Museum Affinity Spaces: The Potential of a New Framework for Re-imagining Museum-school Partnerships and the Flow Experiences of Children in Immersive Virtual Learning Environments

Stefania Savva, Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus, Nicos Souleles, Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus


This research shall give insights into the potential of a new theoretical framework for immersive virtual learning environments (IVLEs) to act as platforms for developing and evaluating museum-school partnerships for students. To examine the latter, this paper delves into the Museum Affinity Spaces (MAS) project, an empirically based, pedagogically driven research initiative funded by the Research Promotion Foundation in Cyprus (POST-DOC/0916/0248), entailing plans for a platform targeted at museums/galleries and learning institutions such as schools and universities, which allows them to form partnerships and be immersed in a virtual environment in order to enrich classroom experience and overcome the physical limitations of attending a cultural space. The overall aim of the MAS project is to grant students with opportunities to gain experience of museums and cultural heritage beyond national boundaries and enhance their literacy repertoires by incorporating understandings of technology-enhanced museum learning as a multi-literacy practice. The intention is for school teachers, museum educators, and students to be able to use a virtual platform themselves and in collaboration with other parties from around Europe and the world, either through synchronous or asynchronous learning to develop learning activities deriving from museums. The project employs design-based research (DBR) and is structured to unfold in three phases: preliminary analysis, the prototyping stage, and implementation and evaluation or assessment. This presentation shall focus on the preliminary analysis and prototyping stage of the project, as it was carried out during the first six months since the project embarked.

Keywords: virtual museums, immersive virtual learning environments, multiliteracies pedagogy, affinity spaces, framework, partnerships


This paper uncovers the narrative of one empirically informed research to address the question: How can immersive virtual learning environments (IVLEs) be designed and implemented to enhance the development and evaluation of museum-school partnerships? The intention is to introduce a theory-based framework for museum-school partnerships to support immersive virtual teaching and learning. Particular emphasis is given on how the unique nature of these virtual learning environments can facilitate literacy learning of all students, regardless of their background, through adhering to the flow experiences students have.

In this sense, the Museum Affinity Spaces (MAS) project has distinct innovation and originality features which correlate to the development of novel concepts, approaches, and solutions serving as the basis for re-imagining museum-school partnerships through engagement in immersive virtual learning environments. The originality of the scientific aspects of the project derive from the theoretical framework, which has not been previously applied in a large scale. The literature indicates there is an absence of empirical theory-based research on developing curricula for virtual museum learning. In particular, there has not been a specific pedagogical framework for developing immersive, virtual learning environments, nor systematic online resources based on that framework, which can be easily accessible to engage in effective museum-school partnerships.

In this sense, the targeted breakthrough of the MAS project is dual: first it involves the development of necessary tech infrastructure for the establishment of global museum-school partnerships (MAS infrastructure), involving a holistic multiliteracy approach: it does so by creating a strategic partnership search finder tool (MAS-Portal), with personalized, advanced features. Secondly, the MAS project features a virtual museum creator following design principles from the specific theoretical framework and pedagogical scenarios developed. This affinity space called, “Museum Cabinet,” is an important feature of the infrastructure created. To complement the two main tools, the project envisages opportunities for free and continuing online professional development for educators and museum staff, through access to resource packs, tutorials and webinars on how to deliver successful museum-school partnerships for developing lesson plans based on the MAS framework (MAS-Archive). Further to this, a forum will be designed as online museum and school hub spots (MAS-Hub). The MAS Project assets, will contribute to the field by offering a lightweight end-user interface going beyond isolated initiatives, to bridge the gaps in networking capabilities of museums and schools as well as current virtual museum creators.

Background to the Research

Teaching Literacy in a Globalised Digitally Mediated World

There are a few key concepts that act as touchstones in this investigation. Throughout this paper, I use the term literacy to refer to “the flexible and sustainable mastery of a repertoire of practices with the texts of traditional and new communication technologies via spoken, print, and multimedia” (Luke & Freebody, 2000). Nevertheless, in this definition we incorporate a key proposition concerning the nature of literacy (adapted from Barton & Hamilton, 2000): that literacy is productively understood as an open-textured category of sociocultural practice. Closely related is the notion of a “repertoire,” which refers to a toolkit (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003), “an orchestrated set of capabilities and dispositions for acting purposefully in the world” (Alloway et al., 2002, p.127). In other words, repertoire refers to people’s diverse ways of engaging and developing “cultural capabilities” in different activities as a result of participation in a range of cultural practices (Pacheco & Gutiérrez, 2009). The focus here is both on literacies as communication (meaning for others, as supports for social interaction) as well as a form of representation (or meanings for ourselves, as supports for thinking) (Savva, 2016a).

