A different kind of experience: Using a smart mobile guide for education and aging research at the Hecht museum

Tsvi Kuflik, Israel, Ornit Sagy, Israel, Joel Lanir, Israel, Alan Wecker, Israel, Orit Mogilevsky, Israel, ,


We present how a museum visitors’ guide has been: 1) integrated into museum educational activities, 2) integrated into higher education, and 3) used to trigger aging and rehabilitation research in situ. The work presented demonstrates the potential of successful collaboration between researchers and museum staff in exploring new ideas for using novel mobile technology in a realistic setting.

Keywords: Mobile museum visitor's guide, group educational activity

1. Introduction

The PIL project focuses on exploring how novel technologies can enhance the museum visit experience (Kuflik et al. 2011; 2012). In the framework of the project, a research prototype was developed and, following an evaluation that showed that the visitors liked the system, converted into a working mobile guide. Since 2010 the system has been used on a daily basis by visitors to the Hecht museum (http://mushecht.haifa.ac.il/Default_eng.aspx). The system offers multimedia presentations on selected museum exhibits in three languages; English, Hebrew and Arabic. The system is location aware and its positioning is based on proximity detection. Fixed Beacons are placed at points of interest in the museum where visitors pass and trigger the guide with mobile sensors they carry called “Blinds,” as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: PIL system architecture

When a visitor is detected at a point of interest (the Blind detects the Beacon and reports this event to the server), the system presents the user with a selection of objects located nearby on the handheld device (Figure 2, left). The user then selects a specific object of interest among those marked by yellow rectangles, which prompts a list of questions (Figure 2, center). When the visitor selects one of the questions presented, s/he listens to the response, given as a one-minute multimedia presentation (Figure 2, right). Visitors’ interactions with the system are logged for analysis, as reported by Lanir et al. (2011; 2012).

Figure 2

Figure 2 Mobile device screenshots

Novel mobile technology attracts the attention of researchers who try to explore its potential to support interaction with cultural heritage in various ways, using mobile games (Botturi et al. 2009), collaborating while producing new content (Treviranus 2010) and more, as can be seen simply by looking for the use of mobile technology in cultural heritage on the web; however, few reports exist on the use of the technological infrastructure in museums for research that is not directly related to cultural heritage interpretation. In our case, once the system was deployed, it was demonstrated to the museum staff and university researchers in order to promote its use in educational activities and in research. On several occasions, this demonstration resulted in research and educational collaboration. So far the system has been used (or provided the technological basis) for the following activities:

  1. Integration into the museum’s educational activities
  2. Integration into higher education learning, and
  3. Use in aging and rehabilitation research in situ.

We have evidence that these kinds of collaborations between researchers and the museum staff around mobile technology solutions in the museum can support a large variety of activities well beyond simple information delivery, making the museum a living lab for both educational and research activities.

2. Using the mobile guide to support educational activities

Whereas individual visitors are enthusiastic about using the mobile guide, a typical school group does not consider the guide an integral part of their visit. We posit, however, that the mobile guide has the potential to engage and support learning for the school children in a similar way that it does for adults who find it compelling during their museum visit. The activities described here, as an example of using mobile guides for educational activities, are a first step toward combining mobile technology with human guides for the benefit of group educational activities in the museum. The initiative was taken by the museum staff who decided to explore the possibility of integrating the system into group activities, and reported on the results based on observations and group interviews.

Two groups of high school children participated in an activity called “Maritime Archeology.” The first included a mixed group of 21 Jewish girls and 15 Arab and Druze girls that visited the museum for the first time, for a one-time activity. The second included a Druze youth group that participated in an ongoing course on maritime archeology. The course included three meetings at the museum, one of which included the mobile guide as part of their structured activity.

During the activity, participants visited a variety of exhibitions focusing on Marine Archaeology. In traditional educational activities, participants are guided by one of the docents in addition to reading the labels in order to understand the exhibition and learn about the subject in greater detail. When the children used the mobile guide, they were asked to listen to various presentations while looking at the exhibits and reading the explanations. Our assumption was that the integration of information that is delivered in various modalities using novel technology, as well as traditional methods, would improve the visit experience.

Our goals were:

  1. Enabling participants to learn about marine archeology
  2. Introducing participants to Phoenician civilization.
  3. Demonstrating and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of integrating technology into museum activities

At the beginning of the visit, the group listened to the docent explaining what they would be visiting in the museum with a brief introduction to archeology with a focus on marine archeology. The group was invited to use the mobile guide for an exploratory activity: describing maritime artifacts and exploring the “Phoenicians” exhibition. Participants were then separated into couples where they were offered puzzles to solve. The answer to the puzzle led them to the specific location in the exhibition that they had to explore. In each location there was a question they had to answer using the information provided by the mobile guide. At the end of the activity, the group gathered together again with the instructor and held a joint discussion on their findings, learning together about the exhibition. Finally, the group discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using technology in the museum with the instructors and each other.

The feedback from both groups was very positive and supported our initial assumption. The participants reported that they enjoyed using the system, that it allowed them more freedom and expanded their knowledge about various topics in the exhibition, beyond what was possible when the activity was guided by an instructor. They noted that they were able to watch the same presentation more than once and were able to repeat what they did not understand the first time. They were able to overcome a language barrier (even though all of them speak Hebrew) as the system enabled them to listen to the presentations in their native language; English, Hebrew or Arabic (the labels in the museum are in Hebrew and English, the human guide speaks Hebrew, Arabic and English). They also reported a sense of freedom and control over the content learned in the exhibition. On the other hand, they claimed that learning with human guide was essential, especially when they had a question and needed an immediate response.

