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Zoo education: A comparative international study of zoo intentions and the visitor experience

Roe, Katie (2014) Zoo education: A comparative international study of zoo intentions and the visitor experience. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This research explores education within zoos on a global scale. Given that a central aspect of modern zoos’ mission is to educate their visitors, the research aims to understand how zoos describe, design and implement their education missions and how they evaluate the success of their education provision. The research also aims to understand the zoo experience from visitors’ perspectives, including zoos’ ability to engage in conservation communication through the various experiences encountered during a zoo visit.

The research focuses on four key concepts, identified as shortcomings of prior research: the reasons why people visit zoos, beyond their primary motivation; the extent to which zoos’ priorities are consistent with visitors’ expectations; the ways in which zoos provide education to their visitors; and the measures employed by zoos to assess education success. To achieve these aims, framed within a pragmatic paradigm, the study used a context specific, multiple site, mixed methods approach in which qualitative and quantitative data were collected from 191 zoos in 52 countries via an online questionnaire, and nine in-depth case studies.

The findings of this research, presented as four empirical manuscripts, indicate that the majority of zoo visitors (72%) arrive with a learning agenda, a view supported by the majority of participating zoos (75%). The findings also show that zoos currently view public education as their highest priority, consistent with visitor expectations. Furthermore, the research revealed that exhibit signage remains the most prevalent means by which zoos communicate their education messages. Although diverse communication types were reported and observed within zoos, their quality and educational value varied.

This research also evidences that zoo staff have a comprehensive understanding of evaluation and its potential value, but there is little indication that zoos evaluate their educational success from the perspective of student learning for the purpose of program improvement or development. Zoos seem heavily dependent on informal measures and are not completely apprised of their visitors’ needs, suggesting that current evaluation practices may not be providing the information zoos need.

Given these findings, the study suggests that zoos embrace the notion that visitors come to learn and ensure that the education provided is concise, consistent, legible and appropriately placed for maximum visitor engagement. The study’s findings also underline zoos’ need for detailed evaluation guidelines to enable them to evaluate their educational value from the perspective of student and visitor learning with the purpose of program improvement or development.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Education
Supervisor: McConney, Andrew and Mansfield, Caroline
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