September 16, 2013  |  Learning and Engagement
MOOCS and Museums: Not Such Strange Bedfellows After All

artinquiry-squareThis past spring MoMA decided to team up with the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) provider Coursera to offer professional development for K–12 teachers all over the world. As the assistant director of School and Teacher Programs at MoMA, the MOOC ball landed in my court. I have to admit, teaching a MOOC seemed totally antithetical to my usual approach. This wasn’t the first time that I had explored the idea of teaching online; in 2009 we offered an online and “blended” (asynchronous and synchronous) teacher workshop. But a lot had changed since then, and instead of 15 students per course, we would have something like 17,000! Needless to say, I went into this process gingerly, with lots of questions and not that many answers.

I began planning with my usual design approach: pick a topic and then build from there. But before I could even begin to think about topics, I had to wrap my mind around this seemingly foreign structure of the MOOC platform. I needed to sit and think about what content would translate well into video or other online-friendly formats, and what kinds of student engagement we could foster among thousands of participants who don’t all speak the same language. Suddenly, I felt like one of my students, sitting in front of the dreaded blank page (or, in this case, screen).

Coursera-tweetsAfter some active research, including attending a few MOOCs on Coursera, I was able to identify things that worked really well, and things that I knew to avoid. Most MOOCs that I experienced featured long and exhaustive video lectures with lots of quizzes and tests. This did not motivate me to participate. I decided that videos needed to be concise and that testing could not be the only metric for achievement in the course. Given that this was our first MoMA MOOC, and one of the first MOOCS for K–12 teachers to be offered on Coursera, I decided it would be best to keep the topic broad and to focus on concrete skills and strategies that teachers could easily integrate into their teaching. Once I had these two pedagogical guidelines in place, the rest started to unfold fairly organically. Culling from our archive of video recordings of MoMA educators in the galleries, Digital Learning Project Coordinator Valerie Caesar and I organized a sequence of four weekly videos featuring best practices in museum teaching. We also created intros for each weekly module that gave a context for all of the teaching materials, including suggested readings and quizzes.

As in my onsite teacher workshops, a key component had to involve the teachers exchanging ideas with each other in discussion forums, and this interaction had to be part of their course grade. This is one area that I was very unsure about. Although in person teachers have always expressed that they wish they had more time to work collaboratively, I wasn’t convinced that, even when motivated by a grade, they would exchange in the ways I had hoped. When all was said and done, the preliminary survey findings and student comments tell us that this course was a success. The quality of the content and student participation in the discussion forums far surpassed my hopes. Even the forums that were not required saw a flurry of activity and resource sharing. And this interaction occurred not just among classroom teachers. The MOOC attracted educators of all types, and even museum curators were inspired to take part in discussions.

In the end I came to realize that our museum education–based strategies and the MOOC platform fit together very well. I believe that the 17,000-plus people enrolled in our Art and Inquiry MOOC were every bit as engaged as my on site workshop attendees, and, in some ways, perhaps even more so.

Similar to a blog post Deborah Howes wrote pre-MOOC about online course development, I thought I would leave you with some tips should you dare to MOOC:

Think outside the box.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the seemingly unknown. Brainstorm all of your ideas and try mocking some up to see what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t reinvent the wheel.
If you have pre-existing content (audio, video etc), then use it. You don’t have to re-create things you already have.

If you build it, they will come.
Teachers are motivated, thoughtful, and totally committed to their students, so just as they are willing to do PD on weekends, summers, or after school, they were willing to share in the MOOC.

It takes a village.
As an educator I was less comfortable with the media side. I was lucky to have both production and online pedagogical know-how to draw on. In the end, my colleagues’ feedback and input was integral.

Less is more.
The first thing that struck me was how quickly I tuned out of video lectures that were over 20 minutes. I also realized that unless I had a strong interest in the content, it was hard for me to stay engaged. Give people digestible tips!

Don’t be afraid of discomfort.
Let go of all the things you already know, and try some things that take you out of your comfort zone.