Museum Educators – What’s Next? Technology Assisted Informal Learning

For the past few days a blog post called “Museum Educators – What Next?” has been taking over my social media channels. People are chatting about it in the Museum Ed Group on LinkedIn, posting about it on the International Committee for Training of Museum Personnel -ICOM Facebook group wall and tweeting about it all over my twitter feed. Gretchen Jennings wrote the post for her blog Museum Commons. Gretchen’s post was inspired by Ben Garcia’s article “What We Do Best” in the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education. Gretchen points out what Garcia argues – that museum educators need to do a better job at promoting informal learning rather than solely justifying our existence through our support of formal education.

Gretchen asks what has caused this conflation of museum education and school programs. I think I know the answer, and perhaps it is a cynical one but I think it is the truth (please let me know if you disagree). The answer is money.

School programs are often the bread and butter of museums. There is a steady supply of classes coming on field-trips usually paying a fee to come for their lesson. For museums trying to stay afloat, espeically in these tough economic times, it makes sense to focus on this audience as a means of survival.

Money may be indirect too. Enhancing the public education system is a means of justification for public funding for museums. It gives the museum nice numbers to report – we taught x number of kids which is why we deserve x amount of money from you, the public.

But is the twinning, as Gretchen calls it, of museum education and school programs really mean that museum educators are not encouraging informal learning? Not necessarily. Museums can be the informal component of a formal education. We can encourage learning through self-directed discovery.

One example of a museum program designed for schools that encourages informal learning is at the Australian Museum in Sydney. The Learning department, in collaboration with the the University of Sydney and Smart Services CRC, has created a self-directed activity for school groups. Students are given tablets and told to create a poster to show what they find interesting about the museum. The students take pictures, record audio, and write captions as they wander the exhibits. When the students return to the education studio they put their tablet onto a smart table which downloads all the content they have created. The students then can drop the content into a poster template which can be emailed to their teacher to share with their classmates back at their school. This program is an award finalist for a reason. It allows for an element of free-choice learning within the structure of formal school learning. Thank you technology!

More on this museum and their innovative use of technology to come in the future.

Do you have examples of how museum educators have managed to create free-choice learning moments within the formal school program area? Please share!

Informal education is making a comeback thanks to the assistance of technology. As Erin, my co-blogger, points out in the comments section of Gretchen’s post

The irony of museums’ over-identification with formal education now is how learning is wildly proliferating beyond the classroom. With Khan Academy, SmartHistory, TedEd and other digital platforms and tools, informal, self-directed education is enjoying a renaissance that museums should be leading – and yet we’re not, for two main reasons: 1) museum educators lack the technical skills and are not implementing aggressive professional development for the field on this front, and 2) we are not stepping forward in our institutions to make the case for how we can stretch education beyond our walls with digital strategies

If museum educators want to keep up we need to cultivate digital skills so we can create more amazing programs like the Australian Museum’s poster activity.

Erin added that

Free choice learning via online resources is happening all over, and there’s a great deal of talk about how the formal education paradigm may be breaking down because of all of this self-directed learning (see The Wall Street Journal’s recent article on badges earned by self-directed learning online replacing diplomas as requirements for employment).
Museums should be at the forefront of this wave, and museum educators should be leading the charge – instead we are running to catch up. Luckily, learning new things is our forte. It’s a very exciting time for education outside of the classroom, but we’ve got a lot of work to do!

On that positive note I will sign off.

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