#GoogleGlass for learning: The National Trust experience

Whilst i enjoy the history, the cream tea is an essential part of the experience. Whether you go jam first, layering your cream on top, or cream first (which, just to be clear, is wrong), there’s nothing quite like sitting in a National Trust cafe, fending off the wasps, to let you know that summer is well and truly here.

Blickling Hall

The National Trust is a charity, set up to preserve landscapes and houses of national importance: originally focused on grand, stately homes, now equally likely to preserve the more humble abodes of writers and musicians. As a member, you can enjoy access to hundreds of properties around the UK, assured of a firmly middle class experience and a nice cup of tea at the end of it. I’m a huge fan.

But it was with some trepidation that, having taken delivery of my GoogleGlass a scant four days earlier, i felt the need to do something productive with it. Partly to justify the expense and complexity, but largely out of curiosity. How can we use Glass for learning? What does it do that my mobile phone or camera can’t?

Whilst the form factor of camera mounted above my right eye may cause consternation and stares, and will doubtless evolve through subsequent iterations, there’s no doubt that wearable technology is here to stay, and only a matter of time before the overhyped first applications start being sold to us. With this in mind, i’ve signed up as an Explorer (the term Google uses for those that don the headset) and aim to build some practical reflections of applications of Glass in learning and leadership. Just what’s the point of Glass?

Day one and walking through central London was a trial: nervous about the bright orange spectacles perched on my nose, but let me tell you that those nerves were as nothing compared to the stage fright i felt on walking into a four hundred year old stately home and confronting the dedicated and notoriously polite swarm of elderly volunteers and Guides. Norfolk, for all it’s charms, it not notoriously progressive and the National Trust, for all it’s glories, it not notably progressive. Would i be banned? Would i be bored? Would i have any idea what to do with it?

Blickling Hall is magnificent. The sweeping brick frontage, mullioned windows, lavish interiors and luscious gardens providing hours of exploration and space for reflection: symbolic of a vanished age, an age that shaped our urban and rural environments as the class system concentrated wealth to the wealthy and restrained the poor. It’s easy to appreciate aesthetically, but harder to understand in context.

As with many historic sites, constructing the meaning, relating it to the present, learning the lessons, is a challenge.

Narrative in learning

As regular readers will know, i’m a big advocate of narrative in learning: building personal narratives of change, co-created group narratives of shared experience and, finally, developing organisational narratives. In this case, exploring a historic site, i can translate that into three intentions:

Blickling Hall from the frontWhat am i experiencing and how do i make sense of it?
How does what i experience and the narrative i create relate to that of others. How do i interact with those others in the creation of my experience?

What formal role does the organisation take in constructing or commenting on my understanding.

These three intentions broadly reflect the three levels of narrative: what am i experiencing (and what story do i build out of that), how does it relate to that of other visitors and how does the organisation interact with my story?

Glass is ideally suited to help me capture my personal narrative: perched on my nose, i simply have to tilt my head back to activate the display, then either press the small button above my right temple, or say ‘Ok Glass‘, ‘Take a photo‘. Naturally i opted for the first option: talking to myself in the inner sanctum of a National Trust lounge is one step too far, especially when i seem to be talking to my glasses whilst squinting at my own nose.

It’s at around this point i hit my first challenge and, unsurprisingly, it’s a technical one. Despite much political interest and well meaning policy, despite it being the year 2014 and despite me having at least three different active SIMs on my person, i have no mobile phone signal and most definitely no WiFi. For now, it appears, my narrative will have to remain very personal indeed.

The hallway at Blickling HallAs i progress around the house, i’m guided through a succession of public and private spaces: the former being wood panelled, tapestry draped and grand, the latter typified by stone floors, bare walls and a decidedly more utilitarian feel. I like the route: a meandering trip above and below stairs, each room bringing a different perspective from the visiting dignitary or scullery maid.

Signage is limited and, as with most National Trust properties, you can pick up a ‘fact-sheet‘ in each room and, as for the rest, you’re reliant on the Guide. Posted in each room, it’s a lottery of the great and the good: ex teachers, retired colonels, shopkeepers and lawyers, each volunteer brings a decidedly personal perspective on interpretation and, if you’re in the game, it’s good. But there are barriers: wonderful as they are, it’s an uninterrupted stream of white, middle or upper class souls and, for the most part, a little older. Lovely as they are, it’s sometimes hard to strike up a conversation and, at times, i feel certain they are more concerned as to whether i’m pocketing the silverware than hard at work learning.

The kitchen at BlicklingI progress around the hallways, bedrooms and kitchens: down in the bowels of the house, a series of forlorn speakers poke out at me from signboards: i think they are supposed to be ‘voices from the past‘ but, like my Glass, have suffered some form of technical failure. It strikes me as ironic that someone in an official position may only find that out if they read this: the traverse between the formal and informal spaces of the house matched by our own interactions in formal and social spaces.

