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Archives & Museum Informatics

Virtual Objects and Real Education: A Prolegomenon version .1

Glen H. Hoptman, Jonathan P. Latimer, Marsha Weiner, The Lightbeam Group/Studio, USA


Since the material and informational assets of our cultural institutions are now liberated from bricks and mortar, the challenge facing museum professionals and educators is how to best apply technology to fulfill the needs of the general population and the aspirations of the institutions. against the backdrop of the popular PBS production, The Antiques Road Show; Prolegomenon version .1 integrates the foreword thinking of James Burke's work The Knowledge Web, and presents how the traditional museum-based orientation of artifact-as-history can finally fulfill our highest democratic ideals of education, once stated by John Dewey. Those ideals now have an opportunity to be fulfilled in the triune function of CONTENT, CURRICULUM, and COMMUNITY, a credo that is embraced by efforts like, sponsor of our current work in this arena. Prolegomenon version.1 projects a blueprint as to how the cultural assets of museums can provide a true interdisciplinary approach to learning that will reflect Burke's suggested," glimpse of what a learning experience might be like in the twenty-first century." It is the beginning of a community-based dialogue related to evolving an enhanced philosophy and practice of education.


For decades the revolution of personal computing has been equated to that of the impact of the printing press. Some zealots even went so far as to equate the worldwide, life-changing power of personal computing with that of writing itself. Regardless, such revolutionary times demand the skills of inquiry and reflection, especially when developing a strategy of how to apply the revolutionary tools now available for K-12 education.

The grandfather of both modern, democratic and Progressive education, John Dewey, reminds us: "The primary school grew practically out to the popular movement of the sixteenth century, when, along with the invention of printing and the growth of commerce, it became a business necessity to know how to read, write, and figure. The aim was distinctly a practical one; it was utility; getting command of these tools, the symbols of learning, NOT for the sake of learning, but because they gave access to careers in life otherwise closed."

Once education got beyond the practical mandate, educators then returned to the struggle of providing a democratic education that had cultural components, "to put into the hands of people the key to the old learning so that they might see a world with a larger horizon."

Such is the challenge in applying today's technologies to bringing museum assets to classrooms.

Hence, Prolegomenon version .1

But first, and aside:

Though "The Antiques Road Show" may curdle the corpuscles of some museum professionals, in it's fourth season on Public Broadcasting, 333 PBS stations carry the show. It is PBS' top rated ongoing series, with an average audience of 6.43 million.

Here's a description for those unfamiliar with the program: A group of professionals, most of whom work as antique dealers, auctioneers and appraisers, not museum professionals, bring their well-announced tent to town.

Locals are invited to bring family heirlooms or treasures found at flea markets, garage sales or purchased in galleries. The fleets of professionals, in various categories, are available to appraise the value of the presented objects.

Throughout the program there are breakout segments when the audience sees an individual, with their object, sitting opposite a professional in a lighted area. The professional, with the command of Regis Philben, asks, "How did you come by this?" After the tale is told, the professional asks the more pointed question, "What do you think it's worth?"

After listening, the expert nod with acknowledged concern, and then describes, in stunning detail, details about the object. Through the expert's description the audience learns about lost techniques, artisans and craftsmen, historical preferences, economic forces, manufacturing challenges and progress, fashions, and fads. Finally the expert evaluates the object and the cultural spelunker exits, feeling somewhere between confirmed that their object truly is a treasure, or disappointed. Regardless, the collectors leave enlightened--they've learned something.

One breakout segment was unique.

Sitting opposite an expert in Early American painting was a 12-year-old girl. With her legs rhythmically swinging from the seat of the chair, the expert learned that the painting before the audience, a portrait of a woman of an indeterminate age, was recovered from a dumpster by the girl and her mom. The child confidently gave her explanation of the painting including, the era it came from, information about the painted interior, the subject's costume, her status and that of her family, and more.

The expert generously beamed surprise, pride, and approval at this young collector. When asked how she knew so much, she commented, with comfortable enthusiasm, (Iím quoting from memory)," I just love this show and all my family knows it. So now when I watch I've got a whole lot of books to look through. I've learned how to look at stuff and find out what it means. I just think this show is great."

The segment was:

In some ways it was an educator's dream. It showed a child who has the means to follow her enthusiasm, a child who has resources at hand from which to learn more.

