Museums and the Web 2005

Reports and analyses from around the world are presented at MW2005.

The Localized Learner: Acknowledging Distance And Situatedness In On-Line Museum Learning

Ross Parry, University of Leicester, and Nadia Arbach, Tate, United Kingdom


In the current trajectory of on-line museum learning, an environment has emerged where locality and the specificity of place are now key levers for content creation and user experience. This paper explores the ways in which the on-line museum, mirroring practices in the business world and the education sector, is becoming sensitive to where its users are located. It considers how museums (on-line and off-line) have attempted to understand and make provision for individual visitor circumstance. By looking specifically at examples of localized Web-based museum resources, it highlights how museums are increasingly acknowledging the localized settings of on-line users. The paper suggests a more layered typology of localization, informed by sociological readings of spatial production, in order to differentiate between location (the physical, geographical position of the learner), place (the type of space the learner perceives himself/herself to be in), and situation (the learner's circumstance, activity or intent). It also suggests how this more discerning vocabulary (with the different implications and consequences that follow from each term) might help providers better articulate the concept of localization in order to support more focused provision and clearer objectives. Finally, by calling attention to some of the challenges that remain in developing localized resources for on-line learners, the paper ends by foregrounding some of the questions that further debate, research and the sharing of best practice may help to answer.

Keywords: localization, place, e-learning, on-line learning, distance learning, situated learning

Where Are You Learning Today?

Last year over four million visitors were welcomed to Tate Online ( They accessed the site from home, school, and work while researching, doing homework, and surfing the Web from countries, cities and streets around the world. As the Web opens up new audiences for museums, it also makes possible myriad combinations of potential learners in an array of different distant, localized settings.

I-Ting, for instance, is in Taiwan, studying part-time in a course in art history, and is accessing the Internet using a dial-up connection with a laptop at her kitchen table. Elizabeth, from the south east of England, is at work sourcing some material on her broadband-connected PC while collaborating with her office colleagues. Marshall, in Toronto, Canada, is relaxing on the weekend and browsing the Web on a PDA while traveling on a crowded bus. Each of these individuals is accessing the same museum Web site and looking at the same content, and all of them are learning, but each is in a different part of the world, has gone to the site for different reasons, and has accessed the material through different media. In other words, these learners are in different social settings, with different materials at their disposal, and with different possibilities for conviviality and interaction with others around them.

This paper explores the ways in which the on-line museum (in line with wider approaches in the business and education sectors) is becoming sensitive to where its users are located. It considers how museums understand and make provision for individual visitor circumstance on-line. It highlights how techniques are used to acknowledge the localized settings of users, and suggests how a typology for differentiating between these approaches might support more focused provision and clearer objectives. Finally, it calls attention to some of the challenges involved in developing localized resources for on-line learners and brings to light some of the questions that still need to be answered.

From 'Who?' To 'Where?'

The museums sector is quite adept at reflecting on who its visitors are; organizations such as the Visitor Studies Group ( ensure that museums and galleries have a framework for thinking about visitor needs. Museums pay close attention to the types of visitors they receive, the needs of these visitors, and the ways in which this information can be used to improve provision (Hooper-Greenhill, 1997; Dodd and Sandell, 2001). And for some time now, practitioners have drawn upon theories of learning and communication to try to make sense of how visitors learn and behave in exhibitions, taking into account the different learning styles, intelligences or cultural backgrounds that they may bring to the museum (Cassels, 1992; Davis and Gardner, 1993).

However, as museum educators we have never really had to ask where our learners are. In a pre-Web context we knew that learners were immersed in the museum – and consequently it was the museum that we attempted to understand (O'Doherty, 1999). The only instance in which place became an issue, it seems, was when the museum became mobile (Martin, 2001) or reached out and permeated other sites (Dodd, 2002). Even then, the museum could largely predict and affect the setting of the museum experience.

In the on-site museum, we can calculate with quite a high degree of exactitude where the visitor is. When writing a text panel, designing an interactive or positioning an object, we can have a fairly precise sense of where the visitor will be located. We can even have a sense of (and indeed, can control) the light levels, the sounds and even the smells the visitor experiences. We might not be able to control what knowledge the visitosr bring to the learning experience, how they make sense of information, what reaction they might have, what they may or may not be able to do, or who they are with. However, it is indisputable that in an in-gallery museum learning context, the visitor, at that moment, is standing in front of that text, that interactive or that object.

