First steps to embracing digital literacy for museum educators

Written by Erin Branham. 

Nina Simon made me cheer this week. As she points out, there is a possible revolution afoot in education. Nina spotlights the teaching videos of Vi Hart, and she draws a contrast between Vi’s videos and those of the rest of Khan Academy, where Vi’s videos have found a home. The difference she says is that Vi’s videos are “idiosyncratic, explorative, and a bit subversive” – all of which she (and I) considers to be a very good thing – while the bulk of Khan Academy’s material is much more within the “K-12 and college framework”. Khan Academy is not alone out there, either – iTunesU, YouTube EDU, NEOK12, TedEd (and that’s just the shortlist) – solidly taught, freely available educational videos are proliferating at an enormous rate across the web. But, they tend to be of a traditional tone, for the most part – addressing curriculum standards devised by the formal educational system and teaching lessons in discrete packets of neatly categorized knowledge. On the other hand, Vi Hart, and SmartHistory creators Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, also now with Khan Academy, Nina says, “are connecting you with knowledge and inspiration in more creative ways… the way the best museums do.”

As Mairin’s last post here on edgital addressed, Gretchen Jennings recently asked museum educators to contemplate what she calls an “over-identification with formal education” and followed up with a charge to examine the ratio of how much time we spend developing truly museum-based (informal) education theory and practice to how much time we spend developing programs and lessons designed to support and enhance the classroom-based (formal) educational experience.

Both Nina and Gretchen are pointing up a key issue for museums at this moment, and it is Harris and Zucker who capture it neatly in Nina’s Q&A with them: “We are finally leaving behind the 18th century model of education where groups of students are expected to learn at a standard pace. Every day we read about ways that teaching, learning and accreditation are being unbundled. New institutions and new, more personal modes of teaching and learning are being investigated.” Right now, informal, free choice learning is at the very least becoming popular and at most may be redefining our society’s educational paradigm. Yet, while educators engaging with digital media and the web are forging ahead with this process, museums are lagging behind. Why should this be when this sort of education is our specialty?

Perhaps Gretchen is right, and we’ve lost touch with our specialty in favor of the various pressures that have pushed us to be “formal education enablers”, as she says. But I tend to think the problem is larger than that. The primary issue is that education within the physical space of the museum has inherent limits. First, you can only do it with people who have entered the space, and that is automatically a fraction of the people in your community. This fact drove the outreach boom in the 90s-00s, which has died in the face of the economic meltdown. Secondly, learning is but a piece of what most museum visitors are after when they physically come to the museum, as revealed by John Falk’s research in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. As educators, we may not like this information, but we must learn to work with it.

However, new avenues are opening up around us that we have only to embrace – though we need to do it quickly. Our major barrier is our own ignorance. Ed Rodley’s wonderful post Digital skills and staff development thoroughly explores the issues surrounding what we must do – and why we can’t simply wait for the next generation to do it for us. As Ed says, this is not to be seen as “an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach [must be] core competencies.” This should not be terribly difficult because engagement and outreach are already the core competencies of museum educators – we just have to learn to do it in a slightly different way. However, for a bunch of non-tech people faced with so much digital knowledge, so many new skills to absorb, where do you start?

Here’s a few concrete suggestions:

  • read blogs: Ed’s, and Suse Cairns’, and Seb Chan’s, and Koven Smith’s. They’ll provide you with an overview of digital issues in museums.
  • build an understanding that social media is not a bullhorn that you use to broadcast what you’re doing. It is a town commons that someone in your museum needs to be facilitating on a daily basis in order to cultivate an engaged community to whom your museum actively listens. That means taking the time to track down and amplify members of your audience who are saying interesting things that other members of your audience might want to hear. Try reading Chris Brogan’s Social Media 101 – it’s short, concise and clear.
  • start watching videos at Khan Academy and TedEd and think about how your museum could be delivering that idiosyncratic, explorative content based on your collection that Nina talks about. Submit lessons to TedEd, use YouTube.
  • consider the many readily available platforms you could be collaborating with, such as Wikipedia.
  • start your own twitter feed dedicated to museum education, or your museum’s content – because when it comes to social media the only way to really learn is by doing.

Try these out and let us know how it goes, or tell us about your adventures in becoming digitally literate.

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