Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

info @ archimuse.com

www.archimuse.comArchives and Museum Informatics Home Page

published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Understanding Free-Choice Learning: A Review of the Research and its Application to Museum Web Sites

Lynn D. Dierking, Ph.D.
John H. Falk, Ph.D.
Institute for Learning Innovation
Annapolis, MD 21401

According to the USA Weekend web site on December 14, 1997, nearly 8,000 museum web pages existed, some representing actual museums around the world and others existing solely in cyberspace. During a recent 'surf' on the Net using one of the standard search engines, 144,232 museum-related items were found. Although probably not all of these represent museum web sites, a fraction of these would still be a large number. Even the American Association of Museums now includes a special section on web sites in its Official Museum Directory published each year. Museums have met the Web!!!

What this means is that now daily as people explore the Web they have the option of selecting a museum-oriented web site. The question that we would like to raise and discuss in this paper is why would someone choose to do so? In other words, do we know anything about the potential expectations, interests and behaviors of these web users? Is there any research that can guide developers as they attempt to design effective web sites?

At first blush, the answer might seem no. Specific user research in this area is very much in its infancy and, if done at all, is most often formative in nature, focusing for example on whether the screen will be user friendly or the instructions clear. However, if we step back and attempt to put this activity into a larger context we see that there is a large body of very pertinent literature, the literature of free-choice learning.

Current research would suggest that people seem to learn under one of two conditions: 1) when they have to learn (compulsory learning); and 2) when they want to learn (free-choice learning; Falk and Dierking, in preparation). Like many dichotomies, this one is not always clear cut but by and large, it adequately separates learning experiences into two groups. Free-choice learning is learning just for the sake of learning, learning for fun, learning if and when the internal motivation strikes. This is the type of learning that motivates someone to browse a museum web site or read National Geographic Magazine, watch the Discovery Channel or The History Channel or travel to foreign countries to explore ancient cities, rain forests or coral reefs. It is the type of learning that predominates most of daily life. People today are finding it increasingly necessary and enjoyable to actively and knowingly engage in such free-choice learning. Simply put, people are more and more seeking out free-choice learning opportunities.

So what does the literature about free choice learning tell us about the potential web user? Much of the research in this area has focused on museum visitation and it is this research with which we are most familiar. This literature documents why people go to museums, what they do when they are there and what the long-term impacts of these experiences might be (ASTC, 1994; Balling & Cornell, 1985; Borun, Cleghorn & Garfield, 1995; Dierking & Falk, 1994; Falk, 1988; Falk, 1993; Falk & Dierking, 1992; Falk, Balling, & Liversidge, 1985; Graburn, 1984; Horn & Finney, 1994; Kimche, 1978; Kimmel & Maves, 1972; Yellis, 1985). In addition, there is a growing body of literature documenting the specific use of multimedia in museums (Thomas & Mintz, in press; Dierking & Falk, in press). Although the specific findings of these two areas of research may not apply in all cases, there is much that is relevant.

Visiting museums and museum-like settings is one of the most popular leisure time activities in America (Naisbitt & Aburdene, 1990). A recent American Association of Museums survey (American Association of Museums, 1992) found that 565.8 million people visited U.S. museums in 1988; averaging out to nearly two visits per year for every man, woman and child in the country. Who are these visitors? Traditionally, this question has been answered demographically, using variables such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, income and occupation. Although these variables provide some insight into the profile of a museum visitor, as suggested by Falk (1998), demographic variables are unlikely to adequately describe, let alone predict, a behavior as complex as museum-going. Instead, additional dimensions must be considered, including psychographic variables such as leisure time interests and preferences, personal history and value variables such as early childhood experiences and attitudes towards learning and education, and a range of environmental variables such as recommendations from friends and family, cost, time and museum marketing. Taken together, these demographic, psychographic, personal history and environmental factors begin to reveal some interesting patterns and relationships that relate to the complex behavior known as museum-going.

A variety of studies have utilized what are called psychographics, psychological and motivational characteristics of individuals, to understand museum-going. Individuals with similar demographics (age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, income and occupation) can possess very different psychographics. Hood (1983, 1993) has consistently argued for the use of psychographics in addition to demographics in the characterization of museum visitors. For example, it is now known that museum-goers possess the following psychographic profile: they value learning; seek out the challenge of exploring and discovering new things; and place a high value on doing something worthwhile in their leisure time (Hood, 1983, 1993; Falk, 1993; Horn & Finney, 1994; Hushion, et. al., 1994). Such characteristics are shared by a variety of people, including peoples of all race/ethnicities, incomes, level of educational attainment, age and gender. Museum visiting can be characterized as a more active, challenging leisure experience than traditionally passive leisure pursuits such as television watching or movie-going. Most of the Americans attending museums believe that education is an important life-long process. They perceive that there are few more interesting and important things to do in their leisure time. They are also likely to perceive museums as places that afford opportunities to expand their own and their children's learning horizons.