With the advent of the Web this has all changed. Now, museums must think about not only who the visitors are and how they learn, but also where they are. Are they on a crowded bus holding a PDA, or are they alone in a bedroom accessing the Web through a games console? Are they in a bustling office using their PC on their lunch break, or are they using a laptop at home with their family, toys and toddlers everywhere? Have they queued to use a public terminal in a hushed library, or are they moving between tasks and resources within a pre-conceived lesson plan in a classroom? If the possibilities of locality are endless, so too are the types of learning experiences that might take place.

If, as Falk and Dierking (2000) suggest, all learning is influenced by an awareness of place, then knowing the locality of the on-line learner – with all its related cultural and social implications – will allow museums to shape and deliver learning that is targeted to the specific needs of their audiences. Knowing where our learners are has an impact on how we talk to them, what we provide, and what we can expect them to do with the resources available to them. One of the biggest challenges confronting the on-line museum community in the next few years, therefore, is the question of where our on-line learners are.

From Global To Local

Recent speculations that in the business world localization would become 'if not essential, [then] more important' (Cleary, 2000) seems to have been realized. In business today, local knowledge is an asset – something that financial experts continue to stress, especially for small businesses looking to export (Judge, 2003). In industries such as banking, commentators draw attention to the evidential shift towards more localized delivery systems and products as companies increasingly see the importance of valuing local knowledge of their customers. (Economist, 2004). The Localization Industry Standards Association (2002) has offered corporations a clear and evidenced business case for localization: the localization of products and services based on an awareness of and response to linguistic, cultural and technical differences is seen to bring a substantial return on investment.

In a similar way to commercial corporations adapting their products and services to clients in different areas, the education sector continues to heighten its sensitivity to place and locality. The advent of 'distance learning' (or 'distance education') has generated pedagogical models that take into account the physical, social and cultural context of the localized learner (Melton, 2002). Likewise, providers of professional training and development theorize and exploit the 'situatedness' of work-based learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991). More recently, other 'context-sensitive' approaches to learning have been explored in the emergent realm of 'm-learning' – learning that brings together 'untethered' media and a mobile learner ( Like business, education is mindful of the significance of locality.

As, to an extent, are museums. Many museums are used to modifying or developing aspects of their provision to suit the locality of their audiences. Many of these localized learning opportunities have been associated with in-gallery, off-line (non-digital) learning. Some examples from Tate will serve to illustrate how localization is recognized, in off-line resources, as a serious factor in the shaping of the learning process. Tate incorporates four physical galleries – Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St. Ives – plus an on-line gallery, Tate Online.. The fact that the physical galleries are geographically separated means Tate is always aware that the physical context of the learner will impact on the learning opportunities and that some activities are specifically 'situated activities'. Because of the geographical distance, the communication between galleries must remain constant so that some over-arching educational materials are distributed in the same way and reach all of Tate's audiences. Conversely, the fact that there are four different buildings means that each one can create learning opportunities that are localized to its particular strengths and to its audience base. The Interpretation and Education departments at each Tate site create different programs for their audiences based on the needs and the resources available. Tate St. Ives can draw upon the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, one of its most notable physical features, while in the same vein Tate Modern can use the Turbine Hall as a showcase for the Unilever Series of commissioned works of art. Each Tate site features different temporary exhibitions, all of which have related lectures, events and learning opportunities that are in-gallery. While working towards the common goal of providing learning opportunities for Tate's wider audience, Tate's individual galleries are making the most of their strengths and playing to their local audiences.

In their endeavors to create learning resources that acknowledge the locality of their users, museums have already made much headway in the realm of distance learning opportunities. Many museums have full and diverse schedules of videoconference-based learning, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art (, which uses ISDN-based videoconferencing to create virtual tours and allow real-time interactions with the museum's staff for classes all over the US. While the main content of the learning experience is pre-set, the fact that the interaction is live between the class and the museum expert means that the content can be altered on the fly depending on the needs of that particular class. Not only is the museum catering to its audience's geographical location, but it is also adapting its content to the specific needs of the individual students in that particular classroom and social setting.

