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On 14/2/2013 we were invited by Mr Ross Sloman from St David’s Church of England Primary School in Exeter to workshop some ideas as part of the first stage in the re-development of Moor Stories. This first meeting constituted a very important moment in our project as any advice about usability is likely to have a substantial impact on the re-design of the tool.

Mr Sloman suggested that we should work with a class of about thirty children spanning 7-9 years (Y3/4) that had previously been visited by an archaeologist from University of Exeter. The class’s name is Blue Class.

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We walked the short distance from RAMM to St David’s with a box containing all sorts of objects from Dartmoor in RAMM’s collections, stemming from prehistory to the Tudor period, and illustrating the life of hunter gatherers and early farmers.

When we arrived at St David’s, the children were sat at five tables, and each table was equipped with two or more computers. You could see, as Tom Cadbury, Curator for Antiquities at RAMM, unpacked the box, how much the children had been anticipating this moment. They were completely focussed, eager to ask questions and very keen to offer good advice about the different elements of the project. I think we all felt very privileged to be in St David’s and very much looked forward to see what such a keen group of learners would make of our work.

The workshop started with a talk by Tom about the history of the Dartmoor objects he brought in.  He used pictures of people, dwellings, animals, landscapes as visual stimuli to back up to the objects, and talked about how we need to develop personalised relationships/stories with these objects to understand their role in history and hence their value to us in the present day.

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This idea is a particularly important aspect of Moor Stories which aims to offer users the opportunity to engage with objects in the RAMM collection outside of the museum by narrating stories, drawing pictures or taking videos and photographs of them in the contexts of their own lives.

We feel that it’s important that users find novel ways to relate to these objects, and, as far as children are concerned, that free style, mobile learning is facilitated through the tool by offering the opportunity encounter museum objects outside of the museum and self-document the learning experience in a creative way.

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To prompt the children’s imagination we asked them to pick an object from Tom’s box and spend some time with that object. We asked them to look at it, touch it, and ask themselves questions such as:

  1. describe when you where you think you were living at the time you had this object and what kind of landscape you imagine you were in;
  2. describe what you think you were doing with the object you chose and what it meant to you (did you buy it?; was it expensive?; did you make it?; what would you trade it for and why?);
  3. describe how you personally feel about this object now and what it means to you now that you have touched it and written about it.

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The children could also browse the Moor Stories website, see where the objects they had selected originated from, and what their history was. Each member of the team (i.e., H. Burbage, RAMM; T. Cadbury, RAMM; G. Giannachi, University of Exeter; W. Barrett, University of Exeter), as well as Mr Sloman and his classroom assistant, Mr Glyn Meredith, circulated between the five groups, offering advice on technology (Burbage); history (Cadbury); engagement (Sloman; Giannachi and Barrett); archaeology (Barrett) and creative writing (Sloman and Giannachi).

Some of the children worked in groups, some on their own. Some focussed on drawing, and some on writing. They all played, queried and very carefully analysed the objects, whether in relation to the additional drawings we brought in, or in relation to the information offered by the website.

We were all amazed at the quality of the detail the children saw in these objects, as can be seen by their beautiful drawings above. We were also very pleased with the way that they were able to associate stories with these objects and subsequently imagined what life would have been at the time.

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Of the four stories submitted during the session by the children who chose to use the tool, all referred to the East Week section of the site. By imagining how these objects were used in daily life, the children ended up writing about how they thought people lived at the time. The stories are again very detailed, offering data about living and environmental conditions. The stories are fun to read and show a great deal of empathy. Again, we were very pleased with the precision and accuracy with which some of the children developed the fiction around the object.

Finally the children were asked to create a short presentation about the work they had done around their object and tell the team what they learnt; whether they’d like to use this tool again and why; what we could do to make the experience more exciting and what we could put on the website that could replace the direct contact with the object and us as real people.

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As it turned out the children had already, and very efficiently, filled in some questionnaires about this project, kindly also offering advice about a new project that is still at pilot stage called Exeter Time Trail Tours, which will generate a set of tours through history by using the Exeter Time Trail model.

Our next blog will be all about that feedback, but we can already say here that there was an appetite for using Moor Stories as a learning tool and that we need to do some more research on the value of empathy in this context. For now, a huge thank you to all the children we met at St David’s Primary School and their teacher Mr Sloman and his class room assistant Mr Glyn Meredith – we look forward to coming back so that you may see how we tried to incorporate your ideas into how the site works. In the meantime, as you can see from the screenshot below, four of the stories are now already part of the growing body of literature that we hope to develop as part of Moor Stories.

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