Personal history and values play a major role in museum-going as well. On the whole, individuals who go to museums have explicitly chosen to attend not because of some theoretical interest in learning, but out of a concrete interest in a particular area or areas of learning, whether science, history or art (Dierking & Holland, 1994; Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996; Falk, 1993; Falk & Holland, 1994; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992; Taylor, 1986). A disproportionate number of museum-goers go to museums expressly for the benefit of their children ( Falk, 1993; Rosenfeld, 1980; Taylor, 1986). We also know that many American museum-goers share some common experiences in childhood that appear to directly relate to museum-going (Falk, 1993).

Individuals interested in art go to art-oriented museums; individuals interested in history go to history-oriented museums and individuals interested in science go to science-oriented museums. For example, well over 90% of visitors to science museums express a high to moderate interest in science; the 10% who indicated a low interest claimed to be visiting with someone with high interest (Falk, 1993). Although there is overlap between audiences at various types of museums, most art-lovers do not regularly attend science museums and plant fanciers are not usually frequent zoo-goers. It is non-trivial that visitors self-select an institution to visit because they perceive that it will satisfy a basic and very personal need they have to learn more about a particular subject area. Whereas most visitors profess high to moderate interest in the subjects presented at the museum, the same individuals profess only low to moderate knowledge (Dierking & Holland, 1994; Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996; Falk, 1995; Falk & Holland, 1994). However, it is important to note that very few people go to museums to become experts. Rather, museum-goers are interested, curious lay people, going to generally improve their knowledge, not specifically improve their knowledge. Museums are helpful environments in which to satisfy that desire for personal exploration of the arts, history and/or sciences.

Transcending personal interests and values, much of any individual's leisure behavior is influenced by early childhood experiences and parental modeling (Kelly, 1974, 1977). From a variety of studies, we now know that one of the most important determinants of adult free-choice museum-going behavior is whether or not the adult went to museums with their family as a child (Falk, 1993; Holzer, Scott & Bixler, 1997; Kelly, 1977; Smith, Wolf & Starodubtsev, 1994). In addition to family behavior, other childhood leisure behaviors seem to be correlated with adult museum-going. These behaviors include reading, taking family trips and participating in clubs, associations or scouts. Although none of these activities in and of themselves could be said to result in museum-going, it seems that the type of individual who was likely to read in their free time or participate as part of a club or scouts is more likely than one who did not engage in such activities to grow up into a museum-going adult. It also seems that parents who took their children on trips, much as going to a museum, provided appropriate role models for things to do with children, indirectly resulting in an increased propensity to become an adult museum-goer.

Most visitors arrive at the museum with expectations about what will actually occur (Falk & Dierking, 1992; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992). Museum audiences, whether families, adult couples or singles, agree on a few characteristics: 1) the best museum is the one that presents a variety of interesting material that appeals to different age groups, educational levels, personal interests and technical levels; 2) whether visiting as a group or alone, visitors expect to be mentally engaged in some way by what they see, in other words, they expect to be able to personally connect in some way with the objects, ideas and experiences presented and often expect to do more than just look at things, perhaps even become physically engaged; and, 3) people visiting in groups, either families with children or all-adult groups, expect an opportunity for a shared experience, as the members of the group with their varying interests and backgrounds exchange and communicate their knowledge and excitement for what they see and experience. In addition, there are also some built-in assumptions. Paramount is the knowledge that this is the real stuff or about the real stuff; consequently, visitors believe that there is an inherent sense of integrity to the objects, ideas and experiences presented within the museum (Falk & Dierking, 1992; Shoup & Associates, 1995).

Probing further and asking what makes a museum visit engaging, some visitors refer to "hands-on" or "touching" experiences, others indicate a desire for a human presence in the galleries to respond to specific visitor questions and to provide explanations, and many refer to the role that media can play in fostering interactivity, particularly CD-ROMS and computer interactives. A universal theme emerges from these descriptions: all reflect a reciprocal relationship in which the visitor is given choices, makes choices, becomes involved and ultimately is an active participant in the experience. This is true whether the visitor is curious and asks a question of a facilitator on the gallery floor, experiences something new by encountering or touching an object for the first time or in a different way, or simply chooses among options on a computer terminal.

