Museums and Teachers in the Digital Age

Written by Erin Branham. 

Technology is beginning to revolutionize the way teachers handle instruction in the classroom. Differing levels of access to teaching technology, of course, deeply affect who, how, when and where teachers are adopting technology-based teaching but all indications are that adoption of digital and social media as teaching tools will follow the traditional Rogers’ diffusion of innovations curves.

File:Diffusion of ideas.svg

It seems to me like we’re still in the early adopters phase, and school districts, being bureaucracies, are likely to proceed through the curve more slowly than, say, the general public did in adopting smart phones. But it is inevitable that the classroom and formal education will be deeply changed by the accessibility and usefulness of digital media. This begs the question of how museum education is responding to these changes in regards to the services and support that we offer to teachers.

Many museums have long since been offering teaching resources online, generally in the form of static html pages or lists of downloadable pdfs.  A museum’s teacher resources are only as good as the search engine that accesses it, though, and search engines for sorting through these caches of lesson plans are generally effective, if not always great, at helping teachers find what they want.  Check out some prominent examples of these sorts of offerings:

Smithsonian Education

The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s not unusual to find museums whose teacher resources pages don’t even feature a search engine – and whether there is one or not isn’t always correlated to size and resources.  Take a look, for example, at the Field Museum of Natural History’s Educator Resources page.

What struck me most is that almost everything you can find are just digital versions of print materials.  Some museums have begun exploiting the dynamic possibilities of digital media, such as the Brooklyn Museum, which includes links to web interactives on their teacher resources page, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has some nice interactives on their Student Activities page. The institutions listed above likewise have numerous rich digital resources throughout their websites which teachers can use in the classroom, but they’re not really helping teachers find them.

I clicked every link on several google pages worth of hits on “museum teacher resources”, covering museums located in the US, Europe, and Australia – and I’m a bit shocked at the primitive state of affairs. Having interned in Teacher Programs at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and being well-familiar with the teacher resources I’ve created over the years, I know what the traditional practice is – a room (or several) full of rich resources for teachers, generally offered free of charge to any teacher who wants to come to the museum and make copies. We, and the teachers we serve, have long lamented the necessity of physically visiting the museum to access those resources, which is what has caused some museums, such as the California Science Center, to offer to mail requested items to the teacher. But it seems strange that we aren’t availing ourselves more thoroughly and more quickly of the ease of delivery that the internet provides.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m in the middle of a digitization project to get all the object files and teaching materials for the relatively manageably-sized collection on display at the Getty Villa scanned just for the sake of use internally by the museum’s educators, meaning they don’t have to look all that pretty.  To get it done, we’re pretty much exclusively depending on volunteers and interns, so I can appreciate what a daunting task it would be to think about translating all a museum offers in the way of analog, pick-‘em-up-in-person resources for teachers into a digital format.  Frequently these days our museums are producing terrific digital media material that teachers would love to get their hands on, such as a new create-your-own tour feature which is a big hit with teachers, but which is only available on a kiosk at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  There is no online version for those teachers who can’t manage a field trip to the museum.

There are the rare flowers poking their heads out, which are turning their once static online teacher resources into dynamic websites with the potential to grow via interconnectivity, like MoMA Learning. The venerable ArtsConnectEd got a fairly recent facelift, which includes video and audio clips embedded in prepared slide show presentations, as well as some social features – tagging and user comments. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Resources for Teachers and Students has an index page which looks deceptively like all the other static lists of lesson plans – click through though and you’ll find virtual tours, interactives, and the Wikipedia-like, community-generated Encyclopedia of Life, which may be the most impressive museum-associated (the NMNH is one of several partners working on the project) teacher resources I’ve come across. The Newseum’s Digital Classroom is excellent as well, focusing on video lessons.

In the meantime, consider this infographic and the PBS Learning  tech survey it represents. We might also want to give some thought to the fact that what we have to offer teachers online exists side by side with great digital classroom resources such as PBS Learning Media,, and DiscoveryEducation.  Are we keeping up?



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