This empirical investigation derives from the need to recognize the global imperatives for teaching in a digitally mediated world (Savva, 2019a). It is undeniable that the new millennium has introduced new tools for communication, and it is the educators’ responsibility to determine the value of these tools and how the curricula is affected. It is critical to question, therefore, what kind of pedagogies are appropriate for the 21st century (Scott, 2015) and how much traditional approaches appeal to today’s learner. It is within this evolving context of learning that educators need to expand their pedagogical repertoires to nurture 21st century competencies and skills (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012; Scott, 2015; Smith & Hu, 2013). This creates both tension and a sense of responsibility among teacher educators, to comprehend what 21st-century learning supposes in terms of the knowledge needed to possess and the strategies to facilitate that knowledge (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, & Terry, 2013, p. 127). McCoog (2008), in addressing this issue, suggests that educators have a new charge: teach the new three r’s—”rigor,” “relevance,” and “real-world skills.” A recurring approach that holds great potential to facilitate 21st-century learning has been the integration of ICTs in education (Savva, 2019b). It becomes apparent that the learning demands and needs of students are challenged in an increasingly multi-modal and digitally mediated reality (Fleming, 2005, p.114). In this context, the nature of literacy practice and needs has shifted; no longer is the traditional view of literacy as reading and writing skills acceptable (Fleming, 2005, p.114). Both literacy pedagogy and research now embrace the idea of literacy as more of a plurality (Liddicoat, 2007), which inform the goals for education in the new millennium (Leu & Kinzer, 2000).

Museum-school Partnerships

Close to this pedagogically changing landscape is the need for museums to re-imagine their learning approaches to respond to dramatic shifts in the populations that they serve and the roles which they should practice (Savva, 2013). The 21st century has marked a turning point in their existence, responding to the evolution of the colonial “west and the rest” model, as well as the effects from globalization, which increased cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism (Peressut et al., 2013). In this respect, more recent conceptualizations of museum learning acknowledge the sociocultural nature of museum learning experiences. Within the increased discourse of the role of the museum as a place of inclusion, scholars have suggested that “museums may offer important possibilities for engaging in most valuable aspects of literacies, providing additional and alternative cultural capital to that of traditional academic literacy” (Eakle, 2007, 2009; Mathewson-Mitchell, 2007).

As much of the literature consistently points out, establishing partnerships is one way for museums and schools, through local communities, to create a new educational infrastructure for young children (Falk & Dierking, 2000). For the purposes of this paper, the term museum-school partnership will be used “to refer to the goal towards which the intervention implemented aspires to reach, rather than the completed product of a fully formed partnership in the specific context” (Savva, 2019c). These two types of institutions provide different sort of experiences and “work together to give students an enriching immersion in ideas, discovery, challenge, and enjoyment . . . [such that it is] well worth developing and sustaining” (Sheppard, 1993). Planned partnerships with schools “strengthen a museum’s community involvement, enrich its educational capacity, build an enlightened audience, and signal a commitment to educational reform and improvement” (IMLS, 1996). However, these outcomes do not occur automatically. Many conditions need to be met in order to have an effective partnership that benefits museums and schools. The challenge for museums is to change traditional concepts of museum-school relationships so that they can engage fully in supporting education in practical ways in their communities.

What has changed in the past decades is a shift towards the goals and practices of museum-school partnerships as a result of three trends: respect between museum and school educators, teachers needing to find multiple ways to reach students, and museum leadership embracing education as a core principle of museums (Peressut, Lanz & Postiglione, 2013). Τhere is limited practical and documented evidence of museum-school partnerships in Cyprus and abroad (Savva, 2016a). It is this gap, together with our concern for how museum educators might refine their scopes and purposes to fulfill the purposes of education in the 21st century for multiple competencies and skills required to succeed in a time of evolving technologies, globalization and increasing social crises, which triggered the idea for the proposed project. The intention of the MAS project is to connect these strains and to enhance the connectedness of intellectual and theoretical understanding of museum teaching and learning across Europe and beyond.

Virtual Museum Environments

The overall intention in the development and implementation of the MAS project is to propose an instructional design approach, with practical implementation and evaluation guidelines that would integrate the MAS framework to promote ubiquitous multiliteracies learning for culturally and linguistically diverse students in the context of an immersive virtual learning environment (IVLE). Virtual museums are considered an appropriate approach to transfer the developed learning framework into practice, as they are perceived as a multidisciplinary research field which is often linked with Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) (Christal, Montano, Resta & Roy 2001; Goodyear & Retalis, 2010; Jackson & Adamson, 2009; Prosser & Eddisford, 2004). The former is increasingly favourable among researchers, given that new technologies have become increasingly “popular tools” in education (Doering, Beach & O’Brien 2007; Miller, 2008). In fact, there exists an inseparable link between virtual museums and multimedia (Payne et al., 2009).

Based fundamentally on the principles of multi-modal design, in which “information (is) presented in multiple modes such as visual and auditory” (Chen & Fu, 2003, p.350), as well as written modes, virtual museums fit naturally in the MAS framework, as they offer a concrete instantiation of “New Literacies,” allowing instructional elements to be presented in more than one sensory mode (visual, aural, written). At the same time, virtual museums apart from effective exhibition of objects serve issues of accessibility (Cilasun, 2012); they facilitate dialogue among people sharing the same virtual space (same context) (Wazlawick et al., 2001). With the proliferation of technologies, online virtual museums are becoming more immersive and interactive, promoting richer visitor experiences— with scenarios, characters, and objects—with their collections using the latest in multimedia innovations (Payne et al., 2009). Therefore, “a virtual museum de-materializes the museum itself by making possible a ‘remote visit'” (Djindjian, 2007). At the same time, maintaining a virtual museum is one manifestation of digital cultural heritage as part of using technological innovations to aid the long-term preservation of cultural heritage and to promote new models of public engagement (Parry, 2010). It is considered that developing community-based digital archives (Tait et al., 2013), therefore, is a win-win situation (Stevens et al., 2010).

