The tablet app goes to class

On May 6, 2014 we welcomed a school class from Celle, Germany to test the Bergen-Belsen tablet application prototype on their day visit to the former camp site. After a short introduction, students went out in the landscape to explore the former camp grounds, find historical documents, and discuss them afterwards in a group session.

The last part of the video below also shows a bit from their feedback resulting of the experience.

It was not merely the plan to let the class try out the latest version of the application, but to apply it as an established tool in the class’ existing day program, just like in any future class visit practice. While the application is planned to be fully operational by September 2014, we’ve handed out earlier prototypes out to individual visitors since a year. Such small groups, like families, couples, day-trip passers-by and so on, form a large part of the memorial’s visitors. School classes are another important visitor group. Classes visit BB as part of their education programme, often for a large part of a day. Their visits usually include a guided tour through the outdoor park as well as the indoor exposition, a group discussion, or combinations of these elements.

Up until date, archive material used by the guides to introduce the many themes and support discussion during such (half) days has been organised and presented in a ‘paper’ form, mostly using folders with copies together with projections slides. The start of the video above shows a brief excerpt of this common practice. There’s a great deal of variation of use of this prepared material between individual guides, not only in terms of photographs or text fragments, but also in terms of preferred presentation location, order, and thematic association. Guides at BB are very often volunteers and therefor have a degree of freedom to organise their own presentations and tours.

Important part of our app project is to implement a system that can deal with this variety. Yet the main idea is to move away from mostly sequential ‘tours’ as prepared by guides or the memorial, and towards ‘explorations’ that are more directed by the interest of the users, and the expertise of guides, educators and researchers. The simple first step tried here, is to just let students explore the environment and collect a few content items of their interest, which are subsequently discussed in the group with a guide or educator.

The development of the tablet application in principle is not only aimed at visitors (of both types mentioned above, or any other), but as well as at guides (and not to yet mention, researchers). So for this first education case we were almost equally interested in how guides would integrate the app in their preparation of a day. In the months before we had set up the main structure and requirements together with them, and to our joy learned now that some had quite independently of our interest switched to using the prototype version pretty much permanently already.

In this case, what would normally would have been a guided tour, was exchanged for an exploration session using the tablet application with a dedicated dataset. Together with BB, we wanted to engage the students more than is normally the case with guided tours, in which often ‘a flock follows the leader’. The tablet application is seen as one of the main strategies to move towards such education styles, not only because its ‘cool technology’ supposedly draws youngster interest, but especially because it is very apt to be setup to require navigation in the outdoor environment in order to explore the former topology and find archive content, using the multi-entrance characteristic of a spatialised, cast datacloud rather than that of a single-entry-linear-path to present information.

Although the day was too busy to include proper testing or even a questionnaire, the feedback we got from the students and our observations gave a lot to think about. In general, it was observed that the setup succeeded and that the application indeed had functioned quite well embedded in the whole day. We did note that that partially was due to the students being quite savvy with the tablet technology already, their class being the spearhead of a program to develop and test novel education strategies, having them regularly try and apply new applications in such context. The next, real test would be to do the same with a class of students that would not have such confidence with the tools.

Apart from many User Experience (UX) and other concrete issues, one key observation that came about from the day, is the essential role of context and how it is provided to a visitor. Whereas a ‘classic’ guided tour strongly relies on the guide to present and then contextualise certain items and concepts (for instance the diary fragment shown in the video that contains the term ‘Kapo’, which proper understanding is highly illustrative of the practical and moral complexity of life in the former concentration camp), the design of a technological application that makes archive items findable (in whatever way) should also consider how the context about such items (and its circumstances of presentation) is made available. It can’t of course be ‘sufficient’ to scatter the photos, documents, audio fragments and so on in an historical environment and rely on the content and visitor’s interpretation to start understanding the bigger picture, or even the smaller one at hand. While we want to move towards more student-propelled exploration, we should not get rid of important information guidance, rather find novel forms to provide it, to be as easily found by the visitor as (s)he can find the content itself. Apart from the already noted item context layers to be (better) implemented like time-period, associated camp area and prisoner groups, which we basically envision solvable via labels, markers and other graphical strategies, it started to emerge that some context -or actually a lot of it- will need another little story to be told. And of course, what were we thinking! Any proper history museum exposition or catalogue clearly shows just that as I guess its most laborious structural element: packaging a selection of historical items in an architecture of apt, concise texts and graphical forms (not to say diagrams like timelines and such). From this perspective, the platform we are building on a concept of information spatialisation, both in virtual or real, outdoor environments (we sometimes refer to it as ‘browsing in space’), will need to re-shape much more than just the way a user finds content.

Once again it dawned on us that this project still has huge parts to both explore and develop …


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