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In conversation with: Ian Ellard, Head of the V&A Academy

What do you do when learners are suddenly locked in their homes and unable to get to the art history courses, creative skills workshops, design discourse forums and professional development sessions they have paid for? In 2021 it’s easy to look back and say that remote delivery was the obvious solution. But that would be to belittle the hard work, experimentation and administration required to pivot from in-person learning to online learning.

As Ian Ellard explains ahead of his talk at this month’s Digital Income Summit, the learning curve was steep and the challenges faced were unlike anything the V&A had experienced before. But the results have exceeded the museum’s expectations. MuseumNext caught up with Ian to get a sneak preview of the learnings he intends to share at the Summit on 30th June.

The V&A has been running adult learning since its inception in one form or another. Incredible collections combined with access to world-leading expertise means that the museum can provide art lovers with the perfect platform to embrace their creativity. As Henry Cole described it, the V&A represents “a schoolroom for everyone” and a hub for people to learn about art and design.

Over the years, the V&A’s educational provision has changed significantly but never has it transformed as drastically as in the past 18 months. As Ian Ellard knows better than anyone, it’s been a bumpy road since the spring of 2020. Brought in to head up the V&A Academy in 2019, he has been integral to the shift to digital delivery during one of the most challenging periods in the museum’s history.

In February 2020, Ian and his team had just completed a brand positioning project for the Academy and were ready to push the button on a new brochure promoting the latest schedule of courses.

“The museum sector as a whole had obviously been trending towards commerciality for several years. By the time that I joined in 2019 there had been a strategic shift to developing the commercial opportunity around adult learning with a focus on creating a compelling consumer proposition and a clear identity. My remit when I joined the team was to bring a bit of cohesion and structure over the coming years.

“We had a strong, cohesive plan for the future and a real sense of direction for our ‘school of creativity’ . . . and then the world turned upside down!

“We didn’t have an online offering: everything was scheduled to be delivered on-site in South Kensington. Our ‘digital plan’ at the time consisted of an intention to produce a scoping document for online learning in October 2020. Yet, as it turns out, we ended up launching our first online courses in September 2020. That gives a sense of how priorities and resources changed over the course of those few short months.”

Of course, pivoting to online learning and creating a roadmap for a digital future is challenging enough. Doing so in the midst of a pandemic where entire teams were being furloughed and finances were under intense scrutiny, making a success of the Academy in virtual form was anything but assured.

“The one advantage we had lay in the programming. Our plan for delivering courses was already there and the expertise – the talent – had the time booked in. We just needed to understand how we would deliver high quality sessions to learners in their own homes. As it turned out, the first lockdown in Spring of 2020 gave us the freedom to test because the museum was closed we weren’t running any courses. That gave us a quiet few weeks in which to focus all our efforts on making the proposition work and getting a board proposal together.”

Once sign off on the Academy’s plans was agreed, the real challenges began: how would Ian and his much-reduced team deliver sessions technically and how could they offer substantial value to draw in learners who would have been attending the courses in person that autumn?

“Fortunately, the on-boarding process was made easier because everyone in the land was simultaneously upskilling themselves on video conferencing and remote working. That process really helped to ease the process of making learners comfortable.”

In fact, as Ian explains, it wasn’t the cohort of students that turned out to be the primary concern at all.

“To put it bluntly, we’d spent a lot of time worrying about how the students were going to find the experience of signing in and getting onto their courses. In reality, managing the speakers and delivery of content was a far greater challenge for us. Our students who had paid money and would be attending sessions every week could quickly get to grips with the processes and procedures; our experts might only deliver a session once every three months and so we found that they were the ones less familiar with the setup.”

Of course, as Ian will explore in his talk on the 30th June, the benefits to virtual delivery far outweigh any of the drawbacks. And those benefits stretch far beyond profitability.

“As I hope to share at the Digital Income Summit, we’ve been able to reduce overheads, increase profitability and still pass on savings to learners. That’s before we consider savings made on commuting into South Kensington. But one of the key things I think we’ve shown is that the quality of the Academy has not suffered. If anything, we’ve built on what we had before.

“For all that everyone is sitting and watching through a screen, which you might think makes it more impersonal or detached, we have been able to get them closer to the source material and the objects. Over the last few months we’ve been able to live stream direct from the Glassblowing Museum in Sunderland and from the South Asian Textiles study room in the V&A itself; we’ve had sessions led by experts contributing simultaneously from Harvard University and the Japanese Costume and Dress Museum in Kyoto. That would have cost thousands of pounds to run in person once flights and accommodation are factored in.

“In essence, we can use a camera to expose students to people, experiences and places in greater detail and in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we asked them to congregate in one place.

Expanding reach and diversifying content

“I’m looking forward to sharing some of the V&A’s statistics on reach and accessibility in my talk at the Summit,” Ian states. “I think they serve to illustrate the impact that this move online is having for us. But it’s important to remember that as much as it elevates accessibility of audience, it also enables us to source even more varied talent from virtually anywhere in the world. That’s a huge benefit to our learners.”

One thing Ian also shares is how remote delivery impacts on the type of content that the museum can deliver.

“Previously, I’d have to look at courses that would appeal to people within a certain catchment area. Now, we can look to tell different stories and run a broader range of specialised and niche courses to a more diverse range of individuals and communities.

“We’re now finding content communities in a totally different way. And it’s thrilling! In all honesty, we’ve only just scratched the surface of where we can go with this and I’m so excited about how we will look to programme for the future. Of course, the challenge then becomes the sales channel because we are no longer just looking to market to our existing database and membership list.”

Ian also acknowledges that the dramatic shift in accessibility also creates another paradigm shift as online learning serves as a powerful tool in interacting with “the communities we are supposed to serve with our national collection.”

He continues,

“I feel that we may see a rebalancing of digital engagement where long-form delivery and sharing of knowledge becomes of even greater importance for us. But what we must be mindful of is quality: because the volume across the adult learning sphere is only set to increase.”

To hear more from Ian Ellard and a range of other experts, don’t miss the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit between 28th and 30th June 2021.

Tickets are available here.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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