Localization, Museums and The Web

Localizing content is not, therefore, a new concept for museums. The use of digital media to provide a localized experience, however, is relatively recent. It is only since the turn of the century (in a UK context, at least) that museums have had the content, technology and institutional support and vision to begin to develop significant localized digital learning resources. This period has seen not only a substantial increase in digital content and assets held by museums, funded by a wave of government-funded digitisation and ICT initiatives ('IT Challenge Fund', 'NOF Digitise', 'Designation Challenge Fund', 'Culture Online', 'Creative Partnerships', 'NESTA Illuminate', etc.), but also a new strategic commitment by a number of institutions to Web provision (Durbin, 2003; Rellie, 2004) as well as continued development of and competency in the use of scripts, coding languages and metadata standards that can be used to engineer more adaptable and adaptive Web environments. Exemplifying this strategic adoption of the Web medium – as well as illustrating the influence of the sectors' new digital collections, the use of metadata standards, and a commitment to more localized agendas – is the UK's first virtual national museum, the 24 Hour Museum (, and specifically its City Heritage Guides project, which provides reconfigurations of the museum's content for geographically localized users (

For an institution such as Tate, localization has involved channeling the content in its on-site galleries as well. The touch screens at Tate Modern, for instance, contain information about works in the Tate Collection. Sensitive to the specificity of their physical location, the works are limited to those only within Tate Modern galleries, rather than encompassing the whole collection.

Taking an even more refined approach to localization, Tate has also offered context-determined digital learning through handheld PDA museum tours. Tate Modern has developed a pilot tour containing information that changes as users move through the gallery. This type of technology, where the content mutates depending on the location of the user within a certain space, is one of the most sophisticated uses of localized learning because it relies on adaptive media. Similar initiatives include a Dutch project, Waag 1550 (, which uses mobile phones and GPS technology to teach young people about Dutch history of the 16th Century. The game takes place over a period of days, during which students form groups and travel around the city of Amsterdam completing location-based media assignments about the city's history. In some ways, this project is like an extension of a museum PDA tour but with a larger geographical base.

Devices such as touch screens within the museum, PDA tours, or other types of mobile digital learning can only take place within a certain set area. On-line learning via the Internet, by contrast, reaches out to a much larger audience. Confronted with the array of individual visitor circumstances that are possible when the audience is global, the bigger challenge has been adopting localization techniques to Web-based on-line learning.

In order to acknowledge the localized settings of users who are accessing museum information and learning via on-line means, Tate has devised ways of tailoring its Web-based material towards the different user groups that make its audience. Current trends in localizing digital learning materials include translating content into different languages, providing opportunities for users in different social situations to adapt materials for their own use, and allowing geographically distant users to communicate or collaborate.

The first method of acknowledging locality is the translation of Web-based resources into different languages. For example, Tate Britain's new 'Explore Tate Britain' on-line gallery ( has some of its texts translated into seven different languages, for two very different reasons. First, the site uses French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese since these are the languages of many of Tate's visitors from abroad. Second, since Tate has a commitment to provide learning opportunities to its local London cultural communities, the resource also uses Arabic and Bengali, which are widely spoken in the surrounding boroughs. Similarly, the Art Institute of Chicago has catered to its local audience with its on-line learning resource 'Cleopatra' ( by translating it into Spanish, a language spoken by many of the residents of that city.

The second method is to allow on-line users to adapt materials for their own use. One upcoming Tate project, the Zoom Room, is dedicated to showcasing some of the informal events and activities that take place in-gallery at all four Tate buildings. The guidelines for the activities are rewritten so that visitors to the site can take part in the same activities at home. This allows on-line users in different situations and contexts to use the materials as best suits them.

The third way that museums are acknowledging locality is by providing opportunities to learn through each other at a distance. One of the NetArt publications on Tate Online, the agoraXchange site (, by artists Natalie Bookchin and Jacqueline Stevens, allows users to work together from anywhere in the world in order to collaborate on the rules, design and code for an on-line game. Because the game involves politics, economics and sociology, participants are able not only to explore their own views but also to learn about other ideas from different cultures, geographical regions, governments and places. As another example, Tate has just launched Level 2 of an on-line course entitled An Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art ( The first level of this on-line course allows users to sign up and complete modules to learn about modern and contemporary art; at the end of each module users are asked to discuss selected works of art with other students on-line. Level 2 features distance learning even more prominently, and includes on-line interaction with eight tutors, curators and invited guests. Students are required to spend time using the on-line discussion board to interact with other students at a distance.

