2009 NMC Summer Conference Proceedings

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Online Teaching in Museums: The Power of Participation

October 21st, 2010 · No Comments · Papers

Herminia Din (University of Alaska–Anchorage) and William B. Crow (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Museums invite visitors to explore collections in a variety of ways. Visitors may join group experiences such as public talks or tours, scholarly lectures, or drop-in weekend family programs. They read wall labels, listen to audio tours, sketch, and explore hands-on displays. They enjoy the company of family members, friends and museum staff during their visit, or they may also choose to spend time in the galleries alone. Museums honor the diverse experiences that may occur in their institutions, and are eager to facilitate experiences for visitors that are tailored to their needs and interests.

In a number of ways, when we go online and click our way around the Internet, we have an experience that is similar to a museum visit. On the Web, we engage in an active process of seeking, selecting, scanning and immersing ourselves in a variety of experiences. We browse, search, select, and discover. We go online to connect with friends, families and communities, or we can spend time alone. We sometimes get frustrated when we are not able to locate what we are seeking—and sometimes we delight in an unexpected find.

Of course, there are clear differences between browsing web pages and meandering through the halls of a museum. Even though digital technologies have increased in their sophistication and aesthetics, they cannot replace the experience of standing in front of an original Velázquez oil painting, or the moment of reading original documents penned by our nation’s founders, or what it is like to stand in awe in front of a massive, fossilized dinosaur skeleton. The Internet is a place that operates on the values of effective communication and visitor engagement. It invites feedback, and offers a wide spectrum of ways for the visitor to connect and contribute. Like museums, the Internet is in a process of constant change, reevaluation and renewal as websites are added, reviewed, edited and reorganized as information and research changes, and as visitors change.

Both the museum visit and the online experience include processes of seeking and discovering, and as our daily lives become more rooted in digital communications and interactions, it is becoming clear that museums and visitors can find new ways of intersecting, and interacting, in an online format. In this paper, we define what online learning currently means, and what it might mean, to educational experiences in museums. We see a number of parallels between current learner-centric, constructivist museum education practices, and the participatory nature of the Internet, and we will examine a variety of ways that online learning can be not only effective, but also expansive, for a museum’s educational vision.

What is Online Learning?

Educators, scientists and scholars have been developing and researching methodologies for teaching in alternative formats, often discussed under the umbrella term—distance learning. Building on the effectiveness of educational broadcasting in radio and television, educators began to utilize telecommunications networks to connect with learners. Videoconferencing, a technology developed in 1980s and still used today by a number of museums, allowed educators to be seen and heard on a type of closed-circuit television, and to see and hear their students as well.

Digital learning, or the exchange of information using computer technology in networked environments, has a history that dates prior to widespread use of the Internet, when users from across distant geographic areas were first beginning to communicate using simple digital bulletin boards and early forms of chat through connected systems. These early pioneering efforts, often created and led by university researchers, scientists and scholars, provided a venue to offer a computer-based campus for faculty and researchers in higher education. By the 1990’s, when the Internet began to blossom and increasingly visual user interfaces made the online world more user-friendly, the development of course management systems (CMS) allowed universities to offer the alternate formats of course delivery, primarily as a means of distance education for students living away from the physical campus. Online learning, also at times called e-learning, was sometimes in its early stages seen as a second-rate version of an in-person classroom experience—less rigorous and a poor substitute for the on-campus course.

Online learning is now no longer seen as a substitute for the in-person encounter, or a less desirable alternative, but rather a new way for educators and learners to interact across time and space. Online learning now takes many forms, including:

  • Technology-enhanced courses: Classes meet primarily face-to-face, but there are online components that allow for continuous interaction
  • Hybrid, or blended courses: These combine online interaction with some face-to-face interaction.
  • Fully online courses: In this model, educational experiences occur entirely online, and participants may never meet face-to-face
  • .

As online learning has expanded and become more accepted, pedagogies and best practices have developed for instructors teaching in this new and ever-expanding environment. Workshops and publications are now offered specifically about the various strategies for engaging students online, and recommendations about how to avoid the various pitfalls that online teaching can bring.

