The End of College – It Gets Better!

MOOC, cocreate
Two elementary school students record Munsell colors on ceramic vessels in Nivin, Peru.

Debbie Morrison’s review of the End Of College by Kevin Carey convinced me to read the book.  I am glad I did.  Carey’s basic thesis is that traditional higher education, particularly for undergraduates, is not working well today and is in need of restructuring.  Carey uses the MITx MOOC Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life taught by Professor Eric Lander as a framework to explore and pose solutions on what that restructured undergraduate model might look like.

Critique of Critiques

As Debbie notes in her review, much of the criticism of The End of College misses the point of the book.  I wholeheartedly agree.  For example, when I first read John Seery’s review in the Huffington Post I wondered if I should read the book.  However, reading The End of College revealed Seery’s review to be more of a defense of his past, present, and future vision at Pomona College where he has taught for the past 25 years.  In fact, I had some question if we even read the same book, waiting for the evidence of the damning indictments Seery made of Carey’s book.  Seery concludes his review with “The End of College is an embarrassment. And it’s not because Kevin Carey lacks a PhD” I find Seery’s review an embarrassment that he can find no value or validity in Carey’s critique of undergraduate education.

Though less inflammatory than Seery, the review of the book by Audrey Watters and Sarah Boldrick-Rab in Inside Higher Education similarly does not acknowledge any problem in higher education or propose an alternative to Carey’s analysis.  The general tone of the noted reviews reminds me of folks like Arthur Keen in his Cult of the Amateur or the more simplistic “the sky is falling” arguments against MOOCs of a few years ago.  The reviewers do a disservice to their own arguments by presenting critiques at odds with the facts.

What is the book about?

Debbie’s review does a great job in reviewing the content of the End of College.  Carey contextualizes his proposals within the historic development of higher education and hybrid (joint research and undergraduate) institutions. Of particular value is the discussion of engaging more digital technology in restructuring undergraduate curricula.

The Illusion of MOOC’s Declining Numbers

The above critiques and those noted in Debbie’s review point to the alleged failure of MOOCs as an educational tool.  As Seery notes in his review “The MOOC run-up has already run its course.”

  • Yet in the most recent issue of LAS News (Fall 2016) I received in the mail this week from my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), I read “Illinois Education is becoming more accessible thanks to new offerings via massively open online courses . . . These include the Department of Statistics, a partner in Illinois’ new Masters of Computer Science in Data Science degree offered through online education company Coursera.  And Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences and emeritus professor of English is teaching the campus’ first lecture-based MOOC in American Poetry on Coursera.”
  • A review of the catalog shows that at UIUC alone over 50 instructors ( from Lecturers to Full Professors) are offering 70 MOOC courses in 2016 Fall semester.
  • The MOOC aggregator Class Central notes that the “total number of students who signed up for at least one MOOC course has crossed 35 million—up from an estimated 16-18 million last year.”

A review of available resources demonstrates that MOOCs have in fact not already run their course.  Seemingly, major universities throughout the world are jumping more on the MOOC bandwagon as Carey notes.

The Illusion of MOOCs as a Failure

Critics allege MOOCs are failures for a host of reasons.

  • The completion rate for most courses is reasonably low – I am not certain how completion rate equates to success or failure.  I have started perhaps 20 MOOCs over the past few years and completed 25% of them. (I have a much smaller completion rate for films I start to watch on Netflix, but the streaming video business seems to be thriving.)  Have MOOCs failed me or vice versa?  I think not.  When filling in a MOOC course registration survey, one is typically asked if they plan to complete the readings, quizzes and so forth.  As a well-trained student and believer that I must finish whatever I start, in the past I always checked the ‘plan to complete everything’ box and was disappointed if I didn’t.  Then I had an interesting experience about one year ago.  I registered for a course only because I wanted to listen to the lectures from one week of the six-week course – I had no intention of finishing the course, or completing any of the assignments.  I am more mindful when completing these surveys today.  Now I view registering for MOOCs similar to checking out a book in the bookstore.  Most books that I pick up, I don’t end up buying or reading.  I review the table of contents, read the Intro (often on-line) and then I will commit or not to the entire book.  As Carey (p.154) notes, if only 2% of the world took one MOOC course annually at $74.00 that small enrollment will create 10 billion dollars in revenue.
  • Critics argue that the primary users of MOOCs are male with advanced degrees – or perhaps that is the demographic filling out the evaluation surveys on same since the data are largely based on enrollee responses to surveys – that might be an interesting study in itself.  Yet the table below (Table 2 of linked article)  suggests that the greatest number of folks completing the courses are actually high school students!  Debbie Morrison posted a while ago an interesting piece on the role MOOCs can play in high school student decision-making on future careers.
Course Auditing Completing Disengaging Sampling
High school 6% 27% 29% 39%
Undergraduate 6% 8% 12% 74%
Graduate 9% 5% 6% 80%

