MW2013 reflections: MOOCs, museums and mistakes

Guest post by David Greenfield

I met David Greenfield at a talk he did recently on MOOCs and Museums, fortuitously just as I was writing a post on the same topic. Formerly a staff member of the wonderful Skirball Cultural Center here in Los Angeles and now a PhD candidate in Learning Technologies at Pepperdine University, David is a delightfully energetic man full of terrific ideas about education.



By the time I arrived at Museums and the Web 2013, I was in a tizzy. I had been thinking and blogging about my presentation topic, MOOCs, museums, and schools natural partners and processes for learning for over a month, writing and re-writing my presentation.  But I was still unsure. The primary sticking point was that because MOOCs are relatively new (they have been identified and used for only about five years), they are still mostly situated in the academic world, and have not yet been integrated into the museum experience. Museums have adapted many of the fundamentals of distance education, but in general, the numbers of learners and participants do not really reach the potential level of academic MOOCs (tens of thousands).

While circulating about, chatting with old and making new friends at the conference, I listened and learned about what my colleagues knew about MOOCs. A pre-presentation lunch with my co-presenters, Deborah Howes (MOMA), Robert Rutherford (University of Colorado at Boulder), and Slavko Milekic (University of the Arts) was lively, stimulating, and very informative, as was an interview with Emily Kotecki.

I learned that while many people are familiar with the idea of MOOCs, not a lot of people have actually participated in or developed a MOOC. Additionally, there was a lack of understanding about the two types of MOOCs (cMOOCs and xMOOCs). Yet there is an almost tangible curiosity and interest in MOOCs- the technologies, applications and more importantly, about how MOOCs can be integrated into the museum experience.

In many ways, these conversations reminded me of the early days of museum web sites, when there were no real standards, and museum professionals were all busy identifying, exploring, and developing web technologies and content to promote and advance museums’ missions, for general audiences as well as museum professionals. In retrospect, one thing that I learned back in those early, wild and wooly days was essentially that the primary theme of the conferences was as education and leaning, in all of their different forms.

This conference continues to be about education, albeit more directed, focused and polished. There are sessions and conversations about technologies, protocols, and processes for educating museum visitors as well as professionals. In many ways, MOOCs are a throwback to those early days, where we were all trying to figure things out. MOOCs have the potential to be revolutionary to museum education, but in a more glacial sense. MOOCs present great opportunities for innovative education preprograms and outreach, in both informal and formal learning environments.

Like many other innovations, we need to remember that since MOOCs are new and pretty flexible, there is no one way to develop and use them. MOOCs present educators with opportunities and challenges as we adapt and mold them to fit multiple learning styles along with different types of museum education programs.

We Need to Know More

Because of their novelty, it may be beneficial to identify and define several key terms, ideas and needs that will help assist us as educators and museum professionals as well as learners so that we communicate and learn together as we work to develop MOOCs for our individual institutions and for the museum community in general.

  • There are two types of MOOCs- xMOOCs support formal, structured, and didactic approaches to education and learning. On the other hand, the cMOOCs (“c” is for connectivist) is exceptionally suited for informal, constructivist learning environments in which the instructor functions more as a guide and “asker of questions”, and learning and is constructed by the participants and students.
  • The type of MOOC that an educator selects is directly related to the sensibility of the instructor and their institution. For example, educators who favor a didactic approach to learning will find that an xMOOC is an appropriate style to use, since it favors formal instructor led classes and assignments. On the other hand, institutions and individuals who advocate project-based learning initiatives will find the cMOOC is a more appropriate tool. In the cMOOC, the instructor asks the questions, but the students create the meaning through collaborative projects.
  • One common theme in existing MOOCs is that there is a high dropout rate of students. This can be expected, since learners may not be used to the MOOC style of learning. Because of this, the metrics that have been developed and used to evaluate onsite or distance learning programs may not be appropriate or useful.  Also, it is difficult to evaluate a moving target. I would suggest that the action research method is an appropriate model for developing and evaluating MOOCs.
  • It is often for difficult for large institutions to fully explore and develop MOOCS, because of the institutional structures and protocol that can prevent or hinder true innovation to take place. These institutions are often better suited to adapting technology rather then developing it. Yet, with some imagination and creative problem solving, these same institutions can identify ways to develop and integrate innovative technologies that compliment the institution and its mission. For example, the creation of a Department of Innovation with a small (and possibly rotating staff) can assist to keep staff interested and programs fresh.
  • As with every museum program, it is always critical to identify the target audience, but even more so with MOOCs, because this will define the type of MOOC used (x or c). For example, museum professionals may find the xMOOC more suited to their needs, while cMOOCs may better serve programs that provide museum education to distant locations.

MOOCs have the potential to add to the democratization of museums and education. They can be used for educating museum professionals, and visitors, for building innovative exhibitions and partnerships and for reaching out to the millions of people who may never experience the simple delight in wandering through an actual museum.

As museum professionals and educators, it is a salient idea to remember that MOOCs are new, especially in museum environments. The significance of this is three-fold: 1) learning is a pretty messy process; 2) we are all learning together about MOOCs and their potential to engage new and existing museum learners, and 3) there is no one single way to how MOOCs are used. Finally, it is critical to remember that as we adapt and develop MOOCs, we will make plenty of mistakes. But this is good a good thing. To paraphrase a comment made by Simon Schocken, “We are obsessed with grades because we are obsessed with data, and yet grading takes away all the fun from failing, and a huge part of education is about failing”.

Museums and the Web, links to earlier conference programs-

2 thoughts on “MW2013 reflections: MOOCs, museums and mistakes

  1. MOOC News & Reviews (@MOOCNewsReviews) says:

    David, I think you’re right that there’s a lot of room for innovation left in MOOCs. The versions we’re most familiar with are just scratching the surface and, like you say, there’s no reason that only colleges can provide.

    I’m aware of three examples that tangentially touch on your subject of museums offering MOOCs. First, as you may now, the announcement from Coursera about their educational professional development initiative included classes from the Museum of Natural History. Second, an art appreciation MOOC from the Otis College of Art and Design, in your neck of the woods I think, will be on the Canvas platform in a few weeks.

    Probably most similar to what you’re describing is an example from a performing arts organization. During April, the Spring For Music orchestra festival ran a music appreciation/audience engagement MOOC called S4mu.



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