A dozen museum educators stand nervously and watch a class of elementary school kids pour into the Minnesota History Center, iPods in hand. After a 10-minute orientation from their teachers, they stream into the exhibit about life on the American frontier. They’re using a program on the iPods called ARIS to read QR codes attached to objects in the exhibit. Each QR code tells ARIS that the student has fulfilled a step of their selected ARIS quest, and the museum educators are nervous because they designed and prototyped these quests just an hour ago. (Check out a video demo of ARIS here.)

After their visit, the kids evaluate the quests. Did they learn anything? Yes. Was it fun? Yes! Was it fun because just because they got to use iPods? No. It’s hard to ask for more out of an hour’s worth of work creating a mobile educational game (granted, this was a highly unscientific survey).

ARIS is an open-source platform for creating and playing mobile, place-based games (place-based because the QR codes exist in a real place and ARIS uses the iPod’s GPS to help the player navigate the game/world). It’s free for both game creators and game users, and works on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. ARIS’s flexible format can be used to create self-guided tours or interactive quest-style games, and its super easy-to-use interface makes designing games fast, fun, and cheap – making it, in my opinion, the near-perfect option for prototyping extended learning content in museums.

Museums in the United States have been reported as both enthusiastic and hesitant to jump into mobile technology. In a recent survey, 43% of respondents said their institution offered a mobile experience while 25% said their institution didn’t and had no plans to offer one. Major stumbling blocks for museums adopting mobile technology include money, staff time and staff expertise. Because ARIS has such a low bar for entry, it can address most of the issues faced by museums – especially small museums. One major caveat: museums that rely on visitors to bring their own device will be excluding visitors without an Apple product (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) and visitors without any smartphone at all (while 44% of Americans now own a smartphone, that still leaves over half the country without one, including 25% of adults over the age of 50).

There is no recipe or checklist for the best use of mobile technology to extend learning in museums. That can make funding the development of an expensive app or other mobile experience especially risky for museums. ARIS gives museums the ability to experiment and discover what works best at their institution with the resources they have available. There’s no excuse not to jump in – or at least get your feet wet.

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