Distance Learning in Texas Archaeology

C.Crav1I first learned of Candice Cravins’ excellent work in Distance Learning at the Institute of Texan Cultures from a post on the Public Archaeology Interest Group’s Facebook Page.  A quick tour of their Distance Learning site shows that Candice and the Texas folks are doing some very impressive work.  She generously agreed to an interview to talk a bit more about her experience and perspective on Distance Learning.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at the Institute of Texan Cultures?

I received my M.S. degree in Archaeology and Cultural Resource Management from Utah State University in 2014, where my thesis research explored object- and STEM-based strategies for teaching archaeology to children in a museum setting. Prior to my arrival at the Institute of Texan Cultures in October 2014, I served as the Educational Programs Manager at Utah State University’s Museum of Anthropology.

As an Educational Specialist for the Institute, I wear many hats! I am primarily responsible for developing and leading distance learning programs for K-12 students, writing and coordinating online educator resources, developing and posting content for department web and social media pages, and planning and leading professional development workshops and family programs. I also assist with school group tours and community outreach events.

How do you see online education opportunities as a bridge between formal education curricula and museums?

Online education opportunities can serve to enhance the classroom learning experience by connecting the intangible with the tangible, providing real-world experiences that help bring textbook concepts to life. As funding for field trips dwindles and emphasis is placed more on developing math and reading skills than on social studies and the arts, museum professionals and K-12 educators alike are looking for new ways to bring the museum experience to the classroom. Virtual field trips, online exhibits, Google chats with experts, games, and other online learning opportunities provide the means for teachers to access museum resources without ever having to leave their classrooms. Museums are well-suited to provide these hands-on learning opportunities that teachers need while at the same time support classroom learning standards and objectives.
C.Crav2What do you consider your most successful recent efforts in public outreach and community engagement?

I consider one of my most successful recent efforts in public outreach to be the launch of our new TexEdventures distance learning programs – virtual tours designed to bring the museum experience to the classroom. When I arrived at the Institute in October 2014, I was tasked with producing and implementing a new distance learning plan designed to bring engaging learning experiences to K-12 students throughout the state of Texas. Prior to my arrival, the Institute had been delivering distance learning programs using IP H.323 protocol videoconferencing technology. Equipment and services were costly to maintain, and programs could only be booked and delivered with the service and support of a technology service provider housed out of a regional Education Service Center – rural, Title 1, or nontraditional students and their teachers often had limited to no access to these programs. In moving forward with new programs, I first wanted to be sure all students and their teachers would have better access to our programming. To me, this meant that programs would need to be free of charge, require minimal technology (i.e., a computer or tablet device with speakers and an Internet connection), and be easy to set up and maintain by a team of one here at the Institute. My main goal for the program was to take things that were already successful onsite and deliver them in a virtual way. I wanted distance learning sessions to be live, individualized, and interactive, giving students the chance to direct their own learning experiences.

We piloted our first new distance learning program, Can You Dig It? Adventures in Texas Archaeology last May using Adobe Connect web conferencing software and an iPad on our exhibit floor. It was a hit with teachers and students both near and far. We have since expanded our offerings and now feature programs on Native American lifeways and how to use primary and secondary sources in the classroom. We plan to further expand our offerings to feature one-time only webinars on special events and even take the technology outside to incorporate some of our outdoor living history exhibits! More information on our programs can be found at www.texancultures.com/distancelearning.

Any recommendations for the cultural heritage professional looking to begin online learning projects?

Think big, but start small! First take a look at what museums, cultural institutions, and other nonprofits are doing in your region and state. What appeals to you most about their online learning programs? Could you and would you want to do something similar for your organization, and how would new online learning projects help fulfill your organization’s mission and meet outreach goals? Have a clear plan in mind for your project from the very beginning – it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by all the technology out there, so narrowing in on exactly what you wish to accomplish is key. Do you want to build a website or start a blog? If you work in a museum, do you wish to recreate the field trip experience for K-12 students online? Do you want to build an online course for adults interested in archaeology? Once you decide what you’d like to do, determine whether or not you have the staff and funding to accomplish your project. Develop a plan and timeline for your project. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things, and don’t think that your project needs to be something completely new and groundbreaking – simple is often better to start, especially for those who have limited experience working with technology, work with small budgets, and often juggle multiple projects at the office. Much of what I know now about educational technology and online learning was learned on the job – Google really is your best friend!