It was a successful use of media that suggests an adaptation of museum assets to web-based education.

To address that: Prolegomenon version .1

Prolegomenon is a collection of readings or exercises that will lead to further understanding and development that will advance a way of thinking on a particular subject. A present day prolegomenon that addresses new technology and a new approach to knowledge is James Burke's The Knowledge Web.

In his book Burke presents ten different journeys "across the great web of change." Though the reader can read the book from cover to cover, Burke also offers "gateways"ó notations in the margins that lead the reader to other places in the book where the timeline of one inquiry crosses the timeline of another. Such crossings reveal, for example, how the products of a nineteenth-century perfume-spray manufacturer and the chemist who discovered how to crack gasoline from oil came together to create the carburetor.

The result is a sense of the connections between knowledge, events, thoughts, and serendipity. It is, in Burke's own words, "a glimpse of what a learning experience might be like in the twenty-first century once we have solved the problem of information overload." He even goes so far as to suggest that our brains are hard-wired for such higher level, pattern-recognition which yields the context and relevance of information.

The book, both in its content and layout, is begging to be free of the page. The content is begging to be applied to the tools now availableó

  • interactive communication tools which allow a user to traverse various timelines
  • in media rich environments,
  • which are linked to data resources that will illuminate each step of the looping timelines, along with the ability to communicate about oneís findings anywhere in the world.

The same tools suggested by Burke's prolegomenon can be applied to museum assets to liberate the intellectual wealth of cultural institutions and to help fulfill the artfully crafted Mission Statements shared by many institutions; to educate and uplift our democracy.

And in what better arena to deploy those liberated resources then education.

When interactive museum resources are joined with educational requirements and communication technology, the public then gets a golden triune function: CONTENT, CURRICULUM and COMMUNITY. These are the three foundations upon which has evolved it's approach to the development of educational resources. It is in association with that this paper was written, and it is with them that we at Lightbeam are designing a series of educational modules that embody the spirit of this paper.

  • The CONTENT comes from some of the most highly regarded institutions together with the extensive reference assets of
  • Databases allow the means for interdisciplinary connections to be made across the entire CURRICULUM.
  • And the COMMUNITY of teachers, parents, and students can communicate and interact via communication technologies. has at its core this triune function:

CONTENT of the highest, most trusted level.

CURRICULUM to provide a framework of inquiry.

COMMUNICATION tools to involve family and community in the education process.

Relevance to Education

One of the unfortunate aspects of formal education today is that in many places it is still carried out much the same way that it was in the 19th century. Students are still gathered together in a school and moved from one room and grade to another according to a rigid schedule. They sit in orderly rows and use standardized textbooks that do not recognize the differences in learning styles, interests, needs, or abilities of each individual student. All of the limitations associated with the factory approach to manufacturing are inherent in the current educational system. Itís even run on a calendar based on 19th century agricultural practices.

But the introduction of the Web and other information technologies into the classroom turns this traditional paradigm for education upside down. It changes many of the most basic relationships, including the:

  • link between time and studies;
  • connection between the teacher and the student;
  • role of the teacher;
  • content of the curriculum; and the
  • approaches to delivering information.

These changes are based on a new relationship between humans and information that is swiftly evolving.

1. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. In the past, information (facts and ways of manipulating those facts) was difficult to obtain. It required seeking out someone with the proper training and knowledge to learn from (a wise man or magus) or enrolling in and academy or school (a teacher or professor).

2. Information is no longer expensive. Obtaining a good education can be prohibitively expensive, especially if a student wants to attend a first-class school or college. Even textbooks are far more expensive than other books with a similar trim size and page count. But, information is available on the Web low-cost.

The wide availability of information (as opposed to knowledge and wisdom) is forcing a complete reorientation of the concept of teaching and a redefinition of education. Quality education acknowledges the innate curiosity of children and their desire to understand and master their environment. It also recognizes that children have different interests and learning styles, and that they progress at different rates. While the acquisition of basic skills (reading, writing, mathematics, and the scientific method) still needs to be stressed, the emphasis is on individual achievement and challenge. A child is encouraged to learn skills at a pace appropriate to that student regardless of standardized norms or grade level. Technological tools such as the Web allow for this kind of individual instruction, but it also presents a series of challenges for all concerned.