Incorporating new media technologies to fulfill the museums’ educational provision has been widely acknowledged by practitioners and museum educationalists (Anderson, 1999; Dierking & Falk, 1998), yet it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it gradually became part of constant dialogues in a European context for developing practice that meet the challenge of the digital divide (Parry, 2001) and cultivating the individual empowerment which derives from the free and equitable access to information (Abid, 2002). Salmon (2009) suggests that virtual spaces, have created a context for the “‘new cultural experience.” Within these three dimensional spaces, 3-D applications integrate real life with virtual “learning activities that enable unstructured spaces for interaction” (Savin-Baden, 2008). It appears that such environments carry specific affordances, like particular game styles, visual features, personalization, independence (ownership), and immersion that appeal to high school and college-age users (Salmon, 2009). What makes it so appealing for education, is that such experiences relate to what Warburton (2009) refers to as “experiential learning, cooperative learning, and game-based learning. Hence, virtual learning environments are helping educators extend their pedagogical curricula and instructional design, beyond the grounds of the classroom, to traditional educational software and paradigms used.

Virtual museums have, therefore, been used widely in learning settings in recent years. Within the last three decades, interest in Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) applications using virtual reality (VR) has been growing, resulting in the development of Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) (Wazlawick et al., 2001). Further to this, the technology has also been used to support learning, as for example in the museuVirtual project (Wazlawick et al., 2001) and Ho, Nelson and Müeller Wittig’s study (2011). Regarding the educational uses of VR technology, Youngblut (1998) classifies existing tools to support learning features into three categories summarized in terms of their objectives and the age and characteristics of the users (the students). The first category refers to the students’ use of pre-developed virtual worlds without any collaboration. The second category concerns the development of virtual worlds by the students. Students have the opportunity to participate in a more effective way by creating or extending simple virtual worlds that they consider interesting (Youngblut, 1998). The third category of tools concerns multi-user, distributed worlds where students are physically placed around the world and connected by the Internet to learn about a subject that is of group interest (Youngblut, 1998). In the MAS project, the intention is a merge of the second and third category, so as to enable collaborative, multi-user engagement in a loosely structured, virtual museum environment that allows for multi-modal designs.

Theory-based engagement in virtual museum making practice as proposed in the MAS project is limited. In relation to the multi-modal and interactive nature of virtual museums, it is considered that these materials may lead learners to perceive that it is easier to learn and improve attention, thus leading to improved learning performance and facilitate understanding (Moreno, 2002) in particular for lower-achieving students (Chen & Fu, 2003; Moreno & Mayer, 2007; Zywno, 2003), such as culturally and linguistically diverse students. Fadel (2008) found that, students engaged in learning that incorporates multi-modal designs, on average, outperform students who learn using traditional approaches with single modes.” In addition, this sort of work could be undertaken in the form of informal, inquiry-driven learning (Dewey, 1938, 1991; Kuhn, Black, Keselman & Kaplan, 2000; Vavoula et al., 2009) through active participant engagement. Finally, it was hypothesized that creating a multi-modal learning environment would enable collaborative learning (Dillenbourg, 1999). The latter can take place within environments, such as a virtual one, which allow communication, exchange of ideas, and decision making (Wazlawick et al., 2001). This sort of interactivity motivates a wide range of students to learn and carry out tasks due to its social potential (Wazlawick et al., 2001). This characteristic was a definite element towards utilizing virtual museums to respond to the research questions addressed in this research.

A State of Flow, the Optimal Experience

Being in “a state of flow,” or “optimal experience,” means to be immersed in a highly enjoyable state of consciousness, which occurs when our skills match the challenges we are undertaking. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) introduced flow and described it as a feeling of enjoyment and psychological immersion, energized focus, and involvement, accompanied by positive emotions. According to Dunwell, de Freitas, & Jarvis (2011), whenever people reflect on their flow experiences, they mention some, and often all, of the following characteristics: concentration, time distortion, rewarding experience and loss of self-consciousness. During a flow experience, such as during game-play, a person is totally focused on the activity and is able to forget all unpleasant things. Although Csikszentmihalyi’s research was part of the larger field of intrinsic motivation, his investigation of flow was contrary to the traditional utility-centric motivational theories of the time (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Moneta & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). It appears that a person immersed in a flow state, is deeply engaged in it for the sake of the activity itself, without need of conventional rewards (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). This key understanding, is often referred to as the “autotelic experience.” The “autotelic experience” is the result of an activity or situation which produces its own intrinsic motivation, rewards, or incentives, and there is no need of any outside goals or rewards. Flow is a complex concept that is difficult to operationalize because of a range of qualifiers. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) describes nine dimensions of flow, which include: 1.) clear goals 2.) immediate feedback 3.) a match between personal skills and challenges 4.) merger of action and awareness 5.) concentration on the task 6.) sense of control 7.) loss of self-consciousness 8.) altered sense of time 9.) the experience of becoming “autotelic,” i.e., doing an activity for its own sake or its own intrinsic reward. A review of the literature by Rodriguez-Sanchez and Schaufeli (2008) suggests that a more condensed definition of flow as an optimal experience can be composed of three basic elements, including: absorption, enjoyment, and intrinsic interest.

