardens should teach visitors how to gather information from the authentic art, artifacts, and specimens they encounter. We ought to teach as much about “process” as we do about “product.”

Providing access to information does not satisfy our educational obligations to visitors. In error, we might think of inquiry as simply a means to an end — like driving to get from here to there. Why not give visitors the information so that they know why our collections are significant? Why make people “reach” for it? This attitude may diminish the importance of inquiry, but not its usefulness. For it is the quality of “wanting to know”— of seeking, finding, and reflecting — that establishes the appropriate mind set for intellectual growth, comprehension, and ultimately, appreciation. And, it is the process of finding out that teaches us how to learn.

Unlike in prior times, today museums and other such facilities must compete with the highly seductive appeal of mass-produced entertainment. Museum objects are neither as enticing in that manner, nor are they as ubiquitous. In fact, it is their very depth and rarity, rather than their glitter and glitz, that make them inherently special and important.

A Few Relevant Thoughts

These days, children don’t just watch a movie, they see it 2 or 3 times in the theater, repeatedly on video, and have the characters marketed to them at toy stores and fast food restaurants. Blatancy, rather than subtleties, are their training ground.

It is easy to see why, when competing against the weight of contemporary culture, exhibit designers, curators, and staff educators are tempted to introduce highly stimulating, technologically compelling accompaniments to their exhibitions. And yet, are we not furthering the loss of intellectual pursuit and reflective thinking that is so essential to critical and creative thinking?

If a computer offers the casual visitor immediate access to facts about a 17th century firearm, for instance, what is being taught and what is being learned? Naturally, something informational about that firearm will be available, but will it be understood and retained? What may actually be learned is how to retrieve information from the computer, because that is an activity that requires personal involvement.

Though long pauses, careful inspections, and silent reflections cut against the grain of contemporary society, as fostered by computers and the entertainment and information media, they should be preserved as the cornerstones of an inquiry-based instructional unit. And, while you might doubt that your brief encounter with visitors could begin to serve as a counterweight to technology’s super-stimuli, (and, indeed, you might be correct) you do contribute to a legacy of “counter-type” experiences.

A Few Modest Suggestions

Direct encounters with art, history, or science collections should be fundamentally different from encounters with reference tools, such as library books and computer programs. Educational activities should make the most of the immediacy visitors have with the collection and not emulate readings from the encyclopedia.

Technology is a tool, not a teacher. It can, however, be most helpful in its ability to store information, organize information, communicate information, and manipulate information.

Technology as a reference tool.

Technology can be very useful to the visitor who wishes to pursue an interest that was honed in the galleries while in direct contact with the collection. Any docent who accomplishes his or her task through inquiry-based instruction should create a desire to know more on the part of the learner. Sending that learner to a computer with a set of questions, like sending a person to the library, is an entirely appropriate use for technology.

Computers are great at providing a wealth of information fast and without discrimination. Therefore, it is best that younger visitors receive some guidance in the use of computers as reference.

Technology as a communications tool.

Technology in the form of video presentations can serve as a good introduction to encounters with a collection, especially if what is taught in the video is sought in the galleries. Most of us are so used to the medium of television that video presentations easily engage their audience. Unless they are poorly conceived or executed, videos are an effective and engaging way to tell visitors a story about an exhibition, person, time period, event, place, animal, ecosystem, etc.

Computer links to schools are wonderful ways of facilitating communication between your institution and theirs. E-mail messages allow teachers and docents to communicate with each other when it is difficult to connect by phone. Teachers can make requests for tours, while docents can learn of teacher expectations, the students’ current classroom studies, and any special needs that should be planned for.

Institutional web sites can provide visitors with introductions to the collection, as well as offer visitors a calendar of events and an overview of the exhibition schedule. Interactive computer programming (sometimes called “chat” opportunities) could allow visitors to ask questions of curators or educators as a follow-up to their visit.

Technology as a comprehension tool.

Computers can be used to store and organize data collected by students during their museum, garden, or nature center experience. Computers can also organize data into graphs or charts that students could read and draw conclusions from, but not easily create on their own. Computers could also assist in constructing historical timelines that would allow for constant revision as learning or data retrieval occurs.

Computers can construct graphic representations of archeological sites and digs, and can produce visual reconstructions of distant lands, skeletal mounts, geographic terrains, and the like. They can enhance an exhibition or collection by showing or demonstrating things that can not, practically, be available in your facility but relate directly to what is displayed.

Technology as an experiential tool.

Under the right circumstances, and with an educator’s guidance, technological devices can provide visitors with opportunities to safely learn concepts and principles that could not be practically experienced otherwise. Computer programs could simulate animal dissections, laws of physical science, and chemical interactions to name but a few.

It is important to emphasize, however, that there is a difference between using technology to “experience” a lesson and using technology to substitute for the lesson. Technology does not serve as an experiential tool if it simply delivers information that is not put to a higher teaching purpose.

A Final, Concluding Thought

While there are many appropriate uses for technology, substituting for a docent with good teaching skills, who can stimulate curiosity, respond to interests and discoveries, and adapt to audiences isn’t one of them. As I’ve stated earlier, technology is a tool and not a teacher. It is not the receiving of facts that makes a good lesson. As Sven Birkerts reminds us in his book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, “Wisdom has nothing to do with the gathering or organizing of facts — this is basic. Wisdom is a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and patterns.”

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan, “For Better or Worse…,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 2-4.

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