Believe it or not, some people enjoy program planning; especially when the plan is to create something innovative (a virtual museum) about something vital to civilization (education) starting from great resources (artifacts from the introduction of computing in the classroom.) We document the details of the progress through our quarterly progress reports (the one for the last quarter of 2015 is due soon); but as in any plan, realities of funding, collaborations, volunteers, and Murphy’s Law mean the past’s plan always has to be updated. We just finished our update and decided to share a bit of our process in case others need to do something similar, and somehow find the fun in it.
Program plans are like electronic technology. As soon as they are available, they are obsolete. That does not mean, however, that we do nothing while waiting for the perfect plan. Nor does it mean we do anything we want and just hope it gets us to our goal. Reality requires a bit of both. Work on what you can, with what you have, where you are – but keep the goal in mind. At the same time, have more than a goal. A program plan ties the present to the future by describing at least one path that can be completed by a series or network of steps.
Our goal is to launch and operate a virtual museum that stewards the pivotal period in civilization’s development when computers and computing redefined what, how, why, when, and where we taught and learned. Prior to the computer, the teacher was the sole authority figure. After computing was introduced, the student began gaining increasing amounts of control; which was good for the student, but required adjustments by the teachers, administrators, and parents. Most of those advances, experiments, challenges, and travails were created unofficially and recorded casually. Marvelous insights were chronicled on mimeograph paper, which is not archival and also easily dismissed as the estates of those teachers and pioneers are distributed.
What we have is an impressive collection of those artifacts thanks to the private collection of HCLE’s Founder, Liza Loop. There are undoubtedly hundreds or thousands of such collections; though few have artifacts like the first Apple 1 or the tenth Apple II. They can’t be part of the virtual museum, but they represent the provenance of the rest. The other thing we have to start with is a realization that the most sustainable museum will be one that doesn’t require a building and all its attendant expenses. Most of the artifacts were either born digital or can be digitized, hence, a digital or virtual museum that just happens to have some historic non-virtual artifacts that could become part of a traveling exhibit. The traveling exhibit may come later.
Understanding what comes first, second, and later was the purpose of developing and updating the plan. The concept is simple and was approached from two directions.
Given the artifacts and the pioneers, what can and what should we do now? Digitize the collection in a way that will be useful to researchers and informative for visitors. That means good digitization practices, good metadata, a good catalog, and making sure the programs aren’t just described but actually work. The games must be played! That’s fun, but it is also important to illustrate how learning changes with technology.
Given the goal, what does the final product look like? What are the criteria that measure whether we’ve met our goal? What were the steps prior to that? What steps preceded those? Repeat. We’ll consider the virtual museum launched when at least the first collection is digitized; all the intended audiences can easily access the museum: researchers interrogating the database, contributors including their insights, casual visitors engaging with passive and active exhibits, and external collections and crowdsourced content adding to and improving the collection; and a sustainability plan is in operation.
When things work well, stepping forward and stepping back find they are on a common path. The value in doing such planning is uncovering the inevitable missteps where some of today’s tasks must be emphasized while others can be delayed or even ignored.
For HCLE, we were taking many of the right steps, but now we know they were more important than expected. Preserving, cataloging, digitizing, and describing the collection is most important. Everything else relies on these critical first steps; partly because the results define the rest of the work, partly because the materials are perishable. We are also emphasizing the stories and collections of the Pioneers. Sadly, they are perishable, too; particularly their memories, the stories and insights they shared verbally but never wrote about. As with any collection of personal materials, the person is the best person to describe the collection. Even if a Pioneer wrote everything down, they are the authority on the nuances of each artifact. The program plan may not require their contributions for a year or two, but in that year or two, some of those Pioneers and their contributions will be lost.
The other benefit has been increased credibility in our time and money estimates. In general, the Virtual Museum will take a little less than 3 years and cost a little less than $3M (depending on how we count the in-kind contributions). It is reassuring to find that the new estimates agree with the previous estimates that were closer to 3 years and $3M. Evidently we’ve made progress. The progress we’ve made has been in the critical, but fortunately affordable, early steps that don’t take much time or money.
Ironically, one of the reasons we didn’t make more progress was because we spent so much time in 2015 trying to raise money. The bulk of our expenses and work can begin in a year or so, but we had to start preparing those proposals last year. We didn’t receive any of the funds, partly from a Catch-22. In more than one case, the reviewers saw our project, recognized its importance, and thought it was too big to tackle. If we had more funds we would’ve received more funds. One benefit of preparing so many proposals is that we now have better estimates for many of the near-term sub-projects: digitization, story acquisition, museum design. It was also encouraging to see that those estimates matched nicely with our previous and updated plans.
We posted the plans on our wiki. We’re a few days into the new year, so they are already out of date, but that’s always the case. Things will be shifted as funds arrive or are delayed. But, at least we have an updated roadmap that includes where we are and where we are headed.
What can be fun about all of this work? This work describes all the things we get to do. There will be some dull, necessary bits; but there are also fascinating, necessary bits. We get to sort through artifacts that have stories. We get to interview people who lived and created those stories. They get a chance to tell us what happened then and what it means relative to what they see now. We get to design and build a virtual experience that is useful, but that also includes games. We get to play the games – just to make sure they’re working, of course. We get to hear from others with their collections, from families that are curious about previous generations’ experiences. We get to honor people who are also largely unappreciated and ideas that are important to the development of our society. The plan may be a series of tasks, sub-projects, and contingencies. That sounds dull. The plan is also, however, a long list of possibilities for passionate involvement in something that influenced everyone’s life. So, of course that’s fun. And, we’ve got a plan for that.