In what situations or activities does flow occur though? For example, Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999) have stated that sports can offer such rewarding experiences that one does it for no other reason than to be part of it. Furthermore, they argue that a sports setting is structured to enhance flow. Despite the fact that winning is important in sports, flow does not depend merely on winning or losing. The playing of games is convergent with sports. In this respect, with the prominence of online, virtual games, much research has linked flow experiences with immersion in virtual environments.

At this point, it is important to distinguish immersion from flow, as these terms are often confused. According to Ermi and Mäyrä (2005), immersion refers to a sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality taking over all of our attention. They divide immersion into three components: sensory, challenge-based, and imaginative immersion. Sensory immersion is related to the audiovisual execution of games, whereas the challenge-based immersion focuses on interaction between the game and the player, similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s skill dimension, in that it assumes that the feeling of immersion is more intense when there is a balance between challenge and skills. The last component, imaginative immersion, relates to being absorbed by the stories and the game world, or the user identifying with a character, part of interactive narratives at play. In simple terms, this means the player or user can use imagination and enjoy the fantasy of the game. Immersion differs from flow, in that in a flow state, the user concentrates attention in a certain goal directed activity, whereas immersion relates to becoming physically or virtually a part of the experience itself. The flow theory presents more interest for learning, as it entails voluntary direction of attention to relevant content, an essential prerequisite for learning.

Flow and Learning in Virtual Environments

The benefits stemming from being in a flow state, have turned it into a meaningful goal for building virtual environments for online business, health care, education, and gaming. Flow theory has been a primary theoretical base for exploring the implications of learning through immersion or “being enveloped” by a virtual learning environment because the emotional composition of these experiences resemble flow and precipitate a deeper engagement with learning. Research has explicitly related the sense of “presence,” “being there,” “immersion,” or “flow” in different virtual reality interfaces with positive learning outcomes (e.g., Abrantes & Gouveia, 2012; Fassbender et al., 2012). The notion of intrinsic motivation, in particular, has significant implications as researchers try to gain understanding on how learning activities and environments can foster motivation in students. The concept of intrinsic motivation is associated directly with flow, since according to empirical findings, whatever produces flow becomes its own reward, its own intrinsic motivation. The balance between challenge and skill arises when flow occurs during the learning process as a feeling of pleasure that issues from achieving realistic goals and overcoming prescribed challenges (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). It is argued that the composition of an activity must be in the context of explicit challenges, focused goals and concentration, and control (Chan & Ahern, 1999), and Finneran and Zhang (2005) cohort that the effect of flow is increased in learning, at which time it has a direct impact on attitude and behavior. Hamari et al. (2016) in their findings, suggest that challenge of the game had a positive effect on learning both directly and via the increased engagement.

There is indeed a growing body of research examining the effect that flow has on learning. Findings such as Shin’s (2006) suggest that students in ‘”high flow were more likely to be satisfied with the virtual course than students in low flow . . . [implying that] a positive impact of flow on student-learning achievement is highly plausible . . . ’’ If this ascertainment holds true, then further investigation is required to identify variables which, as part of the flow experience in learning, directly influence the intentions or behaviors of users of virtual worlds (Davis, 1989). An example of this interest has been a recent trend of research on online 3-D gaming environments and virtual worlds, with other research focusing on 3-D environments at large. Three-dimensional environments like Second Life (SL) provide virtual spaces for exploration and creativity that enhance the learning experience. Today, there are over 300 million registered users who spend time within virtual worlds (Spence, 2008).

Previous studies have also found a positive association between engagement and learning (e.g. Hsu, Tsai, & Wang,2012; Huizenga, Admiraal, Akkerman, & Ten Dam, 2009) and that engagement in games can redirect unwarranted focus on grades to learning (Tüzün, Yilmaz-Soylu, Karakus, Inal, & Kizilkaya, 2009). For example, Sabourin and Lester (2014) found that a game-based learning environment was able to both support learning and promote engagement. Hou (2015) and Brom et al. (2014a), however, establish a positive relationship between flow and learning. Admiraal, Huizenga, Akkerman, & Dam (2011) found that flow had a positive effect on student performance in the game but did not have an effect on learning outcomes; however, if the students were engaged in a group competition, the more the students learned. Other studies have found that while games lead to learning gains, engagement remained unaffected (Wouters & et al, 2013).

