Museums Teaching with Facebook

Written by Erin Branham. 

With over 500 million users, one in every 13 people on planet Earth is on Facebook. Museums, zoos, aquaria and other informal educational institutions have also jumped onto the Facebook bandwagon. Most use their page as a promotional tool – a kind of up-to-the-minute newsletter – informing their audience about events, programs and exhibitions. A few, but only a very few, use Facebook and other social media outlets as educational tools as well.

The San Diego Zoo’s Facebook page is one of my favorites. They use Facebook to provide daily updates on the fortunes of their animals. Unfortunately not all of us have cute jaguar cubs on which to report so we’ve got to look for other opportunities. The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA and the Met frequently offer individual works of art for contemplation, generally linked back to the museum’s online collection pages. The educational value of this sort of post is entirely dependent on how rich the information is at the end of the link, and, as is frequently lamentedby some of our fellow bloggers, online collections information tends to be spotty at best. Smaller, more community oriented museums are able to use Facebook essentially the way an individual uses it – as a way to keep in touch and share life in all its impressive or goofy moments. Check out the Old Cowtown Museum’s page, full of photos of their audience enjoying themselves at what is plainly a fun and funky museum. As has often been the case, though, it’s the science museums who are the best at keeping education at the center of things. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago uses their Facebook page to share interesting science news – everything from satellite refurbishment to bubble microbots. These posts tend to dominate their page, though they’ll happily throw in blurbs on events and exhibitions.

Formal educators (that is, classroom teachers and professors) are beginning to see the possibilities for Facebook. Heather Wolpert-Gawron, an award-winning middle school teacher in California has written for Edutopia about how Facebook can serve as an outlet for a teacher’s personal professional development through sharing. But far more impressive is the description of how teachers have used Facebook to organize students for real-world activist action that teaches kids how to effect change in their communities. Over on the EmergingTechEd site, I found this great primer full of examples on how to configure a Facebook page for use by everyone from elementary school teachers who need to hand a lot of information to their students’ parents to university professors who can use it as a way to organize course content and conduct discussions so that class time can be used more effectively.

The opportunities for museum education are enormous. Courses, lectures, summer day camps, teacher professional development workshops, teen programs, film and concert series, family days – it wouldn’t be hard to fill up a facebook page for your museum’s education department with fun and interesting content. Who your audience is may be a trickier question – ideally you’re doing it both to enhance the experience for those who registered for your various offerings, and to extend the content to those who couldn’t make it even though they’re interested. The biggest question for museum educators – and this has larger implications for any museum’s general use of social media – is, do you put everything for every audience on one page, or do you create specialty audience pages? Take alook at the Met’s and the Getty’s Facebook pages for K-12 Teachers – both of which tend to promote and report on program offerings, and MoMA’s Teens and the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Teens Facebook pages – both of which tend to act as places for teens interested in art to connect.

While there are opportunitites here, there are real obstacles to using social media in any fashion. Start a social media channel and you have to keep content coming, because the public’s appetite is voracious. This begs the question of who wants to add that responsibility to their already full plate – though there’s often some staff member interested enough in digital possibilities who would be happy to do it. In most institutions there would be issues of quality control and editing, but a small group of “reporters” and a coordinator could gather and vet your posts. So, while it can be done, the fundamental question remains – could Facebook be an appropriate and useful tool for museum education? Facebook was created and is used by people to connect and share information about their lives. To teach with Facebook, or social media in general, means opening up to content co-constructed by our audiences, and starting what can become a very, very big conversation. Are you and your institution ready for that?


featured image from Mashable – Facebook for Schools


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