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How Museums Are Like MOOCs, Part 1

February 25, 2014

stoneI am a strong advocate for user-generated content, such as Wikipedia, and open on-line content like MOOCS. I remain somewhat amused but mostly incredulous at the “sky is falling” folks who still bemoan this trend in knowledge sharing.

In my dealings within academia, over the past five years the discussion has gone from “online courses might work well, in x department, but not in our department, where face-to-face interaction is critical because . . . (fill in the blank) ” to the present day where most departments are at least experimenting with some form of  blended classes.  Now I particularly enjoy noting that students who I encouraged (or insisted/demanded) to enroll in remedial MOOC writing courses have dramatically improved writing skills.  Even my doubter colleagues realize that such improvements make their instructor jobs easier when reading through a stack of 10-page student papers.

I had a bit of an “aha” moment on all of this while listening to a To The Point podcast a few weeks ago.  The topic was Massive Open Online Courses, MOOC’s: The Future of Education?  The naysayers primary complaints expressed on the podcast rest with a lack of faculty control of MOOC content and whether MOOCs even work as an educational tool.  My suspicion is that those in the upper-echelons of MOOC and MOOC-like developments find these complaints rather amusing as the NeoLuddites of higher education make their last futile gasps to preserve the good old days.

But the source of my “aha” came from a different objection to MOOCs raised on the podcast.  The naysayers also point to the low completion rates of MOOCs.  Depending on how you cut it, as few as 5% of the tens of thousands of individuals who might enroll in a single course end up completing all the assignments.  In the past, my response to this objection was that even with a low rate of completion, if 1000 students finished the course, quantitatively, that is still a good number for a single professor’s course.  Further, if those 1000 paid say 25.00 per head for a high-end certificate of completion (known as the signature track in coursera-speak) seemingly that is an economic model that could ultimately sustain the venture long-term.

But then something happened to me and the “aha” struck.  I recently registered for the MOOC Content Strategy For Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization.  The course seemed ideal to explore a strategic orientation for engaging museum audiences.  At coursera.org, when registering for courses, one is asked to state if they intend to do all the readings, watch all the videos, and complete all the assignments.  As usual, I dutifully checked all the “yes” boxes.  The first set of lectures was fantastic.  I enjoyed them so much I ordered the textbook from Amazon.com immediately.  This MOOC presented the precise information I sought.  I reasoned the book would be a great supplement.  However, the assignment that constituted 70% of the MOOC course grade was about developing a content strategy model around a clothing campaign – not a project that resonated with me.  I decided I was not going to complete the assignment and therefore, not complete the requirements for the certificate.  In so doing, I was going to be part of the 95% statistic the naysayers suggest are MOOC failures.

A few days later I registered for the The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education taught by Cathy Davidson that I reported on last week.  Upon registering, I checked the “no” boxes on my intent for completing the readings, videos, and assignments.  I actually wasn’t even certain if I wanted to watch anything of the MOOC beyond the lecture that piqued my interest – Teaching Like it’s 1992.  This registration marked a real shift in my thinking.  Previously, before registering for a MOOC I always read the syllabus and determined if I had enough time to complete the course requirements.  In this instance, I knew I wanted to listen to at least one lecture, but was not going to make a commitment to the entire seven week offering.  That decision was very liberating and instructive for me.  Again, from the linear perspective of registering for the course, completing all the tasks on the syllabus, taking the final test, and getting a final grade, the naysayers will argue this MOOC also did not work for me.

But I object.  Both MOOCs gave me exactly the information and training I sought.  So how can that be translated as the MOOCs not working?

Part of the answer to that question is found in Professor John Levine’s  Introductory Lecture for the Content Strategy MOOC where he notes:

Let me tell you a few important things about this MOOC, however. First since it is for professionals, there’ll be no grades and no tests.  It’s not a college course, it’s a program for you as a professional to master.  And then be able to use what you learn here and take it back to work.

That very statement addresses a point raised in a Ted Talk by Peter Norvig, a pioneer in the MOOC field.  Norvig states that “everyone is both a learner and a teacher.”  This understanding fits well within the understanding of MOOCs as integral components of informal, lifelong and free-choice learning.  As Norvig further discusses, this understanding places MOOC’s beyond the limits of traditional academia.  Of note, the naysayers rarely, if ever, address this point that Norvig raises.  I suspect the lack of input is because the naysayers perceive education from the pre-1992 paradigm.

Museums function in the same way.  As a general statement, in a museum you can come enter at any point along the path.  You are not required to read every label.  You are not tested before you leave the building.  But, you can engage with what you want for as long as you want.

Next week I want to explore the implications of the Museum as MOOCs.

Do you draw similar parallels between MOOCs and cultural heritage venues?

(Note:  In a preemptive response: 1) I would gladly pay 10.00 for either of the MOOCs noted above. 2) I am well aware that there are MOOC disasters out there.  The venture is new.  coursera.org is two years old.  I am certain a time traveling fly on the wall would hear all the same objections to Gutenberg’s first printing press in the 1400s.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2014 1:42 pm

    From Harvard’s Peabody Museum, recently the setting for an upcoming HarvardX MOOC based on the popular “Tangible Things” course: the instructors planned each unit as its own module with no expectation that participants would encounter the content in a strictly linear way. A good match for a museum!

  2. March 2, 2014 6:08 pm

    I like your analogy between MOOCs and museums — I too see the similarity. Both a place of learning; where learning doesn’t have to follow a prescribed path, but is driven by the learner, not the teacher.

    There is also a similarity between MOOCs, Museums and paying for the experience — not just as a pay-per-use, but as a membership. I pay for a family membership each year to two museums, Norton Simon Museum here in California and The Huntington. I do so because I value the experience, and the learning opportunities that the museum provides not only via the collections but the lectures, special exhibits, and seminars it provides. Quite similar to your willingness to pay for the MOOC experience.

    Thanks Robert. I look forward to your next post.

    • March 2, 2014 6:30 pm

      Thanks for your comment Debbie. I think that economic model works too when museums are not static but expand to include the lectures, special exhibits and seminars that you note. As the Director of a small museum, I enjoy the ability we have to build a strong following based on opportunities that just are not available at the mega-size institutions.

      • March 2, 2014 10:18 pm

        Yes absolutely. There is so much that smaller museums offer by providing learning opportunities that enrich the experience of a museum — making it a place for lifelong learning.

  3. March 2, 2014 6:27 pm

    Re: MOOCs for professionals (rather than for students), which MOOC sites would you recommend for people who are interested in continued learning? There seems to be a whole swath of them out there to choose from…

    • March 2, 2014 6:36 pm

      The two MOOCs I have registered for most often are coursera.org and iversity.org. At coursera I have taken very cool courses in World Music, Strategic Planning, Art Lessons, and more. I really liked a Storytelling course that I took from iversity. udacity.com seems a bit more techno oriented than what I am looking for but is another solid resource.

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