In addition, there is evidence that fantasy through simulations and games promotes intrinsic motivation and can enhance learning compared to instruction without fantasy elements (Lepper & Hodell, 1989; Parker & Lepper, 1992), in part by focusing the learner’s attention on relevant features of the learning environment (Lepper & Molone, 1987). However, currently there is a dearth of studies that investigate the relationship between immersion and learning in game-based learning environments. One such study by Cheng, She, and Annetta (2015), found that immersion has a positive impact on learning outcomes especially when the players gaming performance was high. Overall, according to larger theoretical developments as well as the body of empirical literature there is reason to believe that flow (challenge and skills), engagement, and immersion have a positive impact on learning.

It has been found that, besides individual or personal flow experiences, students can feel a sense of social flow, while using computer games and interact within a virtual learning environment (Inal & Cagiltay, 2007). Elements that facilitate this process include establishing group affiliations and creating a strong sense of presence, whereas the small groups of users (represented by avatars) can learn on a range of topics. Designers have vastly applied Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi’s (1988) flow principles to the areas of online gameplay and learning, in an attempt to create virtual worlds or immersive virtual learning environments as we call them, which allow for more opportunities for flow. Different studies conducted (Hoffman & Novak, 1996, Trevino & Webster, 1992, Webster, Trevino, & Ryan, 1993), confirm that flow experience is a significant cognitive state in online virtual community behavior that may influence serious gameplay and learning. It is considered a prerequisite to the design of virtual environments for the future, to facilitate flow experience. Such an advancement requires that designers of virtual worlds understand the mechanisms underlying the enjoyment of virtual experiences and flow. This is argued by Finneran and Zhang (2003), who suggested further research is needed on flow, because of its important contribution to our understanding of the optimal experience.

In a study by Warburton (2009), findings suggest that the ‘”immersive nature of the virtual world, crossing physical, social and cultural dimensions, can provide a compelling educational experience, particularly in relation to simulation and role-playing activities.” The experience of immersion within virtual worlds, allows for both students and teachers the tools to “project themselves into the learning space,’” which are “key elements to successful learning transactions.” A significant element to consider in regards to flow and learning in IVLEs, is play. The playfulness emerging in virtual worlds presents a great opportunity to facilitate learning. It is also critical to understand human-computer interaction (HCI), relative to behavioral measures of playfulness (Webster, et al., 1993). For this reason, in the MAS project, we seek to explore the psychological dimensions and related value of what makes gameplay motivating, specifically in a learning context (Oliver & Carr, 2009).

Conceptualizing a Framework for Museum Affinity Spaces

Taking into consideration the unique characteristics of the contemporary 21st-century environment, a theory-based framework, the Museum Multiliteracies Affinity Flow (MMAF) framework of practice is proposed for engaging in museum-school partnerships through immersive, virtual learning environments. The MMAF relies on a creative overlap between the theory of the New London Group (1996) for a pedagogy of multiliteracies, the theory of affinity spaces proposed by Gee (2004) and flow theory by Csikszentmihalyi (1988), adapted by Kiili, et al., (2014), for educational games. Figure 1 illustrates the MMAF framework and the different overlapping synergies within and across.

MMAF framework of practice

Figure 1: The Museum Multiliteracies Affinity Flow (MMAF) framework of practice


The MMAF is informed by the theory and practice of multiliteracies pedagogy as developed by the New London Group (1996, 2000) and Cope and Kalantzis (2012). In the pedagogy of multiliteracies, learning is considered a process of meaning-making, during which learners continually reshape themselves. Meaning-making and any other semiotic activity are treated as “a matter of Design” (NLG, 1996). Drawing on the concept of design, we can speak of it as either the way in which a text has been designed or to the process involved in designing (Cloonan, 2007, p.19).

Multiliteracies theory offers the notion of design to describe the codes and conventions of meaning-making modes and posits that there are six identified modes of meaning showing regularities or grammars (NLG, 1996). These existing design elements can be linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial or multi-modal designs (NLG, 1996, 2000). Students can draw from existing designs to make meaning for their own purposes; in this way they become “active designers” (NLG, 1996) with the help of experienced others (educators) during overt instruction, which actually constructs the scaffolding of their learning (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). The redesigned or transformed notions of meaning produced can then be used by others as available designs to draw upon (NLG 1996, 2000).

In a multiliteracies driven curriculum, two important ideas prevail: “Learning by Design” and “Multi-modality” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005). “Learning by Design” is building into curriculum the idea that not every learner will bring the same world experiences and interests to learning (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012), as well as acknowledging that every learner is not on the same page at the same time (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005 ). The idea of multi-modality discusses learners’ movement between written, oral, visual, audio, tactile, gestural and spatial modes, which are combined during communication in order to produce meaning (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996). The aim of literacy teaching with respect to multi-modality lies in the acquisition of the abilities and skills which are necessary to produce various text forms linked with information and multimedia technologies (Baldry, 2000), which usually combine different semiotic media for meaning-making. The “multi-literate” subject possesses a range of literacies (e.g. visual literacy, techno-literacy etc.), reads multi-modal texts in an integrated fashion (paying attention to the relationship between the different semiotic modes being deployed) and produces multi-modal texts managing various resources (Kress, 1995).

