Museum/MOOC Merge

#MCN2013 Folks – Slides from the November 23 presentation at Museum Computer Network’s annual conference can be found here.  

Slides for the November 8 presentation at Open Education 2013 can be found here.

Slides from my Pepperdine pitch to both the Waves of Innovation initiative and the Weisman Museum can be found here.

My practical capstone project on museum/school district partnerships can be found here, with the poster presentation here.

A Brief Overview of Museum/MOOC Merge – Scholarship & Practice

The Museum/MOOC Merge is a learning model, social beacon and outreach opportunity for museums of any size to utilize in an effort to connect communities to installations, traveling exhibits or the general museum itself.  This space is both a chronicle of how the Museum/MOOC Merge can change specific institutions, as well as opportunities for museums to incorporate Museum/MOOC Mergers into their offerings.

Foundations of the Museum/MOOC Merge

1)  Museums are non-formal learning spaces yearning for participation. 

Museums are not only dedicated to identifying, preserving and sharing historically or culturally relevant artifacts, but they are spaces for the creation and cultivation of knowledge.  Early museums resembled clubs and salons, where members (nobility with a focus on various academic disciplines) would collect artifacts they identified as important and preserve them, also using the space as both a physical and theoretical laboratory for research and debate.  As the notion of citizen changed, those private salons became public houses where the sharing of historical artifacts was paramount.  The mission of museums remained one of knowledge creation; James Smithson bequeathed $43,000,000 to the United States to create an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” an establishment that became the Smithsonian Institute.  And the Smithsonian, like all museums, is dedicated to increasing and diffusing knowledge among men.  But not since the 17th and 18th Century museum salons have citizens had an opportunity to engage and participate in museums.

Museums and exhibits are designed and engineered to provide knowledge and access to the public.  That knowledge and access, however, is provided on the terms of the museum.  Expertise is vital and museums hold that, but knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination are different things, and the manner in which most museums provide knowledge is through a one-way communication lens, designing an experience for the citizen rather than inviting a conversation.  Even interactive exhibits are rarely more than rote mechanical events that produce the same result regardless of environment or context.

Museums are spaces for sharing and collaborating, but if the museum continues to emulate a static and sterile space where knowledge can only be accessed on the terms of the institution, their purpose as a social and civic good will be compromised.  This can be seen in part through a decline in museum patronage, but also in the social understanding of the museum as a realm of expertise:  in 2012 the Smithsonian conducted research that showed K-12 students viewed the Institute as having little or no cultural authority or expertise.  For museums to resonate their authority and expertise with the population general, they must embrace two-way communication and participatory measures.

2) Learning is a collaborative endeavor rooted in environment.

We learn best when we learn with and through our peers and fellow citizens.  Learning is a process of observing and imitating while journeying through a zone of proximal development, the experts on the other side providing models, scaffolding, socratic dialogue and observational points to aid the novice in their growth toward expertise.  Knowledge is not a discrete set of content packages to be consumed by the novice, but rather a contextual web including cultural meaning and historic meaning, of which there can be many histories.  To learn is to understand and apply, not to apply before you understand, and the community/environment is vital to the production of understanding.

Learning theorists such as Vygotsky, Bandura and Wenger believe that ideal learning happens in a community environment where a web of individuals with various skills and expertise engage a subject or project and learn through the systems of the structured space.  Providing information is not, nor has it ever been, enough:  international organizational change consultantBeverly Wenger-Trayner notes that despite the promise of the information age to provide ubiquitous content allowing individuals and organizations liberation from training and development, “to this day, despite all the databases and DIY tutorials, John still Calls Mary to ask her how to do x” (Wenger-Trayner, 2013). Some might argue that the recent proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) based in large part on short video lectures and computer-aided instruction points to a change in culture; however, in the limited empirical research on the learning model, successful MOOCs have focused increased attention on various participation and collaboration mechanisms.  This use of technology does not limit human-human communication, but provides it regardless of geographic space and time.

3) An online space need not (and should not) mirror a tangible space; the experience should be unique for visitors in the museum space, the digital space, or an augmented space.

The choice of museums to use digital space to primarily replicate or advertise the tangible museum is a missed opportunity for the institutional mission.  A website dedicated to displaying digital images of the museum’s hanging collection will attract some visitors who wish to see an image but lack agency to visit the gallery.  The interaction ends upon viewing, however.  Similarly, a website dedicated to teasing an exhibit or gallery through advertising and promotion will convince some visitors to travel to the gallery to see the exhibition.  Again, however, the interaction ends once the patron is either convinced to attend or chooses other ways to utilize his time.  In both situations, the digital space has only served as a replica or banner for the tangible space, static and lacking the engagement inherent in technological growth.

The advent of telecommunication conferencing is nearly 50 years old, yet as a popular culture we have yet to adopt the theoretical standards of early researchers in fields such as online/distance education.  If your digital presence is only a mirror of the tangible presence, you are only providing service to a select population who wishes to visit but cannot.  The museum experience has not changed, and much of the rhetoric around museum attendance declines is that the museum experience needs to change.  Creating a museum experience that is uniquely digital not only services those who wish to visit but cannot, it also energizes those who visit and wish for more interaction, as well as those who might wish to visit but have never seen the utility of a museum. In this way there is an opportunity to create three distinct museum experiences — the tangible visit to the structure, the digital visit to the web presence, and a visit to the tangible structure augmented by the digital.


Theoretical Reading:

Simon, N. (2010).  The Participatory Museum.  Santa Cruz, CA:  Museum Two Point Zero.

Siemens, G. (2004).  Connectivism:  A learning theory for the digital age.  Retrieved from

Sparks, P. & Riel, M. (2009).  Collaborative knowledge buliding:  Blending in-class and online learning formats.  Distance Learning:  For Educators, Trainers & Leaders.  (3), 6-10.

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