MoMA Learning: A Model for Openness in Museum Education Digital Resources

Written by Erin Branham. 


A few weeks ago I interviewed Stephanie Pau and Jessica Baldenhofer of the Education Department at The Museum of Modern Art to learn more about their excellent twitter feed @MoMA Learning.  In the course of that conversation I learned that the education department had been up to something even more ambitious under the MoMA Learning banner: an all-new subsite of that aggregates educational resources on modern and contemporary art.

I had to know more because this sort of rich resource is exactly what excites me about the edge of museum education and digital media. Museums frequently partner and collaborate with other institutions of learning to strengthen the educational opportunities for everyone. Online, however, we’ve had a tendency to keep to ourselves, when the very ethos of the digital world is connectivity. MoMA Learning has embraced this basic principle, and is an excellent example to us all.

So, I got Stephanie back on the phone, along with her colleague Lisa Mazzola, Assistant Director, School and Teacher Programs.  The first thing I wanted to know was how did MoMA Learning come about?  Lisa explained that in 2005 MoMA’s School and Teacher Programs had begun creating a series of printed educator guides.  They wanted to make these also available online, so they created a website called Modern Teachers. Teachers who came to the museum for field trips or professional development would get the bound hard copy, but education staff could also direct others to the website, allowing the material to reach a global audience in a way the printed guides could not. It featured only a basic search, and teachers could save individual lessons.

This scenario probably sounds pretty familiar to a lot of people.  And like the kind of online spaces many of us have set up in the last 10 years, the website was fairly static because it was hard coded, making it difficult to change. It essentially functioned as a repository of the printed guides in PDF form. With the variety of tools available now, it was possible to imagine something much more dynamic. Lisa said, “We wanted to present our resources in a way that mirrored how modern art develops, with cross-connections and cross-pollination across space, time, and media.”  In addition, MoMA had generated lots of audio and video media for gallery- and online use, as well as subsites for temporary exhibitions and special projects, but these resources were not integrated into the Modern Teachers site. The site was very much a siloed experience.

Empowering Education Staff

School and Teacher Programs and the Interpretation & Research lobes of the Education Department work closely together to develop content for MoMA Learning.  One staff member takes the lead on developing content for a particular theme, then distributes an outline to the rest of the team.  Working collaboratively, everyone gives feedback and brainstorms ways to deepen and enrich the content.  The lead author then revises the draft and redistributes it, allowing content to go through at least two iterations before finally sending it to an editor.  Aside from text content, each author takes charge of integrating a plethora of digital assets – video, audio and images – that have been accumulated over the years. The Interpretation & Research team, who collaborate (along with the Department of Digital Media) on producing much of the Museum’s interpretive media, were very knowledgeable about these assets and made recommendations as needed, and featured a good search engine where all the assets lived, so it was easy for the content authors to find rich multimedia for embedding, such as on this page, Performance into Art, featuring a video of artist Marina Abramović.

Lisa had many positive things to say about these changes.  “We are lucky to have Stephanie and her colleagues who have such intimate knowledge of this material and work so closely with Curatorial and Digital Media.  For someone like me who’s always teaching and in the gallery a lot, I don’t always know what the latest new media is being produced.  And because of the way the site is built in WordPress I’m in that process of learning to input and update content which is very empowering.”

I wanted to know more about how the site was built.  Stephanie explained, “It’s built with Ruby on Rails integration in WordPress. We worked closely with our colleagues in Digital Media to create a custom back end, which is very customized to the way our site is structured. Some in Education had experience in WordPress, some did not, but it was very much a learning process for everyone involved.  In fact, we were writing the content and developing the site in tandem. As we started uploading content we discovered, Oh that doesn’t work, but Dan Phiffer, the project’s in-house developer, was able to make iterative changes to the back end so that the logic aligns with how our content is structured. As we were developing the site we kept documentation, so now we have a MoMA Learning WordPress manual that empowers any staff member to go in and publish content on their own.”

I admire the learning process described here – everyone working together to find out what will be effective and what won’t.  Creating content and digital delivery in tandem likewise is a smart strategy because everyone benefits from the lessons learned. It is vital that museum educators expand their knowledge of digital platforms and content management systems so that we can use them ourselves to take advantage of the expanding possibilities for our field.