Within the specific foreground of museum multiliteracies, it is essential “to re-conceptualise what constitutes museum education and museum literacy before addressing a creative synergy between the school and the museum” (Savva & Souleles, 2014). Viewing museum as a learning arena redefines the goals and strategies of educators and the museum curricula; such a view fits the incorporation of museum learning into the multiliteracies concept. In these conceptualisations of museum learning, it is imperative to consider also the introduction of digital cultural heritage in the museum scene within the context of museums operating in a digital age (Parry, 2010). Because museum exhibits make meaning through multiple media, multiple modes, and multiple symbol systems, the literacy practice of museum visiting can be also viewed as a multi-literacy. Schwartz’s (2008) work supports my theoretical proposition here. He proposed a museum-based pedagogy as opposed to traditional museum education.

Schwartz highlights that museum-based pedagogy differs, in that its main goal is “the teaching of verbal, visual, technological, social, and critical literacies (Figure 2); not museum literacy, which is the ability to access the museum’s cultural and intellectual resources” (Stapp, 1984; Schwartz, 2008). Museum-based pedagogy, thus, appears to be working within the affirmations of multiliteracies pedagogy. This contributes to acknowledging “the importance of social and material factors in determining students’ empowerment and successes” (Schwartz, 2008).

Museum-based literacies

Figure 2: The literacies in museum-based pedagogy (Savva, 2016b).


The four ways of knowing, adhering to the components of situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, and transformed practice, have been expanded by Kalantzis and Cope (2005) to include eight subcategories (Figure 3-4) and are intended to correlate to each of the four curriculum orientations of the multiliteracies pedagogy discussed above (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005):

  1. Experiencing: a.) the known, and b.) the new
  2. Conceptualizing: a.) naming concepts, and b.) theorizing
  3. Analyzing: a.) functionally, and b.) critically
  4. Applying: a.) appropriately, and b.) creatively

Experiencing involves personal engagement in sensations, emotions, physical memories, involvement of the self, and immersion in the human and natural world. Conceptualizing is the translation and synthesis of experiences, conceptual forms, language, and symbols into abstract generalizations. Analyzing is the transformation of knowledge by ordering, reflecting on, and interpreting the underlying rationale for particular designs and representations. Applying is the experiential application of internal thought processes to external situations in the world by testing the world and adapting knowledge to multiple, ambiguous situations (Kalantzis and Cope, 2005). These knowledge processes are intended to enable teachers to analyze the learning that occurs when pedagogy of multiliteracies is implemented.

The goals and ideas of multiliteracies pedagogy in a virtual learning context could be better situated using Gee’s theory known as affinity spaces. Gee (2004) has opposed the traditional schooling system that persists and promotes dominant discourses and hierarchies and suggests an alternative view of schools. To make a claim on the previous, Gee is building on Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s (1991) concept of communities of practice, but in contrast to their definition of thinking about groups of people as being either “in” or “out” of a community, he suggests that we think of spaces where people interact. An affinity space is a place—virtual or physical—where informal learning takes place. Spaces can be real tangible spaces, like a classroom, or virtual spaces, like an online discussion forum or game.

The point is that this shared space exists for people to interact and share their ideas based on common interests, endeavours, goals, or practices, irrelevant of race, gender, age, disability, or social class (Gee, 2004). In discussing characteristics of what he terms “affinity spaces,” Gee acknowledges how within the affinity space, people are not separated between novices and experienced in these affinity spaces but rather coexist (Gee & Hayes, 2009). Affinity spaces encourage users to gain both intensive (experts or specialists) and extensive (broad knowledge shared with everyone) knowledge while also enable use of dispersed knowledge (available outside the affinity space) and also tacit knowledge (knowledge built up in practice not able to express with words) (Gee & Hayes, 2009). Learners or users of these spaces participate in varied ways and different levels, such as peripherally and centrally. Leadership is porous and leaders are resources; different people lead in different days, different areas, and resourcing, mentoring, advising people (Gee & Hayes, 2009). Gee points out that schools do not have the features of affinity spaces, since distributed knowledge, networking, and collaboration across and beyond the school rarely occurs. However, these are ways in which students interact and engage in their daily lives and should be incorporated in the school system (Morgan, 2010).

The MMAF framework proposed, offers an example of a creative synergy between the notion of affinity spaces with multiliteracies pedagogy to provide a teaching and learning approach that could apply to the goals and practices of a 21st-century school learning context. A concrete instantiation of how to design effective affinity spaces, results from examining flow theory in relation to IVLEs. Kiili et al., (2014) discuss flow framework for educational games, which have been adapted to the MMAF framework. The elements of flow can be divided in two groups: flow antecedents (the colored star elements in Figure 1, and the flow state. The flow antecedents (clear goals, challenge, feedback, sense of control, playability) are factors that contribute to the flow state and, therefore, it is important to consider them when designing a virtual learning environment. The dimensions of flow state (concentration, intrinsic rewards, loss of self-consciousness, time distortion) are more abstract and describe mostly the feelings of the flow experience. The white elements surrounding the star (context, representation of content, learning objectives, learner characteristics, pedagogy) reflect meaningful factors that affect the design of the learning experience and virtual-based learning artefacts. Kiili et al., (2014) propose five mind lenses, 1.) The sensing mind 2.) The processing mind 3.) The integrating mind 4.) the relating mind, and 5.) the transferring mind lenses. These lenses are founded on principles of cognitive load theory (Kirschner, 2002), multimedia learning theory (Mayer, 2004) and constructivism (Jonassen & Land, 2002), and correlate with the knowledge processes described above within the “Learning by Design Model” by Cope and Kalantzis. Within the MMAF framework, Kiili et al.’s (2014) five sets of mind lenses, provide means to consider IVLEs elements systematically from the learning and interaction perspectives and relates flow dimensions to learning processes. The abovementioned psychological factors of challenges, skills, engagement and immersion are considered critical characteristics of meaningful and deep learning experiences (Faiola et al., 2013), and the MMAF framework applies them.


