MOOCs and Museums

Written by Erin Branham. 

Video by Dave Cormier, coiner of the term “MOOC”.


I just participated in my first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) – the University of Edinburgh’s E-Learning and Digital Culture. While the content was interesting, if somewhat more theoretical than I was looking for, the experience itself was the educational payoff. Forty thousand students enrolled for the course (and it felt like every one of them replied to the discussion thread I experimentally requested email me all responses – I was cleaning out my inbox for weeks!).  I don’t know how many completed the course. Full disclosure:  I didn’t since it turned out not to be quite what I was after. But one of the beauties of MOOCs for the student is a low barrier to enrollment.  This allows any student to freely experiment and explore various topics.

The whole experience has gotten me thinking about the possibilities for museums to offer MOOCs.  The downside of MOOCs for universities – no credit, imperfect grading, fall off of enrollees (about 10-15% of students who enroll typically complete a course) – are not downsides for museums since we already offer non-credit, non-graded, non-compulsory attendance and completion educational offerings.  The upside of MOOCs – vastly increasing the reach of your educational offerings – works just as well for museums as for any other educational institution.  In addition MOOCs appeal to our core audience: smart, creative life-long learners who actively pursue informal education. Furthermore, some commentators on the MOOC phenomenon, like Dr. Keith Devlin of Stanford, a veteran MOOC teacher, are convinced that MOOC students are “looking for education. Pure and simple”, without concern for certification or credit. It all sounds custom-made for museum education.

Think about our missions – check a few online and you’ll see phrases like “stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art” (The Met), “to create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.” (The Exploratorium), “[provide] collection-based research and learning for greater public understanding and appreciation of the world in which we live” (The Field Museum). Teaching to remote audiences through digital means absolutely falls within these parameters.  Given our missions, we must make use of digital tools because of the way they allow us to greatly extend our reach and provide rich and deep resources for public learning. There’s basically no excuse for not offering MOOCs.

Okay – there is one, and it’s the one that generally plagues us: opportunity cost. The number of ways we could possibly educate the public is nearly infinite. So, we have to make choices.  If we do this, it means we don’t have the time, staff and resources left over to do that.  Generally we judge our effectiveness as educators by combining a couple of factors: how many people we can reach and the quality of the experience we can provide for them. These two factors can be in inverse relationship to each other and that is just as true in the digital realm as it is in the physical – though in a different way.

If it is possible to provide an educational experience to someone who will never have the time or opportunity to experience your collection in person, then you’re starting from a different point of origin than you are when you’re thinking about offering an in-person program that will serve 1000 people versus 10 people. Online offerings are by nature more about breadth of reach than in-person programs are. MOOCs offer a way to maximize the strength of what we do digitally. If you could present a high quality online class that encourages discussion, study groups and participant creation, and deliver that to 20,000 people (even if only 2000 finish the whole thing) – why wouldn’t you?

What’s Really Involved in Creating a MOOC

The very excellent site e-Literate recently posted a summary of and link to a report from Duke University outlining details from their first MOOC offering. It included useful gems such as how much time was required to create and teach the course (over 600 hours/ 420 hours put in by the instructor) on Coursera, which is just one of the many platforms available on which you can present a MOOC. Those are some hefty hours (on the order of 3 solid months of the instructor’s time), but it was also their very first MOOC.  I imagine there’s a significant difference between what’s involved in creating a new course, especially the first time you are familiarizing yourself with the MOOC platform, and teaching a course that is already established.

Coursera faired well in the instructor’s estimation with high marks for technical support.  Mention was made of Duke University’s Office of Information Technology and their involvement, which is definitely a consideration if you are a smaller museum without a lot of resources in that area.  What is also difficult to find is information about how one becomes an institution that offers MOOCs through a service such as Coursera. It has university “partners”, but no museums or libraries as of yet. I have little doubt that some brave institution will leap into the MOOC waters in 2013 because a few ripples are starting to be seen in the water.  If you’re in the LA area, you can attend David Greenfield’s Major Mayhem or Marvelous Match: An Introduction to MOOCs and Museums on Monday, March 11, or you can catch his presentation on MOOCs, Museums and School: Natural Partners and Processes for Learning at the 2013 Museums & the Web conference next month in Portland, OR. A review of a July 2012 webinar on MOOCs written by Robert Connelly, Director of the C.H. Nash Museum Chucalissa, also shows that at least a few museum professionals are starting to think about MOOCs.

Full disclosure again – the C.H. Nash Museum Chucalissa was probably the greatest formative museum experience I had as a child. I adore the place. It is a beautifully interpreted archeological site that I still remember vividly even though I haven’t been there in 30 years. It inspired my lifelong fascination with North American archeology which rules my vacation choices to this day. Just a reminder of what a powerful influence an educational experience at a museum can have on a person’s life.

