We Flipped Our Museum — Here’s What We Learned

Written by Emily Kotecki, Distance Learning Educator, North Carolina Museum of Art.

At the North Carolina Museum of Art, we are creating a new model to activate the learning experience before, during and after a visit to the NCMA. Expanding on the online courses we’ve developed and offered for the last five years, we spent the last year piloting a new approach to distance learning. We were inspired by the educational trends of blended learning, the flipped classroom and choice-based art education. These trends aim to personalize the learning experience by providing didactic instruction (like watching videos and reading articles) at home and then have opportunities to apply new knowledge in class so the experience is collaborative and engaging; we wanted to similarly deepen and activate the museum learning experience, so we “flipped” the museum.

This spring, our Flipped Museum pilot program was called “Artists in Process.” Sixteen classes from different cities across North Carolina were paired together online to research, explore, and reflect on the artistic process. We developed an online learning platform with a company in North Carolina to support social interaction and choice-based learning. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to explore while developing their own work of art and sharing their progress online with each other.

We took away four lessons from this experience and we expect to continue to learn more as we revise the Flipped Museum model.

#1 Students want to make meaningful connections to each other, not just the museum

The 16 classes were organized into pairs based on the level of the art class, geographical location and the teacher’s familiarity with blended learning and choice-based art education. Students from each pair of classes could log in to their specific group in the platform to share progress on their projects, questions and ideas, as well as ‘like’ and ‘comment’ on each other’s work. The pairs of classes also met up at the NCMA for the museum visit.

While we wanted to prepare students to come to the museum and engage with art, students were equally, if not more excited about connecting with and talking to other teens from across the state.

Sometimes we assume that because teens like sharing and communicating online via social media, they’ll automatically be motivated to share with each other. But teens are both excited and intimidated by new experiences. In future programs we will focus on developing specific activities and assignments that build a community between teens online so they are not just ready for the museum, but ready to meet and interact with each other. We would also encourage classes to meet via video conferencing or Google Hangouts before meeting at the museum. Social interaction is the foundation for building a strong distance learning program and if teens feel uncomfortable with each other, it can hinder the entire experience.

Students from Bryson City and Chapel Hill participate in an ice breaker before starting the museum visit.
Students from Bryson City and Chapel Hill participate in an ice breaker before starting the museum visit.

#2 Too much flexibility can be overwhelming

We developed this curriculum to allow for what we hoped would be maximum flexibility for students and teachers. We provided the course content and platform as well as some classroom activity ideas at different points in the course; students had choice over the direction of their project, and we left most of the lesson planning and timeline to the teachers.

Each component of the Flipped Museum aimed to put the learning in the control of the learner – whether that was teacher planning with their partner or students choosing the direction of their project. Students chose one of three concepts and numerous artists they wanted to research; which media they wanted to use; which works of art to include in a virtual exhibition; and ultimately the development and completion of their final project.

What we heard is that teachers wanted more guidance/support in how to guide students. Even though the course provided some activity ideas, teachers wanted more specific ways to encourage online interactions, more specific assignments and discussion prompts, suggested timelines, etc.

In future revisions we’ll work to strike a balance between being too structured and too unstructured, while also being able to scale and sustain the program as it grows from 16 classes to 32 and beyond.

#3 The Museum Visit

In the middle of the course, the class pairs met up at the NCMA for a self-guided experience where they broke into small groups based on the concept they selected (with students from both classes) and curated a virtual exhibition using the social media platform of their choice. Members from the NCMA teen programs staff would meet the classes at the beginning and end of their experience to welcome them to the NCMA and then reflect on their visit.

Distance and digital learning has immense power to transcend the physical walls of our museum and reach new audiences. But over and over again, our evaluations show that visiting the NCMA and seeing the objects in person is the highlight of this experience. Students also looked forward to meeting each other and talking about art with each other. As alluded to earlier, we’d provide more structure to scaffold learning to encourage both collaboration  between students and individual time for students to make their own connections. While not all distance learning programs have to have an onsite component, for the Flipped Museum model, an onsite visit completes the experience.

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Students from Fairmont High School used Instagram to curate their exhibition during the museum visit.

 #4 Know where and how students access online content

North Carolina is 22% rural. Only 17% of “North Carolina households have fixed Internet connections at a speed the FCC deems the “minimum required to engage in modern life.”’ In a time when museums are developing advanced technologies like user-directed robots, we assume students have access to computers and reliable Internet at home, when in fact our students primarily accessed the online course at school or on mobile devices. We are working with our developers to enhance our platform so that it is mobile friendly and not a source of frustration. Furthermore, the mobile platform should equally support the sort of social and active learning experience in our programs.

In Conclusion…

Dialogue is the foundation for helping students meet our learning outcomes. We aim to create a safe and welcoming space for teens to share, interact and converse with each other online and onsite. In the coming months, we’ll be revising Artists in Process and reflecting on the Flipped Museum model to incorporate guided social learning and dialogue consistently and deliberately throughout the experience.

It seems that more and more museums are taking thoughtful risks as they pioneer new ways to connect with audiences through technology. Mobile apps, digitizing collections, social media, media labs, robots, online learning – these technologies can deepen learning experiences for visitors while also developing transformative relationships with the museum.

Learn more

You can read more about our Flipped Museum model and other distance learning initiatives in museums by checking out the Summer 2015 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focusing on “Online Learning and Museums.”

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