One of the first “smaller” projects I tackled when I arrived at the Institute was developing a plan to manage our department’s social media pages. Spending a bit of time each day developing and sharing new educational content on Facebook or Pinterest does wonders for increasing community interest and engagement – if used correctly, social media platforms can be powerful tools for online learning. Take advantage of free online tools, such as Canva, to help you create eye-catching images for your social media posts, and don’t overlook the subtle power of an iPad in creating engaging video content! The possibilities for what you can do for free are endless.


For more information, contact Candice at Candice.Cravins(at)utsa.edu

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)gmail.com

What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana

start trait wordle

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Though the ICOM definition still works, for the most part, today the very concept of a Museum is being pushed, pulled, and repackaged.  For example, the Museum Association blog published an interesting piece on the impact of the Google Art Project on the study of artworks.  The article considers how folks studied a work of art in the past and today.  Not having the books in the distant past meant the only means for studying a work of art was to go to a museum.  Five years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar I recall the literal gasps at my suggestion of a virtual museum.  Today the study of art on a computer screen is no less legitimate than viewing portfolio sized books, 35 mm slides or those arcane film strips of the not too distant past.

At the start of each semester in the Museum Practices seminar I ask students to take out a piece of paper and spend a couple of minutes doing some trait listing to the prompt “What is a Museum?”  The above Wordle contains the words the 18 students listed on the first day of class this fall.  The Wordle below contains the terms the same students listed at the end of the semester.  The difference reflects the shift in museums from being collections centered to focusing on the visitor experience as expressed in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana nearly a century ago.  Dana’s emphasis on the notion of museum’s being institutions of public service is more relevant today than ever before.  The Wordles suggest the students get this.

We will discuss some of the most challenging readings of the entire semester in our final class this Tuesday including:

Visit the Center for the Future Museums for these and other resources.

The pundits who explained the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election by noting “It’s not a traditional American anymore” would have done well to read the above articles.  They also would be better prepared to deal with the 21st Century by reading the words of John Cotton Dana written some 100 years ago:  “The museum can reach only those whom it can attract.  This fact alone is enough to compel it to be convenient to all, wide in its scope, varied in its activities, hospitable in its manner and eager to follow any lead the humblest inquirer may give . . . Remember always that the very essence of the public service of a public institution is the public’s knowledge of the service that the institution can give . . .”  (Cotton, p. 39 The New Museum).

The Wordle below suggests the Museum Practices seminar students agree.  Do you?

final wordle

Democracy, Visitors, & Museum Practices

Perhaps one of the aspects I enjoy most about leading seminars (i.e., teaching) is the opportunity to revisit the same concepts year after year.  For example, in the six years I have led the Museum Practices seminar in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the Univeristy of Memphis, students have evolved from all but throwing tomatoes at me for even suggesting the notion of a virtual museum to, particularly with the advent of the Google Art Project, a thoughtful exploration of the concept.  Similarly, in part based on the mix of enrolled student home departments whether History, Art History, Anthropology, or Earth Sciences, the discussion of repatriation as exemplified by the Elgin Marbles incorporates differing dynamics.

For the past two weeks we discussed visitor experiences and evaluations in museums.  We read a range of materials including the relevant portions of ICOM’s Running a Museum, evaluation guides, standard readings and newly published offerings.  I always enjoy revisiting the tremendous resources available at the Visitor Studies Association on this subject.

Each week students submit an annotated reference on a resource relevant to the week’s discussion theme.  We discuss a few of the resources in class.  For me, the student references are one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekly seminar.  The readings cover the basics.  The annotated references allow us to go off in some interesting directions.