1. For the first time students have easy access to all kinds of information, some good, some bad. The challenges for students are:

  • How to seek and request information
  • How to evaluate sources of information
  • How to separate good information from bad
  • How to open new pathways and new connections in information

2. The challenges for teachers are:

  • How to give students the skills to seek and evaluate information (reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking)
  • How to help students open new connections for information;
  • How to treat children with respect for their individuality. Children have different interests and learning styles, and that they progress at different rates.

3. The challenges for information providers/publishers are:

  • How to package information to make it appealing to students and teachers: instructional design, editing,
  • How to make sure the information is accurate: editing, fact-checking.

The Impact of the Web

Taken together, these challenges require a reexamination and rethinking of the nature and goals of education. As things now stand, most of this thinking has resulted in applying old solutions to the new technologies. For example, placing a book on the Web is not much better than reprinting it on paper. In fact, a book may be harder to read on the Web. But what if we donít stop there? If that book can be made interactive, if readers can ask questions and comment on the book, or if the bookís parts can be linked to other information on the Web, it suddenly becomes a richer, more useful (and more attractive) tool. Then suppose that much of that information the book is linked to is contained in museums around the world, that single click would take the user to a related object or display. Think how much richer that book would become. Imagine what that little girl on The Antiques Road Show could do with that.

The Internet and World Wide Web provide the opportunity, if issues of the various equal access "divides" are adequately addressed, to be the great democratizer of education. With the comprehensive wiring of schoolsÖultimately to the desktop of each and every studentÖthe opportunities that information access presents can be realized by everyone. And with the proper tools and interfacesÖlearning is liberated from the classroom.

For the purposes of this Prolegomenon, here are some of the possibilities the Web presents:

Exploring the Frontiers of Knowledge: The Web offers an opportunity for creative expression and problem solving that go beyond established bodies of knowledge. An emphasis on innovation is necessary if students are going to learn to adapt to a changing world and ultimately take part in shaping change.

Getting the Most out of the Time Available: Once issues of equity and teacher proficiency in the design and use of digital resources has been properly addressed then time is no longer the major structuring element for students use of the Web. As students proceed at their own pace, time becomes more generalized, less specific. Learning can take place anytime, and anywhere, not just during a specific class period

Measuring progress also becomes individualized: Any student can approach any lesson or take any test at any time. Teachers can measure progress in terms of milestones, goals, or objectives, rather than in terms of periods, days, or weeks. The spectrum of possible "correct" answers can be expanded exponentially to reflect the expressive and representational tools used by the students and saved in their respective portfolios.

Individual Learning: Learning is a life-long process, not an activity associated only with institutions. Many schools promote the passive acquisition of knowledge. The Web allows individuals to become responsible for their own learning. Properly used, the Web can teach students to use reason and logic and to apply these tools to engage with the world. Teaching basic skills and content areas can be enhanced by using the Web for a wide variety of activities including Virtual Field Trips, Virtual Science Labs for all ages, and student activities such as a Math Team, Mock Trial, Science Olympiad, or Chess Club.

Collaborative Learning: We live in a culture that stresses individual self-fulfillment, sometimes at the expense of others. Some schools err on the side of stressing the competitive and private nature of learning. The World Wide Web allows learning to become a cooperative effort in which shared ideas enhance each studentís experience and understanding. Teachers can compare notes and share best practices with teachers around the world. They can also compare their studentís performance with other classes.

Diversity: Because the Web is an opening to the world, it allows students to experience the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity they might not find in their local classroom. Perceiving the needs and caring about the welfare of others is fundamental to becoming a mature person.

Social Responsibility: Because of its remarkable ability to inform, the Web offers a unique opportunity to encourage social responsibility in students. This encompasses compassion for other individuals and responsibility for working on solutions to the problems of the immediate community and of the larger national and international community.

The Opportunities for Museums

The Web and other information technologies offer an unparalleled opportunity for museums; libraries, zoological parks, and other institutions devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and interpretation of objects of artistic, historical, or scientific value. Many of these opportunities parallel those listed above for education.

Extending a Museumís Geographic Reach: First, a museumís range will be extended beyond anything imagined in the past. Geography no longer matters. The audience doesnít need to come to the museum; the museum can go to the audience.

