Using tablets as museum learning tools

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Martin Bazley

Over the last 2 years the Ashmolean Museum has been enjoying experimenting with using tablets in secondary school sessions. We’ve been keen to explore which apps (available on the App Store) are effective, as well as to assess their value for museum learning.

One project in particular has provided a focus for our work, Digital Sketchbooks.  Funded through the Major Museums Partnership programme, we worked with a local secondary school to create a series of films showing how to use 3 apps on a museum visit: Brushes (not supported on iOS8 so we’ve shifted to Procreate now*) Pic Collage and 123D Catch. These have been enthusiastically welcomed by local art teachers, as well as reaching an international audience via iTunesU.

Beyond this, we have delivered innovative sessions that include using Pic Collage to create an eighteenth century country house interior, using Talking Pictures to create dialogues between characters in paintings and using Tellagami to record student responses. Creative Book Builder has enabled us to collect evidence for Arts Award projects. So, what have we learnt?

Brushes animalsTablets are a fantastic art tool.  They allow students to work in ways not possible using a traditional sketchbook – they can photograph, crop, annotate, edit and arrange material, as well as use painting and drawing tools to reproduce the qualities of oil paint and watercolour, charcoal and pastel – materials not normally allowed in a museum gallery.

In all sessions, student engagement has been high – across all abilities. The most common word used by students involved in the Digital Sketchbooks project was that it was ‘fun’. Using the iPads allows high quality work to be produced in a surprisingly short amount of time. One teacher commented that boys who found drawing difficult were engaged because they had found an alternative way of expressing their ideas.

Museum learning using iPads is student led, open ended and playful. For example, through creating their own country house interior, students were encouraged to see beyond the museum cases and to imagine objects as centrepieces in people’s homes. Because students were able to choose objects of interest to them, this invariably led to questions and discussion – learning by stealth. It also created opportunities to have fun cropping images of themselves pretending to sit on lacquer chairs!


2014-07-04 13.58.24Anyone who has worked with secondary groups will know that teenagers can lack confidence or motivation to contribute to whole group discussions. Apps like Tellagami that allow students to prerecord their responses (hiding behind an avatar), have proved to be an effective and creative way for students to share and talk about their work.

* But don’t get too reliant on one app! Since Digital Sketchbooks we’ve abandoned Brushes as it is not supported on iOS8.

As a final observation, I’m finding that working with off the shelf apps is a great (and cheap!) way to develop creative learning activities, and is a better investment of my time than getting bogged down in app development itself.

Secondary students often have access to smart phones and tablets, but don’t necessarily see them as a learning tool. This presents an exciting opportunity for museums – what activities should we be suggesting that open up new ways of engaging with our collections?



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