I liked Nancy Proctor’s characterization of museums like the Smithsonian as “social networks.” I think that this was originally an important function of museums which unfortunately has been lost as exhibits have stopped encouraging museum-goers to tour in “herds” and instead have adjusted to focus on individual engagement. That is one aspect of the current museum culture (and indeed modern culture overall) that I don’t think mobile devices are going to solve; they seem to continue to promote individual isolation rather than interaction, although perhaps apps like Foursquare, etc. will change that.
Proctor’s advice that “profit should not be the imperative” in adapting mobile technology for museums was right-on. Since it has been shown that most apps do not generate even enough to cover developing costs, using mobile apps in museums (which already do not generate sufficient income) must be done purely out of good will towards the endeavors of education and visitor experience. Hopefully, as Proctor notes, the end of this will eventually be worth the means as visitors leave the museum “happier” and more willing to contribute financially to the institution.
The advantages to using mobile devices in museums and other public history projects are numerous. Perhaps most importantly, they allow visitors to control their own museum experience; they can tour at their own pace, choosing to learn more about what truly interests them rather than becoming bored with what does not. In this manner, mobile devices are an optimal format for other public history projects, and particularly useful for projects like my own, which is a walking tour. Walking tour participants can obtain all of the information they could possibly want using a mobile device rather than paper brochures or interpretive signs, because the mobile format can provide easy access to further information and research–an advantage that these other two formats lack. However, I am pessimistic about the value of using mobile devices in other venues such as college classes. While visitors to museums, etc. are generally voluntary visitors, students sitting in class do not always want to be there, so mobile devices more often than not provide an easy distraction rather than an educational aid. I do not think that mobile “learning” overall has the potential to provide a better educational experience than a talented teacher or professor…but perhaps that is just the Luddite in me speaking.