Some visitors are very knowledgeable about specific aspects of the museum collection; others are relatively uninformed. Some visitors, even if lacking in subject matter knowledge, are curious about the objects and ideas represented by the museum; some are not. Some visitors are experienced museum-goers; some are not. Adult-only visitors share many of these same expectations. Although adults' expectations are frequently more subject-matter driven, they too are likely to have social motivations (Adams, 1989; Dierking & Falk, 1994; Falk, 1993; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992; Horn & Finney, 1994; McManus, 1987). Families go disproportionately to science centers, natural history museums, historical sites, children's museums, zoos and aquaria. Adult-only visitors are disproportionately represented among the public visiting art museums, historical homes, craft and design museums, botanical gardens and arboreta. Schools bring children on field trips to all these sites, but more heavily visit the institutions included in the first (family) grouping.

As suggested earlier, the public does expect science museums to generally provide information on science, contemporary art museums to display contemporary art, historical sites to be about a specific historical period, botanical gardens to include a wide variety and assortment of plants, etc. Most visitors are not experts in these subjects, but rather highly interested novices (Dierking & Holland, 1994; Falk, 1995; Falk & Holland, 1994; Falk, Holland & Dierking, 1992). Accordingly, the public is seeking interesting, informative, but non-technical exhibitions. In all cases, interesting and informative are relative terms -- relative to the needs, background and prior experiences of the visitor. Thus, there can be no absolute definition of what is "interesting and informative."

Although much of what the museum visitor encounters is subject-specific information related to science, history or art, as reviewed by Falk and Dierking (1992), much is not. Visitors also have other less subject matter-oriented expectations of the rich social, physical and personal contexts museums afford. For example, various studies have documented that beyond "content," museums afford opportunities for social interactions (cf. Dierking and Falk, 1994), for escaping from the normal hum-drum of the work-a-day world (Graburn, 1977; Yellis, 1985) and for the experience of interesting and unusual built or natural environments (Falk, 1988; Kimmel & Maves, 1972). Visitors, particularly to science museums and science centers, also increasingly expect to encounter some type of multimedia experience at a museum. This could be an IMAX film, a computer interactive, or a video disc; the particular media is not the issue as much as the fact that such experiences are increasingly an expected option for museum visitors. Visitors appreciate the use of multimedia, recognizing that computers, CD-ROMs and other technologies can provide both varying degrees of depth of information, as well as options that facilitate visitor flexibility and choice (Shoup & Associates, 1995).

What does the audience research reveal about the use of media in museums? Probably the one major generalization is that media use is highly self-selected. In a number of studies that we and others have conducted, not all visitors have interacted with all of the media elements in any exhibition, in the same way that few visitors read all the labels or look at all of the objects in an exhibition either. For example, during a study of a decorative arts exhibition at Winterthur, in which many visitors were enthusiastic about the computer interactives, there were also a number of visitors who expressed no interest in using the interactives at all or only interacted with them minimally even though they were designed to enhance visitors' ability to look at the objects nearby (Dierking & Harper, 1995; Dierking & Marcum, 1994). Typical responses by this group were: "I would rather spend my time looking at the objects themselves." and "I work with computers all week and so when I come to a museum I don't choose to do so."

Similar results were observed at several science centers as part of a series of studies of the computer interactives in the AIDS traveling exhibition "What About AIDS?" (Falk & Holland, 1992; Falk & Holland, 1993; Holland & Falk, 1995), of a film and videodisc in the Spirit of the Motherland exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Dierking & Spencer-Etienne, 1995; Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996), of films in the American Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of American History (Falk & Holland, 1994) and of films and video loops in the Liberation, 1945 exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (Dierking, Falk & Abrams, 1996). These are very different institutions, yet very similar results were observed. It is important to note, of course, that in each of these studies there were also a number of visitors that spent a great deal of quality time interacting with the media elements. These results support the notion that media is an important option for some visitors.

Are media users different from non-media users? Media users tend to be younger visitors, children and youth, often those visitors who feel comfortable with media, especially when one is considering visitor use of such media as computer interactives and videodiscs. Gender is an interesting factor also when considering media use. Only a limited number of studies have investigated the relationship between media use and gender in the museum setting. In one study, more males were direct users of the computer, but both genders were equally represented as indirect users (Pawlukiewicz, Bohling & Doering, 1989). In another study utilizing touch screen computers as an orientation device, 65% of the users were males (Sharpe, 1983). In a 1991 study by Morrissey, investigating an interactive videodisc in a special exhibit on birds, groups with boys were twice as likely to use the program as groups with girls, although the results were more equivocal when adults were in the group (Morrissey, 1991). In a formative evaluation of a computer interactive for the "How Things Fly" gallery we conducted at the National Air & Space Museum (Abrams & Dierking, 1996), 71% of the self-selected sample were males, while in a summative evaluation of an interactive videodisc in the Spirit of the Motherland exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, users were more prevalently female (Dierking, Adams & Spencer-Etienne, 1996). Obviously gender is not a straightforward variable when it comes to media use.