Getting the Most out of the Time Available: As with educational institutions, museums will no longer be restricted by time. On the Web, museum collections can be reached anytime. People will be able to spend as much or as little time with each exhibit or each object as they need. They will not have to put up with crowds or obnoxious patrons, and neither will the staff.

Collaborative Learning: Information can be traded through the Web in ways that were impossible in the past. Museums will be able to pool their information, easily comparing objects from different collections and sharing their interpretive expertise. They can even [ask] call on their audience for help when the occasion calls for it, as has been done very successfully by the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. Curators put objects that they couldnít identify in a small cabinet near one of museumís entrances. They marked it plainly with a request for help [from] form their visitors. Patrons loved it. Here was something that stumped the experts. But on several occasions patrons knew what the object was--they recalled seeing one in grandpaís barn or grandmaís kitchen. Everyone won: the museum solved a mystery and their visitors felt involved.

To show one way in which museums can enrich and enliven a student's education; here is a concept for developing an interactive, electronically mediated curriculum. Each of the modules to be developed for this program would be significantly enhanced by access to museum collections.


In places the physical classroom is disappearing. Instead, a class consists of students scattered across the globe, connected electronically. For example, students from many countries have participated in virtual expeditions, explorations, investigations, and discussions. They have traveled together to the ocean abyss by submersible, to Mayan ruins by bicycle, and into the atmosphere of Jupiter with the Galileo probe.

In Deweyís terms, even though students share these virtual experiences vicariously through electronic means, they can be very educational. He postulated that the experience that educates best is shared inquiry. Shared inquiry involves communication, which for Dewey is inherently educational. As he wrote in Democracy and Education (1916), "... all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience..." More than any other medium, the Internet offers an enormous opportunity for communication and sharing inquiries. The Web is a universe of rapidly evolving virtual worlds populated by people with shared interests who can be located anywhere in the "real" world. Thousands log on every day to ask questions. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, FAQ's, and Web sites devoted to arcane subjects abound. If the information exists, it is probably on the Web.

Dewey also said (again in Democracy and Education) "The educator's part in the enterprise of education is to furnish the environment which stimulates responses and directs the learner's course." In an educational setting, one of the goals of student research is to find the best and most accurate information available. Museums and their sister institutions are the custodians of much of the best information and best objects created by human beings. Making that content available to classrooms over the Internet will create a whole new audience for each museumís collections. In the long run, it may also create new knowledge as well.

So let me give you a glimpse of the future of interactive, electronically mediated education. Dewey gives a hint of what this might be like in his 1903 pamphlet, Logical Conditions of a Scientific Treatment of Morality. In it he points out that:

Students of logic are familiar with the distinction between the fact of particularity and the qualifications or distinguishing traits of a particularó a distinction which has been variously termed one between the "That" and the "What," or between "This" and "Thisness." Thisness refers to a quality which, however sensuous it be (such as hot, red, loud) ... [i]t is something a presentation has, rather than what it just is. ... The selection of any particular "This" as the immediate subject of judgment is not arbitrary, however, but is dependent upon the end involved in the interest that is uppermost. ...Purely objectively, there is no reason for choosing any one of the infinite possibilities rather than another.

In a classroom, finding connections between the qualities of "Thisness" offers avenues for discovering whole new ranges of knowledge. With the availability of information from the entire world, knowledge will become broad, contextual, and interdisciplinary. Imagine working out concepts such as redness or loudnessó or frogginess. Imagine the possibilities and join us in developing a new epistemology which, in a period of time that may be much shorter than we imagine, will lead to a "New Progressive"


Burke, James. (1999). The Knowledge Web. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dewey, John. (1900). The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. (1903). Logical Conditions of A Scientific Treatment of Morality. In Investigations Representing the Departments, Part II: Philosophy, Education (3: 115-139). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan Company.

Gardner, Howard. (1993). Multiple Intelligences. New York: Harper Collins.

Gardner, Howard. (1999). The Disciplined Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Leonard, George. (1987). Education and Ecstasy. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Manguel, Alberto. (1996). A History of Reading. New York: Viking Penguin.

Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: The Free Press.

Olson, Lynn. (1997). The School -to- Work Revolution. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.