Museums and Online Learning – An Interview with Debbie Morrison
I have followed Debbie Morrison’s blog Online Learning Insights for the past few years. Debbie’s blog is my ‘go to’ source on all things related to digital learning. I particularly appreciate that while she is a strong proponent of online education, she does not give the practitioners a free pass on the problems and challenges the technology faces. For example, although an early and consistent supporter of MOOCs, she has given even coverage to the successes and failures of this ever evolving platform. Because of her approach and expertise, Debbie’s work is well-respected, earning her consulting positions with organizations such as the World Bank in their recent entry into MOOCs. Debbie generously agreed to an interview where she explores the potential of online learning in cultural heritage venues.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with online learning?
I’ve been a passionate advocate for pursing higher education for well over twenty years. I see education as a means to improving life opportunities, relationships, and one’s health and well-being. My experience in education began as a Training and Development Manager for a national retailer in Toronto, Canada. I discovered a passion for creating skill development and education programs. It was rewarding to help employees develop and improve, to see the confidence they gained professionally and personally. When my family moved to the United States in 2003, I took two years off and homeschooled my children using a K-12 virtual school platform. I saw a vision for the future in online learning. After my kids went back to public school I completed a master’s degree in education and human development with a focus on educational technology, began working in K-12 and then higher education. I loved my job as Lead Curriculum Developer with a small private university. I worked with faculty to develop and transition face-to-face (F2F) courses to the online format. I now work as a consultant with higher education and K-12 helping educators develop and improve online and blended programs. I’m living my passion.
Ten years ago many cultural heritage professionals considered the notion of a “virtual” museum or tour as a threat to the viability of cultural venues. Today, a growing number of professionals view digital presentations more as a supplement to real-time experiences. Where do you see the virtual vs. real-time discussion going for online learning in museums and other cultural heritage venues?
I view virtual museums and exhibits as a boon to cultural venues. Online exhibits are vehicles that can increase the public’s interest and awareness about the rich experiences museums and places of culture offer. I see the discussion of virtual vs. real-time experiences in museums mirroring the very same discussions happening now in higher education about F2F versus online education. I’ll address the questions here specifically to museums. First, the line between experiencing and appreciating art and culture online or F2F is gray. Both can provide a rich, engaging educational experience, but in different ways. Well-designed virtual exhibits provide users with an accessible and approachable experience. Virtual exhibits reach people who would never otherwise set foot in a cultural venue, whether because of distance, time or inclination.
Yet they can also supplement educational experiences. One of the most interesting and interactive online courses I developed was an undergraduate level course ‘Introduction to Music and Art’. The faculty member and I created a highly visual and interactive course using a variety of digital exhibits, videos and open art resources. In addition to the virtual exhibits, students were required to visit in-person, two cultural centers or events during the semester. The virtual tours created learning experiences that could never be achieved with cultural F2F visits and textbooks alone.
A current buzzword in cultural heritage studies is the “participatory” museum. How do you envision that online learning can facilitate an increased participation in museums?
Student-focused education is where online learning is going, where students are participants and contributors to their learning, not just passive recipients. This is a paradigm shift for education. Students want to contribute and expect to be involved whether through social media or within the course itself. I see this same student-interest applying to museums and cultural centers. There is unlimited opportunity for encouraging public participation with the various social media platforms. Pinterst, the digital bulletin board platform, allows users to follow boards, create boards and comment. Twitter is another with hash tags that can ‘tag’ conversations and comments related to an exhibit or particular museum. Another is Instagram, a platform popular with teen and young adult set. The Getty Center here in California where I live does a good job in utilizing media and digital resources, but I see far more opportunities yet to be leveraged with museums in general.
Much as been written about the trend toward “lifelong learning” in museums. How might that trend benefit from an online presence?
Tremendously – if museums can engage the public through social media–meet the potential visitors where they are, e.g. on Instagram, Facebook or other platform, the potential of having loyal and repeat visitors and supporters is tremendous. People want to belong and associate themselves with something special and unique—what is more unique and special than a museum or cultural center? Cultural centers will benefit by developing an online presence and building a following from there.
Online experiences such as the Google Art Project and virtual tours of archaeological sites are providing increased accessibility to cultural heritage objects. Any predictions on future trends?
Interest in static digital resources will continue, but participatory interactive resources and digital experiences allowing users to create artifacts from cultural and art exhibits will grow significantly. Interactive and participatory platforms that allow users to creatively express themselves, and share using digital artifacts posted by museums builds on the idea of participation and contribution. Pinterest, Google Art Project, are just the beginning.
I definitely see user-generated content and open platforms such as ones offering MOOC as opening up and making knowledge and culture approachable and accessible. It’s opening up to the global public, and though there are still more people and communities to reach, this phenomenon is enriching, improving and transforming lives in many ways.
Any recommendations for the cultural heritage professional looking to begin online learning projects?
Start small, but start somewhere. Reach out to individuals outside one’s museum and cultural circle to find those that want to help and can make a contribution. Many people want to contribute their energy, expertise and time. Though critical is creating a plan first, a strategic plan that outlines what the goals are for the museum or cultural center that describes how a digital strategy and online learning projects align with the center’s values and mission. Next identify what type of projects will work with existing or future projects and create goals for digital and online learning. Then it makes sense to reach out to individuals and ask for help, and/or invest funds.
Debbie Morrison blogs at Online Learning Insights and can be contacted at debbiemorrison505(at)gmail.com