For 10 consecutive days this summer, Aha School took 130,000 Chinese children on a virtual tour of some of the world’s greatest museums, from the Louvre to the Guggenheim, the Vatican to Tokyo’s National Science Museum.
Each day, parents and children signed in to watch a 90 minute live broadcast from a different museum followed by an interactive chat show, all for the humble price of ¥19.9.
The idea first came to Wang Yuhao, founder and CEO of the virtual education platform, on a visit to Sichuan to investigate how education could help bring children out of poverty. “I suddenly wondered whether it would be possible to give these children the chance to experience a few world-class museums”, he wrote in Sixth Tone, and with at least 100,000 families on board, it would be possible to do so for the price of only a meal.
The ten museums chosen covered a broad spectrum across art, history and science, but the final list was subject to limitations as some museums were more cooperative than others or simply quicker to respond. Practicality of filming, the target audience and the significance behind each exhibit all came into play when devising the content for each program.
“Our greatest challenge”, Wang told me, “was uncertainty. When we launched, we had confirmed nothing. No museums were confirmed, no anchors, we hadn’t decided which exhibits would be discussed, nor the script or how we would deliver”.
The project was very much a living one, an educational practice in itself, from idea to execution. While children were guided virtually through each museum, parents simultaneously wrote reams of commentary, which Aha School then used to improve the broadcast for the following day. “My daughter is transfixed and we adults can enjoy it too!” wrote one parent, “We’d like to see more of the museum itself and the beautiful architecture”.
Several parents and children watching expressed their hopes for similar broadcasts, allowing them to virtually experience places outside of China without the expenses or hassle of travelling. But not everyone found it their cup of tea, “We can read better introductions to these paintings on Baidu!”, was an overheard comment, or they were simply distracted and baffled by details; “Why is the host wearing slippers?”
Of course, most of this information can be found online, but what made this special was its live aspect.
“Our task was to piece together these fragments of information and to allow children to digest them”, said Wang. “The key to our broadcasts was to enthuse children, to make them interested.”
They did so, not by filming after hours in search of the perfect silent shot, but by filming from bustling museums where ordinary people walked through the screen, sometimes even blocking exhibits, giving viewers a sense that they too are there. In one case, the Guggenheim in New York showed such great support that they offered to film after closure and arranged a curator to explain the artworks through a translator.
Summer holidays should not be spent nose in book learning English, maths and science. That’s what school is for. To offer over 100,000 children the chance to travel the world and virtually visit museums from their own home is a remarkable achievement and proves the power and potential of virtual learning platforms. Through the support of individual donations, Aha School was also able to give some children this chance for free, where ¥19.9 goes much further than just one meal. We await round two in February!