If there was a theme to the annotated references on visitors the students submitted this year the title would be something like the “Democratization of the Visitor Experience.”  Here are a few of the resources seminar students submitted:

  • The Museum of Science in Boston put out a call for public evaluation of accessibility for new exhibits.  The museum is  “currently gathering feedback about several of our new exhibits to improve the museum experience for visitors with disabilities.  Scheduled for this testing are exhibits about energy conservation, the science of Pixar, and health & human biology. We are seeking visitors with a range of disabilities (including, but not limited to, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities) to help us test these prototypes.”  Whereas exhibit designs always pass muster with consultants, the proactive invitation of the general public seems different.  In a similar vein, students at George Washington University’s Museum Education Program  created a wiki on issues related to accessibility.  I was particularly impressed with the role graduate students played in this latter process – creating a useful and accessible first stop tool in assessing visitor special needs.
  • I was also struck by the way a $200,000.00 prize was awarded recently at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan.  The winners of Art Prize 2012 were determined by 400,000 votes of the “viewing public” over a several week period.  Although a growing trend in such competitions, our seminar discussion suggested the Grand Rapids event is certainly in the forefront of this movement.
  • Public Value: From Good intentions to Public Good by Jeanne Vergeront is a thoughtful discussion.  She writes that “Public value isn’t a new concept. . . Relevance and community impact often refer to how a museum matters in its community.”  The blog includes several links to presentations and articles that explore this concept.
  • Teacher Creates a Museum in the Classroom reports the work of  Keil Hileman’s who teaches archeology at Monticello Trails Middle school in Shawnee, Kansas.  The blog has a brief discussion of Hileman’s methods with links to supporting agencies.  The post is from the blog Homeroom by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • The Museum Minute has a guest post titled Volunteer Engagement is Everyone’s Job by Carolyn Noe with a link to her Volunteer Management Daily blog.  An interesting aspect of visitor/volunteer discussion in our class is how volunteers can be viewed on a continuum as more engaged visitors.
  • And with Yelp, TripAdvisor, Rate My Professor could Rate My Museum be far behind? It’s here!!

A theme in the submitted references is the movement from museums being collections driven to focusing on the visitor experiences.  The public is increasingly involved in determining what that “great thing” of museums will look like and engage the visitor.  This shift in engagement looks like the graphic below.

Who gets added to “?” slot?

What MOOCs Can Teach Us About Community Outreach

Lately I have thought more about my post on Massive Open Online Course or MOOCs.  Here is some follow-up:

I watched a six-minute Ted Talk by Peter Norvig, a pioneer in the MOOC field.  He began the presentation by noting “everyone is both a learner and a teacher.”  The obvious statement is in line with the current buzzwords of informal, lifelong and free-choice learning.  However, importantly his opening statement contextualizes the MOOC discussion within these broader public, beyond the limits of traditional academia.  The statement of this Stanford Professor expresses his desire to engage with the broader public, not just those with the over $13,000.00 in quarterly tuition at his University.

In the presentation Norvig notes that the first MOOC he taught on Artificial Intelligence had an initial registration of 209,000 of whom 20,000 completed the entire course.  On the one hand, a ten percent completion rate is not impressive.  However, I suspect that many of the 200,000 who registered, as with the first MOOC course I enrolled in but did not complete, were testing the MOOC waters.  I suspect further that completion rates will increase through time.  Regardless, 20,000 students completed the course, considerably more than Norvig’s total traditional classroom courses to date.

Norvig suggested the course was as interactive and engaging as many bricks and mortar courses.  Student feedback to MOOCs supports this claim.  Norvig reports some of the student response to his course in his Ted Talk: “this class felt like sitting in a bar with a really smart friend who is about to explain something to you” and “made to feel like one-on-one tutoring” and “now I am seeing Beyes Network and game theory every where I look.”

MOOCs also stimulate further in-person discussion among participants.  Coursera.org has a webpage devoted to these meet-ups.  Norvig concluded his presentation noting that the initial MOOC offerings are being assessed and modified to better accomplish the course goals.  As he notes “the most exciting part are the data that we are gathering . . . we are gathering thousands of interactions per student per class . . . and now we can start analyzing all of that . . . and what we learn from that . . . that’s where the real revolution will come . . . and you will be able to see the results from a new generation of amazing students.”  Norvig is clearly not phased by MOOC naysayers.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with MOOCs he takes the approach of building on their strengths.