MOOCs as a Supplement to Higher Education Offerings

A few years ago I posted a blog about the writing deficiency of many of my graduate student advisees.  I found that MOOC and other free-on line offerings of value to my students to obtain training in writing and other areas not available in their degree programs.

For example, a student with a career focus in cultural heritage administration was able to supplement her regular course-work with Build Essential Skills for the Workplace a ten-course specialization from taught by faculty from the University of California at Irvine.  The cost for the approximately 60 hours of course instruction and capstone project was $323.00 with credentials (or at no cost to audit).  Of importance, when I asked the student after completing the specialization “Was it worth it?  Did you get anything out of it you could not have gotten from your degree coursework?” they responded with an emphatic yes.

This semester a student dramatically improved their weak writing skills through a free English composition course I recommended at

In both of the above examples, the MOOCs provided offerings that were not available in the students formal coursework, they found the MOOCs of value, and they demonstrated increased skills as a result of the MOOC.  How is this not a good thing?

Takeaways from the End of College

Kevin Carey’s book, in a reasoned, linear, and well-organized approach and addresses several of the challenges facing higher education today.  Contrary to what his more adamant critics allege, I don’t think Carey believes he has received a mountain top divine revelation on this subject.  Rather, he provides a sober assessment, contextualized within an historic perspective, of the state of undergraduate education today.  MOOCs may very well be the Friendster of higher education replaced in the near future by a more effective tool.  I don’t think Mr. Carey will take issue with that point either.  However what Carey clearly lays out, and I completely concur, is that undergraduate education does not work well today.  Although some academicians present reasoned discussion on this issue, such as Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan College in his review of Carey’s book, there appears an overall polarization on MOOCs, like much else in the US today.

I often remark that if academicians think that they can just hold their collective breath and wait for things to go back to the “good old days” of funding, they will all die of asphyxiation and higher education as we know it will go the way of Kodak and daily newspapers.  Discussions of the real problems and viable solutions need to be put forward, particularly for undergraduate education.  It is just plain silly to rant about the low completion rates for MOOCs yet not address the similar decline in completion rates for Undergraduate degrees at bricks and mortar institutions.

I leave with:

Coursera currently hosts 1259 free courses on an incredible diversity of subjects taught by faculty at accredited university’s across the globe.  How is that not a good thing?

In my former academic department, the required graduate seminar on Research Design is taught once every two years.  Students often need portions of the coursework sooner to conduct their graduate research projects.  Coursera offers a Questionnaire Design for Social Surveys course by  Frederick Conrad, Ph.D., Research Professor, Survey Methodology at the University of Michigan.  Students can audit the course for free or register for $69.00.  Or they can register for the entire seven-course Survey Data Collection and Analytics Specialization, audit for free or register for 423.00.  How is having this option available as a supplement to their formal coursework not a good thing?

Finally, how does this relate to Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach?  Stay tuned.

Online Training as an Essential Tool for Small Museums

fenceAs the Director of a small museum and through my work with similarly small-sized nonprofits, I wear many hats and need to know a little bit about a lot of things.  This need is particularly true in the area of digital technology and social media where I have come to rely on resources such as Heather Mansfield’s Nonprofit Tech for Good website and her books that I have reviewed.

In addition to developing a social media strategy, I also need the skills necessary to implement the plan. I tend to get this type of technical support by Googling the need.  I am often frustrated to find instructions that assume starting skills beyond my level of expertise.  I value a step-by-step approach that assumes little substantive prior knowledge of the process.  This week, I found two resources that are excellent examples of that type of instruction. 

The Hour of Code

I know nothing about computer programming, but have always thought I should.  As blog creation and other digital processes become more drag and drop, that need is less pronounced, but I do find situations where knowing code or language is either necessary or at least very helpful.  For example, on another blog I write/manage, The Ancash Advocate, posts are bilingual and require inserting anchor points to jump between the Spanish and English translations.  This process requires entering the text editor and inserting html code.  A colleague performed this task initially.  For the past year, I simply copied the bit of code they created and inserted the different titles into my subsequent posts.  I did not know the meaning of what I copied but simply played around with it until I got it to work.

