Teens collaborate with design mentors to create Mobile Apps during the App Jam at Carnegie Science Center. Photo: Ben Filio

Openly Networked Learning In and Across Art Museums

How can museums begin to more closely connect with in-school and out-of-school digital literacy practices, tapping the tools of the digital age as well as the elements of making, connecting, and experimenting that create powerful possibilities for learning?  Can we, as museum educators, begin to see ourselves as designers, and reposition ourselves as active agents of change in today’s education environment?  In what ways can museums be more involved in re-envisioning what education looks like?

These questions, among others, have been sparked by my involvement over the past few years in the research and practice around a social and participatory model of learning called Connected Learning —  as well as my work with an inspiring group of educators within the National Writing Project.  And while art museums have been only tangentially related to this practice (which I blame more on us museum educators and less on NWP), I was fortunate enough to be invited to submit a case study for the latest ebook entitled Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom (published online in February through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative).  This volume highlights compelling firsthand counter-narratives from educators engaged in solving an array of challenges in today’s classrooms, drawing together a collaborative network of instructors who have been contributing to the NWP’s web community, “Digital Is.”

I wanted to take the opportunity of this volume’s publication to begin writing more about Connected Learning, sharing its principles and exploring more connections with the practice of teaching and learning in museums.  Below is the text of my case study entitled “Openly Networked Learning in and Across Art Museums,” published first in February 2014 as part of the Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom volume.  This short case study examines the aspects of “openly networked” reflective practice in my work as a museum educator and blogger, pushing forward the concept of museums as spaces where communities of learners can connect, intersect, make, collaborate, and share.  I encourage anyone unfamiliar with Connected Learning to learn more by visiting connectedlearning.tv or downloading the 2013 report Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design — and I plan to write more here at ArtMuseumTeaching.com in the near future.


Openly Networked Learning In and Across Art Museums

What happens when educators converge around shared interests and purposes in the spaces of museums?  How can museums more effectively build diverse networks of educators that support our teaching and learning practice?  Faced with the complex landscape of formal and informal education in the 21st century, museums across the globe have been rethinking their role as actors within their educational community. Not only are museum galleries increasingly becoming open spaces in which communities of learners can connect and intersect, but museum professionals are also developing online spaces of exchange and reflective practice.

As a practicing art museum educator as well as a museum blogger, I find myself constantly in the process of discovering how “openly networked” an art museum can be.

While the growth of online learning communities and Google Hangouts for museums certainly promotes this principle of connected learning, I want to begin by focusing on how museums can support openly networked experiences in the analog, physical space of their galleries.

Museums as physical, analog networks

In November 2011, I was invited to lead an in-gallery workshop for educators at the High Museum of Art as part of a conference hosted by Harvard University’s Project Zero. The experience centered around an extended engagement with Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A,” 1948, which was on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a special exhibition. Instead of an experience guided by information, we began an open, embodied exploration through a series of scaffolded exercises that included slow looking, sharing observations, quick sketches, free writing, and variety of ways to use sound and movement to create responses to the work of art.  Small groups of participants were then invited to pull together sounds, movements, and words to develop creative a public performance in response to the Pollock painting.

teachers explore layers of paint through dynamic movement
teachers explore layers of paint through dynamic movement

One memorable group of three teachers worked together to choreograph a short piece that used their bodies to perform their response to the complex layering of paint and brushstrokes. Freely responding to this single painting through multiple access points as well as public performance, we were able to have a collective learning experience outside of our comfort zone and then immediately “poke at it” and see into the experience as a group. In this case (and many others like it), the art museum becomes a safe, open, and public space in which professional educators from museums, schools, and universities can come together to make learning visible and then reflect upon our practice in a shared space.

Museums as participatory spaces

CoLab community of educators exploring learning at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2012.
community of educators openly exploring learning processes at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2012.

While an art museum gallery can be an amazing place to meet with a class or group of teachers, museums and museum educators must work to actively support openly networked learning experiences. First of all, museums need to see teachers and students as active participants in the learning experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward a more participatory and process-oriented experience.  Part of this involves museums letting go of their ‘authority’ over knowledge and meaning-making, and instead empowering educators to co-create learning experiences with museums — as opposed to passively receiving content from museums, whether that be text panels, audio guides, curators, or museum educators.