What do MOOCs have to teach those of us working in Museums or around public engagement in archaeology?  I see that a good bit the lesson has to do with giving up ultimate control along the lines of the Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World post I did a while ago.  MOOCs also bring to mind the interactive model for engagement I have blogged about previously.  At the C.H. Nash Museum when we surveyed our e-newsletter readers about volunteering, 40% of the respondents suggested that we offer on-line volunteer opportunities.  Max van Balgooy has blogged about possibilities for online volunteering.  In our same survey of readers, 60% of the respondents wanted to see more of our museum content online.  In the wake of new offerings such as the Google Art Project, The Giza Archives, Virtual Hampson to name a few, the previously outside-the-box possibilities are becoming more the norm.  MOOCs provide another way to look at the relevancy of these projects that make information available to everyone with an Internet connection.  Instead of focusing on what these technologies are not, we can embrace the use of these applications in museums, classrooms, and beyond for what they offer in expanding opportunities for the broad public that we serve.

Related – here is a bit of a news update as coursera.org announces the addition of 12 new universities to their online course offerings, including my alma mater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Summer Online Courses and Outreach

Summer is the time we typically pull out those books unread during the rest of the year for a lack of time.  However, this year, let me suggest an alternative consideration – register for an open online course.

Everyone except the hyper-Luddites of the world accept that online education can be a  quality alternative to the traditional bricks and mortar approach.  At the University of Memphis, the History Department’s online M.A. program is an excellent example a quality online offering.  Within my own disciplines of Museum Studies and Applied Anthropology institutions such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Leicester, the University of North Texas, and the University of Oklahoma have demonstrated the potential of online graduate programs.

But what about all of those “free” online higher education options that are now cropping up?  There is iTunes U which at this point is primarily a one-way lecture based experience.  Then there are the newer breed of open source free online courses that are completely interactive.  Jennifer Carey blogs quite a bit about new online resources, such as the edX ventures by Harvard and MIT that will offer extensive open online courses, along with current offerings from YaleStanford and iTunes U.  The Do It Yourself Scholar blog is a great source for keeping up on this discussion.  Check Dara’s Best Free Courses and Lectures link a the site.

I have registered for several courses through coursera.org a consortium of Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.  The courses I registered for range in length from 5 to 12 weeks and have staggered starting dates from May through September.  The coursera offerings cover a subject spectrum including mathematics, health care, computer science, the humanities and social sciences.

I registered for a 6-week Intro to Statistics course as I still consider myself more-or-less a mathematical illiterate and need to get beyond means, medians and standard deviations in my work; Listening to World Music because I am intrigued by how the course might prove useful in thinking about our Drumming Across Cultures Program at the C.H. Nash Museum; and a social media course because I am fascinated by this work.

I also enrolled in the course Human Computer Interaction because the description seems like a good way for me to think about prototyping and evaluating museum and visitor interactions that we are moving into at Chucalissa.  The course is taught by Scott Klemmer an Associate Professor in Computer Science at Stanford and consists of video lectures, assignments, quizzes and discussion forums. I will receive a grade for the course but no credit hours from Stanford.

I am one week into the course and totally engaged.  The lectures are interesting.  I take notes.  The quizzes are basic.  The assignments are real, require effort, but the learning payoff is fantastic.  To succeed in the course, I estimate that my weekly input will need to be about 4-5 hours.  The course seems to be set at an upper class undergraduate level and will give me a platform for a solid introduction to an area of interest that will be applicable to my daily work.  It’s irrelevant to me whether I have a degree to show that I successfully completed the course.  However, the edX offerings envisioned by Harvard and MIT will offer certificates of completion for those needing documentation.

I am confident that these courses will continue to expand.  In conversation the other day with a Doubting Thomas about coursera.org, he asked – What is the business model for this?  My immediate one word response was – Relevance.  Besides a shift from the bricks and mortar approach to education, open online courses are a way for higher education to be relevant to the public who through their tax dollars provide support.  This approach seems to be an outstanding demonstration of community outreach.  Naysayers will focus on all of things that open online courses are not.  Unfortunately, they will miss the opportunities that open online courses bring to the table.  Think of this.  You have a 45-minute commute to work each day.  You are interested in Anthropology.  You go to iTunes U and find that you can listen to the 28-lecture course offered by Terrence W. Deacon’s at Berkeley.  How can that not be a good and great thing?