Democratizing Access

I wanted to know what were the driving educational ideas behind MoMA Learning? Lisa responded, “We had all this material we had developed, all of it modeled according to our principles in School & Teacher programs.  Everything was created based on how we engage with objects in the galleries; using the inquiry-based approach that we’ve always used.  So our goals were to create resources that encourage close-looking and inquiry into modern and contemporary art, highlighting the cross-pollination of objects and ideas. I wanted something that could do all of that which we do in the galleries, creating a narrative through these connections, and to let all audiences feel comfortable in this online environment.”

Stephanie added. “One of our main goals was to democratize access to art educational content.  The decision to rebrand from Modern Teachers to MoMA Learning signaled a shift towards greater inclusiveness of lifelong learners as well as teachers, especially since we know every person engages in multiple types of learning—teachers are lifelong learners as well. That was important to us, broadening the audience. We wanted to get beyond ourselves as well, so we linked out to non-MoMA resources like Ubuweb or content from other museums, pulling them together, doing the research for people who maybe aren’t so familiar with how to track down art history resources. We have a blog that tracks behind-the-scenes happenings in the Education department and the homepage features social media widgets [Twitter and Flickr] that tell the story of what’s happening and what we’re thinking about day to day.”

I cannot applaud this enough. The philosophy of interconnecting with other great online resources is one that museums are slowly coming around to embracing: much has been written about the Walker’s redesigned home page, and the Getty has recently redesigned its blog into an online magazine featuring article links from many sources.  Still, there seems to be a lingering habit among museums to remain self-contained islands on the internet sea which strikes me as self-defeating.  MoMA Learning enlivens its Surrealism section with audio clips like John Tavener’s Three Songs for Surrealists and supplements its photography section with WNYC’s archival Great Minds and Stellar Artists Consider the State of Modern Photography.  They link to SFMOMA’s excellent Interactive Feature Making Sense of Modern Art.  Page after page after page features a related links box filled with great material culled from around the web, including user-generated content such as on the What is Modern Art?: Rise of the Modern City page. Making these resources part of MoMA Learning truly puts the audience’s needs and desires first.

Stephanie went on to say, “Looking at larger movements like MOOCs and Khan Academy, democratizing access to educational resources – we think of MoMA Learning for being a kit for learning about modern and contemporary art.  Some resources, like slideshows and worksheets, can be downloaded and customized to user needs while audio and video are embedded for just-in-time access.”

Audience Input for a Better Resource

Another admirable aspect of MoMA Learning is how user feedback was integrated into the development process every step of the way.  When the idea to turn Modern Teachers into a more dynamic rich resource first developed, MoMA’s educators started talking to teachers about the kinds of things they would want from a digital resource, gathering information and ideas from the intended audience.  They also came to a crucial decision to make the new site appealing to the lifelong learning audience as well as teachers and students. The site was designed to be attractive and useful to anyone interested in learning more about modern art.

There were rounds of preliminary user testing in 2009 and 2010, in which members of all the intended audiences were asked to give their feedback to inform the process.  There were many informal talks with teachers.  They used Haiku to mock up the site and facilitated some guided scenarios in its use with small groups of teachers and informal learners in order to test the resources and theories of use they were coming up with.  They discovered that the open-ended questioning technique worked for teachers but was a little confusing for the informal learners. They took this information back to a contract information architect and created a 1.0 version of the site for a soft launch.  This was tested with a larger group of teachers and informal learners.

Now that the site has launched, the MoMA Learning team is soliciting feedback through the site itself with a simple link at the top to a SurveyMonkey and in the coming weeks they will be soliciting responses to  extended survey target teachers both in formal and informal settings. Respondents are saying it’s easy, intuitive, and accessible. But Stephanie and Lisa both described their mindset as being that the site will always be a work in progress. Post-launch user testing (detailed in a blog post by The Emily Fisher Landau Education Fellow Jackie Armstrong) has been really helpful, allowing for correction since the launch.  They are already working on a new version.  They intend to continue to do iterative changes, with a goal of being nimble and flexible about how the site changes to meet user needs.








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