Image 1: A teacher-participant logs into an online workshop offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why Online Learning for Museums?

Museums give much attention to the encounters that visitors have within their walls, but we know that the museum experience begins long before the visitor darkens the doorstep of the building itself. Visitors learn about museums from others, from billboards and brochures, radio and television, and of course, the Internet. They begin to formulate ideas and responses to their experience before the encounter with the exhibition or collections. They reflect on their childhood experiences in museums if they have visited these institutions before. Additionally, we know that visitors carry their experiences with them long after the actual visit to the museum, often making connections or seeing relationships months or even years after their encounter in the physical collections. 1

Museums, along with other institutions, businesses and even individuals, began their online presence in the 1990’s. These initial web pages met the basic needs of communication, and included important data such as location and visitor information. Later, museums began to display the museums’ collections online, and added text from wall labels as well as materials for educators. Museums initially thought that the Internet was the golden ticket—an efficient and cost-effective gathering place for all types of information. However, as information architects and web designers are already aware, we find that simply placing a multitude of information on the web is not the answer. In fact, as our exhibitions grow and expand, and as our downloadable documents increase in number, visitors can be lost and overwhelmed with information in the already daunting challenge of learning more about our often intimidating institutions.

Museums and museum educators have been exploring the role of interactive, inquiry-based conversation with visitors for the better part of the last century, seeing their museum collections not only as objects to be studied, but objects are intended for visitors to experience and enjoy. 2 It is no longer viable for museums to simply place their collections on view and invite interested visitors to partake. Further, many museums no longer accept that lecturing to passive, large audiences is an effective means to educate or engage visitors. As we see in the writings of the philosopher John Dewey, as well as researchers such as Vygotsky and Piaget, we must acknowledge and connect with the unique experiences and backgrounds of the individuals in our museums in order to facilitate meaningful and lasting educative experiences. 3

Because online learners may access a learning experience anywhere where they can access a computer and the Internet, and because individuals may join online communities in any number of ways and on any number of topics, there is vast potential for museums to consider these visitor niches in new ways. Moving beyond efforts to broadcast their presence to a wide and diverse public, museums should also consider how they might connect to smaller communities to involve them in educational experiences. This targeting of a specific community, termed narrowcasting by the fields of marketing and advertising in the 1980’s, is again coming to the fore in the realm of new media.

Narrowcasting, while often referring to a business model to market to niche audiences, can be embraced by museums to interact with visitors. Sometimes referred to as “the right message at the right time to the right audience,” narrowcasting parallels several core tenets in the education field. Preparedness to learn, free-choice learning, and developmentally “appropriate” methodologies in teaching are all components of education that have much in common with the notion of narrowcasting.

Figure 1: Interaction and Collaboration Increases in Narrowcasting

Increased access to the Internet, increased content available to users, and increased interaction has effectively moved us from the “Information Age” to the “Collaboration Age.” We are no longer passive recipients of information, but seek out people of like mind and interest, share information, and collaborate on projects over time and space. User-generated content is the engine that powers the web. We live in a participatory culture—we want to shape the information that we receive, when we want to receive it, and be able to respond to it. Today, our challenge is less about a search for facts, but a way to make meaning, to network, and to connect to a community. As Thomas Friedman describes in The World is Flat, the future is not about production, or about being a clearinghouse of information; instead, we are entering an age that allows for unprecedented participation and collaboration. 4

How can this pluralism of voices, ideas and interpretations co-exist in a world where museums are seen as pillars of trust and knowledge? How can museums embrace participation and exchange through online interaction, while maintaining the museum’s voice and vision? How can museums continue to speak authoritatively, without being authoritarian? The possibilities for online interaction and exchange with our publics clearly have brought new challenges to the museum field, but they also bring with them great potential rewards. Let us examine some of the additional reasons for exploring this new landscape for learning for museums.