How can we apply the open online approach to our museums and cultural heritage institutions today?

Wikipedia, Museums, Trade and More

I have blogged before about Wikipedia and both the positive and negative “professional” reactions to the resource.  Returning to that thread, one of the more interesting sessions I attended at the American Association of Museums meetings last week in Minneapolis dealt with Wikipedia – specifically the GLAM-Wiki Initiative (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia) that aims to help “cultural institutions share their resources with the world through high-impact collaboration alongside experienced Wikipedia editors.  It is an unparalled opportunity for the custodians of our cultural heritage to present their collections to new audiences.”

A GLAM promotional flyer distributed at the session cites articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that report on the work of Smithsonian Wikipedian in Residence Sarah Stierch, an article in the The Atlantic on National Archive Wikipedian in Residence Dominic McDevitt-Parks, and a New York Times piece on Wikipedia in the British Museum.  A monthly GLAM newsletter demonstrates the international, albeit western, scope of the GLAM Initiative.

So what does all of this mean for enhancing either the visitor experience in museums or outreach beyond an institutions walls.  The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has been in the forefront in the U.S. in employing QR codes, videos, and other tools to access Wikipedia-based information in multiple languages on museum objects.  New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Wikipedia page provides an example of the extensive museum-based on-line information.  Visit the  MoMA Wikipedia entry for Van Gogh’s Starry Night to see the potential of information exchange.

Perhaps to best visualize the potential, check this page from the National Archives that lists the over 100,000 images in queue for loading to a WikiCommons site.  Impressive as well are the number of images categorized to date by the public.  The editathon concept is used to check and upgrade the accuracy of Wikipedia entries.  An example of an editathon in New York City is found here or at the British Library here.

The GLAM initiative is a prime example of how Wikipedia and user-generated content continues to move front and center as a mainline information resource.  Today, those wringing their hands over user-generated content with the dire warnings of the Cult of the Amateur hold as much weight as those who argue if we had been meant to fly we would have been born with wings.  End of story.

In other web-based offerings, this week Jennifer Carey at Indiana Jenn posted about Stanford’s new Orbis Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.  Check this one out for certain – a very impressive tool for modeling exchange networks and travel in antiquity.  Such an application to model exchange in Eastern North America from the Archaic period to Contact would be incredibly useful.  Given the pace of online resource development, I suspect that a North American prehistory edition of Orbis is not a long way off.  Jennifer also links to the new Edx project where this fall Harvard and MIT will partner to offer free online courses where you can get a grade, but not a degree – not yet anyway.

What are your favorite new online research tools?

Letting Go to Keep the Public Engaged

Without a doubt, my favorite book of 2011 is Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  The book liner notes read that ” Letting Go? investigates path-breaking public history practices at a time when the traditional expertise of museums seems challenged at every turn – by the Web and digital media, by community based programming, by new trends in oral history, and by contemporary artists.”   The book is divided into sections or themes, each containing a diverse set of thought pieces (method and theory), case studies, and conversations (application dialogues).  The authors are leading authorities actively engaged in their subject area.  Letting Go? is a very applied presentation.

The first theme Virtually Breaking Down: Authority and the Web opens with an essay by Nina Simon that states the essence of her Participatory Museum model in a concise and convincing way, using several new examples to illustrate her points.  I found the brief essay fine-tuned some arguments in her published volume.  I suspect that for those new to Simon’s Participatory Museum, the essay will spur them on to read her book.  Simon’s thought piece is followed by Steve Zeitlin’s case study, City of Memory, based in New York City.  Next is a conversation with Bill Adair and Matthew Fisher that considers the problems and potentials with public engagement in online art museum projects and an oral history/video project in Philadelphia.  The final essay in the section by Matthew MacArthur takes up the role of objects in the digital contexts.  A strength of this section, and all the sections in the book is the reflective nature of the pieces.  In a most refreshing way, all the authors consider the shortcomings, problems, challenges, and opportunities of their own digital or participatory contexts in a user-generated world.

The second theme Throwing Open the Doors: Communities as Curators features a provocative essay by Kathleen McLean on the multiple expert and visitor voices.  She concludes her essay with “We need to find way to bring the museum’s expert knowledge into conversation with the people who attend our museums – people who bring with them their own expert knowledge” (p. 79).  The section is rounded out with a conversation on the diologic museum, a multi-generational family film project in Minnesota, and a conversation based on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s efforts to have community curated exhibits.

