Thursday, 21 July 2011

What can museums learn from universities about online learning?

Last night I went to a seminar at the University of Westminster. The seminar was public but part of the Johns Hopkins University museum studies summer school. The students are part of an online museum studies course similar to the one I did at Leicester except the distance learning element is conducted online rather than through big blue folders of paper!

Phyllis Hecht the course director talked about how the course works and most particularly about how they have built a community online through social media, and through the various softwares they use as part of the course.

The course is mostly asychronous, but they do also have live webinars that are also recorded to listen to later. They have chat rooms and an online museum cafe where students can chat about anything they want, course related or not. I can really see the value of building this community online and really investing time and effort into it and making it a required and encouraged part of the learning experience. Distance learning can be such an isolating experience and there's a risk that you miss out on so much of the serendipitous stuff that you get from bumping into someone on a university campus or bouncing ideas off each other in seminars.

It made me think about whether museums should be running online courses in the same way (some already are of course) and whether or not it would be just as important to build that community. I imagine museum online courses would be much much shorter which is a key difference and probably would make the vast amounts of work that goes in to Phyllis's online community untenable and perhaps to an extent less necessary. I also thought that it would be very hard for a museum to resource the amount of interaction Phyllis described. Nevertheless, I do think that if museums did go down the road (or continue down it) of offering short online courses in the same way as some run short courses for adults onsite, it would be important that the course tutor invested some time in building some kind of community online in order to facilitate the learning experience by providing some of the social interaction that you would get in an onsite course.

The main problems that Phyllis encounters are to do with the technology failing and I think that would be a key thing for museums to consider carefully before embarking on running an online course.

Rebecca Sinker, Curator: Digital Learning at Tate also then talked about her role and some of the questions it raises. I found this fascinating because she raised so many questions that I've battled with myself and also some new ones that I hadn't thought of. I think it's clear that museums and galleries still have some way to go before they/we completely work out what online learning really means and what its implications are.

The conversations that then ensued from the floor were also fascinating. It was so great to be part of a group of intellectual and articulate people all theorising and raising interesting discussions about what I do on a daily basis. It's so easy to get lost in the day-to-day and so important to go to these kinds of discussions once in a while to remind yourself of the issues and remember why we work in this wonderful, interesting sector that's so full of great objects and promotes so many discussions all the time about the best ways to share them.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

New museum online learning content strategy - your thoughts please

Update 25 July - I should just add a bit of a disclaimer/explanation here:
1. This thinking isn't related to the work I do in my paid work, more just me rolling ideas around in my head about museum online learning generally
2. This isn't particularly the start of a strategy document, more just some ideas about a modus operandi/working principles (maybe strategy with a small 's'?) for museum online learning.
Original post:
I was part of the workshop to critically evaluate the National Musuems Online Learning Project webquests yesterday and as ever, when I step away from my desk, the curtain opened in my brain and I was able to think more broadly then I ever can normally about my job and how I go about it.

Some thoughts developed which I want to expand upon about what a museum online learning strategy should be about and this germ of an idea is brewing in my head that I'd like to hear people's thoughts and comments on.  It's very much a germ of an idea at the moment and I'm sure it has lots of disadvantages so I'd really appreciate your feedback.

What would you think of a museum online learning strategy that set out the following:

1. Online learning resources for schools and colleges that sit on the Museum's website should be in the following forms:

A) A bank of object images with contextual information about them that teachers/tutors/students can download and use for educational use

B) A set of short introductions to the topics that the museum is an authority on

C) A set of short films with schools/colleges as the target audience where a curator talks about particular objects and what you can learn from them

D) A set of relatively light-touch/low-tech pre-visit (and possibly post-visit) resources that support the school/college sessions run by the Museum.  These might be in PPT or SMART notebook or something and would simply serve to introduce key concepts and objects that relate to the session.
In other words the stuff on a museum websites is relatively unprescriptive and is about opening up our 'stuff' and making it available to educators to do what they want with it.

2) All material where the primary aim is to provide a learning experience online that is independent to a face-to-face museum session (and I think this particularly applies to informal learning material online, and to more prescriptive and structured formal learning which does a lot of the teaching for the teacher) e.g. an online game, or an interactive story should do the following :

A) If it is for schools/colleges, pick on particular topic or area of a topic and create a resource to support that area of the curriculum

B) Be developed in partnership with other organisations who have authority on that subject

C) Be developed in partnership with commercial and other big organisations who are already providing this kind of content or where the target audience are already spending time. The idea would be for an equal partnership where funds and resources were put in from both parties

D) Emphasis is put on the findability of the resource from the start

E) Significant budget/resources are set aside for marketing the resource

F) Potentially sit on an independent URL or a place where the target audience are already spending time rather than on the museum's website (Update: 25 July - this is an addition that I meant to put in and realised I'd omitted)

These ideas are based on the following assumptions/observations/thoughts:

  • There's no point in museums trying to compete for people's attention and leisure time with online activities which are much better funded than museums are ever likely to be.
  • People will only come to museum websites either if they know that there is material there or if they find it by accident in Google.
  • We have limited resources both in terms of budget and staff time and it's vital that we channel our energies wisely.
Please please feel free to use the comments to let me know what you think. I'd really value some discussion on this and so I hope it gets people thinking and chatting. Over to you!

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