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What can Massive Open Online Courses do for Museums?

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. A MOOC is a web-based learning resource that is available to students all over the world. This type of course is a useful learning tool and can remove some of the barriers to learning. Education is often an expensive undertaking, but the majority of these courses are free. Users can access them from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. For museums, they can be a effective tool for sharing knowledge with new audiences.

A well-known example of a Massive Open Online Course is the Khan Academy. This online learning provider supplies courses covering topics ranging from maths to science, computer programming to art history and more. These courses are free to access, are available all over the world and cater to a wide range of ages. The academy aims to make world-class education a possibility for people everywhere.

So how does a digital learning platform such as the Khan Academy work? Students can sign up for a free account, and choose a course that appeals to them. Lessons can start straight away and are self-guided, so people are free to learn at their own pace. They cater to different learning styles. Courses include a mix of videos, reading, multiple-choice quizzes and tests. There is an optional social element too, as students can connect in the forum. This allows them to ask questions and share experiences.

How could MOOCs be relevant to museums?

It’s easy to see how many have called this model the future of learning. There are many ways that museums can use MOOCs. This type of course can connect with new audiences and increase outreach potential. MOOCs concentrate on self-guided learning, aligning with the approach that many museums take. Museums can use this tool to offer people a chance to discover more and increase their own knowledge.

There are world-class museums all over the world and it isn’t possible for everyone to visit in person. A MOOC can be a way of virtually throwing open the doors to all and shining a light on unseen collections. The social element of MOOCs is important too. It can help people to connect with fellow art and museum lovers globally.

Free online courses at Museum of Modern Art

MoMA has long offered fee-paying courses that people can take in person. However, in 2013 it branched out into providing free online courses too. These are available through digital learning provider Coursera. There is a whole range of topics available to study through the MoMA MOOCs. These include ‘Fashion as Design’, ‘Modern Art & Ideas’, and ‘Seeing Through Photographs’.

These courses come with a suggested timescale. This is flexible and allows users to reset deadlines. They are available with a variety of language subtitles. The syllabus outlines the skills that users can expect to gain from the course. MoMA also offers MOOCs that act as professional development tools for teachers. For example, ‘Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for your Classroom’. Over 17,000 students enrolled on this course after the initial launch and feedback was good.

Deborah Howes was the Director of Digital Learning at MoMA when the courses launched. In her view, they are a valuable tool in reaching new audiences, as well as providing high-quality expertise and mentoring to teaching professionals. MoMA hopes that the courses will motivate participants to visit in person. But Howes also acknowledges that it can be a great way to foster a love of museums in general. She says, “We also hope that they visit their local museums and build a lifelong conversation with and about modern and contemporary art.”

A MOOC dedicated to Andy Warhol

While the courses designed by MoMA cover a wide range of topics, others are more specific. The Tate announced in 2013 that it was launching the first art MOOC dedicated to a single artist. The Artist Rooms Warhol MOOC explores the life and work of Andy Warhol over a five-week syllabus. The University of Edinburgh, the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland worked together to produce the course. It is available via Coursera. Staff from Edinburgh University and Edinburgh College of Art deliver the course.

The course is broken up into five topics; celebrity, sex, money, death, and time. Through these areas, students explore why Warhol has international standing. They examine his work and interrogate some of his themes. The course also positions Warhol in relation to 20th Century art movements and looks at the concepts of artistic worth and value. For those interested in Warhol, his life and art, it explains where his work fits in and the impact he had on the art world.

Speaking about the course, the Tate has said: “The development of this MOOC affords the opportunity for Artist Rooms to do important early work in establishing the impact of MOOCs on gallery learning.” The course is available to anyone interested in finding out more about the artist. One of the benefits of MOOCs such as this is that they are open to all. Users don’t have to be enrolled in a specific educational institution to take advantage.

Extending museum education with a MOOC 

The AMNH has a history of providing professional development opportunities for teachers. In fact, they have been providing expertise for educators since the 1880s. For this museum, MOOCs are the latest tool that they are using to continue this mission. In 2013 the museum launched three online courses through Coursera.

AMNH educate with MOOC

These free courses cater to science teachers at the K-12 level. They focus on genetics, evolution and earth science. The courses last for four weeks. They feature a variety of resources developed by museum professionals. Materials include 3D virtual models, videos, and behind the scenes footage from the museum’s collections. Each course is taught by AMNH’s expert curators. As well as courses for teachers, the museum also offers options for the general public. For instance, users can study a five-week course titled ‘Our Earth’s Future’. They can also experience an introduction to stem cells or a course on conservation.