A. Access and Outreach

Any visitor who can access a museum’s website can gain a sense of the institution, its collections, its scope, even its services before, during and after their visit. For some museums with a national or international mission, this issue of access and outreach elevates the possibilities of interaction to a much larger scale. We now know that the Internet has become more accessible and used by a wide scope of people. Seniors use the Internet and e-mail as a vital connection to their families, friends and the world. Teachers and students are using the Internet to search for information, prepare lessons or complete homework. People who have limited mobility or who cannot travel extensively have found the web to be a place of community, interaction and engagement. In short, the web has the power to bring visitors virtually to museums, and to have these visitors form a community of learners around the institution.

B. Online Learning Can Tap Underutilized Resources

Another important benefit of online learning in museums is the opportunity to make use of existing resources that often are simply not available in traditional on-site programming, or are under-utilized. Consider the digital images of your institution’s collections—detail images, in situ photography, X-rays from conservation, historical photographs of the original owner or site. Maps, charts, diagrams and timelines, when used effectively, can illuminate a complex topic for a visitor in ways that dialogue cannot. Museums have something more to offer in an online environment—their professional staff. While universities and other learning institutions may tap into a museum’s collections for the teaching of various subjects, consider the potential for the museum’s professional staff as a body of teachers. In addition to museum educators who lead programs and activities, how might they partner with conservators who may share their expertise about the art and science of materials, or curators who specialize in particular topics, or museum librarians or archivists who bring resources to light for groups who may not have had contact with them before?

C. Economy, Flexibility, and Ease of Use

As museum professionals, we are fully aware of the cost and coordination of our physical galleries and classroom spaces. Online environments are economical, offered at low or little cost, and can be installed locally or hosted by an online service provider. The open source movement, along with freeware and shareware on the Internet, offers an incredibly diverse array of learning environments and learning tools. There are also a number of proprietary online learning environments and systems that may be licensed with fees. While the ongoing debate between whether open source versus proprietary platforms is beyond the scope of this text, museums should consider the cost-benefit relationship of both, bearing in mind that even free tools require the time and expertise of staff to manage. 5

Online environments are flexible, as users can make changes to data and design instantaneously. Besides being a much greener solution to our multitudes of printed brochures, teacher resource packets, articles and other analog resources, the digital environment allows our content to be current and updated as frequently as we choose. We can even add thoughts and materials to our interaction during the learning experience or after it has occurred, so that our visitors can continue to learn and make use of the museum.

D. The Ability to Document and Archive: A Mirror for Our Visitors and Ourselves

Perhaps one of the greatest possibilities for online learning in the museum context is how it offers museums the opportunity to learn more about our visitors, and ourselves. Online learning offers the opportunity to test, develop and pilot possibilities. Perhaps one of the strongest reasons for piloting or testing in the online environment is the ability to capture—at every step—the interactions that happen. Technology can document the participants’ reactions, thoughts, and opinions.

The Power of Participation

As educators, we know that participatory learning is more than offering an answer to a question. While the tools themselves incorporate a means for participants to provide feedback (emoticons, signals, text chat areas or even live discussion), they do not replace an essential component that must come from the educator: asking participants to interact in a variety of ways. When working with a group of learners, whether online or in-person, it is important to take the “temperature” of the group, to inquire, to check and to make sure that everyone is on board. Fortunately, online interaction takes concrete forms: participants write blog entries or contribute to a threaded discussion, share files and links, post video and audio or post comments to others’ contributions. In short, these digital artifacts exchanged by participants are evidence of interaction. They can provide a measure of the program’s success. The following are several key concepts or cornerstones that describe ways of inviting active, participatory learning in online environments:

A. Sharing Information and Responses

When we interact with visitors in the museum, we enter into a dialogic exchange of information about our collections through questions and responses. How does the male ring-tailed lemur grip tree branches as he climbs? What do you notice about the technique used by Mark Rothko in this painting? What types of concerns did Abraham Lincoln express in his written correspondence in 1861? Both as learners and as instructors, we listen and respond, drawing upon information and personal experiences to make connections and develop ideas and arguments. We recall historical accounts and figures, we remember personal stories or exchanges that illuminate a situation and we use language, writing and gestures to demonstrate our points.