The MAS project adopts a Design Based Research (DBR) methodology (Schoenfeld, 2006; DBRC, 2003; McKenney & Reeves, 2012; Wang & Hannafin, 2005). DBR is an emerging paradigm of research which involves cycles of iterative development of solutions as applied to pragmatic and complex educational problems in schooling contexts (McKenney & Reeves, 2012). The project is structured into three phases, and it is informed by guidelines from Nieveen, McKenney, and van den Akker (2006), Wademan (2005), Plomp (2007), and Reeves (2006): the preliminary analysis, the prototyping stage, and the implementation and evaluation or assessment. Table 1 provides an overview of the three phases of the study and the respective objectives to meet.

Phase I Phase II Phase III
Duration ten months Duration eight months Duration six months

Design and develop:

1.       Pilot infrastructure in an online platform to facilitate museum-schools partnerships through technology enhanced services, solutions and tools (MAS-Infrastructure)

a.       A strategic-finder tool (MAS Portal) to retrieve teacher mentors based on the subject/grade etc. of interest, and other features which will be recovered from the users’ profile

b.       Structured online virtual museum learning space for displaying exhibits based on a well-defined framework (MAS-Cabinet)

c.        Access to resource packs, tutorials and webinars on how to deliver successful museum-school partnerships for developing lesson plans based on the MAS framework (MAS-Archive)

d.       A forum (MAS Hub), allowing you to share and discuss the experiences gained and offer mutual support; it does so by creating online teacher hub spots

2.       Develop the MAS framework, pedagogical scenarios, webinars and resources for use

Target: Develop the specifications and resources of MAS Infrastructure

Objective: Implement use of pilot with target audience, track usage and inform future development.

a.       Resources and pedagogical scenarios for teacher-users of the platform

b.       Implementation of the MAS framework through different small-scale projects from schools and museums using the MAS infrastructure

Target: Engage one hundred users, monitor usage, and collect related data and trends.

Two cycles of iterative development of the prototypes for the Portal.

Hybrid methodology of inductive and deductive reasoning for analysis of findings


Objective: Evidence-based refinement of pilot infrastructure, based on Phase II data, and re-implementation and evaluation of Phase III.

Target: Analyse data, implement changes based on analysis outcomes, run dissemination events.


Table 1: Research design plan for the MAS project


An array of data will be collected to cross-reference interpretations (Yin, 2012) including:

  1. Researcher-facilitator video-recorded observations of interactions reported in field notes
  2. Questionnaires with teachers
  3. Focus group interviews with teachers prior and after the implementation

Triangulating the wealth of data from the various methods will result in the overall evaluation of the implementation of the MMAF framework. In relation to the target population of this study, the preliminary phase will involve a comparatively large number of target users (museum staff, teachers and students ) to identify the needs of the population; however, the implementation will only involve a smaller sample of approximately 100 individuals from six EU countries as users of the platform. The intention is to gain an in-depth understanding of these teachers’ experiences and, thus, a smaller sample will be preferred.

Drawing on the small group, the intention is to work more closely with museum educators and teachers on a regular basis to design and implement teaching. To assess the effective design of the MMAF framework, the evaluation will be based on the cognitive, interpersonal, group, resource, and institutional-level criteria proposed by Collins et al., (2004). The above, intertwined criteria inform the data collection, analysis, and the interpretation during the assessment phase of the research. Each evaluation level has key indicators which will be employed in the judgement of the impact of the MAS project as summarised in Table 2.

Evaluation criteria Characteristics Data collection
Cognitive Assessment of students’ prior knowledge and evolution in thinking Observations of students’ visual representations (e.g. storyboard creations and mock-up exhibition rooms) and verbal explanations.

Print evaluation sheet

Rubric (online formative assessment scheme)

Interpersonal Student-to-student interactions

Student-to-teacher interactions

Observations during the fieldwork and supplementary interviews

Field notes

Group Group dynamics

Engagement in the intervention: a sense of belonging

Observations and field notes.


Resource Availability and use of print and multi-modal texts Semi-structured interviews and surveys
Institutional School culture and parents’ support

School leadership support.

