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About the
History of Computing in Learning and Education
Virtual Museum

What is a Virtual Museum?

It's like a physical museum except you find it on the web instead of on a street corner. It has exhibit space that you can visit with galleries of images to look at, interactive kiosks where you can push buttons to see things move to explain a concept or an historical event, guided tours that take you through a series of objects and explain the significance of each item - it's, well, a museum. But all museums are more than just their public display areas. They are also:

collections of objects and images being stored for posterity. Usually only a few of these are on display.
laboratories where artifacts are preserved and refurbished so that they won't crumble away over time. Digital objects require special treatment just as paper, metal or plastic ones do.
meeting places where people with similar interests can get together for a tour, a class or just to enjoy their hobby.
work places for scholars and students to gain access to the objects they wish to study.

HCLE, when fully built out, will be all of these things serving a broad constituency. Below is a graphic HCLE prepared about 2007 to show how its parts would relate to its audience.

When computers, and then personal computers, first became available in the 1960s and 70s there were no school or university classes to teach about them. People - children as well as adults - taught each other in basements, hobby clubs and hallways at home, at work and at school. This is why the word "Learning" occurs in our title as well as "Education". The story of how learning happened informally is just as important as the story of how computing was brought into formal education.


Why bother to preserve documents, images and software from the early days of educational computing?

HCLE covers the period between 1960 and 1990, before the world wide web or internet became available to the general public. Very little of the educational research, development and practice from that period has been published in electronic, searchable form. Today it is common to skip over events and ideas that can't be found online. We aim to remedy that.

Is this all there is to HCLE? What's in the rest of the archive?

As with brick and mortar museums, the visitor only sees what the curators have put on display. Most of the museum's treasures are stored away in some warehouse or being preserved in a technical laboratory. The HCLE staff is working hard to build a fancier web site where you can have a simulated museum experience. We are starting by creating this catalog of the items in the collection (3 today, 100 within a month, then 500, growing to at least 10,000). This requires scanning and posting images of our items. But that's not all. There is also entering lots of information (metadata) about each item along with its picture. If the item is a book, a research paper, a magazine or some other print material you will be able to read it, search it online and, for some items, download it to use in your own work or school report. As the cataloggrows the HCLE staff and volunteers will start building "exhibits" for you to visit. These are web pages that show several related items and have commentary explaining what they were used for and why they are still important or interesting.

We will also have software - games, computer assisted instruction, simulations and other programs that have been used to promote learning in all kinds of subjects. Whenever possible, you will be able to play the game or run the program right on the web page. In many cases you will be able to download a version of the game to use on your personal computer. We will also ask you to post some comments about your experience of using the software. This will help future designers understand what features engage you and what is boring.


What is the Traveling Exhibit that has been mentioned?

An online visit to this museum can be cool but sometimes there's nothing like being there. The Traveling Exhibit will be a recreation of a school computer lab from about 1982. It will have original computers (Apple ][ s, Pets, TRS-80s and others) with their original software set up just the way they were in schools in many countries in the developed world. This exhibit will be available to brick and mortar museums and sciences centers to set up in their display halls. You'll find out what it was like to use an acoustic coupler to get online, how careful you had to be when loading programs from cassette tape or floppy disks and how much work it was to keep those early machines running. Today this is all history but it really wasn't that long ago.


What will happen to the physical stuff in the HCLE collection after it has been scanned and cataloged?

Except for what is needed for the Traveling Exhibit, all of the HCLE material will be sold or donated to institutions who are equipped to preserve it.


What if I have something related to computing and learning in my basement or attic? Do you want it?

That depends on whether we already have it or not. For now we'd like you to scan it and send us a picture or just describe what you have in an email and send it to collections at hcle dot org. If it was created after 1990 we are not as interested but anything older than that which was used to learn about computing or involved computing to teach about some other subject is important to evaluate.


How are you paying for all this?

Today HCLE is mostly a volunteer effort with a small amount of financial support from "friends and family". In the future we plan to develop a membership structure and will generate enough income to cover keeping the web site functional. Each new exhibit that is not created wholly by volunteers will need to raise enough money through grants and donations to see it through to completion. It is surprising how many people from different walks of life find this project interesting and important. If you are one of them, please visit our funding page (coming soon).