Clip 1: Video clip of a participant verbally sharing her reactions to a detail of a work of art with a group of educators during an Elluminate Live synchronous webinar. Clip taken from Face to Face: Comparing Portraits blended teacher workshop, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Clip 2: Video clip of participants using a text tool in Elluminate Live to add descriptive words that capture their reactions to an image of a work of art.

Learning in an online environment means that we are constantly connected to the largest database of information that the world has seen. Facts, dates, historical records and timelines are at our fingertips and in ever-increasing numbers. In addition to text-based information, we can access photographs, diagrams, illustrations, movies, audio files and multimedia resources that can add immeasurable value to a learning experience. While concern about the quality, scholarship, rigor and reliability of content on the Internet remains an issue, increasingly we find that Internet-based information, especially from accredited institutions such as museums, libraries, universities and archives, is an invaluable educational asset.

B. Edit, Refine and Improve: A Collaborative Effort

A central tenet of education is the spirit to improve, expand and deepen. Online learning experiences can provide an ideal moment to invite learners to edit, refine and expand their ideas because online material and information is mutable. Participants can re-type, delete, copy and paste their own contributions and collaborate with others on a single document. Group collaboration is one of the most powerful facets of online learning, as we find that the “wisdom of crowds” can be exceptionally accurate and offers a multitude of perspectives. As participants share and collaborate, the final result can be not only more comprehensive than what is typically offered by a single participant, but there is more investment in the final outcome when we invite contributions from the full group. 6

Collaboration can be facilitated by using a wiki, a shared document that can be edited by any number of people. The content is determined by the wiki’s creator. Participants can compile information, shift or delete what has been added and even edit another’s contribution in a spirit of improving the final outcome. The best known example of a wiki is of course Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia in which users from across the globe add information, edit refine and expand existing entries. While many have expressed concern that Wikipedia contains information that has not been verified, studies have shown that in fact its articles are overwhelmingly factual and accurate. 7

C. Roles and Responsibilities: Let Everyone Be an Expert in Her Own Way

In online learning environments all participants access information the same way—at a computer. While the instructor may have access to additional tools and privileges and at times may see information that is not accessible to the learners, all participants are learning and working within the same framework. Often participants in online learning cite its “democratic” nature, allowing everyone to be an equal contributor and stakeholder. Although online learning has its own system of etiquette and group dynamics, participants often mention that they feel confident in asserting their ideas and opinions. They appreciate having more time to consider their contributions before posting them, which is different from live conversation. Perhaps this happens because participants access the experience from home, a familiar and comfortable place, rather than the imposing conditions found in the public space of a museum. Educators can take advantage of this experience by inviting feedback, asking participants to share information about their own areas of expertise or to take on an assigned role that will contribute to the larger group.

Clip 3: Video clip of educator-participants imagining what a figure might be thinking in a work of art by using a text tool in Elluminate Live.

Similar to an in-person education program where the educator designates a group leader, it is possible to assign roles in the online learning environment that draw upon the expertise of the individuals. Because the participants have the ability to share information about themselves through e-profiles, e-portfolios or personal blog entries, educators often can determine how participants might lend their expertise in a particular topic. During online teacher workshops that we have conducted, we will often invite participants to serve as “Workgroup Team Leaders” to complete various tasks, given their expertise in a subject area. Or if they are particularly comfortable using technology, they might assist with compiling a document or presentation. In addition to recruiting the talents and expertise of the participants, consider your fellow staff members and how they could contribute to the success of the program. We have found it useful to have an “e-intern” work with the program. This intern of course can be from another city, state, or country. 8

D: Active Reflection

As mentioned earlier, in an online learning experience the interactions and exchanges among participants take some form: blog entries, wikis, or presentations that have been created by the group, pre- and post-program online surveys. This process of creating and contributing is an essential aspect of learner-centric, constructivist styles of learning. Technology can capture and archive these process-artifacts so that educators and participants may revisit, re-examine and reflect on their own learning process.

