I’ve been writing a lot about the future of education: how we are on the cusp of transformational change, and how museums may play a vital role in the next educational era. Today Steven Lubar, director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, offers this spot-on summary of the forces working to unbundle higher education into its constituent pieces, and savvy suggestions for how museums can respond.
Education is imploding. It’s not just classes that are flipping. It’s the whole idea of what schools should do. Or not do: the New York Times reports that Silicon Valley billionaire dropouts think that the really good students should just drop out and become Silicon Valley billionaires.
But a moment of panic in education can be a moment of opportunity for museums.
What’s changing and how can we take advantage of it?
Teaching is changing. This is getting the most publicity. Online courses are everywhere. MOOCs – the ugly acronym for Massive Open Online Courses - are looming in the background, 100,000-student online courses that, though they have no financial model, and unknown efficacy, and limited subjects where they seem likely to succeed, have university administrators running scared. Smaller scale changes – the Khan Academy’s notion of having the students watch video lectures for homework, using the class for discussion and one-on-one work are taking off. So is the focus on measuring achievement, in a million ways. Badges for everyone, and everything.
Research is changing. While the traditional humanities are fighting a rear-guard action in defense of theory and the right of faculty to write only for other faculty, a sense of the importance public engagement and a connection to the wider world is getting stronger.
Publishing is changing. Academic journals and publishers are having a hard time. The web explodes with content, and faculty are realizing that if they want to make an impact, if they want their material read, the open web is the place for it.
Employment in higher education is changing. Just search twitter for #alt-ac.
What can museums learn from this?
For a start, there are new opportunities to work with universities. As universities open the door to new kinds of teaching and research, museums should be at the door. Museums are good at public engagement. Let’s partner with universities to share our audiences.
Museum collections, openly available online, can serve as the raw materials for the world of on-line university research and teaching. But it also works the other way. As universities try to see what makes physical spaces interesting and gives them an edge in competing with MOOCs and other virtual classes – we suggest that real artifacts are the perfect complement to real interactions between faculty and students.
And in a world where opportunities to learn are increasingly distributed, where a student might get credit for a MOOC here and a badge there, museums can play to their strengths in offering a smorgasbord of activities for a student audiences. Museums have the content and know what works for teaching: now they can get credit. The Smithsonian has started offering badges. Museums should be ready when colleges start offering course credit for badges.
But museums will have to change to take advantage of the turmoil roiling our colleagues in education.
We’ll need to be open and available. We need to let our collections be used by others for their ends. That means sharing online collections and images as open data, being open to collaborations, letting go.
It means that we need to break down the walls that separate curatorial expertise and educational expertise within the museum. Curators and curatorial knowledge will have to be open to the public. The one rule of the web is disintermediation: no more gatekeepers. Curators will need to be open directly to their audiences. Museum educators will need to know collections and content. Those jobs will merge as the museum opens up.
We need to celebrate our physical and social spaces. Museums offer the social experiences and direct connection with the real thing that universities give up as they move on line. We can play the role not just of classroom and laboratory but also student center.
Museums can come out of this stronger than they are now. With collections information and expertise online and available, and social spaces open for engagement, they offer a lot that universities need. Museums can take advantage of the confusion in the world of education to make themselves an essential element of the new world of education being shaped now – even if we don’t know yet what it will be.