While conducting a remedial evaluation of the National Gallery of Art's Micro Gallery, a separate gallery area on the first floor of the West Wing designed to provide videodisc access and more in-depth information about the Gallery's collection, we tried to determine how many people used the Micro Gallery and whether they were representative of the usual visitors to the National Gallery. Results suggested that there was a great deal of self-selection going on at the entrance of the gallery in terms of who entered the Micro Gallery once at the museum and who did not. For the most part, the visitors to the Micro Gallery were relatively representative of other gallery visitors, the main difference relating to their level of ease with technology or their interest in delving in more detail into aspects of the National Gallery's collection via a videodisc (Adams & Abrams, 1995). In the course of observing and interviewing over 100 visitors, there were only a few visitors that expressly had visited the museum that day to visit the Micro Gallery.

This study, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Winterthur studies, also provide data that reduces, if not eliminates, a major concern that many skeptical museum professionals have about the use of media by visitors in exhibitions. There is no evidence that visitors choose to use a media element rather than look at objects and read labels in an exhibition. In fact, there is some modest evidence suggesting that some of these media presentations, such as the Micro Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, the Spirit of the Motherland videodisc and the Experience Africa film at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the connoisseurship interactives at the Winterthur, actually served as resources and incentives for visitors to look at objects again or in more depth after engaging in the media experience. The media presentation alone was not the museum experience for visitors; they had come expecting to look at and examine objects and/or phenomena and they did so.

In the minds of visitors, what are some of the pros and cons of media use in museums? Obviously, visitors are interested in the fact that media can increase their options and choices, particularly when considering media such as computers and videodiscs. They recognize that in many cases technology is the solution to becoming more interactive, especially for museums wishing to serve children and youth. They recognize that computers and CD-ROM technology can provide choices in terms of the depth of information presented, as well as what is presented and, in many cases, how it is presented. Visitors have concerns about technology also. They would like media options in museums to be more "user-friendly," assisting them in knowing what options are available and once the appropriate choice of interest has been made, they want to be able to successfully experience the option.

What insights does this literature offer for those designing museum web sites? As we suggested, we do not know how much of this research is directly relevant--it is unclear at this stage how much of an overlap exists between the museum visitor and the potential museum web user. Our sense is that there is some overlap, particularly when it comes to the psychographic profiles and expectations of these individuals, but quite honestly we don't know. Beyond the specifics presented here, however, what probably is an important take-away message is how important it is to understand the profiles of your potential users in order to create a web experience that is meaningful to them and to recognize that most likely web use is as complex a behavior as museum-going.

It goes without saying also, but it is critical to insure that the integrity and quality of what is presented in a museum still is present in the web site. As we suggested earlier, visitors do assume that there is an inherent integrity to the objects, ideas and experiences presented within the museum and most probably extend those expectations to a museum web site so there is an obligation to uphold. Remember, visitors have freely chosen to visit your web site, consequently you want to be sure to use the media well, exercising the same high standards of integrity that you would in any of your endeavors.

This integrity includes communication integrity. One can have created the most wonderful web site in the world but if users do not know it is available, understand how to use it effectively, or make sense of the content presented, all that effort has been wasted. Whenever possible, front-end testing of concepts and formative testing of interfaces should be conducted with users during the development of the web site. This testing can be modest but ensures that there has been some effort to determine whether concepts, directions and graphics communicate well and clearly to potential users.

There is also a great need for specific research to understand the role that the Internet and web use is playing in people's lives and the potential it has for interpreting museum objects, phenomena and associated ideas to users. As we suggested, much of the free-choice learning research has focused on museum visitation. Very little research on free choice learning has focused on who is drawn to the Internet or the role that the Internet and museum web sites can play in communicating ideas; studies of this nature would be exceedingly useful as a guide for this burgeoning activity. Potential interesting questions might be: Are their particular types of ideas that lend themselves to web site presentations? Is there a profile of a "typical" web user? And What types of web experiences support user learning? It would seem that there is tremendous potential in this media to extend the museum experiences of current visitors and to potentially attract new users. The Internet promises to be the ultimate tool of the Learning Society, if we can learn how best to harness its potential. As we begin to develop a better body of knowledge about the interpretive role of a museum web site, we will be in a much better position to wisely use this media to support positive user experiences.

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