The Future of Learning, via Museums #MCN2014

I had the opportunity to be on the final panel at #MCN2014, the Museum Computer Network annual conference in Dallas.  The panel, Centralized, Decentralized, Distributed:  Emerging Models for Online Learning in Museums, was hosted by Rosanna Flouty of NYU and panelists were Daniel Wolff of the American Museum of Natural History, Allegra Smith of the Museum of Modern Art, and Emily Lytle-Painter of the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art.  Two of these three institutions have rune MOOCs through Coursera, and the third has been researching emerging models of online learning as well as partnered with Khan Academy to produce video content.  My role was as the first respondent:  I wanted to both address the models at these museums while presenting options and opportunities for them to further their missions.

I was bold.

The successes of these museums are not because they used a MOOC platform; they are in spite of using a MOOC platform.

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MoMA and AMNH have a track record of success with their MOOCs; the enrollments are high and there is often community emergence from the course into the greater world.  It is the second part that has these museums excited; it is also this second part that Coursera does not support nor does it aggregate learning analytics from.  Both Daniel and Allegra bemoaned the lack of adequate social learning mechanisms in the Coursera system.  However, both spoke in a positive manner about their partnership with Coursera.

It would be easy to make Coursera a straw man here, the company that embodies the walled garden and all that is wrong with online learning.  Both MoMA and AMNH have offered online learning options outside of Coursera; what Coursera was able to do was provide more opportunities for course development as well as an extreme uptick in users and eyes on the museum.  Those statistics cannot be ignored.  However, the analytics Coursera gets on the learning happening in the course has not been terribly helpful to either MoMA or AMNH according to the panel.  Rather, both institutions would like to see how to better support interactive and social learning assignments and creations, something Coursera cannot help with or generate data from.

I also questioned the increasing trend of ignoring the 50% of people who register for a MOOC but never participate.  I see how this can be somewhat excused in a Udacity course like Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, but a museum is an informal learning space, and interest in a museum course largely comes not because of job skills but because of interest (Rosanna looked at the historical argument for this with an overview of Sunrise Semester, an NYU/CBS partnership between 1957 and 1982 that at its heyday had 2,000,000 people watching – a protoMOOC).  My argument is that the Coursera platform in its rigidity and content-based approach is not suitable for informal learning mechanisms any modern learning but especially informal learning mechanisms.  Those students who do not engage showed an interest and the museum was unable to capitalize on that interest: even if the interest was fleeting, it was there at one point and it should not be ignored because of the difficulty in determining its reason.

If we were to put the learner first in the development of a museum course, it would look very different.  I do not believe it would be based in LMS, a tool designed for ease and economy* but at the expense of agency and engagement.  Students learn best when they have ownership, agency and engagement, and that happens when we open the space and make learning communicative, collaborative and creative.  Perhaps this means we have to fully remove the authoritarian elements of a course, because while we like to say the sage on the stage is now the guide on the side it is still the whole in control of the experience.  Learning does not need to be centralized for a learner; it helps to be centralized for a teacher and allows greater control when centralized for an administration.  In a museum space especially, the focus should be on the engagement of the learner with the topic and with constructing knowledge and artifacts.

*in his session with Jim Groom at #opened14, David Kernohan made an excellent read of some data from a 1980s computer program called Cyclops

One example is the concept of federation, eloquently brought to education by Mike Caulfield in his federated wiki example.

federated

 

In a space of federation, it is the learner who owns their connection, and an instructor can create topics or modules or content to fit a theme or course, and the student can engage that content in a connectivist model of engaging content networks, human networks, and both.  What makes this different from an LMS, though, is the knowledge creation and knowledge collaboration aspect.  If a course is on postmodern artists and a student really relates to a section on Basquiat, she can fork that section and it becomes hosted on her specific federated page, with reference back to the original.  She can revise, remix, reuse this information, and link to other places (perhaps she sees a link to Andy Warhol that the instructor did not note on his page).  This is a lot like a Wiki, but how it is different is the ownership and the social aspect.  Classmates can see both the teacher’s page and this change, and they can choose to fork either page onto their site if they so wish and either make changes or link to it as part of a developing narrative.  When multiple people fork the same page and make changes, they are working from unique documents: everything they do remains as theirs, but the record of the knowledge creation amongst the group is easy to spot and reference to see the differences.  This can spur conversation like is had on Twitter around these topics, except in a form longer than 140 characters that can better support scholarship.

This is just one potential solution, and it is in its infancy.  But the technology is there and ready to go.  It is time to find the museum that wants to be a pioneer in this field and engage technology’s design on the future of learning rather than its updated method for continuing to teach in the past.

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