When I have Googled and looked for training, I found an html for Dummies book.  At over 1000 pages the book was a lot more than I wanted.  But last week I got an email from Khan Academy marketing their participation in the global Hour of Code project.  The idea is that if you invest one hour in the process you will learn something about coding.  On the Hour of Code webpage tab one could “Learn how to make webpages with HTML tags and CSS, finishing up by making your very own greeting card.” The age grade for the hour was listed as 8 and up, so I figured I would understand the presentation.  Through instructional video and real-time input, within one hour, the code I used for the bilingual anchors on the Ancash Advocate blog was explained.  I learned the meaning of the html coding I had done by rote.  Further, at the end of the one hour exercise I was linked to another Kahn Academy page for more training on html and related css coding, if I so desired.

Here is the bottom line on this experience.  For a cost of $0.00 (although donations to Kahn Academy are certainly accepted – which I recommend) and one hour of my time, I learned more about html coding than in my previous efforts over the years.  In a very straight forward approach, mysteries about coding were resolved.  The 8 year plus age-grade proved ideal for me.  This experience reminded me of the brick wall I hit when taking genetics in a Biology for Majors class during my undergraduate days.  I overcame that problem by reviewing the All About Book on Heredity that my mother bought me when I was in grade school.  Starting with the very basics proved essential then and now.


Photoshop Basics

A second example of implementing technical skills is a Photoshop tutorial I came across this week.  The 10-point tutorial covered many of the Photoshop skills that my students or staff who are often just getting their feet wet in the software typically need to know.  The tutorial also links to the Marketers Crash Course in Visual Content Creation download – a very useful introduction to best practices in the visuals of website and digital content creation.

The Good and the Bad of Quick Intros

The perspective offered by individuals such as Andrew Keen in his book The Cult of The Amateur likely think little of the types of resources I discuss above.  Their objection is that these simple resources provide folks with the basic tools to edit code, work with photos and so forth without a rigorous and complete training in the area, thus letting the amateurs run amok.  And fair enough, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous, but also useful.  Part of the learning process is knowing the limitations that a bit knowledge brings.

Having taken the Kahn Hour of Code, I am anxious to complete the rest of the introductory course on html and css coding.  In addition to understanding the anchor points I create for bilingual posts, I also see how several formatting issues that have bedeviled me for years on this blog are readily resolved with some simple html code adjustments.  In this regard, I come back to my opening statement for this post – as the Director of a small museum, I wear many hats and need to perform a diversity of tasks that in larger institutions might be the responsibility of an IT or social media specialist.  I do not have that luxury or the funds to outsource the work.  Kahn Academy and other training discussed in this post form a valuable part of my small museum toolkit  that allows me to function efficiently and effectively with limited resources.

What online training helps you to do your job?


Do Micro-credentials Have Value?

stoneAt the University of Memphis, there is not a good course offering on writing skills for graduate students.  In my anecdotal and formal evaluation experiences, poor written and verbal communication skills are a serious deficit for our college graduates.  There are a half-dozen or so MOOC offerings that address written communication on various levels.  I came across one called High Impact Business Writing reviewed the overall content and thought  the offering was appropriate for one of my students in particular.  I then noted that the course was part of a Career Readiness specialization of offerings that seemed to address aspects of training the student would find useful based on their career interest in museum administration.

When I reviewed the suite of nine courses in the specialization, I realized that much of the content expands on what I now cover with all of my advisees in our biweekly workshop meetings.  I began meeting with my student advisees biweekly because:

  • I found that I was having to repeat discussions with each of the graduate students whose committee I now chair, so we started meeting as a group to better use my time and for the students to learn from each other.
  • I see my job as their advisor to not just guide them through the graduate program to get a degree but also prepare them for jobs when they graduate.  Most students are poorly prepared for this part of their career.  They know how to get an A in class but are less skilled at writing a cover letter for a job application.  (Anecdotally, our workshop cover letter discussions have resulted in students getting  paid internships at the Met in New York, solid full-time employment, scholarships, etc.)

I recommended to one student that they consider completing the Career Readiness specialization offering this past summer.  At $350.00, that is about the cost of one graduate course credit at the U of M.  We discussed what the specialization means on a resume.  I noted that if one were applying for a job in higher education, perhaps not much.  But if one were applying for a position, where the importance is less the degree and more what you can do the first day on the job, I am convinced that such micro-credentials are becoming increasingly meaningful.