All of these on-line resources – touch screens, PDA tours, and Web-based learning materials – appear to show an awareness of the individual learner's localized circumstance. In developing these on-line materials, the museum has responded to needs that take into account language, the learner's environment, and distance learning, allowing the learners to use the resource in the way that best suits them. What seems to be emerging, then, is sensitivity on the part of museums to the locations, places and situations within which their on-line users find themselves. There are, however, important (if subtle) differences in the way learners individually conceive their own circumstance, and, indeed, in the vocabulary or typology that museums use when thinking about localization.

Towards A Typology Of Localization: Location, Place And Situation

Giving space a sociological reading helps us to distinguish its physical, representational and conceptual fields (Lefebvre, 1991). These in turn can direct us towards a refinement of broader notions of locality and allow us to separate the concept of localization into three distinct fields: location, place and situation.

'Location' refers to the physical context of the user – it is reliant on geography and defines where a person is in the world, including the resultant cultural issues that can arise from the geographic location. Notwithstanding the added complication of migrant populations (and the fact than an individual from one culture may be located inside another), a location may be subject to local laws on what content can be received and sent; it may have a bearing on the type or reliability of the connection being used (or, indeed, on the likelihood of the user having access to a networked machine); it may give clues as to the likely IT literacy of that user; it may determine what language the user would prefer the content to be in; and it may suggest a host of other cultural cues, sensitivities and idioms that might need to be examined (Cleary, 2000).

By 'place' we mean a venue or type of space. This is the representational context, and encompasses individually or collectively designated types of space such as classrooms, community centres, offices, airports, open spaces, shopping malls or (indeed) museums. These 'places' may be individualized – two people may not view a 'place' in the same way – but frequently the definitions are shared and people will have an agreed idea of what is acceptable or reasonable behaviour in these places. 'Place' can also determine the resources that the localized user may have at their disposal, including access to other networking technologies (Rennie and Mason, 2003).

Finally, 'situation' is the conceptual context – it relates to the activity, intention or objective of the user/learner: 'working', 'relaxing', 'studying', etc. Situation, therefore, affects visitor expectation and aspiration. It can have a bearing on how 'sticky' they may find the museum site and how fickle they may be in their visit. The learner's 'situation' may have a bearing on the tone, information architecture, and graphical identity of the on-line content.

Our three users of Tate Online, introduced at the start of this paper, illustrate how location, place and situation can influence their respective use of the Web. I-Ting is accessing the site from Taiwan (her location), at her kitchen table laptop (her place), using the site to study for her art history course (her situation). Elizabeth is in south-east England (location), in her office (place), using the Web to source material (situation). Finally, Marshall is in Toronto (location), on a bus (place), relaxing (situation). We cannot tell how much of an impact each of these three elements will have on the user's experience. What we can do, however, is keep the three elements of location, place and situation in mind when developing on-line learning opportunities.

Layering localization into three fields encompassing the physical, representational and conceptual elements (location, place and situation) allows us to examine the ways in which museums are acknowledging localization through the educational content they provide. From minor language shifts and cultural references or cues through to a complete transfiguration of a site's content, a museum's response and reaction to location, place and situation can vary the impact that locality has upon the content being produced. The response may be subtle (or implied) in some situations, whereas in others it may be conspicuous and transforming.

The Challenges Of Localization

As we have seen, museums can acknowledge the locality of learners in several ways, and the degree to which physical, representational and conceptual locality is treated can have an impact on the final product. In addition to this, as with any attempt to refine content in order to better reach audiences, there is considerable effort involved and many challenges to overcome when creating on-line museum content that recognizes locality.

Building localized content incorporates several unique challenges. First, the museum must decide about the scale, boundaries, and identity of a locality or several localities that will be the focus audience(s) – a task comparable to selecting an audience (as a museum would do for any learning resource), but on a larger scale and possibly requiring more research about the cultural, social or geographical differences involved. Second, working with communities at a distance requires communication methods that result in the needs of the end users being met. Third, there is a challenge in understanding the user expectation of localized content, so working closely with the groups in question requires some research into how they already use the Web for learning opportunities and how their expectations can be managed with respect to the project. Fourth, even within a set geographical location, there are several different communities within which may be found varying social and cultural differences, all of which might need investigation.

Localized content also brings with it several uncertainties. First, how do we know (and how does the system know) the user's place and situation? It may be possible to identify location through an Internet Service Provider (ISP), but this may not necessarily give the correct information about location and can tell us nothing about place and situation. It is possible to enable cookies to recognize the user, but even if we have a user profile that includes more information than simple geography, it cannot always be accurate because information about place and situation is always changing. How, then, can we harness the consequences of a user's environment? Even more important, how can we gauge audience reaction when sites that cater to locality are made available? What are the next steps in honing the way we provide for our users in the locations, places, and situations where they happen to be?