3. Using the Mobile Guide for Supporting Higher Education

The second activity, the use of mobile guides in higher education as part of an introductory undergraduate course, was an initiative of a graduate student from the faculty of Education. It was intended to help art students develop skills for analyzing artworks. Previously, the course was taught mostly in-class, where the lecturer presented slides of artwork and demonstrated how to analyze the works of art. This approach was criticized as encouraging memorization, rather than skill development (Biggs, 2012). Since the development of skills is the essence of Art History education, the course was re-designed following the Cognitive Apprenticeship framework (Collins et al., 1989) that suggests that the role of the lecturer (an expert in analyzing artworks) should move through three phases: modeling, coaching and fading-away. By modeling, the expert makes his/her tacit knowledge visible to the novices. Then, by coaching, the expert scaffolds their work. Eventually, in gradually fading away, the expert encourages novices to develop independence. The purpose of this research was to develop and examine an instructional model that harnesses innovative technologies, to support undergraduate Art students in developing analytical skills.

New technologies were integrated into this model in order to enable this transformation. One of the innovations was the students’ actual visit to the museum where they could engage in a range of tasks and assignments. During the course, students had three organized visits to the museum in which they worked collaboratively in front of artworks. Each group had an assignment related to a different artwork. The mobile guide was made available to them as an aid during those visits. It provided them an integrated platform for retrieving information on the artworks, together with access to the course website, assignments and applications. The students used the system during course meetings that took place at the museum in order to complete their tasks, as well as during other visits to the museum in their free time. Using the guide, they were able to listen to the instructions about the assignments and select and watch relevant presentations at their own pace.

The results of the study showed that the students gradually became more active and independent in their learning, and met often after class to complete their assignments. Most of them felt positive about the technological integration in the course. For example, one student wrote: Obviously it is beyond what I expected – exposure to information technology systems is really new to me. It’s rich, smart and very helpful.”

The lecturers also expressed their own positive attitudes towards the technology. They reported that this kind of active learning and the use of technology had improved students’ skills to analyze artwork, as compared to students’ learning in other courses that required similar skills but were taught without the technology enhancements.

4. Using the Mobile Guide for Supporting Aging and Rehabilitation Research

The third example of the integration of mobile guides in the museum supports both aging and rehabilitation. It was initiated after the system was demonstrated to researchers from the Department of Occupational Therapy who were interested in finding a way to perform experiments in a realistic setting that is unobtrusive and includes unsupervised monitoring of participants. They wanted to use the technological infrastructure of the system (iPods, positioning system, webserver) and pedometers (a wearable device that counts each step a person takes by detecting the motion of the person’s hips). After considering the possibility of using the system, a “treasure hunt” application was developed using the same infrastructure (but not the mobile guide application itself). The aim of this study is to investigate the impact of age and environmental factors (i.e. real museum vs. computer simulation) on visual-spatial working memory functions and the motor behavior of healthy elderly (60 – 80 years) and young (20 – 45 years) adult participants, using a “Living Lab” approach that emphasizes unencumbered monitoring in ecologically valid settings. Spatial memory used to encode, store and retrieve spatial information is a cognitive process that is essential for simple everyday activities such as remembering the spatial layout of environments, travelling from one place to another or remembering the locations of objects.

Previous studies comparing elderly and young adults suggested that elderly adults have lower spatial memory scores than young adults only in using a map in an actual room environment (Sharps and Gollin, 1987). In order to explore these aspects further, we developed a task that requires physically moving among different locations in a museum to search through an array of targets and reveal hidden virtual tokens. At any one time, a single virtual token is hidden and the subject is required to search until it is found, at which point the next token is virtually hidden at a different target. The subject is required to remember which targets have been searched and the location of the found tokens as subsequent searches are performed. Successful completion of the task requires that subjects maintain and update an ongoing representation of previous searches in order to develop an optimal search strategy. Subjects are tested on two versions of this paradigm: one in which the search takes places in the Hecht Museum and one in which the search is simulated on a computer screen in a laboratory setting. Search performance is measured by the number of errors and search strategies in both environments. The results of this study will enable systematic characterization of motor-cognitive performance in simulated and real environments through identification of the contribution of cognitive and locomotor processes to performance of elderly and young adults.

5. Conclusions and Future Work

This paper has described how collaboration between the museum staff and university researchers can lead to new and innovative uses of mobile technology in the museum and how mobile technology can support a variety of activities in addition to its traditional role in supporting regular museum visitors. It may enable/enhance educational activities in the museum in various ways as well as enable additional types of research in situ.


This work is partially supported by the ISF grant 226/2010 and by the collaboration project of the University of Haifa, Israel and FBK/irst, Trento, Italy. The authors thank the Hecht Museum for allowing the use of its exhibitions for the research.


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Cite as:
T. Kuflik, O. Sagy, J. Lanir, A. Wecker, O. Mogilevsky, . and . , A different kind of experience: Using a smart mobile guide for education and aging research at the Hecht museum. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 26, 2013. Consulted .

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