In this way, I continue to consider MOOCs as a supplement but not replacement for current higher education models.  In fact, perhaps MOOCs allow traditional higher education institutions to stop trying to do things they are not doing well, have MOOCs take on that role, and allow higher education to focus on what they are currently good at.

I asked the student to give me a candid blurb about their experience with the Career Readiness specialization.  They responded:

The Coursera MOOC’s on the career specialization track have been very useful and enriching. Learning professional business strategies will assist me in my future career and these courses have offered a wonderful outline of the skills needed. I found the financial and leadership courses to be the most helpful.

The Career Readiness specialization seems an excellent example of how micro-credentials can work.

Recent MOOCs I Have Taken & How They Helped Me on the Job

haul_moonI am currently enrolled in two MOOCs, and recently completed a couple of others.  I am impressed with the increased quality of MOOCs in the past two years.  I remain uninterested in the naysayers who feel  MOOCs threaten their hegemony in higher education or other doomsayer predictions.  Rather, I continue to see MOOCs as a supplement to other forms of education and an excellent means for micro-credentials.  The four courses I am taking or recently completed that benefit my current employment include:

  • Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923 taught out of the University of Dublin is the first MOOC I have taken from Future Learn. I took the course out of basic interest – the lifelong learning that is in vogue among us baby boomers – and was impressed with the video, text and resource offerings quality.  The course was meaty.  Had I run through just all the online resources provided, the quality and quantity would have exceeded a typical upper level UG course.  I was also pleased that the discussion boards were far superior to my previous experiences. I paid $40.00 for the certificate, simply because I wanted to support what I considered a quality offering.  Given the demographics of who takes MOOCs, it might prove a worthwhile marketing strategy to promote verified certificates beyond proof of accomplishment, to include those who support the process.  This MOOC demonstrated to me the simplicity in putting together quality and engaging content that is not beyond the means of a small institution on a limited budget.
  • I am currently enrolled in another Future Learn MOOC Behind the Scenes of the Twenty-First Century Museum taught out of the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies Graduate Program.  I registered for this course because it is the first MOOC I have seen that specifically deals with museum practices.  Initially I was rather skeptical about the course relevance.  I anticipated that the content would be very introductory in scope and content.  I was completely wrong.  By far this is my favorite MOOC taken to date.  The course content is excellent.  Several of the video lectures and online readings will show up on my syllabus for the Museum Practices graduate seminar I will teach again this fall.  The lecturers include individuals whose texts I have assigned for the past five years in class.  Perhaps most enjoyable are the discussion boards.  I have exchanged links, ideas, experiences with professionals and students from South Africa, Finland, the UK and the US.  The discussion is excellent.  I have learned a great deal that will be applied in my professional practice both in museums and in the classroom.  I am getting more out of this MOOC than most professional meetings I attend.  This course certainly demonstrates the possibilities of MOOCs in continuing education contexts.
  • I completed most of the Store Design, Visual Merchandising and Shopper Marketing MOOC from Iversity.  My reason for taking the course was to get ideas for the store in the museum where I am the director.  The staff member who runs the store also enrolled in the course.  We both agreed the MOOC provided some useful information, but most of the content was not relevant to our specific interests.  To me, this MOOC was similar to the first one’s I took a couple of years ago – basically a talking head, conveniently promoting his text each week, and those miserable multiple guess questions where one needs to select 3 of 4 poorly worded correct answers – that I quickly give up in frustration.  I only completed four of the six weeks because of other commitments and a waning interest.
  • I am currently enrolled in Content Strategy for Professionals 2: Expanding Your Content’s Impact and Reach from Northwestern University on the coursera platform.  Twice I had started Part 1 of this MOOC and quit half-way through because of the case study (something about selling a brand of suits in China) that I just could not get my head around.  In the Part 2 of the MOOC the case study assignments are based on the participants institution/business.  I am thoroughly enjoying the content and process.  This MOOC is extremely helpful to me as we continue to develop our museum audience.  I find the MOOC even more essential as I think through my responsibilities with PIARA, the nonprofit I work with in Peru.  The course description includes:  “In this, the second Content Strategy MOOC, participants will go deeper. They will learn actionable ways to grow internal and external audiences.  They will deepen their understanding about those target individuals and will use a host of known and emerging tools and social networks to meaningfully reach them. They will also learn how to measure and improve the impact of their efforts with quantitative and qualitative metrics.