The museum sees MOOCs as a key part of its continuing efforts to extend its resources to the wider public. AMNH recognises that online visitors count for a large proportion of its audience. In addition to footfall, it receives nearly four million unique website visitors. This doubles the number of people who interact with the museum. With such a large digital viewership, it is clear to see that engaging this audience is important.

Museum teaches the Teachers with a MOOC

The benefit of museum-designed MOOCs is that there is no one set way of doing things. Courses can take many different forms and make use of different approaches. Museums can develop courses that echo their own ethos and teaching style. The Exploratorium has always had a focus on innovative, experiment-based learning. A visit to the museum is full of interactive experiences that ignite curiosity. The MOOCs that this institution has designed follow the same path.

The Exploratorium has three courses for educators available on Coursera. They focus on inquiry-based learning. The aim is to encourage teachers to integrate engineering and ‘tinkering’ into the classroom. Course participants learn the principles and benefits of introducing hands on learning. The museum uses the courses to explain its approach to designing activities. Educators will learn practical skills to set up classroom experiments. As with many MOOCs, there is a forum for participants to share ideas and innovations. This social element provides key support to learners.

The museum sees these courses as a natural progression of their work in training science teachers. Rob Semper is the Associate Executive Director of the Exploratorium. He says “We are constantly tinkering with new ways to expand our impact and reach those who stand to benefit the most”

MOOC focused on careers in Museums

Many museums have looked at how MOOCs can engage with the general public. Others have used them to provide professional development for teachers. This partnership between National Museums Liverpool and the University of Leicester is different. They developed a MOOC aimed people interested in a career in museums. The University positions this course as a taster for those thinking of enrolling in its School of Museum Studies. However, it does also state that anyone can take the course for general interest.

The course is called ‘Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum’. It covers a variety of topics connected with the impact of modern museums. It also looks at how museums communicate with audiences. Over six weeks, students will examine how people respond to museum spaces. They explore the key role that these cultural institutions can play in health and wellbeing, human rights and social justice.

Each module is taught by a different academic researcher or museum professional. This is unlike traditional learning methods, as it exposes the students to different voices. In this way, they gain insight into multiple points of view and experiences. The course also involves a range of activities and forums. These encourage peer group work and social learning.

Are there any drawbacks to museums using MOOCs?

The ability to reach a large audience with content that they control is appealing to museums. But are there any downsides of the rise in MOOCs? Two key issues need to be taken into account.

The first centres around certification. How can course participants prove both that they have taken the course and that they have achieved the learning objectives? Some institutions, including Harvard and the UK’s Open University, have begun to accept certain MOOCs to count towards course credits. There is some debate around giving these courses the same value as a physical course. Assessments need to be robust to ensure the students are learning the content. Taking a MOOC is nearly always free. But many courses introduce a fee if the learner wishes to gain a certificate on completion.

Studying MOOC on a laptop

The second issue that often arises that users don’t always finish the course. In fact, research undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 suggests the completion rates are very low. Looking at their own MOOCs, they found that only 4% of people who enrolled went on to complete a course. This may be less of an issue for museums, where the courses offered are an extra resource. They are not something that is intended to replace a traditional educational model.

Another potential negative to consider is the lack of real-life interaction with students. Unlike a traditional classroom setting, teachers don’t connect with their students on a personal level. This could mean they miss out on meaningful feedback and guidance during the course. A lack of engagement could be one of the reasons why people don’t finish a full course.

What are the benefits of MOOCs?

Despite the above points, there are many reasons why MOOCs are an attractive tool for museums. This type of course can reach a huge audience all over the world. They are scalable and can be used to target different areas. People learn in different ways and at different speeds. Digital learning allows students to progress through a course at their own pace. Users can pause content and come back, letting them take notes or digest the modules in a way that suits them.

There are many barriers that people can face when trying to access education. These can include cost, location and time. Education can be an expensive business. Course fees, materials and transport all add up. Some people cannot spare the time outside of work to attend a course in person. This means that they may be unable to progress and learn new skills. Also, not everyone is privileged enough to live close to world-class museums or universities. A MOOC is free, open to people all over the world and can be completed in a flexible timeframe.

Museums can excel in online learning

Museums are experts in their own fields. Digital learning platforms give institutions a unique opportunity to share this knowledge. This type of course can reach a new audience. MOOCs allow museums to take control of their own content and how people benefit from it. They can shine a light on various collections or theories, and bring the museum experience to people on a global scale. MOOCs are a useful professional development tool too. Through online courses, museums can help educators to inspire new generations.


About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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