Easy prototyping of location based mobile experiences (Buxton Museum Apps and Wander Anywhere)

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?

Make it easy: creating good museum resources and services for teachers

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.