As a practicing museum professional and university professor, the above are how I find MOOCs integral to my career.  I am particularly impressed with the increased quality of MOOC offerings over the past couple of years, especially as exemplified by Future Learn.  So far as I can tell, the dire warnings from the nattering nabobs of negativism about the evils of MOOCs remain without merit.

Museums and Online Learning – An Interview with Debbie Morrison

DebMorrison_HeadShote_v3I 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)

How Museums Are Like MOOCs, Part 1

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, 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 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. 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.

Moving Past a 1992 Model for Community Engagement

Morton museum

Flowing from last week’s post, I thought a good bit about engagement and the questions posed by Jordan and Allison in their reading journals for my Applied Archaeology and Museums class.  They asked about what if the public does not respond to a museum’s attempts at engagement.  I had a bit of an “aha” moment in my response when listening to a MOOC lecture from The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education given by Cathy Davidson who teaches at Duke University and co-directs the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.  In a lecture titled Teaching Like it’s 1992 Dr. Davidson noted that on April 22, 1993, the Internet went pubic and became commercially available, yet teaching in higher education largely remains locked in a pre-Internet mode of operation.   The top down model where a student sits in a lecture room of 50 – 300 and listens and takes notes as a professor delivers Powerpoint lectures and administers scantron tests is simply an inefficient use of everyone’s time and money.  That same information is very likely available on-line through a MOOC or other resource.

More importantly, drawing on a constructivist theory, Davidson wrote:

I like to joke that in 1992 if I hurt my elbow, I would go to my doctor and find out why my elbow was hurting so much. Now I go to, and find out what everybody else who’s hurt themselves says about the best way to treat it, what I might do, and if I’m going to go to my doctor, I now go armed with lots of information.  In fact, last year, the AMA did a study and found out that 75% of American doctors say that they now ask their patients what they’ve learned online before they begin their treatment.

This approach to engagement and knowledge is important to archaeology, museums, and community outreach.  For example, one week ago I visited the Morton Museum of Collierville for the first time.   My purpose was to discuss a student project to install a small exhibit on the prehistory of Collierville.  Housed in the 1873 building of the former Collierville Christian Church, the two-year old museum has a very impressive on-line collection available for viewing.  Visitors who walk through the doors of the Morton Museum for the first time may have a good feel for what they are going to see, and know quite a bit more about Collierville from visiting the website first.  When I spoke to Museum Director, Ashley Carver, she made clear the Museum’s decision to invest in a digital and on-site future.

There is a core issue that ties the Morton Museum back to Dr. Davidson’s Teaching Like It’s 1992 example.  The issue is not the technology but the paradigm of operation.  I liken this to a model of teaching engagement from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage To Teach.  He illustrates two models: a linear hierarchical model where the point of engagement is focused on the teacher and an interactive model where the engagement is focused on the great thing under consideration.

Now the curmudgeon might respond that what the Morton Museum is doing is nothing new.  Public libraries have been around in the U.S. since Benjamin Franklin donated his books to a facility in 1778.  The Morton Museum is doing nothing more than putting their collection online.  The curmudgeon’s observation is key.  I often quote, from Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, where he (2010:98) writes:

Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one wants e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.

Today, the Morton Museum of Collierville has not chosen to digitize a large portion of their collection simply because they can, rather, leaving preservation issues aside, they are betting that the folks of Collierville and beyond, already interested in the history of that town, have a desire to access their curated information through an online search.  The virtual visitor will also find out about the beautiful space of this cultural heritage venue occupies, along with the exhibits, programs, and resources they offer on-site.  In so doing, the Museum becomes more relevant to the public who pay the taxes to fund the institution.

As a small county/town institution, I don’t think the Morton Museum is unique but part of a growing trend.  I am quite intrigued that from small institutions like the Muscatine History and Industry Center in Muscatine Iowa to monster-sized places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis with their Open Field, cultural heritage institutions such as the Morton Museum are leading the way in engaging and being relevant to the communities that they serve.  These institutions seem the best shot at having cultural heritage venues also function as third places.

Museums like the Morton Museum in Collierville provide an excellent and direct response to the questions of engagement that Jordan and Allison posed.

Organizing To Be a Lifelong Learner

The Museum Director’s Desk

R. Barry Lewis, my dissertation advisor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pushed his students to stay focused on completing their degrees so they could start their own educational path.  I have always enjoyed this understanding of self-directed lifelong learning.  Perhaps this approach is what ultimately led me to museum studies.

