Recently I was traveling to give a presentation and had the chance to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The overwhelming characteristic of the museum is its spectacular architecture—playful, innovative and designed to look random. It’s a structure that seems to dance rather than stand still.
Like many visitors, I paid a few Euros to rent a portable audio player for the self-guided tour to learn about the museum’s architecture and its architect, Frank Gehry. This experience of simultaneously touring and listening at the Guggenheim was one of the most compelling learning experiences I’ve had in a long time.
It was an ideal model for integrating a structured yet informal learning paradigm. The audio guide was structured in the sense that the content was organized into segments that created a meaningful presentation. It was informal in that it was a voluntary endeavor with no prerequisites or requirements. Users could take or leave what they wanted.
The experience was powerful and I wondered what I could transfer to the world of online learning. I don’t have all the answers, but here are seven ways that I’ve figured out so far.
1. It engaged all of my senses. While touring this architectural wonder, it felt as though my brain couldn’t process all the sensory input I was perceiving. This state of heightened arousal is highly motivating and is one reason people seek new experiences. Possibly the only way to transfer this type of potent sensory experience online is through simulating a virtual environment.
2. It heightened my awareness of physical space. Wandering through the Guggenheim’s atrium, you can see through the large glass windows how the architect tied together the interior and exterior space. It increased my understanding of how the physical environment affects our consciousness. Again, a 3D immersive environment would be ideal for this type of learning. See Your Brain On 3D Learning for more on this topic.
3. It gave me the controls to stop, start and repeat the flow of information. You may take it for granted that asynchronous online learning allows users to move at their own pace. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of allowing learners to stop if they want to ponder, to start when they feel ready, and to repeat if they need to hear or see something more than once to comprehend it. This type of control often simulates how we learn naturally.
4. The content was well organized. The meaningful organization of information is what transforms facts and data into usable content. We can achieve this in all types of online learning with good principles of instructional design. Check out Content Organization Cheat Sheet for suggestions.
5. The audio content was rich. The guided audio tour integrated varied content and sound bytes. It included the architect’s dreams and plans for the structure, characteristics of the building materials, interesting anecdotes about the architect’s creative approach, quotes from others, and comments from an interview with the architect himself. The typical online learning program uses straight narration. Perhaps we can enhance the richness of the audio channel by including sound effects, interviews, music and different perspectives.
6. The experience was immediate. It’s hard to replicate the immediacy of walking through a museum that feels like a living sculpture but it’s something to strive for in our online learning. Can we create experiences that have so much impact, the learner is compelled to pay attention?
7. It allowed for discussion as well as solitary thought. As I wandered the building with my touring partner, we would pause the audio to discuss the points that seemed particularly fascinating. Then we would continue on, wandering around a room on our own paths.
We now know that discussion and collaboration contribute a great deal to the learning process. Synchronous learning events and social media technologies allow us to integrate this dimension of learning into the programs we design.
We have a great opportunity to learn about design from the experiences that surround us, so that we can make online learning as natural as possible.