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From the Physical to the Virtual: Bringing Free-Choice Science Education Online

Steven Allison-Bunnell and David T. Schaller, eduweb

In E-Learning and Virtual Science Centers, edited by Leo Tan and R. Subramaniam (Hershey, PA: Idea Group 2005). More about the book.

Here is the abstract and two excerpts:

This chapter from E-Learning and Virtual Science Centers proposes a series of strategies for recreating science center exhibits online. It argues that while physical and electronic exhibits share certain common features, electronic science interactives based on physical exhibits must be re-conceived in terms of the strengths of the electronic medium. Like a televised magic show, digital media allow any number of special effects that interfere with the immediacy and raw authenticity of an onsite physical demonstration. This interference is inherent in any mediated experience. Rather than trying to overcome it, we suggest alternate approaches that take online users deeper into the scientific concepts underlying the physical phenomena on exhibit in the physical galleries. We outline several strategies that we have successfully used to engage user's imaginations and emotions in online science activities, to foster motivation, and to provide an initial conceptual framework that supports the learning process.

Excerpt 1:
Shared Assumptions, Strengths and Weaknesses

We do not mean to imply that the need to articulate a distinct strategy for online science exhibits is a criticism of physical exhibits. Neither is it a call to replace physical exhibits with virtual ones. On the contrary, it is clear that the rapid embrace of the Internet by museums starting in the mid-1990s demonstrates some strong and deep affinities between the two arenas, which we will describe below. By pointing out these affinities, we are not ignoring the profound differences in form and function between working (either as a developer or a user) in physical and virtual spaces. However, for exhibit developers and informal educators more familiar with physical exhibits, the connections we outline here form a practical bridge to thinking about electronic interactives.

Shared Characteristics of Physical & Web Interactive Exhibits:

  1. Constructivist model of learning and cognition.
  2. Developers create a non-linear path through a space.
  3. Heterogeneous representations carry the message.
  4. Free-choice learning context of use.
  5. Atmosphere of playful experimentation.
  6. Most users and visitors would rather do than read.
  7. Atomized information can loose invaluable context.

Excerpt 2:
The Challenges of Translating Physical Exhibits to the Web

Those with deep experience with virtual reality and human-computer interactions might argue that the differences between physical exhibits and virtual reality mean that there is an insurmountable incommensurability between these environments, and that it is therefore futile to suggest moving any aspect of existing physical exhibits online. While we agree on the theoretical level, in practical terms, a science center's physical exhibits represent a large investment of human capital and are a significant reservoir of expertise and content. While virtual exhibits cannot precisely embody physical exhibits, physical exhibits do embody the identity and vocabulary of the museum's educational framework. Rather than starting from scratch, it therefore seems useful to evaluate how some of the different types of exhibits in a physical science center might or might not be readily adapted to the Web. If in fact an exhibit might already be suited to an electronic version (perhaps even because the physical version is less physical than we thought!), we see no need to go out of our way to reframe it just for the sake of being different. If, on the other hand, a type of exhibit is fundamentally unsuited for life online, then it is useful to be aware of that before undertaking the conversion process. There are many ways to categorize exhibits, and this treatment is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. It serves to highlight the issues encountered in thinking about online exhibits, and implies some of the strategies that we will develop further below. While above we highlighted the shared aspects of physical and virtual exhibit spaces, the following comparison of specific physical and virtual exhibits brings out several essential differences between the two. After this examination, we offer some general strategies for dealing with these differences. Table 2 lists several science museum exhibit types and their possible electronic equivalents.

Table 2. Science museum exhibit types and their digital potential
Physical exhibit typeElectronic version potential
1. Object-centered Authentic objects become part of reference encyclopedia.
2. Demonstration of a physical principle Explain underlying principle instead of demonstrating surface phenomenon.
3. Illustration of function of human cognition Can be equally effective.
4. Mechanical analogy for non-mechanical principle Find new non-mechanical analogy.
5. Fun science or hardware-derived tricks Create digitally native opportunities for creative play.
6. Showcase exotic technology Explain underlying operation or encourage innovation.
7. Engage socially relevant topical issues Strong opportunity to frame and enable community discussion.