The third theme of the volume addresses popular oral history projects such as Story Corps.  A thoughtful essay by Tom Satwicz and Kim Morrisey assesses the challenges, limitations, and potentials of the reality of public curation from trend to practice.  Perhaps one-third of the volume considers essays dealing with  fine and performance arts not related to the focus of this blog.  However, the essays and conversations provide much that is simply good to think about regardless of the specific field of application.

I found the volume particularly refreshing in that all the contributors accept that there are lots of unanswered questions, false starts, and simply wrong turns in the “sharing authority” process of this “user-generated world” in which we now all operate.  The authors do not take on Messianic tones in their presentations, rather, provide thoughtful discussions of their experience in engaging the public’s user-generated voice. If you are grappling with how to incorporate the authority of the many voices that your institution serves, Letting Go? will give you plenty of directions to consider.

Blogging for the Monkeys

I started out this post wanting to consider blogs in the same way I discussed Wikipedia last week – as a source or direction for research and scholarship.   There is a good bit of discussion on this subject.  A year or so ago I came across an interesting post by Molly Keener at Wake Forest University that reviewed the range of responses to the research potential of blogs.  More recently, is an interesting post on the use of blogs in the Tenure and Promotion process at universities.

A significant difference between the two is that blogs are more creative, more opinionated, and less encyclopedic than Wikipedia, though both forms rely on the same user-generated content.  Not recognizing this distinction is another flaw in Keen’s basic thesis of the Cult of the Amateur referenced previously.

In addition to scholarship, I have found that blogs are an excellent means for disseminating and receiving information, creativity, and ways of thinking outside the box.  That is how I perceive the Archaeology, Museums and Outreach blog. In the first post I noted that my intent was to provide a platform for folks involved in archaeology and museum outreach to consider what works and what does not work.  I do not know of any other regular media resource that addresses this area.  This past week at the C.H. Nash Museum, we launched a new blog, Chucalissa e-Anumpoli.  We see the new blog as filling a need that is not addressed by any of our other forms of communication at the C.H. Nash Museum.

Beyond research, in reviewing offerings from the Museum and Archaeology fields, I have come up with a few categories of blogs:

Career Networking – Much like Linked-in, although on a less redundant and more user-friendly level, blogs such as the Emerging Museum Professionals act as a vehicle for collaboration.  The blog solicits input from others, irregularly issues posts of interest to folks new to the museum field on topics such as interviewing for career positions, skill development, and regional meet-ups of like-minded people.

Trends – The American Association of Museum’s  Center for the Future of Museums blog and the associated weekly Dispatches from the Center for the Future of Museums are phenomenal resources on trends in museums.  The Dispatches does for me what I hope my blog does for others – provides information and resources relevant to a field of interest but that are outside the regular box and expertise of operation.  For example, the Dispatches provides links to the latest trends in philanthropy, demographics, and tourism that are important for me to stay on top of, but are outside the scope of my normal range of reading.

Institutional Information –  I really like the Museum Bulletin the Alaska State Museum publishes as a regular blog.  The publication is very outreach oriented, and reports the activities, acquisitions, internships, and events at the Museum.  The Museum use WordPress.com to “blog” their newsletter.  Were this an e-newsletter type communication that requires buy-in registration, I likely would not have come across the publication.  The Brooklyn Museum’s blog is another institutional publication that is quite creative in their posts.  See for example the Brooklyn Museum’s split-second basis project for selecting pieces of art to display.

Teaching/Research Interest – This type of blog is like finding that interesting book on the library shelf that works as a bonus supplement or even points one down a new road in preparing for a lecture or research.  For example, today I got the latest post for Museum Beyond that reviewed the Tate Museum’s new Race Against Time app for the iPhone – not a terribly glowing review either.  Also, Jennifer Carey blogged this week from the Independent School Association of the Southwest’s Annual Meeting.  Her final post was on the presentation by Jane McGonigal author of Reality is Broken.  Jennifer provided quite a few related links from the presentation.  Between the two blogs and the Wikiversity entry I noted from last week, these will likely find their way into my syllabus next fall for the honors course I will teach on gaming for social good.

