Back to all posts
  • content is not learning... but we can learn from each other

    a colleague of mine recently threw a challenge, in jest is suppose, about the relationship between sharing content and creating tools for learning. he was looking at a critique of MOOC's, and i have to agree with him… content is in fact content. teaching is something entirely different. it is, perhaps, the package in which content is delivered. yet that does not go deep enough, for a pretty package can exist to only deliver content. so where does the change happen, between content and learning? what must exist, and as technology changes to offer new tools of content sharing, where can we look to find examples of success?

    in the article my friend cited (here), the author claims, among other things, "educators are engineers of experience." perhaps this is more accurate, such that within the engineering, the experience can be altered to address the needs of individual students. i very much appreciate the author sharing a history of successful distance-learning tools. within these we can explore successful techniques to develop more effective teaching within the MOOC environemnt. and, having acknowledged my agreement with my friend's statement, i will take a step to the side to explore what MOOC's and museums share as learning environments.

    to begin, both are environments for leisure based learning. the opportunity for learning in such environments comes largely from the desire of the participant. this could be said of traditional school environments as well, except in those environments, social and monetary gains likely play a much larger role. gains received by visiting museums or signing up for MOOC's are driven by more personal desires.

    the delivery of content in both environments is essentially static. in most cases, content does not change to address the needs of the user. i say largely because there are the exceptions. students who participate heavily in MOOC forums, engaging instructors and students in dialogue and debate are much like museum visitors taking guided tours. for the sake of this comparison, i choose to ignore these "active" participants.

    so then, who are the users in these environments?

    John Falk, in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, breaks museum visitors into the following categories:

    Explorers are those seeking personal curiosity.
    Facilitators are those motivated by other people and their needs, such as a parent bringing a child or a woman bringing a date to a museum.
    Experience Seekers, such as tourists, are exploring what a space has to offer.
    Professionals & Hobbyists have a keen interest in seeking something specific.
    Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience for themselves.

    within this article, it is rightly stated that "there is more than one way to “complete” a MOOC. any meaningful evaluation of MOOCs must take more than just completion into account.." basically, rather than judging all MOOC enrollees under the same measure of success (pass/fail), why not measure based on their particular desire for the course?

    following this idea, i question museum measurements of successful engagement with visitors? rather than measuring based solely on knowledge retention, or transformative experience (honestly, how many museums actually take the time to measure impact of any sort), should we judge successful experiences on satisfying the reason for attending? did we satisfy the the Explorer's curiosity? did the Tourist feel it was a worthwhile excursion and will they share photos and stories? did the Hobbyist find specific information? to explore this idea would mean investing more effort into developing products that address the variety of visitor types, or making firm decisions on what types of visitors they want to exclude.

    more to the point of the original article, i wonder what MOOC's a learning from the history of successful distance learning models? as we share more information online, will museums repeat the mistakes of Coursera or Kahn or invest in the research necessary to leapfrog those follies? even without moving into the distance learning realm, what are we doing to address disengagement amongst visitors currently? are we actively changing our tools for visitors engagement much like MOOC's, hopefully, are addressing these critiques and bettering the learning experience for enrollees?

    this recent study by Cornell and Stanford Universities breaks MOOC students into the following categories:
    Viewers watch much but do little.
    Bystanders enroll but quickly disappear
    Collectors download information, and not much more.
    Solvers do the work but don't participate in lectures
    All-Rounders go all in.

    for museums, i add the following descriptors:
    Scanners look at the big ideas or objects and little else.
    Swimmers move between the big ideas and glancing below the surface, seeing a bit more detail.
    Divers go all in, engaging with activities, text, and artifacts fully.

    these levels are comparable to those in the MOOC study, such that Viewers and Bystanders are much like Scanners, Collectors and Solvers more like Swimmers, and All-rounders are Divers.

    and these do not live separate from Falk's descriptors, but in addition to. so an Explorer could be a Diver or Scann,r; a Recharger could also be a Swimmer, and so on.
    so i return to the initial charge of my colleague. content does not equal education. we know that. even so, museums continue to test visitor engagement with gallery content and continue to share the same result… most visitors do not read labels.

    so the first question, the, is: if visitors aren't reading labels, why do we keep writing them? better yet, why are we not testing a variety of ways to right labels? some museums have done so, and an annual label writing competition shares some great explorations. yet even within these successes, there is so much opportunity for failure. is the font large enough to read? are the artifacts engaging enough to attract? are we measuring results based on a visitors preferred learning style? or their reason for attending that day? have we address visitor comfort? do they feel rushed? are we speaking in the vernacular or in academic terms? the variety of elements affecting success make it quite difficult to pinpoint any one fault. it is the combination of all these elements that create a successful, engaging environment. in short, it is delivering first on experience, such that engagement becomes a natural desire, and tools for learning can be activated.

    in the end, methods for sharing content vary widely. we must look at the entire suite of elements within the environment to address why. why did the person enroll? where the lectures delivered in an engaging manner? where materials delivered in an interesting manner? when learning is based on dialogue between teacher and students, questions and misunderstandings can be readily addressed. so can specific student needs. we can argue MOOC's are not yet succeeding in delivering on learning environments. or we can say they are delivering for 6.5% of attendees. for how many of our visitors are we succeeding? and which types of visitors are they? as our environments change and museums play catch up to the desires of society, i think we'll want to pay close attention to the failures and successes MOOC's present. for I believe, we will see, they are more a mirror to our own challenges within a museum, and those faced by any activity within the leisure based learning realm.