As i rise from the depths, past the kitchen and up the stairs, an elderly guide, standing guard at the main doorway to the house, taps me on the arm: “when you go up the stairs” he says, pointing to the grand sweeping, twin stairs, “make sure you take a minute to look back down and enjoy the view“. An encouragement to reflection: which i do. It’s a beautiful view, dark oak panels, faded oil paintings, light streaming through the windows.

The first time someone has reached out and spoken to me for two hours.

The library at Blickling HallI end up in the library: a glorious, almost staggering room. Stretching out in front of me, longer than a tennis court, lined with thousands upon thousands of leather bound tomes, it represents the tiniest fraction of a percentage of all the knowledge available to me through my Glass. I can tilt my head back, ask Google anything i like and have the answer read to me in an instant. Or at least i could if i had WiFi. But Google will never achieve the majesty, the sheer beauty of this room.

I think about all the books, unread: loved and cared for, but inaccessible, locked away behind cages. Made redundant not only by technology, but by mindset, by evolving knowledge, by science, by belief. Knowledge is contextual and, like the people that write it, fades eventually to nothing. In the corner works a man at a laptop: surrounded by piles of books, periodically he tuts, darts off his seat and grabs another tome. I want to talk to him, to ask how it feels to sit amongst this archive, day after day, but he looks busy.

Books at Blickling Hall

Knowledge by osmosis: if i linger here longer, i may grow wise? I satisfy myself taking a video, walking down the line of books, squinting as i go.

The divide between formal and informal stretches out into the landscape too: the walled gardens providing food, the formal gardens demonstrating Man’s mastery over nature, the wilder parkland demonstrating wealth and scale.

Liberated from the immediate oversight of Guides, i talk to my Glass at will, asking it to snap flowers, aspects, panoramas and videos. I feel liberated, but frustrated too: unable to share, isolated by lack of signal. Building a story that can’t be told. An hour later, it’s time for tea.

Swatting away the wasps that form an inevitable part of any National Trust visit, i reflect how solitary my tour has been: Glass has let me capture, but not share. The formal mechanisms of storytelling (Guides and fact-sheets) have been passive: i’ve not had a single conversation. I’ve not, if truth be told, learnt anything.

Snapshots: isolated bits of knowledge, thrown at me by captions and sepia photos.

There’s no coherence to my visit, although it’s been a thoroughly pleasant piece of entertainment and i wish i had longer to enjoy the ground.

Using GoogleGlass in this context has added little: i’ve amassed a collection of fifty photos and half a dozen videos, but it’s only days later, reunited with connectivity that i can share them. The opportunity to co-create passed me by, leaving me with only personal and organisational perspectives, neither of which sufficed. It’s clear that, without a structure, it’s hard to learn.

The National Trust curates a space, but maybe could reflect more on how to curate a story: already they are highly active on Twitter, but the physical space remains a little sedate, a little further behind the curve. Enabling the technology would be a start: WiFi may not be top of everyone’s agenda, but increasingly it’s as important as the cream tea at the end.

Creating spaces to share would help: i’m aware of the active Twitter community, but is there a Facebook or Google+ space? Maybe, but unless i can be bothered to search it out, it’s not advertised to me. For institutions, actively engaging in, creating and curating these spaces will be increasingly important.

In the Social Age, we tell stories to share meaning, within our communities and through multiple channels. Organisations can support this by structuring the spaces for us to do so and engaging actively in the process.

Blickling Hall is beautiful: a fragment of history retained and preserved in perpetuity, but not truly brought to life. To remain relevant, to truly mean something to me beyond aesthetic appreciated and a delight at the books, it needs to find ways to engage further in storytelling.

The technology of Google Glass hasn’t enhanced my experience, or my learning, but it has somewhat streamlined my curation and storytelling ability, which is as good a start as any.

And it was a good cream tea.

Cream Tea at Blickling

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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9 Responses to #GoogleGlass for learning: The National Trust experience

  1. Pingback: #GoogleGlass for learning: The National Trust e...

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  4. Reblogged this on The Interpretation Game and commented:
    A colleague pointed out this post to me, wherein a Google Glass owner tries a visit to Blickling. Of course he was stymied by a lack of a phone signal – which is common across many of our properties, and by a lack of wifi. Putting public wifi into National Trust buildings, to ensure decent connectivity despite thick stone walls in some places (not at Blickling), and then connecting to a network with enough capacity for tens or hundreds of visitors at a time to have responsive access to the web is a challenge for many, or most National Trust places. But it will become more and more urgent as visitors will expect to learn about places in ways that suit them.

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