Nearly three years ago I posted about webinars and podcasts that functioned in this lifelong learning network. Since then, information exchange along with the methods and structure of lifelong learning have evolved.  Today, besides webinars, there are MOOCs, increased open access, a universe of social media enhancements, and more.  I am thinking more about my participation in these networks as a lifelong learner, a museum professional, anthropologist, and university educator.

First, I contextualize this discussion directly from Debbie Morrison’s recent posts on Personal Learning Environments (PLE) and Personal Learning Networks (PLN) at her online learning insights blog.  To get the terms out-of-the-way, PLEs  “are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning.  This includes providing support for learners to: set their own learning goals; manage their learning, both content and process; communicate with others in the process of learning” (reference).  A PLN “is an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person connects with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection” (reference).  Check Debbie’s posts for a more detailed discussion of these concepts and links to further discussion.  Simplistically, I view a PLE as the tool and a PLN as the interaction that results in using those tools.  Some of tools I use to interact include the following:

  • Blogs – My first post on this blog was a little over three years ago.  Today I subscribe to about 90 blogs.  Of those, I regularly read 10, scan another 10, and look at the headlines of another 10.  Most of the sixty remaining post very erratically – perhaps once every 60 days or even less often.   As I posted before,  the information and interaction especially from the 10 I read regularly along with my own blogging are integral to my professional development.  Perhaps most critical is the mutual sharing of expertise with individuals I have known exclusively or primarily through blogs.   
  • MOOCs – Last fall I completed and posted about my first MOOC course experience.  I am currently registered for courses that include E-Learning and Digital Cultures, Aboriginal Worldviews and Education, and Introduction to Sustainability.  I have completed about half of the MOOC courses I started solely because of the time commitment involved.  That is, all the MOOC courses I have registered for are quality higher education level courses on a topical area – but often a bit more than I can handle.  I also benefit from folks I interact with in my PLN who post summaries and resources available from MOOCs they attend.
  • Listservs – The dreaded email Listservs are integral to my information gathering, even though I delete at least 9 out of 10 messages unread.  Besides topical discussions, Listservs are a primary tool for disseminating information about conferences, publications, calls for papers, and employment opportunities.  (I have mixed feelings about the fact that I routinely forward job announcements to folks seeking employment who are unaware of the openings because they do not subscribe to basic Listservs of their industry.)
  • Social Media in its many forms are excellent learning tools.  I posted a couple of weeks ago about Pearltrees, my big find of the year (which I learned about through a blog post.)  Besides creating the environment, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the plethora of social media sites, I am finding that Pearltrees is also an excellent means for networking.
  • Wikipedia as a distinct network form is becoming increasingly relevant to me.  I have posted before about the Galleries, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) with Wikipedia.  GLAM is an environment that draws on other environments (blog, Listserv, social media) to form a distinct tool unto itself.

In working through the above tools and networks over the past few months, I have come to appreciate the need to create both a learning environment and network that suit my lifelong learning needs.  If the system is created intentionally and is not just an accumulation of stuff and business cards, the results will be effective learning.  A few of my takeaways on creating a PLE and PLN include:

  • I like the understanding that formally structuring a PLE and PLN brings order to what otherwise can be completely out-of-control.  The creation of structure also entails a my commitment of both time and resources.   
  • The organization of a PLE and PLN recognizes the indispensible role that personal learning plays in both my professional career and avocational interests.  Whereas on the one hand, there is a plethora of resources on every conceivable subject available today, the need to winnow through and fine-tune the search of that material becomes more crucial than ever before.  If I am after lesson plans to explain radiocarbon dating to 4-5th graders, I can either Google the concept, or turn to my PLE that through Listservs, Pearltree bookmarks, and more, I may interact with a network who very likely have expertise in this area.  The same logic holds true for disseminating information.  Through time, because a learning environment and network will grow, the different branches will reach deeper into specialized areas.
  • Personal learning networks and environments can be as fluid, specialized, or expansive as the individual needs.  Although the social nature of the environment can lead to interaction between members of a network, in fact, individuals in my network do not necessarily know they are in my network, any more than an author knows if a well-worn copy of their book is on my shelf as a standard go-to source on a particular topic.
  • Organizing personal learning within an environment and network is a logical method for remaining current in a field of study.  Today, reliance on typical peer-review journal searches is insufficient.  For example, a search of the social science journal archive, JSTOR produced 1 hit for “Massive Open Online Courses.”  A Google search for the same term produced in excess of 3 million.  A PLN can provide a functional resource between the two extremes.  For example, I can go to the Pearltree of someone in my PLN who I know remains current on MOOCs and find about 75 recent discussions on the subject from sources such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education.
  • Perhaps my greatest takeaway is simply the excitement of finding a means to coordinate and organize my own lifelong learning process in a way that is productive, manageable, and engaging!

