Paolo De Gasperis, Head of Digital and EdTech at Explora Children’s Museum of Rome, shares how his museum brought a card game to life by layering an Augmented Reality experience on to “Missione Me” – the museum’s recent exhibition exploring the human body.
For Paolo De Gasperis and the team at Explora, grabbing a child’s attention lies at the heart of everything they do. So, as they investigated new ways to entertain, educate and delight young museum visitors, they asked themselves the question: How can we develop engaging educational content using digital?
Since 2020, Explora has worked hard to harness digital tools in the creation of immersive and exciting learning opportunities. The result of these efforts was a test project called “Missione Me”, an initiative dedicated to the discovery of the human body. Funded through a national grant, the project combines an Augmented Reality app with a card game and an online training course to support the teaching of human anatomy in classroom settings.
The mobile app is a free of charge platform that can be accessed on both iOS and Android phones – giving smartphone users the ability to access a whole new world of educational content.
Once downloaded and launched, the app can be pointed at a series of cards, which depict a part of the human body, including the heart, lungs and brain. When framed by the camera within the app, each card creates an AR visualisation of the organs supported by in-depth audio content.
The game cards can be purchased online or offered as a free downloadable and printable resource.
As Paolo explains, Missione Me’s use of digital technology is entirely focused on the creation of an enriching education experience – made more engaging and dynamic with the help of a mobile device: “Like any good project, Missione Me came about because of an issue. We wanted to better educate and support students and teachers in the subject of human biology.
“But delivering a technological solution into a classroom presents a challenge. We knew that introducing mobile devices into a learning environment had its risks. We all know that smartphones and tablets can be a distraction and even a ‘weapon’ against the learning experience if used badly.
“So, our approach was to pair devices with physical items; forcing young learners to interact with a specific item – in this case playing cards that could be used as part of a board game. Each card from the game featured a picture of a part of the human anatomy – a picture that came to AR life when scanned using the app.
“This, we felt, resulted in a solution for engaging kids in an ethical way.”
Paolo explains that this mechanism is not only important for keeping children focused but also empowering the teachers to remain in their role as the conductors of activities in the classroom. He says, “The teacher is the director of content; the organiser of learning. We wanted to ensure that our AR tool elevated this aspect of teaching rather than taking away from it. In our project, the smartphone is simply a technological lens to aid understanding – no more, no less.”
In particular, embracing audio commentary for the 3D animation rather than text was an important decision for Paolo and his team – one that was chosen to avoid creating further distraction or tying users to the screen when learning.
For Explora, this pilot project is a test that will inform future work in the field of AR – with the aim of helping students, teachers and parents in delivering educational material on other subjects. Having enjoyed a positive reception with Missione Me, Paolo explains that they are now looking at how AR may work across subjects such as astronomy and chemistry:
“What we have done with Missione Me is demonstrate that we have a good model for learning and engagement. We’ve had fantastic feedback from students and teachers – particularly because it can work offline and doesn’t rely on powerful, stable internet connections at all times.
Informing future development
Classroom feedback has been essential to understanding the impact of Missione Me for Paolo and his colleagues. Even more helpful was the feedback gained from a cohort of 100 summer school attendees who got the opportunity to utilise the app on a daily basis over the course of their holiday camp. Paolo says,
“Leaving the kids to play with the cards in their recreational time, and use the board game socially, showed us how they chose to interact with both the physical items and the app when left on their own.
“One important thing I learned from observing their play – and I think this is relevant to any museums or educators trying to teach children – was how powerful learning as a group can be. If you have a whole group concentrated on content, it stays in their memory more effectively as part of that social activity.”
This social element, driven by the combination of physical cards and device-based learning, is perhaps the greatest success story of the project – demonstrating that AR experiences don’t have to be isolating or detract from communal experiences. Instead, they can be used to form more inclusive and collaborative learning experiences.
This, of course, is often a concern for museums when introducing any form of technological solution that involves a device.
Asked whether he was surprised by any of the feedback received, Paolo says, “I was certainly surprised by how widely the AR experience was enjoyed by children of different ages. The sweet-spot was perhaps children of 7-8 who are comfortable with smartphones and can understand the content. But there was also appeal to older children and younger kids, too.
“But no matter what the age, I think it’s crucial to remember that the content and the teacher remain the most important thing in learning experiences. Technology is not the solution in our experience, it is merely a tool.”
AR and the future of ed tech
And what about the longer-term future for this kind of immersive experience within museums? Paolo says, “I think we need to begin to look beyond the museum as a building. We already have Software as a Service, I think that the adoption of technology will help to facilitate the Museum as a Service over the coming years.
“My hope is that open source software plays a role in this, so that museums can share ideas, content and software solutions in a more collaborative way. It’s not in a museum’s interest to hold on to copyrighted software and keep their learning technologies restricted.
“For me, an open source approach for museums should be mandatory.”
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