Part of achieving this “letting go” is simply valuing teachers’ voices and recognizing teachers as creators of content, knowledge, and meaning in relation to museums. Professional development workshops can be re-envisioned with more of an emphasis on developing communities of practice where we learn from each other no matter what our “home” educational setting might be (school classroom, university, museum, etc.). This sense of creating a community of practice then builds toward a shared, reflective process that leads to professional growth on the side of both teachers and museum educators.

Building online networks of museum educators

The openly networked reflective practice described here does not need to be confined within the walls of a single museum, though.  This is where my experience as a museum blogger has expanded the way that people can connect around issues of museum teaching and learning.  After facilitating the educator workshop at the High Museum of Art back in 2011, I decided to create a multi-author online forum to publicly reflect on my own teaching practice, spotlight the practice of other educators, and provide a space for conversation around larger issues of teaching and learning in museums. Since its launch in February 2012, ArtMuseumTeaching.com has brought together more than 30 authors actively contributing to a growing online community of practice that reaches out to thousands of educators each month.

ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google+ Hangout On Air
ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google+ Hangout

In addition to standard blog-style posts and comments, the site has hosted face-to-face Google+ Hangouts On Air with museum educators and teachers from across the world. The site creates a networked space across museums and teaching contexts, allowing readers and contributors to see into and reflect upon the practice of a wide community of educators.

In their 2012 book Networked: The New Social Operating System, Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman have argued that large online communities actually expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making, and personal interaction.

“People’s relationships remain strong—but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them.”

As ArtMuseumTeaching.com continues to expand as an online space for reflecting on museum practice, I have been exploring how we—as museum and education professionals—maneuver within a technology-mediated world in a way that allows us to cultivate productive, human-centered networks and communities.  Museums and schools have been widely engaged in how digital media and technology can connect them with their students and audiences. But what about the potential of these same technologies to build entirely new “communities of practice” among professionals—whether teachers, university faculty, or museum educators?

I am especially interested in the ways in which an online community like ArtMuseumTeaching.com can, in turn, bring people with shared interests together in physical spaces in new and meaningful ways.  Since 2012, the ArtMuseumTeaching community has hosted several in-person gatherings, including conference sessions, happy hours, and recently the first-ever Museum Teaching Throw Down as well as Gallery Teaching Marathon. As many as one hundred people have come together for these face-to-face social experiences — creating new professional connections and enriching existing collaborations that continue to grow through the online/digital forum.  After all, the relationships we develop online are complex, as a simple Twitter follower or blog reader can quickly become a close colleague, friend, and mentor.  One ArtMuseumTeaching.com Google Hangout in 2013 brought together educators from Australia to New York in real time, and these connections develop new peer networks, partnerships, and professional exchanges that help us all grow personally and professionally.

Through this work that I have been engaged with thus far — both online and in the physical spaces of museum galleries — I feel that the art museum has begun to make a shift in what it has the potential to become: a dynamic cultural landscape where authentic, learner-driven experiences are developed and enacted by teachers and their students. These experiences are opening up museums as places for educators to chart their own path in unpredictable ways, and to invite parallel exploration, risk-taking, and fresh discovery on the part of learners across a variety of contexts.


Originally published in: Garcia, Antero, ed., 2014. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. This report series on connected learning was made possible by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in connection with its grantmaking initiative on Digital Media and Learning. 

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2 thoughts on “Openly Networked Learning In and Across Art Museums”

  1. I really appreciate your blog tremendously; you have established a means by which to consider reflective practice in analog and digital galleries and classrooms. I have lots of thoughts and questions–which I think is great for me, a “seasoned” educator of 20+ years, such as: Are we museum educators becoming a little too engaged with each other? What is the potential for a new paradigm for the grade level field trip and docent training and performance? Can we switch things up and have students present to docents; teachers design the museum experience? Start and extend relationships with a particular group of students for a period longer than an academic year? I love some of the innovative teen experiences that are happening at and around the program at the ICA in Boston. . .it’s all terrifically exciting and challenging.

    1. Kathleen – Thanks! I’m so glad that this online community can be useful, especially in terms of reflective practice. Your questions are fantastic. In terms of being “too engaged with each other,” I do support all the current attempts to connect museum educators into a meaningful dialogue and exchange (I’m not sure we can ever be “too engaged”). However, I do see a great need for our field to reach out to other fields and other professions within the museum to develop a wider network, and a broader connected conversation. Tunnel vision is never a good thing. In terms of your other questions, I encourage others to chime in. I know that many museums are working differently with students and teachers, allowing them to co-create learning experiences of their own. Lots to chew on here. Great to have you be a part of this expanding dialogue!

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