How do you envision Personal Learning Environments and Networks?

Presentation, Participation and Relevance in 2013

steel ponies
Steel Ponies exhibit, 2012, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art

I have been thinking about some of the key concepts to address in community outreach around cultural heritage issues in 2013.  Here are my top three:

Presentation – Cultural heritage institutions continue to curate more and more material both in real-time and digitally.    What seems crucial is the ability to present this wealth of material to the public whom we serve.  In the past couple of years at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we  spent hundreds of hours tagging and digitizing 50 years worth of black and white photos.  We report the progress on this project in our newsletters and occasionally post images on our blog or Facebook.  However, we have yet to develop an effective means to present these digitized images to the public.  We might reasonably expect public interest in these photos to range from scholarly research to more casual access.  Similarly, although at Chucalissa we have logged thousands of hours over the past several years to re-inventory curated cultural materials, and linking those collections with their associated records, we have barely scratched the surface in the potential of presenting the material to the public.

Participation – In 2010, Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum synthesized and institutionalized the past several years of discussion and innovation on museum visitor engagement.  Simon’s scheme of contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosting types of visitor activities is a particularly useful model.  A challenge for cultural heritage institutions remains to truly incorporate the co-creative experiences that Simon notes are aimed “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; To provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; To help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.”  Such an approach involves moving beyond staff discussions that attempt to anticipate or interpret national trends to better incorporate the visitor into museums.  Such co-creative approaches cannot be limited to projects with ready financial support, staff, or research interest but truly be in line with expressed community interests.  My colleague Natalye Tate was interviewed about community engagement a couple of years ago when she worked as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Her comments remain very relevant today when she noted: “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well . . . not to be a house of authoritative knowledge where we tell you what you need to know  . . . which remains a problem in America . . .  that we tell people what their history is and they never go find it out for themselves.”

Relevance – Since reading and writing about Robert Janes’ Museums in a Troubled World, the simple concept of relevance remains in the forefront of my thinking.  Debbie Morrison at online learning insights reports on the MOOC and their plans in 2013 to start making money on their online offerings.  The gist is that for select courses coursera will begin to offer upgraded versions of a certificate of completion for a fee.   I expect that the MOOC naysayers will come up with a big “We told you so” that the free stuff was too good to last.  My suspicion however is that coursera, that never claimed a nonprofit status, is moving forward with a very sound and relevant business plan.  If even less than 10% of the current number of folks completing coursera courses opt to pay up to 75.00 for the enhanced version of a certificate of completion, then a typical course could generate $50,000.00 in revenues.   To the extent the enhanced documentation proves relevant to the enrolled student, coursera will make money.  My own experience in taking coursera offerings is that successful completion of a course can approach or even exceed the results of a bricks and mortar higher education course offering.  To the extent coursera can demonstrate this result to employers and students, the relevance of that 75.00 fee will be a bargain price.

Presentation, participation, and relevance that go beyond proposals and theoretical discussions, but stand the test of a rigorous evaluation will likely separate the wheat from the chaff in cultural heritage work in the coming year.  In the same way that higher education must prioritize the student to remain competitive, in 2013 cultural heritage institutions have an opportunity to demonstrate relevance to the public we serve.

What are your key concepts for 2013?

An Evaluation of Coursera as Public Outreach

Shaker rattle from Uganda

I have posted several times lately about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) such as offered through  In those posts I stuck to a general discussion of MOOCs, holding off on evaluative statements until I completed a course.  So, yesterday I took the final exam for my first MOOC: Listening to World Music taught by Professor Carol Muller at the University of Pennsylvania.  Here are some thoughts:

The academic level for the course was on a junior/senior undergraduate level.  I spent 4 – 8 hours per week watching video lectures, YouTube clips, searching for internet resources, writing essays, and taking quizzes.  Based on the grading scheme, I will end up with a B+ or so, a reasonable grade for the effort I expended.  I could have earned an A except I blew off the 100 question multiple guess final exam by not reviewing any of my notes to refresh my memory on what is a hocket, who employs them, whether an event happened in 1996 or 1998 etc.

