I’m working on a project right now that involves looking at the Learning Outside the Classroom scheme. This has been running since 2006, supported mainly by DCSF. It began as a manifesto to promote schools getting out to explore the natural and built environment, to get active and engage with culture. It has now grown to include a Quality Badge for providers and guidance on how to get the best out of different sectors.
It looks to me a scheme that will survive whatever bonfire (and regrowth) of quangos happens after the election (though don’t hold me to ransom for saying it). One reason is that it has been established, and is well run, as an independent charity (the Council for LOTC). I also think it will succeed because it is comprehensive enough to provide an efficient infrastructure for maximum value. It’s not focused on single regions or sectors of provision.
However, the more comprehensive any scheme the more robust you need your information system to be. It is extremely difficult to portray the landscape of ‘enhancement providers’ or resources for schools. That challenge is being tackled by BECTA in a major taxonomic exercise in the creation of a digital content ecosystem for education. LOTC is only dealing with a subset of that, offers that are primarily outside the classroom. But I think their information system is rather confusing, as you can see in the sliding racks on their home page. There are several categories of provider that don’t fit their categories, such as libraries and science centres. Museums and galleries are within heritage, which is unusual. There isn’t an overt attempt to explore a range of practice that blurs the boundaries between the classroom and beyond it (e.g. using mobile technologies or creating museums in schools). I wonder whether, if this could be redevised as a strongly digital service, responding to users’ own terminologies and heirarchies, it would function much better.
I needed to test Gliffy, a free online tool for making diagrams, so I spent a quick 20 minutes working up a visualisation that shows a spiral of provision outwards from the classroom. I didn’t particularly like Gliffy, and because it was a bit clunky, I didn’t make a very clear or finished diagram. But, the picture is starting to suggest a more complex but understandable way of categorising offers outside the classroom. The only issue is that my model assumes a fairly urban context for schools, where built environment is more accessible to them than countryside, wilderness or adventure. Most schools are in such a situation but not all. Maybe the LOTC service could be developed so that you could configure the map according to your context?
Overall the point I’m making is that LOTC has been devised mainly as a manifesto, an accreditation system and a means of ensuring child safety on trips. There is a mountain of great, worthwhile guidance in here but it is all one way, and relatively buried. It hasn’t been devised as a digital service. The website has emerged to provide information about LOTC. But this is different from an approach where tools such as visualisation, user tagging, data feeds and also a wider web strategy, are fundamental to the thinking about how the service can be effective.
If the brilliant LOTC scheme is to survive and be effective it should really be looking now at reinventing itself with digital engagement, including more voices of teachers, CYP and providers, and more visual content.
Nick Poole of the MDA gave a speech http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/nwh/ART41939.html
to the Museums Computer Group and because feedback was invited, I gave some, naturally.
The paper suggests that we have catered too much for the researcher, focusing on digital catalogues a) without being certain what researchers want and b) without catering enough for the second category of user. Two user groups are defined 1) People who do detailed research about collections 2) Millions of people who don’t visit museums of their own volition, who visit museum websites even less. Which actually means that only one web user group is defined (researchers), the others being mainly non-users. We surely know that our users are more varied and numerous than this. Up to 114 million people last year visited UK museums. And many millions visit museum websites too. There must be a big middle ground between serious researchers and casual accidental visitors. For those working in education the web is invaluable in being able to converse with teachers and learners, and sustain and share the outcomes of projects.
The analysis of markets for culture is complicated by the fact that culture is at the top of the heirarchy of human needs, needs to do with nostalgia, traditions, emotions, ‘just looking’, enjoyment, free time, conversation and play. Cultural needs are not seen as functional. Museums are split in their views about the main purpose of their websites, between supporting study and business (fuelling the knowledge economy) and supporting informal popular engagement. In many ways, multimedia & the web are offering more opportunities to make a museum experience full of play and conversation, and reach a wider range of visitors (potential researchers), whereas the curation of a real space can be bound by scholarly fastidiousness and may only reach a narrow audience.
The paper contains a paradox, perhaps unintended, in saying that we focus too much on researchers and that we are too technology-led, yet are spending too much on experimenting with Web 2.0. I’m not so interested in technology per se, but very interested in the educational and social potential of Web 2.0 (including trying to work out what it is!). It seems to me that Web 2.0 is less about geekery, more about ordinary people being able to use the web because it doesn’t feel like technology any more. It helps more of us become researchers. I disagree that we should step away from Web 2.0, mainly because there are free services out there with information storage capacity. We shouldn’t always spend money trying to replicate those within museum sites, but use them whenever we can, for example in education projects.
I particularly endorse the proposal for a national marketing strategy, with a proviso that the museum sector should be well defined (museums, libraries and archives? museums and galleries? digital cultural archives which have no visitor building?)
A 2 year moratorium on projects is a very radical suggestion, which I disagreed with on first sight, as major initiatives do encourage join up between several museums. However, I believe that many national partnership projects are too rushed, and less joined up and strategic than they should be.
If there is major investment in 3 or 4 key museum sites, it is important that all museums (of all types, including archives) are involved and consulted in this. If these meta-sites do employ Web 2.0 approaches, in a broad sense, it is more likely that smaller museums, archives and heritage societies can contribute content and expertise to these meta-sites, and that user needs can be better understood.