May 20, 2011

Children's Museum Uses Smartphones to Educate Adults

Mother watches video on her smartphone

If Karen S. Coltrane, chief executive of the Children’s Museum of Richmond, had her way, one of the museum's education experts would accompany every family that walked in the door. But while she laughs at the thought that the Virginia museum would ever have that kind of money, Ms. Coltrane thinks she might have found the next best thing—with a decidedly lower price tag.

The museum has incorporated QR codes—a barcode that smartphones use to link to online information—into four of its main exhibits. And even though the organization has no technology workers, its marketing staff members figured out how to create the codes and make the idea work.

When visitors scan one of the codes with a smartphone, they see a short video that explains the lessons children can learn from the exhibit and offers tips for parents and others on how to extend that learning at home. Visitors can watch the video at the museum or save it to the phone to watch later.

QR code for the museum's Living Tree House exhibit

In the past, the museum experimented with showing similar videos on monitors mounted near the exhibits, but that didn’t work well in the high-energy environment of a children’s museum, says Ms. Coltrane.

“The problem for us is that if our visitors are interacting properly with our museum, it's so loud you can't hear yourself think,” she says

Ms. Coltrane, who first became aware of QR codes when she started to see them in Traditional Home magazine, broached the idea of using the codes in exhibits with the museum's information-technology consultant. Impatient with his yeah-we-can-look-into-that response, Ms. Coltrane decided the museum would forge ahead on its own.

The museum’s costs were minimal. The organization purchased a $100 digital video camera and had to upgrade one of its computers to use the video-editing software it bought. Employees in the marketing department looked up how to create the QR codes online, and the museum’s graphic designer created new signs to add to the exhibits.

The videos are also available on the museum’s YouTube channel for people who don’t have smartphones.

Ms. Coltrane was particularly concerned about whether the museum would be leaving out grandparents and other older visitors, but she says the response was immediate when she shared her concern with the museum’s education committee.

“I got smartly rebuked by a couple of folks in their 60s who whipped out their smartphones to show me that they, too, can do this,” she says.