  • Overall, the lecture content was quite good.  I learned a lot.  As an anthropologist, I was disappointed by what I perceived as some rather convoluted statements on cultural development, notions of authenticity, and so forth.  But I know ethnomusicologists are equally disappointed in my inability to distinguish between polyphonic and heterophonic textures.
  • But . . . my disappointment is precisely where the class discussion forums provided an outstanding opportunity to engage.  For example, on the concept of authenticity, I had excellent discussions with students and “staff” for the course.  I was particularly impressed with the diversity of  responses as the majority of students were from outside the United States.  Although data were not published for the Listening to World Music class, for another coursera offering on Gamification, U.S. participation was one-third of the student body.  As a general statement, the level and quality of engagement in the discussion forums was in line with first year graduate level seminars.  I was quite pleased with this aspect of the course.
  • Each week participants chose one of four questions/topics and submitted a 700 – 1000 word essay on same.  The essays required synthesizing lecture content, built sequentially throughout the 7-week course, and drew on personal experiences.  In this regard, the student diversity was particularly insightful.
  • Based on my Listening to World Music experience and reviewing the requirements of other offerings, I dropped a couple of courses for which I had previously registered.  Simply the quality and effort required for these MOOC courses is considerably more than I originally imagined.  I note that the course descriptions at now include an estimated time commitment per week.  I really cannot manage taking more than one course at a time.  Fortunately, the schedule of courses and breadth of offerings is such that at the present rate, I will be kept busy for quite a while before I run through all the courses that interest me or will be helpful in my career.

Here is what I found did not work in the Listening to World Music course:

  • The peer review of the weekly essays was perhaps the weakest part of the experience.  This finding is consistent with other MOOC reviews I have read.  The evaluations ranged from the silly (requirement of 2 -3 paragraphs of up to 1000 words, but having points deducted when the evaluator counted a block quote as a separate paragraph making the total 4 even though word count was under 800) to the unhelpful (“very good but I would like to have seen more”).  Ultimately, I followed the solution of other folks who posted portions of their essays in the discussion forums to meaningfully engage.
  • Anonymity on two levels was problematic.  First, for essay evaluations peer review anonymity is problematic simply because there is not an opportunity for further discussion with the writer one is evaluating.  There were several essays I evaluated where I would have liked following up with the writer on some of their insightful comments.  Second, in the discussion forums, students can post anonymously.  Consistently, folks who posted inflammatory or troll-like responses did so anonymously.  In the instances where posters were questioned on their anonymity, they explained anonymity as their right, blah, blah, blah. Signing as Anonymous relegates comments to the great “they said” of discussions and seems completely out of place.  I hope will deal with this issue.
  • The professors and graduate assistants taking the leap into teaching these courses are to be congratulated for their pioneering efforts.  I expect that technical issues will improve, such as Prof Muller’s problems with pointing out locations on digital maps.  The graduate assistant discussions needed work as they sometimes mumbled through important course information, looking down at their notes/iPads while speaking, greatly reducing the effectiveness of delivery.  Perhaps coursera should offer a coursera course on how to deliver a coursera course presentation?

So what has any of this got to do with public outreach for archaeology or museums:

  • The demographic data of the Gamification course offering are quite interesting.  Sixty percent of the participants took the course because of “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale”  Only 15% took the course because “it relates to my educational program.”  MOOCs also offer opportunities for those yet to find a place at the higher education table.  This MOOC reality is contrary to the “sky is falling” concerns expressed by some in higher education.  I am hopeful that coursera will make public such data as they start rolling in from completed courses.
  • Although the MOOC concept will inevitably, and rightly so, find its place within the formal structure of  higher education, as the coursera founders note, taking over all of the 30 seat lecture classes is not there intent.  I don’t really see a hidden agenda here.  Peter Norvig, a pioneer in MOOCs argues that coursera is about the democratization of knowledge and addressing the needs of lifelong learners.
  • In this capacity, think of the opportunities for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Archaeology as a resource for those with an “interest in the subject matter, without a particular educational/business rationale.”  Or we can abstain from such mass opportunities and leave it to the American Digger.  The same is true for a MOOC offering on the Introduction to Museum Practices.  Would the American Alliance of Museums (until two weeks ago the 100-year-old American Association of Museums) be well served in its decade old campaign of Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums to consider such a form of outreach?

How do you envision that MOOC-like opportunities can be effectively used in your public outreach efforts?