The ability to return to an educational encounter is a profoundly useful tool of online learning. This is rare or impossible in conventional in-person teaching. Not only is it useful for the educator, but participants are able to re-visit threaded conversations, watch webinar recordings, re-read blog entries and download material multiple times. Although online environments vary in terms of their accessibility to the participants, it is possible to make the educational programs and content available for a long period of time, if not indefinitely.

By inviting our visitors to become active participants in museum-based online learning experiences, we are building upon the foundations of learner-centric models of museum education that have been growing over the past half-century. Through individual and group involvement, combined with the assets and tools that online learning offers, museums can tap visitors’ expertise, curiosity and individualism in ways that are difficult or impossible to achieve in conventional in-person programs.

A Case Study: A Blended Teacher Program

Below is a case study that captures our experiences, challenges and rewards in developing our first online learning project for teachers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While this example is specific to teachers, we hope that you will find it useful as you embark on your own online learning projects.

Obstacles as Opportunities
Teacher programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) are designed to introduce K-12 educators to works of art through object-based learning, interdisciplinary integration, and inquiry. Museum educators encourage teachers to pursue further study and contemplation of works of art and direct teachers to the Museum’s website for additional research. While the online resources are extensive—images, educator guides, a Timeline of Art History, multimedia web features—they have always been seen as separate from the in-person museum experience, or as supplemental information.

However, in early 2007, the final phases of construction of the new Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education limited the number of on-site education programs, yet expanded the new technological infrastructures that would deepen the possibilities for future online educational programs. This moment of crossroads—the simultaneous physical obstacle of construction and digital opportunity of expansion—was the catalyst to investigate and eventually embrace Web 2.0 tools—blogs, wikis, threaded discussions and real-time interaction—to create an online workshop for teachers. This first MMA online teacher workshop would not replace the existing on-site encounters with works of art. Rather, it would harness these new technologies in a way that would immerse participants from many different geographic areas in the Museum’s online resources, introduce them to inquiry-based teaching methods, and encourage them to create their own classroom materials all within the museum paradigm.

An Online Encounter of a Unique Kind
From January until June 2007, William Crow and Herminia Din, both museum educators, collaborated to build the activities and frameworks for conversations that would occur during the workshop. In New York, Crow began to develop the pedagogical approach and online activities, while Din, in Alaska, began formatting and preparing the online environment and tools that would contain these elements. Two online services were employed for both the development of the workshop and its implementation—Epsilen Global Learning System9 (for the asynchronous interaction) and Elluminate Live10 (for synchronous webinars). This process of co-creating the learning modules progressed over several months with many collegial conversations, and this long-distance collaboration was a learning process in itself.

In early July, after receiving applications from potential teacher participants by promoting the workshop through e-mail blasts and online teacher forums, Face to Face: Comparing Portraits launched. The group consisted of 28 elementary-level educators from 16 states in the U.S., and one educator in a school in Dubai, U.A.E. During the two-week workshop, participants were engaged in a variety of experiences—synchronous and asynchronous, creative and responsive, personal and collective. Teachers wrote blog entries, contributed to threaded discussion topics, created hands-on art projects, collaborated in wikis to craft comparative questions about the works of art, gathered key pieces of information about portraits from across collection areas, and “met” one another in four live, synchronous webinar sessions. By the conclusion of the online interaction, the teachers had worked together to create several PowerPoint resources of images, inquiry-based questions and comparisons, and activities that they had adapted. All these could be used with their students and were created collaboratively by using materials, images and resources found on the Museum’s website.

