Reflections on teaching museum digital practice in 2019

When I was early in my teaching career at GWU, I had a conversation with Cait Reizman  about her belief that students need to be able to leave a museum studies program with something tangible that they could share with future employers. The comment stayed with me, and since that time I’ve thought about how best to realise that aim. I initially asked students to blog, since public writing had been so beneficial to my own career. But recently, I’ve become less comfortable with requiring students take on the risk of public writing without the benefit of prior review. This fall, I tackled the problem differently.

Inspired by the Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference book project, which my co-editors and I produced in less than four months after the MCN conference last year, my students in Museums and Digital Technology took on an ambitious project. Together, we created a digital publication about the state of digital practice in museums in 2019. Each student was responsible for creating one 3,500-4,000-word piece of writing that dives deeply into a specific research area related to the overall topic of museums and digital technology. Student projects could synthesize current readings and practice around a broad area, or dive deeper into a single technology or case study related to the theme of digital practice and its impact on the museum. Students would then work with a small group of peer reviewers to develop their ideas and writing alongside regular feedback from me. The finished publication is built on Quire, the open source multiformat publishing platform created by the Getty. Each student was responsible for defining and researching their topic and writing their paper, then I, working closely with Greg Albers, Digital Publication Manager at the Getty, was responsible for compiling the final book.

The intent was that that students would gain a broad overview into the issues related to technology in museums today via weekly lectures and discussions; a deep engagement with a topic of personal or professional interest through a research project; experience in a collaborative creative environment through the peer review process; and practical skills in Markdown language. At the end of the semester, each student would have a published piece to share with peers, colleagues and friends. From my perspective, this has been a hugely successful approach to teaching on museum digital practice. As the semester matured, I found students bringing their own research into class discussions with depth and maturity. Additionally, multiple students reached out to museum professionals from around the sector to find out more about specific projects they were working on, growing their insights beyond those that I could provide and enabling professional networking.

I am so proud of what my students have produced in what was ultimately a ten-week period from initial proposal through to publication. Their essays are thoughtful and interesting, with varied topics such as empathy and technology in Holocaust museums, shifting paradigms in visitor participation (which focusses on user-generated content), social media and crisis communications, social media collecting practices in museums, collections management policies and procedures for Time-Based Media and many more.  The flexibility of Quire’s format enabled experimentation in writing style, form and content. Students embedded gifs, Sketchfab mockups and JSON files in their papers. Some essays were personal and others took a more formal tone. 

Of course, there are some challenges with a project like this. Since this project was an experiment in the works, we were figuring out some of it as we went, so there are some inconsistencies with formatting and style. This is exacerbated by the short turnaround time from when students handed in their completed essays to our final publishing date. The tight turnarounds were also challenging for students who get sick or need to miss a deadline for some other external reason. There is, for instance, one essay still to be added to the book, which will now happen after launch. Beyond this, there are naturally gaps in my knowledge in certain areas, so there may be areas of critique that I missed or could better have supported. One possible area for future development of this approach is to seek volunteer peer-reviewers from around the sector who might be able to work with students on their essays, although that introduces other kinds of contingencies to take into account.

This was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on as a professor, and it took significantly more investment than other kinds of teaching, because I needed to be supervisor and editor to each student, as well as running weekly classes. I also needed to learn how to use Quire and become somewhat familiar with Github. But I think the results have been absolutely worth it. My long-term hope is to repeat this project each time I teach this course moving forward, so that we build up an archive of public student research over time, which can act as a marker about their ongoing and specific concerns and interest in the sector.

Thank you to Greg Albers for his generous work helping us bring this publication to life, and to each of my students for diving in wholeheartedly. If you are interested in reading the syllabus for this course in more detail or finding out about this project, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Teaching a new course on museum ethics

This semester, I’m teaching a new course on Museum Ethics and Values. Early in the development of this course, I reached out via Twitter for thoughts about the kind of topics the course should address. These discussions have informed the final approach, so I wanted to share and revisit them. (I didn’t include every response, but here is a sense of the range and scope…)

Museum Neutrality & Systems of Oppression


All about that money (and governance)

Employment & Wage Equity

How to act work with and through ethical dilemmas (institutionally or personally)

