MOOCs and other digital learning and discovery tools are without a doubt one of the most exciting new opportunities the digital age offers museums. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing the MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History (amongst many others) engage thousands with their online courses. It’s a big experiment and – as David Greenfield writes on Edgital – there’s still a lot we don’t know about the potential of MOOCs for museums and museum education.
In recent months I’ve been facilitating and participating in quite a few webinars and MOOCs and I’ve been blown away by their potential to make things happen. At the same time I’ve more than once seen the limits of these tools, such as the ease at which participants get left behind (‘dropouts’) and how they reaffirm existing power relationships (you need to have Internet access and often speak English). In a contemporary debate in my country, digital media and education are even said to be a dangerous combination.
Nonsense, of course. Because even if it’s true that contemporary MOOCs might be limited in scale and scope and world-changing power, there’s no way back to a world in which paper, chalk and blackboards rule. With the amount of smart people thinking about digital education, future iterations of the same idea (xMOOCs, cMOOCs, COOCs, SOOCs or however they’ll be called) will without a doubt fulfill most of today’s promises.
With over 3 million people enrolled in Coursera and many millions more in similar programmes as well as with thousands of facilitators running webinars, there’s not just a lot of potential in digitally enabled and enhanced learning and discovery but also a lot to learn from all the ideas and energy this momentum generates. I for one learned tons about storytelling and online involvement from spending four months in Philip Zelikow’s modern history MOOC. And I learned a whole lot about digital engagement from facilitating a wide range of webinars. These lessons apply, I think, to all digital engagement:
- It may be massive, but it’s pointless if there’s no personal connection
In Philip Zelikow’s class you could see when something exciting was about to happen in world history (if, like me, you failed to see it coming even in retrospect): he would have a little smile while introducing the next topic. The smile sparked many forum discussions: participants loved it! Here was a man, highly knowledgable, very respectable, and still very human and open. Like many students I felt a personal connection with the professor, which was enforced by his regular appearance in the forums and regular, friendly emails. This must have involved a massive amount of work for the Zelikow and his team, which I think is a prerequisite for any facilitator trying to achieve digital engagement.
- Not social media; social social
Of course, of course! you say, learning and discovery are primarily social activities, even when done online. Running webinars has taught me that to be meaningful they need coffee breaks, chitchat between facilitators and participants, gossip between sessions and all the other things that make learning and discovery in real life so much fun. Digital engagement is not just social media, it’s social social. Talking, human interaction, non-verbal communication, maybe even touch and smell (but all that in its digital form). In digital engagement, social media are a distracting tool.
- Recognition and rewards
Fourteen weeks, at least three to four hours per week is a significant investment in anything and especially in a voluntary online course about modern history. Yet it is nothing compared to the investment ordinary people make in online communities, building profiles, staying up-to-date. To avoid dropouts, MOOCs continuously experiment with recognition and rewards to keep their audience engaged. It doesn’t have to be much: a friendly thank-you and PDF showing your accomplishments go a long way in the digital age.
- Online doesn’t mean alone
The biggest eye-opener for me is that although online communication is often one to one (one organisation talking to one individual in the audience), in many of my webinars the ‘one’ on the receiving end actually was a group of participants sharing the same laptop. I’ve heard of MOOC study groups where people watch the videos together. People online are not necessarily (physically) alone. When thinking about digital engagement this means the people at the receiving end will talk, discuss and exchange ideas outside of the scope of the digital environment and maybe only report some key words back. This provides huge opportunities for facilitators in webinars and other online processes.
Working with MOOCs, webinars and other digital learning and discovery tools is one of the most exciting things I’ve been doing in recent months. I believe the results I achieve in teams with clients using primarily online tools and the developments I make myself as a professional are very valuable and worth investing in. I’m sure these are just some of the lessons to be learned and I’m curious to hear what you’re thoughts are. Thanks in advance!
Header photo by adesigna on Flickr.