Semi-structured interviews and surveys with staff


Table 2: The key indicators for judgement of the impact of the MAS framework and implementation of the new approach during Phase II


To assess how each student meets the criteria in each of the knowledge processes and define their level of performance, the Multiliteracies Performance Assessment Zones (MPAZ) tool of evaluation was developed and tested (Savva 2016a; Savva 2019c). The MPAZ incorporates the “Learning by Design Criteria for Measuring Learning” (Kalantzis et al., 2005, pp. 95-97), the different levels of knowledge, namely demonstration of experiential knowledge, conceptual knowledge, analytical knowledge and applied knowledge, as well as the multiliteracies experience of students. In regards to each of the knowledge processes, three levels of performance exist that define how a student moves from the competence to think and act with assistance, to the competence to think and act independently, and finally the competence to perform collaboratively. These reflect: 1.) assisted competence 2.) autonomous competence 3.) collaborative competence, with the former being considered the most difficult and higher order level to achieve. The Four Resources Model adapted by Luke and Freebody (1990) is also considered involving namely: the functional dimension, the meaning-making dimension, the critical dimension and the transformative dimension. These dimensions correspond respectively to each of the knowledge processes on the Assessment Schema by Cope and Kalantzis, and together reflect a zone of multiliteracies competence.

Museum Multiliteracies Performance Assessment Zones (MPAZ)

Figure 3: The Museum Multiliteracies Performance Assessment Zones (MPAZ) (Savva 2016a; Savva 2019c)

Future Research Directions

The first cycle (Cycle 1) of the prototyping phase (Phase II) of the MAS Infrastructure will commence in May 2019. More specifically, this presents a common operational framework for activities in MAS that aim to engage different stakeholders (teachers, museum educators, policy makers, students, etc.) with the goals and products of MAS. This represents a Milestone in the MAS Project—community-building and support. The project’s “Pedagogical Framework and Design Based Research Guidelines” have constituted the basic background on which the specifications for these tools have been developed, keeping in mind the need to make the tools coherent among themselves and integrated with other tasks. It is serving the need for the identification of the current and future challenges as it regards museum education and the scope and the approach of the MAS Project, in order to address them in a holistic and state-of-the-art way.

The intention is to define technical specifications for the MAS Portal and community-building systems in terms of satisfying different user groups’ needs and providing easy access to the projects’ tools and materials as appropriate. The deliverable is aimed primarily at the project’s technical team and national coordinators, so that their work will be guided by the results and experiences already gained by the partners, both with the activities carried out so far in MAS and by the analysis of research documents from the field. Following the pilot implementation, the refinement of the MAS infrastructure will commence, as a result of the first round of formative evaluation of teacher and student participants’ insights from analysis of qualitative and quantitative data instruments. This includes revision of the virtual museum creator and the strategic partnership tool, supporting materials for the workshops, possible learning scenarios and pedagogical strategies, and planning of webinar activities. Following the second iterative cycle, the research team will proceed with another round of analysis and the final refinement of the supporting materials and further implementation in the field. Following the completion of the iterative stages of the prototyping phase as part of the MAS implementation, focus group and individual semi-structured interviews with educators will be pursued to analyze and evaluate of the implementation of the MMAF framework.


Research-wise, although there has been a growing effort to develop efficient virtual learning environments, the development and documentation of such projects is limited. In general, it is found that the effect of flow experiences in learning is not uniformly positive and may depend on a range of factors. Therefore, the study has both practical and theoretical significance. Theoretically speaking, the project addresses a knowledge gap, as it contributes to a limited body of knowledge on how IVLEs can shift the literacy teaching paradigm to enable inclusive learning through addressing flow theory. In this sense, this research will be of value to the scientific community as it merges and adapts an existing approach, multi-literacies pedagogy and the “Learning by Design Model” with the affinity spaces theory and the theory of flow, in order to enhance teachers’ inclusive literacy pedagogical approach.

In terms of practice, the research supports the knowledge and dissemination of good practice in regions across and beyond Europe, where there is a potential that such know-how could be used. The theoretical framework, with its pedagogical scenarios and resources, is intended to be used as a practical guide with evidence for museum educators and teachers to strengthen their inclusive pedagogical practices and gain confidence to capitalize on the literacy learning that derives from IVLEs. Findings of this research will also provide evidence and challenges to designers of virtual learning environments across Europe, in the hope that it will stimulate them to further investigate the challenges associated with inclusive teaching and learning of multiliteracies. This research will potentially have an important impact on the design of future museum-school educational programmes using IVLEs.


This postdoctoral research has received 100% funding (€114.000) by the Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation Programmes for Research, Technological Development and Innovation “RESTART 2016—2020,” DIDAKTOR (POST DOCTORAL RESEARCHERS), project POST-DOC/0916/0248. The Project Coordinator is Dr Nicos Souleles, Associate Professor at the Art + Design, elearning lab, Department of Multimedia and Graphic Arts, Cyprus University of Technology.


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Cite as:
Savva, Stefania and Souleles, Nicos. "Museum Affinity Spaces: The Potential of a New Framework for Re-imagining Museum-school Partnerships and the Flow Experiences of Children in Immersive Virtual Learning Environments." MW19: MW 2019. Published March 1, 2019. Consulted .