It is clear that museums are already finding ways to overcome these challenges, as we can see from the examples of on-line provision presented here. However, the suggestion here is that the use of a more discerning vocabulary (with different implications and consequences following from each term) might help providers further to avoid conflation over the concept and role of localization, and might support more focused provision and the formulation of clearer objectives. This typology – or a similar frame of reference – may prove useful in contextualizing and sharing best practice in a more specific and effective way.

The Meaning And Profile Of The On-Line Visit

Central in these future discussions will be the need to understand with greater sophistication the nature of the on-line 'visit' – for it is this that affects our assumptions about the localization of on-line provision and influences where we look for answers.

It is all too easy, perhaps, to conceive and visualize the Web as a backdrop, an environment, or a putative context. As a result, there has been a tendency to write and think generically about the 'space' of the Web, rather than to consider the particular place within which the user experiences the medium. On-line experiences, after all, do not take place in some removed metaphysical virtual world. Rather, they are embedded in the actuality and physicality of the user's immediate sense of place, in the same way as the telephone (land line or mobile), newspapers, the radio or TV.

To understand this we might perhaps reflect upon the notion of visiting on-line, and examine who exactly is visiting whom (and when) in our on-line museums. Visiting a museum on-line is not comparable to actively choosing to migrate to another place and cross a physical threshold into a museum building – with all the social and cultural protocols this type of place may carry for the visitor. Moreover, in an on-site visit, the presence of the museum is constant: it envelops the visitor, and for the duration of the visit it is the museum that influences (if not largely determines) the visitor's sense of reality. By contrast, when users visit an on-line museum they are not immersed in it – the on-line museum is but one element on a computer screen in the user's personal environment. In fact, in the case of the on-line museum, the whole notion of visitor circumstance is reconfigured to adapt to (and be subject to) the user's reality. The on-line museum merely contributes to the visitor's current circumstances. It migrates to their location, it relates to their situation, and it contributes to their current sense of place. And unlike the omnipresence of the on-site museum, the on-line museum's presence is much more fragile – it is but a click or glance away from being entirely removed from the learner's current reality. The on-line visit, then, is almost a complete reversal of the physical one, a dynamic that perhaps we in museums need to reflect upon.

Significantly, in other sectors audience research forms a large part of content creation. Thanks to advance audience research tools, radio broadcasters such as the BBC, for example, have an acute sense of not only who their visitors are but also where these listeners are likely to be, and what they are likely to be doing - and this, in turn, can have significant bearing on output. In contrast, for the museum sector in the UK, we know that about half the UK adult population does not have access to a home Internet connection (Office for National Statistics, 2005). We know that the number of visits to virtual museums in many of our institutions can be comparable to (or can exceed) physical visits. Furthermore, we know that the duration of these visits is significantly less than it is on-site - in the UK no more than 12 minutes, and in many cases less than six minutes (24 Hour Museum, 2003). However, when it comes to museum Web sites, we rarely (if at all) have as clear a picture of usage as do our colleagues in other communication industries.

Developing our understanding of the meaning and profile of our on-line 'visit' still remains, therefore, the key to enjoying the potential benefits of localization.

Conclusion: A Sense Of Place, And Sensitivity To Place

When museums first started providing content on-line, we were excited about the potential global audiences (the 'global village') and the world stage that had been opened to us (Witcomb, 1997). More recently, however, we have become interested in how this medium can support experiences embedded more in the locality of the user (Bazley et al, 2002). We have realized that we need to understand and question where our learners are, as much as who they are and how they learn. We already appear to be acknowledging that localization is an important factor in on-line museum learning, and some museums are taking steps to develop learning opportunities that take into account locality, place and situation. However, it may be that we are not reflecting upon and differentiating these approaches as much as possible. Such reflection might help make the creation of learning opportunities more focused and more productive.

By introducing a way of examining how much attention has been placed on locality, place and situation in localized resources, we may be one step closer to a more finely-honed and sophisticated articulation of the types of localization that currently exist. In turn, this may help us to come closer to the outcome we are looking for – the refining of both our sense of place and our sensitivity to place.


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Cite as:

Parry, R. and N. Arbach, The Localized Learner: Acknowledging Distance And Situatedness In On-Line Museum Learning, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 31, 2005 at