February 27, 2013  |  Events & Programs
How to Make Online Courses for Museums
Pablo Helguera and Eva Respini discuss the work of Cindy Sherman. Shown: Cindy Sherman. Untitled #474. 2008

Pablo Helguera and Eva Respini discuss the work of Cindy Sherman in a MoMA online course. Shown: Cindy Sherman. Untitled #474. 2008. Chromogenic color print. Acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund. © 2013 Cindy Sherman

As Director of Digital Learning in the Department of Education, I answer many questions about how MoMA makes online courses. Here are my top six thoughts, aka The Six Ts:

As breaking any museum into equal and interesting parts can be challenging, I recommend going for variety and listening to your students. Ten-week survey courses provide a great framework for understanding important historical trajectories, and we balance these with shorter, thematic courses, the subjects of which are based on questions commonly asked by visitors. Questions like “Why is this photograph ugly?” “What is the point of a room full of wrapped candy?” and “How does this performance fit into an art museum?” inspired MoMA educator Pablo Helguera to create Five Puzzles of Contemporary Art, a course designed to help visitors identify patterns of artistic intention among the most bewildering artworks.

Teaching art online is, well…an art! Our online instructors must pass a screen test, Andy Warhol–style, and we select the ones who appear relaxed and have the ability to convey complex ideas in compelling and accessible ways. Studio art instructors must be great at explaining what they do while actually doing it, which is harder than you might think. We also look for instructors who transmit warmth and enthusiasm in their writing. Our star teachers attract loyal student followings and mentor the new instructors, and we are so grateful to have them.

Of course, museums are full of them, but my “treasures” are more than collection objects—they include rarely seen materials from the archives, the expertise of art conservators, recordings of interviews with artists, and the knowledge of staff from all parts of the Museum. Online courses are a fantastic platform to bring these disparate elements together into a cohesive narrative. For example, MoMA has one of the largest and most important collections of Fluxus art, yet much of it—such as paper instructions for performances—is quite challenging for a gallery display. Fortunately, we have on staff a Fluxus artist and expert, Jon Hendricks, who agreed to reenact Fluxus artworks from the collection in front of the camera. (Below you see him pouring water according to a Fluxus score.) And our Conservation team has produced a wealth of “how to” materials that complete students’ understanding of art and the Museum’s role in its care.

John Hendricks, with instructor Pablo Helguera, pouring water according to a Fluxus score

Artist and consulting curator John Hendricks, with instructor Pablo Helguera, pouring water according to a Fluxus score

Learning online should not be a passive experience. In fact, experts in neuroscience and pedagogy all agree that if students can make something or teach something—in other words, put knowledge into practice—that subject is more likely to become a permanent part of their memory. Even the simple act of cutting paper with scissors becomes a bonding experience online, inspiring extensive classroom critiques among students that some alumni have continued their in Facebook groups.

Instructor Katerina Lanfranco demonstrating a Matisse cut-out

Instructor Katerina Lanfranco demonstrating a Henri Matisse cutout technique

Learning online should be as inspiring and self-directed as visiting a museum, where you see and experience objects and information at your own pace. This is one reason why we often offer both instructor-led and self-guided versions of the same course. But whatever the format, our teaching method is the same: art history lectures, studio demonstrations, and introductory texts all feature similar key concepts presented and explained in different ways. That way, even if a student does not review ALL of the content in a lesson, chances are good that they will have encountered the important ideas at least once. This triangulation approach also supports a variety of learning styles: some visitors prefer hearing new information, others like to observe process, read text, or do a project. All of our audio content is captioned, which our international students and those with hearing loss greatly appreciate. As we attract students of every age and background from all over the world, we think broadly about how people learn.

We are continually learning about our online students through surveys, discussion posts, and Facebook activity. We know what they like about our courses (the teachers and behind-the-scenes access), and we take their suggestions for improvement seriously. Our alumni are very loyal to the program and enroll in multiple courses—some even call us when they visit MoMA. Building a lifelong learning community is as important to the students as it is to us, the staff. As we pass the 2,500 enrollment mark (since 2010), one of our big challenges is keeping in touch with everyone. Thank goodness for social media!

To stay in touch with MoMA Courses Online, visit You can also follow us on Twitter @MoMAlearning; like our MoMA Course Alumni page on Facebook; or attend a Google Hangout online open house called “How to Teach Art Online” at 8:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, March 6.