Other interesting questions

The final course focuses primarily on contemporary cases and discussions to consider the institutional context of ethics, with the intent of helping my students understand the state of the field today. The top-line subjects we’re discussing include:

  • What is Ethics?
  • Codes of Ethics and Professional Standards
  • Museums, Money and Power
  • Ethical Curatorial Practices
  • Deaccessioning
  • Repatriation, Restitution and Human Remains
  • Issues in Ethical Conservation
  • Decolonization, Indigenization and Legacies of Colonialism
  • Working with Communities
  • Museum Neutrality + Social Justice
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • (Some) Issues Related to Digital Practice
  • Labor Issues
  • How to negotiate ethical issues as an emerging professional

Discussions about diversity are incorporated throughout, as are conversations about power (and who has it, who doesn’t). Being the first iteration of the course, I’m sure there are gaps and areas of practice that are missing or could be more effectively discussed, but after week three of class, this feels like a good starting place. It’s worth noting that this is now a core course for all students studying Museum Studies at GW, which they will take in their first year, so that considerations about ethics and ethical practice underpin the program.

Thank you my colleagues at GW, Gregory Stevens at the Institute of Museum Ethics, Ellie Miles, Jennifer Kingsley and everyone who weighed in on the initial Tweet for your thoughts. In anyone is interested in reading the syllabus in more detail, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Living (and learning) with social media

When I applied to join the faculty at GWU this year, I spent a lot of time working on my statement of teaching philosophy. I hadn’t written anything like this before, and wanted to make sure that my approach to teaching was informed, and appropriate to the types of subjects I’d be teaching. One of the pedagogic approaches I was most interested in was connected learning, which utilises digital media and online networks to enable personalised and integrated teaching.

According to Mimi Ito et al., connected learning is:

socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. [It] is realized when a young person pursues a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career possibilities, or civic engagement.

Connected learning is founded on three core values: equity, full participation, and social connection. Its learning principles propose that learning should be interest-powered (enabling personalised learning pathways), peer-supported, and academically oriented, while its design principles focus on learning that is production-centered (it should involve making or doing), openly networked, and have a shared purpose (we should be working towards common goals). These ideas largely align with the values of musetech, so it made sense to bring them to the classroom when teaching on subjects related to museum digital tech and social media.

The semester is five weeks in, and already this pedagogic approach is surfacing some interesting issues. As I mentioned in my last post, I assigned weekly blogging and Twitter participation to both classes. One student recently mentioned that she found it unnerving to have interaction with a professor outside the normal bounds of in-class interactions. She was uncertain how to react when I replied to her Tweets. Other students, too, expressed some doubt about what kind of online response would be appropriate (e.g. are gifs ok?). This kind of context collapse is frequent on social media, but this feedback reminded me that there are critical social boundaries–particularly related to authority relationships–to be negotiated in connected learning contexts. Even though I was undoubtably in my student’s imagined audience for class-related Tweets, she still felt uncertain about how to interact in the semi-public online environment.

What are the implications–seen and unseen–of breaking down those boundaries? How is the performance of identity between the student and professor (especially the identities we affect in class) impacted by interaction outside the classroom? Is there a renegotiation of the power or authority relationship between the students and me, and the expectations we each have of the other? If so, how might that impact learning?

Prompting the students to work in public can be unnerving for me. As with any new course, I’m still working out what does and doesn’t work with my teaching material, and I’ve felt vulnerable having it reflected out to the world. That said, it’s fascinating to discover which ideas and examples student are connecting to in almost live-time. There is an immediacy to the feedback that I’d otherwise find hard to get, and while it can be confronting to see discussions in the classroom reflected out in the world, it’s useful, too. (It’s also lovely to have a whole new pool of thinkers to draw upon.)

I’m sure my thinking on this approach to teaching will develop. In the meantime, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with connected learning approaches to education, whether in your museum, university, or other areas. Mike Murawski has written about his experiences with connected learning, and the Peabody Essex Museum recently advertised for a connected learning developer, so I know these ideas are surfacing around the sector. Let me know what you’ve been learning.

How have you seen connected learning practices manifest? What kind of experiences and reflections have they prompted for you?