For me, the really significant finding of the Duke University report on their MOOC was that “regardless of completion status, many students were primarily seeking enjoyment or educational enrichment.” Which sounds an awful lot like the motivations people cite for visiting museums. As noted, “most students reported a positive learning experience and rated the course highly, including ones who did not complete all the requirements.” After having participated in a MOOC, I saw that this kind of class is just as much if not more about your interactions with your fellow students as it is about the content put forth by the instructor. I realized that there are ways for your local audience, who could visit the museum during the duration of the course, to actively contribute to the teaching of the remote students since a MOOC involves such a great deal of student exchange, including meetups and study groups. MOOCs possibly offer a unique opportunity to co-teach with our visitors to the benefit of a much larger audience – which gets into the difference between a cMOOC and an xMOOC. More on that as the relationship between MOOCs and Museums evolves…

What are your thoughts on MOOCs? Have you taken one? Do you think it’s all a bunch of hype, or are there real possibilities here for museums?



For a thorough discussion of MOOCs, their possibilities, hazards, results, and questions still to be answered, read the white paper by Sir John Daniel, among other career achievements, the former Assistant Director of Education at UNESCO: Making Sense of MOOCs, published September 2012.

This article in the Washington Post is also great for its analysis of (and links to posts by) the various advocates, skeptics and agnostics about MOOCs.

And here’s an excellent TedTalk by one of the founders of Coursera, Daphne Koller: What we’re learning from online education.

10 thoughts on “MOOCs and Museums

  1. Robert Connolly says:

    Here is a bit of stream of consciousness on the subject –

    I have lived through a few MOOCs now and am trying to figure out an application for my museum life. I don’t think it should be too much of a reach. Here is an example. At Chucalissa (graciously plugged in your post) we are working to move beyond typical “volunteer days” where folks come in to sort, count, and weigh artifacts to move toward an analysis type of experience. To that end, ten volunteers from the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society signed up to participate in monthly “volunteer analysis” days where we will teach the basics of archaeological analytic techniques. The artifacts will be drawn from collections curated at our facility from throughout West Tennessee. Things like basic measurements on projectile points and the interpretive significance, etc. etc. We then will work with students in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate program to create basic exhibits on these materials that can then be placed in country libraries.

    That is sort of the game plan. Here is the first applications that we want to move on. A farmer from Lincoln Co. TN donated a collection of a couple thousand projectile points, ceramic sherds, etc. etc. to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981. After the materials were dutifully counted, labeled, put in their plastic bags, etc. etc. they have never seen the light of day. They have limited research value as they are only provenienced to a several hundred acre farm. However, in Lincoln County there is a county museum in Fayetteville that does not appear to have a prehistoric exhibit. The artifacts we curate are ideal for developing an exhibit on the prehistory of the area that explores the temporal depth of the prehistoric occupation, trade and exchange, etc. etc. This project seems an excellent example of making the museum collections we curate relevant to the very public who pay our salaries, fund the repository that curate the materials, and so forth.

    So what does this have to do with MOOCs? I can also envision that everything we will do with the MAGS volunteers can be done online based on the reasonably simple technology that the MOOCs employ. Further, perhaps one of the most popular programs that typical archaeological museums host are artifact identification days. There are bunches of folks out there with collections that would likely be quite interested in such a MOOC offering. They would ultimately analyze their own collections, learn the interpretive significance of same, foster an ethos of conservation, meaning, and so forth.

    That ties in with the lifelong learning of museums – a very simple and straightforward application. Now, I just need the time to develop that, or find an enterprising student who wants to take this on . . . anybody out there?


    • Erin says:

      Thanks for this comment, Robert – your stream of consciousness matches mine in some ways. It seems evident that there are subjects of interest to large swaths of the public, near to us and far, that we are uniquely positioned to teach. And, as you say, we often have material at the ready that could be fairly easily reimagined for a MOOC setting, making it available to much larger groups of people than we can possibly reach in person. Best of luck figuring out your project! Please let us know if it comes to fruition.


  2. Charlotte Elton says:

    Wonderful article, totally inspiring. I would like to see a MOOC for the Museums and Visitors Centers in Panama´s interoceanic region… the shared natural and cultural history of the 50 miles between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We already have a Network of 15 institutions with museums and visitor centers, and this year Panama celebrates the 500 years since Europeans, Balboa, “discovered” the Pacific Ocean that led to modern globalization of trade etc. We have two colonial World Heritage Sites, one on each ocean, three Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute visitor centers, the new Biomuseo, designed by Frank Gehry, will open this year to tell the story of the rise of the Isthmus… among others, so plenty of stories, new and old to tell and to relate to interdisciplinary minds, and plenty of big questions still to answer.

    Comments and advice welcome! see the bilingual English/Spanish website,


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