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Thinking beyond the walls: learning from the V&A’s pivot to virtual learning environments

Victoria & Albert Museum / Image : Shutterstock


As a Microsoft employee I’m often moved to sing the praises of the tools and technologies we offer to museums and galleries. Yet I know that there’s really nothing quite like hearing it from museum professionals. It’s completely understandable that those looking to adopt new ideas should wish to learn from their peers and benefit from the experience of those who have already been there and done it.

So, in this latest article for MuseumNext I wanted to rely less on my own words and lean more on those of a respected and influential industry figure. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the way that many museums delivered their exhibitions and educated their visitors had already begun to change. We should not pretend that digital was an alien concept to cultural organisations – far from it. But it is fair to say that the last 18 months has seen a rapid shift, a digital pivot and an urgency to innovation that has produced some eye-catching success stories.

It is one of those experiences that I’d like to share; outlining in their own words how digital solutions have been utilised to initiate real, positive change. In a recent edition of the Microsoft Libraries and Museums Podcast, we recorded an interview with Dr Helen Charman, Director of Learning and National Programmes at the V&A, whom I know will also be speaking at this month’s Digital Learning Summit.

While Helen made clear that there were many difficult challenges presented by the pandemic, the opportunities afforded to her teams were nonetheless exciting and, as she explained to my colleague Emily Kotecki, it proved to be a period of real progress and insight for the V&A’s learning programmes.

As Helen puts it:

“It may sound perverse and counter-intuitive but we saw it [the pandemic] as an amazing innovation opportunity.

“We already had learning and digital as an integrated piece before the pandemic struck. We were running digital skills programmes across a portfolio, we programmed digital design weekends, we had a flagship programme for schools called V&A Innovate, which was a digital first for 11 – 14 year-olds. However, if we look back to February/March of last year it has certainly been an incredible journey from that point to now.”

As Helen explains, the digital pivot required in March 2020 had to fit with the identity, values and underpinning ethos of the V&A as an institution, what she calls “Designerly Learning”.

Helen explains,

“So, what does that mean? It means that we are user-centred, it means that we try to think divergently, we are outward focused . . . we are grounded in real-world context, we are about meeting needs, interests, motivations, opportunities. And finally we are committed to working in an experimental and iterative way.

“What I’m saying is that we are problem solvers; and we like a problem!”

The Academy programme serves as a prime example of the approach that Helen talks about. Not necessarily a pivot, given the online delivery already taking place in other departments but a critical adoption of technology that solved an immediate problem – lockdowns and the absence of on-site learning. The rapid response of Helen’s teams enabled the museum’s adult learning division to navigate the challenges of enforced closures and develop what has already turned into an incredible success story.

As Helen explains,

“Before the pandemic our adult learning courses were hugely popular but they were classes that were taught week to week (often as a 12 week course). They were taught on-site, mainly to an audience from London and the South East. Fast forward 15 months and we’ve done an entire pivot using Microsoft Teams as our virtual learning environment.

“Looking at the stats on this, our 12-week courses now generate 34,000 hours of student engagement per term; our learners come from all around the world; and this is equivalent to 27,000 exhibition visits. Our courses are selling out and we are working with 1,100 to 1,200 a week. 55% of these are outside of London and 15% are based outside the UK.

“Learners can also access this content in real time or asynchronically. We currently find that 60% of learners join live with 40% accessing content on-demand. And, importantly, 60% of current learners say they wouldn’t have been able to attend their course had it been held in the museum.

“That in itself is extraordinary. It has had a dramatic impact on our reach and accessibility.

“Creatively, we have learned how to best utilise MS Teams as that virtual learning environment – the chat function, the coffee break – we’ve actually learned that you can create a fantastically intimate learning community in these spaces and we are now getting down to the detailed refinement of the learner experience. For us, it is about how do we create a really enriching, high quality educational experience for our learners.”

Away from adult learning, Helen points to another one of the V&A’s success stories of recent times – turning their on-site workshop for schools into a programme called Virtual Classroom.

“This has really been fantastically successful. We could probably fully book it out three times over. These are live interactive sessions delivered by our design educators – some of our former designers and artists in residence.”

With so many opportunities to deliver content and having only just scratched the surface of how learners can be educated in a virtual learning environment, Helen says that the coming years promise to be incredibly exciting for the V&A.

“We’re learning an enormous amount about digital pedagogies and how to make the most of this particular space, and I think it’s fair to say we have been pretty surprised actually by the creative scope of these platforms. If anything, it has refreshed our thinking and we certainly won’t be going back to just the on-site format. This has proved to be very successful in terms of impact and reach, and we want to continue to build on that.

“It’s not that we won’t be doing on-site programming; it’s that we will be looking carefully at what is the added value of that physical delivery and how do we retain the reach and access that we’ve built up with new audiences.”

Helen also highlights the additional benefit of such a swift and effective digital pivot: that within the V&A there has been a rapid, large-scale upskilling of team members and lecturers with regards to utilising technology and developing a digital skillset. She says,

“We’re now fluent across the various platforms at our disposal, we can meet our user needs and we are learning so much. In fact, we are also looking at future research partnerships.”

Avalon Fotheringham giving a lecture on Microsoft Teams

To bring it back to one of Helen’s earlier points, she believes that much of the success is down to that openness to experimentation and an absence of a fear of making mistakes.

“People were given permission to try things out. Just have a go – all bets are off. I hope that my colleagues and heads of teams were able to feel that they could try things out and see where they landed. And from there we could build more strategically on the elements that showed promise but needed a bit more investment and a bit more time.

‘We know where we are heading. And the challenge now is how we can move forward sustainably. One of the keys to that, I believe, will be to continue to grow digital fluency. Not just digital literacy but a more developed, sophisticated and in-depth understanding than has not been present hitherto. Museum professionals need to really embrace this and not see digital as something separate.”

Helen’s insight is just one of many stories I have heard from museums that have used the events of the last 18 months as a catalyst for positive change. It is encouraging and inspiring to hear these success stories, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for these forward-thinking and innovative institutions.

As I mentioned in my own commentary on Helen’s podcast interview, if our mission is to take our message to the world, digital has to be part of that story. As digital becomes part of museums’ DNA, harnessing the ever-improving tools and solutions at their disposal will be so much easier.

I think Helen said it best in this interview when she drew on a quote from one of her Academy learners to state that online learning can be “transportive, transformational and wonderful. And isn’t that what we want our cultural organisations to offer visitors?”

Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn here.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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