What Can Art Museums Learn from the MOOC Phenomenon?

Written by Linda Forshaw, guest author
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MOOC-connections1In recent years there has been a new player in the field of education. MOOC (massive open online courses) have taken the world (somewhat) by storm with various free courses from prestigious (and sometimes not so prestigious) universities and colleges. Here is a quick YouTube video describing the basic nuts and bolts of a MOOC, if you are thinking “What in the world is a MOOC?”

Despite there being some skepticism — mainly in relation to the quality of education, incidents of plagiarism, and low completion rates — the popularity of online education platforms continue to grow. In an article entitled “The Year of the MOOC,” Laura Pappano writing for the New York Times reports how the online learning revolution–that reportedly started when more than 150,000 willing students enrolled on an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course back in the fall of 2011–has grown at an ever increasing pace. As an example, some 370,000 students signed up for the first official courses from edX, a nonprofit MOOC created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. edX is not alone in attracting record numbers of online students. Coursera, a for-profit MOOC created by Stanford professor Andrew Ng, has seen 1.7 million students sign up since its inception.

The pace at which online learning is traveling continues to grow. The year 2013 is set to herald a new offering from the UK’s Open University. Futurelearn, the country’s first real step into MOOC platforms is set to offer courses from Kings College London, the University of Warwick, and others. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., 2U (one of ten startups changing the world according to Forbes) is planning to advance the field of online learning even further by by offering paid, for-credit undergraduate degrees from the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory Universities.

With online learning platforms showing no immediate signs of abating, the question remains how art museums can play a role in this sweeping open education movement? It seems that they already are to at least some extent . Initiatives to deliver art to the masses by the likes of the Khan Academy, Google Art Project, The Virtual Hampson Museum, The Giza Archives, and Europeana have been heralded by some as offering an opportunity for those alienated from the world of art to get involved and slated by others who argue that images of famous painting and other artifacts are all well and good, but fall short as an adequate substitution for the real thing.

MOOC1Perhaps the best path forward for museums looking to make inroads in online learning is to create courses that can act as complementary to personal visits, but also provide more than enough information to be sufficient in their own right for those who cannot (for whatever reason) attend in person. Thanks to the Google Art Project and the expansion of the Khan Academy into art history, displaying works online is likely to become increasingly commonplace for museum and art galleries. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, in their article explaining why the Google Art Project is important, report that other museums have started to make public domain images available for download – namely The Brooklyn Museum,, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The National Gallery of Art. As a result, those who do not get involved may well be left behind.

While there is much discussion about what these open technologies are not, what we do know is that they are expanding opportunities like no other and it can be reasonably said that the museums themselves should join others in discussing the options for learning.

And isn’t learning what it’s all about?

Author

lindaLinda Forshaw is a Business Information Systems graduate from Lancaster University in the UK. A contributor to Degree Jungle, she is a full time writer and blogger specializing in education, social media, and entrepreneurship. Contact her on Twitter @seelindaplay

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for linking to our blog post. I just want to point out that Dr. Beth Harris co-authored, “Why the Google Art Project is important”

  2. I just took a Map Design Class through Skillshare (http://www.skillshare.com/) which might have some interesting possibilities for museum education. The model is that each student can watch a series of lectures, create a project board to post their assignments, others can comment (including the teacher) and you can work at your own pace. The classes do cost money – but are all really reasonable ($15-$25). While I do love learning in an actual classroom and the social aspect of being around other students – I think that on-line learning can’t be ignored and has some really great opportunities to make information even more accessible.

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