Just Plain Interesting Today, Katrina Urban’s  NewMuseumKat blog posted a review and link for a virtual visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.  The website is a convincing example that counters the Luddite rant against the concept of virtual museums.  One should not need to travel to Amsterdam to experience the house, albeit remote.   Kris Hirst’s long running archaeology blog at about.com has short nuggets of information about the latest goings on in archaeology.

Here is my punch line – all the above resources provide real and worthwhile information that is not readily (or at all) available in the traditional media. Contrary to Keen’s dire warning in the Cult of the Amateur of a future where “The monkeys takeover.  Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers – our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios.  In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show.  With their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future” (p. 9).

I can only respond – and what a fine job us primates are doing!!

How Virtual Can Lead to Real Time

A concern expressed by museums for presenting collections online is that the practice will reduce museum attendance.  On the surface, this argument is rather self-serving and suggests an institution’s real purpose  is not their mission statement but to maximize real-time visits.  The Museums and Society 2034 report from the American Association of Museums noted that “According to research by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, 43% of museum visits in 2006 were remote, predominately via museum websites.”  Of course, the report predicted this trend will increase and argued that remote visits can serve as a vehicle to drive more people to visit real-time.

Less scientific, but rather instructive, during the last meeting of my Museum Practices class this semester, I asked “Does any student know of, heard about, or can you cite any instance where an individual did not visit a museum because they had experienced the collections online?  Have any of you canceled your trips to Amsterdam because the Google Art Project has placed so many of Van Gogh’s paintings online?”  Of course the answer was an emphatic NO to the latter question, and no one could point to an example of the former.  As a general statement, the strident position of seminar students five years ago in opposition to the concept of a virtual museum today is considerably more moderate.

Archaeologists and other cultural heritage professionals are beginning to experiment with placing collections online.  Here are a couple of sites that took or today are taking the lead in this work:

In 1998 Carol McDavid created a groundbreaking website for archaeology at the Levi Jordan Plantation, the place where a “plantation was built in 1848 by Levi Jordan, his family, and the people who worked for them as slaves and, later, as tenant farmers and sharecroppers. This web site attempts to discuss the lives of ALL of these people, and covers a period from 1848 until about 1888-1890.”  Although rather crude by today’s standards, and in an exchange with Carol last year, she was somewhat surprised that the site was still live, the experiment provides a model for the future.  Scanning the Table of Contents for the website shows the considerable amount of information placed online.  Were one interested in cursory information or detailed scholarly research the Plantation website would be a first stop.

A modern version of the Levi Jordan website is in place for New Philadelphia site in Illinois.  The website notes that ” New Philadelphia was founded by Frank McWorter, a free African American, in 1836. Shortly after purchasing his freedom from the estate of George McWhorter, Frank invested in acquiring land in a largely undeveloped area of Pike County, Illinois . . . He and his family moved to Pike County in 1830. . .  and legally registered the town . . . New Philadelphia was the first town established by a free African American before the Civil War.”  The wealth of data available on this site is truly outstanding, including a full set of archaeological fieldwork reports, something reasonably unheard of in the past and even today.  Along with census records, newspaper archives, descendent genealogies, surveys and maps, as with the Levi Jordan Plantation, the website created for New Philadelphia is a first stop for both in-depth research or casual interest.

Here is the punch line for me on both archaeological sites as cultural heritage venues – I first learned about each of them in the book  Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement edited by Barbara Little and Paul A. Shackel.  After reading the book’s articles about these two locations, I tracked down the above websites.  I have never visited a museum at either of these locations because none exists – all readily available documentation is in either published articles or online.   However, movement toward museums or other cultural heritage institutions is in process at both Levi-Jordan Plantations and at  New Philadelphia.  Arguably at both of these sites, the very presence of a robust internet presence argues for a significance that will support their future development.  Were it not for the Internet presence, to me, both of these locations would fall into the long ago and far away category.

Levi Jordan Plantation and New Philadelphia are two examples where the virtual presence will be instrumental in generating the exposure and support for movement toward a real-time presence in whatever form that might take.

Your thoughts?