Written by Erin Branham.
Here’s a little insight into how things happen for a blogger. With my handy dandy google alert, I follow news with the keywords “museum education” and “museum education digital”. Every once in a while something fruitful pops up such as this article in the Bloomington Pantagraph (not a website I would normally run into) about Mystic Seaport’s distance learning program. Intrigued, I went to the museum’s website, tracked down some email addresses and requested an interview. Krystal Rose, Project Manager, Mystic Seaport for Educators, agreed to talk to me and I found myself on a path of numerous discoveries.
Krystal has been at Mystic Seaport for almost seven years. In 2010, the museum received an IMLS grant to develop an online learning community, a project initiated by the museum’s President Steve White and Executive Vice President Susan Funk. The idea for a virtual field trip program had been running around the museum for several years. Their in-house film and video team had been interested in it and did some research into other museums that ran such programs, such as the Mystic Aquarium, which had been doing distance learning programs for about a decade. The new online learning community project would be centered around a website, Mystic Seaport for Educators, designed to make the museum’s collection accessible to educators, complete with primary resources and features that would allow teachers to connect to each other. As a component of this larger program, the museum was able to apply itself more seriously to developing some virtual field trips.
Starting Simple and Experimenting
Following the advice of their colleagues at Mystic Aquarium, the program began simply with very basic equipment: Skype on a laptop and a $75 Logitech webcam.
Educators at the museum connect with their virtual field trip classroom teachers about a week before the actual “visit”, going over instructions on how to call in on the day of the lesson. On that day, the teacher calls in to the studio where an educator is waiting. The educator offers an introduction to museums and what they do, what a curator is and what s/he does, what the museum collects and why it’s important, and the conservation of museum objects. They then go through Mystic Seaport’s different collections and show various objects, telling their stories. Everything is connected to the new Common Core State Standards, with a goal of getting students to think deeply about historic events, helping them to learn how to analyze documents and artifacts, then creating an argument and supporting that argument with evidence in order to understand multiple perspectives. Educators ask questions of the students such as: What’s the whale’s perspective on the 19th century whaling industry? How did a black crewmember feel like while working on this ship? How did the family the sailors left back home feel?
In the early days of the program, the museum was able to customize lessons for each classroom, but as the program has picked up more requests, the lessons have become standardized and now focus on the Charles W. Morgan, a feature artifact of the museum – and the last wooden whaling ship in the world. The ship is coming out of an extensive 5 year restoration and will sail next year to several New England ports and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Because of the popularity of the program, the museum is now using 4 educators to provide virtual field trips. They delve into different collections using Morgan artifacts. Historic videos end the session to impress upon students the realities of whaling – that it was dirty, dangerous work. The goal of this is for students to think about the perspective of the people of the past. Educators ask, in 100 years what is someone going to look back at you and think?
One thing I really admired about this program was how experimental it was. As museum educators we all know the value of seizing an opportunity, and this program is a great example. The first run of the program was with the Pine City School District in Minnesota, where they did virtual field trips with several classrooms throughout the district. They connected to the district through an intern whose mother worked there. A strength of virtual field trips is that they allow multiple contacts with the classrooms so the Mystic Seaport educators were able to talk to these students more than once. Some of the teachers from that first year won scholarships to come to Mystic Seaport’s summer teacher institute and they had been so bowled over by the experience that they charmingly asked the educators to sign their copies of Moby-Dick.
The program with schools in Bloomington, Illinois came about when the museum landed a grant which required the money be spent on schools in Bloomington. They did a cold call to the school district upon receiving the grant and the schools were thrilled at the opportunity. They met with 9 classrooms over a two week period. This year Mystic Seaport’s virtual field trip program will reach 50 classrooms in northeastern Connecticut, supported by grant funding. Each class will get a visit to the museum, an outreach visit from an educator and a virtual field trip – which represents one of the best integrations of digital media into an existing museum education program that I’ve seen. The museum will also be advertising the program in their school programs brochure this year, so more requests are coming in. Schools can pay $175 for a virtual field trip, which costs less than your average rental of a school bus for a field trip, especially if you have to travel any distance to reach the museum. The museum also provides some funding for virtual field trips based on the number of free and reduced lunches at the school. Grant writing also continues to support the program, and is what has allowed Mystic Seaport to upgrade – they now have a green screen and better equipment for their virtual field trips.
