Thinking about Digital Learning Environments

Written by Erin Branham. 

Technology is blurring the lines between formal and informal learning environments, which means the opportunity exists to fundamentally shift the relationship of museum education to the pattern of people’s lifelong learning. We live in the Information Age. The public’s appetite for content is insatiable. People are actively looking to learn, and they are primarily doing it through digital means. In order to take advantage of this, we in the museum world have a responsibility to understand how people learn in digital environments.

Museum education is informed by numerous learning theories, chief among them constructivism.  Constructivism is based in the idea that learning is constructed within the learner, as a person assimilates new facts and skills into an existing internal structure. It is generally contrasted to didactic theories which postulate that knowledge exists outside the learner and is transferred into an individual, usually by way of an expert – such as teachers or textbook authors. George Hein, in his book Learning in the Museum, which is generally one of the first five books any museum educator reads, makes the case for how deeply museums and museum education can and should be informed by constructivism. Researchers John Falk and Lynn Dierking have reinforced this idea by showing in books such as The Museum Experience and Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience that visitors do indeed assimilate the information they acquire during museum visits through the lens of their prior life experience.

Lynda Kelly, Head of Web and Audience Research at the Australian Museum in Sydney, shows in her paper The Impact of Social Media on Museum Practice how the social media experience mirrors what Hein describes as the ideal framework for a constructivist museum exhibition. Both are user-controlled, allowing the learner (visitor) to choose any of multiple paths of entry and to explore their own path through the knowledge/ exhibit which is based on the individual’s prior knowledge and experience, both also present multiple points of view and allow for experimentation, conjecture and the drawing of conclusions. New educational models, such as that of Khan Academy work precisely because of the free-ranging exploratory and self-directed experience of a person using the web to learn.

A frequent subject of discussion amongst museum technologists is how we should consider the unique possibilities technology offers, rather than simply transferring what we’ve always done into digital formats.  Which leads me to think about whether or not learning is fundamentally altered by the digital environment. Prior to the advent of Web 2.0 there were some differences – primarily in terms of fact acquisition.  Just as when books were invented to hold knowledge, thus radically changing the demands on human memory, the internet acts as a repository of easily accessible information which we no longer have to keep stored in our brains – especially now when we carry in our pockets. Between mobile devices and the interactivity invited by Web 2.0, the landscape continues to look more and more different.

One theory that has been proposed to explain how technology is affecting learning is connectivism. Developed by George Siemans and Stephen Downes, this theory suggests (amongst other things – it strikes me as a fairly sprawling theory at the moment) that learning is now more about the nodes of information to which you are connected, and the way information is now constantly shifting, thus altering the landscape minute by minute, which affects how learning is actualized through decision-making. In educational practice, connectivism looks like this:

Notice the emphasis on information management: more than anything else, this new environment makes critical thinking applied to the assessment information a vital skill, as is information integration into meaningful patterns.  It also brings focus to the need to for everyone to be able to tap reliable, authoritative sources of information, so there is a great necessity for solid scholarly information presented in accessible ways – which is exactly what museums, and museum educators, do. However, we have a tendency to do so in an extremely bounded way.  Meaning we present our collection with its attendant content and we rarely have a serious commitment to creating a network of information that would enrich and deepen the learning experience for audiences who are accessing knowledge through us.  What if museums sought to become not merely expert sources, but also portals – networked amplifiers of authoritative information from across our fields? A few places are making efforts along theselines, such as the Walker Art Center’s fabulous new website, which gathers arts news from across the web.  How would the idea be received at your institution?  How would it change what you do?


Note added 11-5-12: I am officially guilty of bad digital etiquette.  I failed to credit the above video, which tells the true story of a project completed by Wendy Drexler’s high school students.

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