Interview: Behind the Scenes at 21st Century Museum Studies
PASSIONATE ABOUT MUSEUM STUDIES BUT DON'T HAVE THE TIME OR FINANCES TO INVEST RIGHT NOW? WE CAUGHT UP WITH ROBIN CLARKE, THE DISTANCE LEARNING ACADEMIC MANAGER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER (UK) TO TALK ABOUT HOW MOOCs COULD HELP BRIDGE THE GAP IN ARTS HIGHER EDUCATION
1. What incited this turn towards MOOC for a traditional institution like yours?
We don’t think that we are a traditional department! For almost fifty years, the department has been at the forefront of thinking around museum theory and practice. We are proud to have an amazing record in research and teaching and to be creative and collaborative in how we undertake both of these areas of our work. The MOOC, however, offered us a new platform to share some of our teaching and research and some of the case studies delivered by our amazing partners at National Museums Liverpool. As such, it was a natural progression for us. We love to debate issues affecting contemporary museum practice and the MOOC offered us the opportunity to do that with a huge range of people – that made it an opportunity not to be missed.
2. What kind of audience/course takers have you attracted within the course?
We haven’t yet seen the breakdown of statistics on our users, but it is clear from the comments that have been posted that we have attracted a diverse range of people. Clearly a large number of our learners were already working in museums in different corners of the globe. Others were keen museum visitors wanting to know more about contemporary museum practice. We had people of many different backgrounds and with a huge range of different opinions – and they weren’t afraid to express them
3. How did the collaboration between National Liverpool Museums and University of Leicester come about?
This is not a new partnership for this project, but a long standing relationship. Staff from National Museums Liverpool are engaged in our teaching and research projects and have been for many years. The director of National Museums Liverpool acts as an external examiner for the School of Museum Studies. NML is a creative and forward thinking organisation that demonstrates how much of the research undertaken in the School of Museum Studies can play out in real museum practice. That made them an ideal partner for this project.
4. How do you see the MOOC complementing traditional courses you have at the university, if it does at all?
It certainly complements our courses and we hope that it gives learners the opportunity to have a taster of the type of teaching and research that we undertake and the topics that we cover on our postgraduate programmes here at the School. It also gave our students and PhD researchers a chance to contribute to a teaching project that has had huge exposure with 11,000 learners across the world.
5. Do you think there’s something that makes your MOOC different to others that exist today?
There’s a great number of MOOCs out there now, and all of them have something unique about them. As far as we are aware, this was the first MOOC in the field of Museum Studies and unique in that sense.
The data that we currently have available to us suggests that one thing we excelled at was encouraging people to comment and participate in the online discussions as part of the course. Over 50% of our learners actively participated in the discussions, which is well over the average usually achieved by MOOCs on the FutureLearn platform. I think we achieved this by actively seeking people’s opinions, but also by presenting our own point of view. I think this encourages debate and discussion. Many learners have told us that they have spent hours reading the comments and discussions, and this is really great to hear – we’ve loved reading them too!
6. What areas of learning have you decided to focus on for this MOOC and why?
We want to give people a feel for the type of research that we undertake here in the department and the themes that you might encounter if you studied with us, so this has essentially defined the learning areas within the MOOC. Some of these areas are relatively new research areas for the School, others are areas where the School has conducted ongoing research over a number of years. So, museums, social justice and human rights is a key research theme for us, as is representation within the museum, museum architecture and museums contribution to health and wellbeing. Of course these only represent a small number of research themes for a very diverse, multi-disciplinary department.
7. What role do you see MOOCs playing in the future of museum education?
There’s a lot of potential for the MOOC, or ‘MOOC-like’ content to play a huge role in the future of museum education. There is an increasing demand, particularly amongst distance learners, to have much more content delivered online as podcasts or videos or live-streamed lectures and discussions as part of our postgraduate programmes. . The MOOC has given us great experience of developing more content of this sort as well as helping us to develop new expertise in this area. Expectations of how a distance learning degree is delivered are changing fast as new technologies emerge, but that’s not to say there isn’t still a need for books and lectures too!
Of course there is also huge potential not just for academic programmes like those we currently offer, but also for shorter courses and sector-facing CPD to be delivered in this way to the museum sector. A great number of our learners on the MOOC were museum practitioners seeking CPD and the platform and learning styles used have clearly engaged them, so there is a discussion to be had about CPD, and how MOOCs or MOOC-like platforms can be used to deliver this.
8. What are some of the challenges you faced that you hadn’t anticipated?
Actually, it all ran remarkably smoothly. We had support from a great team at FutureLearn and our brilliant educational designers and learning technologists here at the University. They had already developed two popular MOOCs and knew what to look out for, so were able to guide us through the process. It is a big undertaking and lots of planning is necessary, particularly when you seek to involve so many people both internally and from a partner organisation, but it is perfectly achievable. Our partners and academic team here were deeply committed to making the MOOC a success, and I think buy-in like that from everyone who is contributing is absolutely essential.
The frustration of such a course is, of course, that you want to read everything and get involved in the discussions, but when people post upwards of 40,000 comments, it’s just not feasible. We try and review the comments as best we can and offer a little feedback in the end-of-week email and the final video that we posted at the end of each week, but you simply can’t conduct a conversation with thousands of learners when you also have a job to get on with!
9. Are you going to offer this MOOC again?
Yes, absolutely. We are committed to running this course again, but we have, as yet, not set a date. It’ll probably be in a few months’ time.
10. Anything else you like to add that we haven’t covered but you feel is important?
I think, maybe, just to say what an incredible learning experience this has been for us too. We’ve seen so many people post so many different comments, and it was very clear that not everyone agreed with us all of the time – but then we didn’t expect them too! I think the fact that people were prepared to publicly disagree with what we were saying is possibly what created such a lively discussion forum with so many people pitching in and voicing their opinions. We’ve loved reading what everyone has had to say.
It’s also been a great experience for us in preparing and delivering a different kind of learning experience and trying out new pedagogies. The experience of developing and delivering the MOOC is already feeding into projects to revise and redevelop some of our distance learning programmes here at the School and I think will have an impact on how we deliver teaching for some time to come.
Overall, we’re thrilled with how the MOOC has gone and how well received it has been. The feedback at the end of the course has been fantastic and we are deeply grateful to everyone who has taken an interest in the course.
This post is part of a larger series unweaving the ways in which digital technology is transforming higher education. If you're working on a similar project or have taken a MOOC before, please do leave a comment with your experience. Alternatively, if you have an interesting story to share, please do get in touch!