A third of the participants were able to travel to the Museum on July 31 to participate in a concluding in-person workshop so that they could experience the original works of art in person. Because these teachers were familiar with the imagery and subject matter of these works, and had been immersed in information, activities, and inquiry-based questions, we immediately noticed that their conversations quickly moved to deep investigation of the objects. They noticed materials and textures, issues of size and scale, and the object’s relationship to other works in the gallery environment. The teachers also were able to draw comparisons between objects that had been explored during the online workshop, and made reference to contextual information and classroom resources that they would either incorporate or adapt for their students. Primed for their experience in the museum by having participated in the online workshop beforehand, these teachers were prepared to take the conversation to many places and to many levels.

After the intensive two weeks of online interaction and at the closure of the in-person workshop, we re-read the teachers’ blog entries and wikis, and watched recordings of the four live webinar sessions. We also spent time reviewing the classroom resources that the teachers had created. We began to see that the online workshop, with Web 2.0 tools as vehicles for our interactions, was not merely a means to create a different type of museum learning experience. It was a way to encourage reflection, collaboration and community building that could inform and even change our own museum education practice.

Blogs and Reflective Practice
A blog is unique in that unlike a personal journal, it is also open to a group of people, and can communicate reactions and experiences to a larger audience both in written and multimedia forms. As participants created entries over days and weeks, each blog provided a personal reflective space, apart from the synchronous group activity, but still connected to the Museum and its collections. This tool enabled the participants to examine their own relationship to the works of art, to the online workshop, and to the Museum. This intermingling of the personal and the public revealed the participants’ inner dialogue, as we can see in this example from an Arkansas teacher who is struggling to reconcile two very different aspects of the Gilbert Stuart painting Mathilda Stoughton de Jaudenes:

The main thing I can’t figure out about this painting is the background. The table with the books makes sense, as does the chair the lady is sitting on, but it seems the billowing curtain and blue sky are out of place. Although the blue of the sky repeats the blue of the dress and the gold in the curtain repeats the gold embroidery of the dress – both creating a certain rhythm – for such an otherwise realistic painting the background doesn’t seem to fit….
– 1-5th grade art teacher, Springdale, Arkansas

At times, blogs revealed the participants’ newfound insights about a work of art, and their process of making connections between the art object and their own daily experiences as teachers and as people. In this excerpt, a teacher considers how a room might also be seen as a portrait after she explored a web feature of the Gubbio Studiolo, an intarsia-paneled study from the Italian Renaissance:

I have never considered a room, or a picture of a room, a portrait. I have never specifically thought about what the room tells you about the person who lives there, but this is such an obvious thing when you walk into rooms. When you would walk into my classroom, you immediately know what my students are learning about, doing, and what is important to me as a teacher and them as students….
– Elementary school Deaf Education specialist, Madison, WI

Other times, the teachers’ blogs became concrete lesson ideas that illustrated how they planned to adapt a work of art for their particular group of students. Rather than submitting a typical lesson plan or outline, a teacher from Dubai brainstorms about her encounter with a work of art, the Tughra of Sűleyman the Magnificent:

Because my students either speak Arabic or are learning Arabic, there are many fun activities that could be done with this work. We could create our own portraits in this style with the students’ initials. With the help of the Arabic teacher, we could do this in English and in Arabic and then compare…this would be a great collaborative project between my classroom and the Arabic classroom.
– 2nd grade teacher, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

These blogs, which combined personal reflection and open dialogue, captured valuable information about our participants’ thought processes and questions, about their experiences, and how they might approach the works of art with their students. Further, because the blogs could be re-read or expanded, and because others could contribute comments to these blog entries, the conversations continued and deepened over days and weeks.

Wikis and Real-Time Interaction: Collaboration and Community Building
In our hyperlinked world there are many ways to connect visitors to the museum and to each other—social networking sites, e-newsletters, e-mail lists, and list-servs. Although these can be useful ways of maintaining communication, we found that the process of collaboration, and even conflict, builds community. During the workshop, as teachers worked in wikis to compile information, edited inquiry-based questions and jointly built a PowerPoint classroom resource, we found that they had interest and investment in the final outcome. The wiki tool allowed participants to constantly build upon each others’ contributions in the spirit of improvement, and bonded group members despite geographic distance or other differences. They communicated with one another—even beyond the final date of the workshop—in order to share additional information or ideas, and the Museum and its collections were centerpieces of those conversations. Since the community of the workshop was not bounded by the Museum’s walls, it was possible for the learning to sustain itself over a long period of time.

