Effective interactives for social learning

Evolution touch table, Cal Academy, SF

Evolution touch table, Cal Academy, SF

As part of the Warships Project I’m working on, and as a follow-up from the #warshipbootcamp I’ve discussed before, we are thinking about developing a large interactive exhibit in the new building. As I am starting to research evaluations of “interactive exhibits” (for want of a better term) I re-discovered this gem – Developing Family-Friendly Exhibits by Minda Borun and Jennifer Dritsas, published in Curator, 40/3, September 1997.

Borun and Dritsas remind us of a few key points:

  • families are the most frequently visiting group in science museums
  • museum audiences consist primarily of groups rather than individuals
  • they visit museums with agendas that are part social and part educational

I believe the most important contribution these authors have made to our field are the seven characteristics (guidelines) to enhance family learning at interactive exhibits:

  • multi-sided: whole group can cluster around exhibit component without any barriers
  • multi-user: possible for several sets of hands/bodies to interact with exhibit
  • accessible: exhibit can be used comfortably an label read by children and adults
  • multi-outcome: exhibit encourages families to slow down and interact with it long enough to foster group discussion
  • multi-modal: exhibit appeals to different learning styles and levels of scientific knowledge and experienced in ways other than reading
  • readable: text is arranged in comprehensible chunks
  • relevant: visitors make a personal connection between exhibit and existing knowledge

These characteristics were found to be effective in terms of attracting, holding, communication and facilitating group interaction and are relevant across all kinds of audiences.

Borun and Dritsas also reported on evaluation findings on specific test exhibits:

  • attracting and holding power for graphics is increased by enlarging text and titles
  • operating interactives have to be simple
  • tell visitors what they have to do at an exhibit
  • ‘less is more’ for families (and for most audiences!)
  • print key procedural words in bold
  • visitors do not feel comfortable helping themselves to an activity – they prefer to ask staff person (or trial-and-error I have found)

In another article reporting on further research, Enhancing Family Learning Through Exhibits (Borun, Chambers, Dritsas, and Johnson, Curator, 40/4, December 1997), they concluded that:

  1. Exhibits designed to facilitate family learning can create a substantial and measurable increase in learning behaviours.
  2. Using the seven characteristics as a guide to exhibit development proved to be an effective strategy for increasing active family learning across four different science museums.
  3. In thinking about exhibit-based learning it is important to consider the social context, as this is most often the way audiences visit our museums.

Minda Borun re-visited her work in this 2011 Exhibit Files blog post, providing examples of organisations that have applied the seven characterics effectively – great stuff!

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