Involve Your Audience in Program Development
I asked Krystal about how the museum was evaluating their virtual field trip program. Since it is one part of the larger Mystic Seaport for Educators project, a new website which launched November 6, it is included in the evaluation of that project. That assessment is being carried out by New Knowledge, a group run by Dr. John Fraser and dedicated to helping cultural organizations “expand their programs in ways that increase social knowledge, positive lived experiences, and ecological harmony”. Dr. Fraser is looking primarily at the website and its relationship with educators. He led several focus groups in the beginning of the project and after big milestones and he assisted the team in creating a model to complete a year and a half of research with 150 teachers, students, and parents, holding team meetings each with a different focus. From this, they learned what teachers wanted from Mystic Seaport, which informed the entire project. Right now Krystal is doing informal follow up with teachers who participate in the virtual field trips to get feedback, and she is working on a survey to go out at the end of every program.
By this point in the interview I was deeply interested in how the larger project had been developed – not least because I recently had a change of job descriptions from Family audiences to K-12 School programs. So I asked Krystal to fill me in on what Mystic Seaport for Educators was all about. She explained that education at the museum had previously focused largely on the museum grounds, which recreate a 19th century maritime village. The online learning community initiative that started with the IMLS grant was designed to create a closer relationship between the Education Department and the Collections Department. What resulted was a summer teacher professional development program that has been carried out during the last two years. Teachers have to do 40 hours of research and content creation and turn in content by the end of summer to qualify for the program’s stipend. The museum’s educators clearly defined what the teachers were to turn in: they chose from a list of objects, documents, and maps to create content to be featured on the new website. An ancillary result was a series of primary source workshops that also developed out of this project. The heart of all of it is making the museum’s objects more accessible.
The team hire began work on a concept called the “Interactive Artifact Record,” which would be created by the teachers in the summer professional development program. The interactive artifact records told the stories of artifacts and documents. Each record included about 10 features inside. During the first round of professional development workshops, the museum ended up with 30 page research papers (beware turning teachers loose or you’ll get what you asked for and much, much more!). They found they couldn’t funnel that level of research into the structure that they had designed. So Laura Nadelberg (Collections Specialist and MSE Teacher Coordinator), Krystal and Digital Gizmo, their contracted web design firm, sat down and went through the instructions they had given to teachers and rethought every step. They spent all of 2012 experimenting with it to create a new format. Dr. Fraser also did a focus group with the six teachers who participated in the project. Their feedback included things like how much they loved being treated like colleagues within the museum, working with curators, getting access, and doing special workshops to help them with their writing. They dubbed it some of the best professional development any of them had ever experienced. The museum’s staff hadn’t really thought of it as a professional development experience, but as it turned out – it was. All sorts of interesting experiences popped up. For instance, in an orientation workshop, Henry Kydd, a high school history teacher, had mentioned to one of the curators, Fred Calabretta, that his grandfather had been a whaler. Fred did a little looking and discovered that Henry’s grandfather was one of the earlier oral histories that he had taken when he first started at Mystic Seaport. He found the tapes which shared them with Henry, who got to hear his grandfather’s voice telling his life story.
Meanwhile, working with Digital Gizmo (who Krystal described as “phenomenal”) they tweaked the requirements for the features they wanted teachers to write, scaling them down into five different specific features. Teachers in the second year of the professional development workshops now do much smaller tasks with very detailed instructions and the museum got tremendous results which they could plug right into the system. It took two years to figure out how the website content would come together but they are feeling very good about where things are now. Currently they have more content than they have people to proofread it all.
A Model for Success
I was thrilled to hear how Mystic Seaport built their new site for educators and how well they integrated it into their existing school and teacher programs. Krystal told me this was the first ever digital project for her and the MSE team – and they really went about it right by starting small, experimenting, tweaking, keeping the audience involved at every step and approaching everything with an open mind so that experience could lead them on to the next step. She said she feels the project has been very successful at meeting its goals to provide access to the collection. Not only does the new website do this, but the virtual field trip program which allows interaction with a live museum educator adds a completely different dimension. The reality is that these days, schools have a lot of difficulty finding the money to spend on buses for field trips. She said their department realized that if they wanted to keep connecting with schools, even schools in CT, then they had to start thinking about the museum campus in a different way, that is, not just the visitors who walk through the gate.
Thanks to Krystal and the team at Mystic Seaport for their efforts and be sure to spend some time on Mystic Seaport for Educators. It’s a marvelous site that I’m sure will see a lot of growth in the years to come!