Image 2: Example of a wiki area in the Epsilen Global Learning System

Perhaps the strongest demonstration that the participants felt connected to a community of learners despite their geographic distance was a “virtual class reunion” that took place in the evening of November 14, 2007—three and a half months after the conclusion of the online workshop. During this live webinar session, participants were invited to create short PowerPoint presentations that showcased an activity that they had developed and completed with their students based on a work of art that had been explored during the summer workshop. It became a type of self-motivated and open-ended assessment that provided us with concrete examples of how teachers and students are using MMA-produced resources in their classrooms. Using synchronous webinar tools, the participants could instantly be brought back together regardless of their physical locations to demonstrate how they used our online museum resources.

Clip 4: Video clip of the virtual class reunion live webinar session in Elluminate Live, Nov. 14, 2007.

Learning from Learners

The interactive qualities of blogs, wikis and real-time online communication have caused us to consider the impact of Web 2.0 on our in-person teacher workshops. Could these tools be employed to create a more blended (online and in-person) experience for our teachers, rather than isolating the museum-based and web-based interactions? Could the reflective practice of blogging, collaborative wiki tools and live webinars expand and deepen the encounters that occur between teachers, museum educators, and our collections? Further, noting that these processes unfold over days, weeks or months, should the format of our teacher programs change?

The process of creating and implementing the online teacher workshop has helped us see value in the multiplicity of museum experiences that may occur: online and in-person, synchronous and asynchronous, personal and public, individual and collective. We see the direction toward the learner-centric approach in museum education and the user-centric development of the web as very compatible trends. As museum education has embraced interactive conversations with visitors, so has technology changed from web “browsing” to the participatory culture of Web 2.0. As user-generated content expands to become the engine that powers the web and as interactivity becomes the core of communication and education, we must consider how museums through their online resources and perhaps through a renewed approach to in-person programs can create deeper and more meaningful experiences with visitors.


Museum visitors are already making meaning of both collections and institutions in new ways using online interaction and tools. Through direct encounters onsite with museum staff, or through informal and collaborative exchanges with their peers online, these visitors select from the resources and tools of the Internet, combine them with their own ideas and experiences, and create a different type of ownership of the museum. We must use our institutional resources and pedagogical talents to shape and inform these experiences. In the end, tools are tools. Hardware and software change. Websites come and go. Whatever we learn, whatever we experience, we consistently find that it too changes and evolves, and our relationship to it changes. What is constant is the dedication and commitment that we as museum professionals have to our teaching, our learning, and our visitors.

* This article includes excerpts from the AAM book Unbound by Place or Time: Museums and Online Learning by William B. Crow and Herminia Din.

1 See Falk and Dierking, Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning, AltaMira Press, 2000, chapter 3.
2See Stephen Weil, “From Being About Something to Being for Somebody,” Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 2002.
3 Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a pioneering developmental psychologist who studied child development and its relationship to cultural mediation and interpersonal communication, among other areas. Among his best-known works is Mind and Society (1930). John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer known for his writings about the importance of educative experience. Among his many works is a key essay on aesthetics, Art and Experience (1934). Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss philosopher, natural scientist and development theorist, well known for his work studying children and cognitive development. Among his major works is The Origins of Intelligence in Children (1953).
4Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
5 See details in Open Source, Open Access: New Models for Museums, in The Digital Museum, edited by Herminia Din and Phyllis Hecht, 2007.
6 For an interesting exploration of the power of groups, see James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.
7 Giles, Jim. Special Report: Internet encyclopedias go head to head, Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005) Published online 14 December 2005
8 We have been fortunate to work with several “e-interns” both from area universities and abroad, including Chelsea Kelly from Vassar College (NY) and Mercedes Colombo, an educator from Buenos Aires, Argentina.


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