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Embracing digital learning

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An innovative iPad game and high-tech robot are providing new learning opportunities for students.

by David Arnold, Robert Bunzli and Catherine Styles

If you visit the Museum in 2013 you can expect to see some very different educational experiences, ones that may convince you that museum education and the digital world are colliding and influencing each other as never before.

Magazine spread on embracing digital learning at the National Museum of Australia.
Photograph by Monica Murphy/Getty Images.

Ever since the Museum opened in 2001 and Sony Mavica cameras with floppy disk drives were handed out to students, who were invited to photograph objects and create posters with their images, the Museum has embraced the thoughtful and productive use of technology and its relationship to educational objectives and outcomes.

But as wi-fi is installed in the Museum's galleries, high speed broadband is rolled out across the country and iPads and mobile technologies abound, one of the great challenges of our time in educational terms is how to respond to, and perhaps even how to lead, this new revolution in learning and communication.

Everyone, from governments and all their myriad agencies to the world of private enterprise, wants to harness and exploit this opportunity to reinvent learning. Even those bastions and embodiment of 19th and 20th century organisation – the school systems – are attempting to work out how best to be relevant to a radical new age of digital literacy and online student expression through social media and gaming.

Aside from the National Broadband Network (NBN), one way governments are attempting to respond is through the development of an Australian Curriculum for the compulsory years of schooling. This national curriculum – the first in Australia’s history – will replace individual state and territory offerings and will be delivered online to exploit the opportunities of online learning. Teachers will receive the curricula online and each subject area will be increasingly resourced online.

So where does this leave publicly funded institutions such as museums, galleries and libraries that are themselves undergoing their own digital revolutions? How can they both respond to, and lead, education and learning opportunities in an increasingly digital way?

The Museum is currently introducing two innovative approaches to digital education, which will become regular offerings to schools and other audiences in 2013.

Everything is connected: The Museum Game

Students playing The Museum Game in the Landmarks gallery.
Students playing The Museum Game in the Landmarks gallery. Angela Casey presenting to a remote audience using the museum robot.

In 2012 the Museum developed a new digital experience for school students visiting the Acton site that uses iPads and the Museum's recently installed wi-fi. The Museum Game is a creative thinking adventure game that hinges on a simple idea: everything is connected.

The main objective of the Museum Game is to help school students or other players of the game interpret museum objects by challenging them to think about an object's attributes – for example, its composition, shape, colour, use or provenance. Each of the small teams receives an iPad with a gameboard, preloaded with at least one object. They need to find another object in the galleries that they think is connected or related to the first object, which they then photograph and briefly describe that connection. Each team votes for the connection they deem to be best or most interesting, and the winning team’s photographed object is uploaded onto the gameboard.

To suit the needs of teachers or other players, the Museum is able to preload the board with objects relevant to a theme of choice. From there, where the game goes depends on the players and where their imaginations take them. Following the completion of each game, the Museum can publish the game's content – all photographs, connections, ratings and so on – on the Museum website so that users can re-live the experience, share their ideas, or develop them into another form.

The Museum Game is a very creative and exciting way to engage students on a visit to the Museum. Students enjoy using new technology such as iPads, but it is the creative and educational application of this technology in a museum context that makes this a true collision between learning and the digital world.

Gallery invasion: robots armed with panoramic camera heads

'One of the great challenges of our time in educational terms is how to respond to this new revolution in learning and communication'

The Museum, in collaboration with the CSIRO and the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is also developing a digital project that allows remote students and communities to access Museum programs and tours through the computer bandwidth provided by the NBN.

The Museum Robot Project – or, more formally, the Mobile Telepresence for Museums Initiative – is an Australian Government funded initiative that uses special technologies developed by CSIRO to deliver remote access to the Museum’s galleries and programs. The initial trial phase will be available to schools connected to the NBN, or which have existing high internet bandwidth, in early 2013. Students at these schools will be able to use computers and smartboards to access the multiple cameras mounted on the robot to look around the Museum, interact with an educator and access additional digital information about exhibits.

The robot is semi-autonomous and can navigate its way through a gallery filled with visitors, stopping at a variety of pre-programmed exhibits. A laser guidance system and special object avoidance software ensure that the robot doesn’t collide with visitors while moving from place to place. Initial tests in the Museum’s Landmarks gallery have shown that the robot creates quite a stir with visitors who are extremely curious to see what is going on.

The key technology is a panoramic camera head, similar to the cameras used for Google's StreetView. This camera head is made up of six individual cameras whose output is stitched together to create a single immersive environment. Using a computer and a standard internet browser, the remote visitors then use their mouse to explore a 360° view from the robot, panning around galleries and zooming in on Museum objects. One of the exciting and unique features of the robot is that each connected student can be simultaneously looking at different objects and engaging in their own voyage of discovery.

For all the world-class technology packed into the robot, as always the key ingredient remains the human element. A separate camera focussed on a museum educator means that students always have a guide on their screen who interprets exhibits, poses questions and ensures that curriculum objectives are being met. The educator can poll the audience’s existing knowledge, answer questions from individual students and guide them to valuable additional information accessible by the click of a button. The combination of an immersive digital environment and an interactive presenter will fully engage remote visitors in a unique and exciting learning journey.

While the target audience for the initial phase of the trial is school students, the Museum is very keen to find ways to engage with other audiences who are able to access the NBN. With over 40 new Digital Hubs announced for libraries and community centres in NBN release sites across the country, a whole range of community organisations and special interest groups may soon be able to access Museum programs and expertise through the Museum Robot.

The real potential of the Museum Robot Project and the Museum Game comes from the intersection between digital technologies and the way students and others learn in cultural institutions, and how places such as the Museum can help to successfully facilitate that relationship.

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