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Analysis of a learning community

Say you are a curator in a regional art gallery in an Australian country town; or a science educator in an Exploratorium in Europe; or a librarian in charge of community outreach; or a researcher in cultural studies in an American university.

You know that in other institutions your colleagues are experimenting with new technologies:

  • offering visitors the use of a handheld which reads the visitor’s location to deliver a multimedia explanation of a particular exhibit (Proctor & Tellis 2003);
  • opening up their collections so the public can contribute information about objects (Seb Chan 27/04/2009, The Gambey Dip Circle), or
  • encouraging social tagging

to give just a few examples.

How do you find out more about what other museums are doing? What problems or benefits your colleagues experienced when they were developing these projects? What might be next?

You join the learning community Museum 3.0.

What you will find there

The Museum 3.0 community is hosted on Ning, and has expanded to nearly 1000 members since its beginning in March 2008 (Lynda Kelly 28/04/2009, Secrets of a midnight social worker) – many more people may read through the community, as its pages need login only to write, not to read. Members are from across the globe, particularly First World countries, but well-distributed across North America, Europe, Asia and Australasia, and working in all the institutions mentioned above, and many more. There is a small but active student group, including one of the co-founders, and representatives from academia (a researcher in museum audiences is the other founder.)

What you can do there

You are a museum worker, and so understand the value of artefacts, thinking within a cognitive constructivist model (Hein 1991). In your physical museum, you believe that your visitor is learning when they examine exhibits that are new to them – new paintings by a well-known painter, strange products of technology, ancient tablets, an author’s own manuscript – and then plug these new items into their mental model of the world.

You also know that learning is a social activity – you observe your visitor talking with their family, telling stories triggered by the exhibit, helping their child manipulate the interactive – and see the interpersonal relationships that are the focus of social constructivism.

Now, when you visit Museum 3.0, you are the learner, using a rich haul of community digital items as tools in your learning activities.

To help you, I have classified the activities that I observed in Museum 3.0 using the 8 Learning Events Model (Leclercq & Poumay 2005). This outline will show how the Museum 3.0 environment can support your activities (structural aspects of Museum 3.0 in bold: learning events according to Leclercq and Poumay (2005) in italics).

1. Web 2.0 project descriptions inspire imitation

The ning member profile template invites Museum 3.0 members to explain what made them join: this is often a project using newer technologies. Links to these projects, with photos and videos of museum activities, mean you may absorb and imitate other members’ approaches and use their models in your own workplace, as in Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.

2. Event alerts allow reception

Messages about online and physical conferences, training and other events are flagged. You can read the deadlines for abstract submissions or see the twitter tag for a conference, for example, in a single thread.

3. Editing controls permit practice actions

You are able, within a certain time limit, to edit and delete your ning contributions, so you can learn by trial and error. (Help files are not a feature of this environment.)

4. Multiple species of social objects promote exploration

You can learn about the members and the cultures of the members’ institutions by following links within and out of Museum 3.0. People in social networks connect to each through ‘objects of sociality’ (Jyri Engeström 13/04/2005, Why some social network services work)  – a photograph of someone exploring a sculpture …

… may lead you to the photographer’s profile (again, a social object, a constructed representation made for networking) where you can explore his link (another social object) to his website (and so on).

5. Discussion threads with comments exposed helps in experimentation

The learning activity ‘experimentation’ involves manipulating and modifying the learner’s environment. You can’t manipulate the Ning space itself (unlike, for example, a space in Second Life); but you can use a discussion page to try out a text, such as the outline of a social media policy for a regional museum, and see the effects of your experiment in the community reactions.

The culture of Museum 3.0 is supportive and conducive to problem-solving, another experimentation activity. Other members of the community assist the poster of the problem by providing links, asking questions to clarify the learner’s thinking, and explaining comparable solutions.

6. Your own space provides the material support for creation

Many Museum 3.0 mentors make art as well as caring for it and discussing it. Artists often need a day job, and many are cultural workers.

You too may enjoy creating new objects to publish on Museum 3.0, exploiting the provision of unrestricted publishing space for ‘My Page’, photos and videos. These items are not curated, although a sort by ‘popular’ gives some idea of community appreciation.

Even more interesting is the creative project that active Museum 3.0 members are engaged in, to answer the challenge of its banner, ‘What will the museum of the future be like?’

7. Blogs can be used for self-reflection

If you are already a blogger, you will continue to maintain your blog outside Museum 3.0 – your blog may already be part of your institution’s social media.

Major opinion leaders on Museum 3.0 have external blogs shown in the margins of the Museum 3.0 page by RSS.

You may run your minor blog on Museum 3.0, however: you might blog on learning about Web 2.0 technologies, or evaluating your work practice, topics that can’t be shared from your institution’s web page.


Note that Steven Warburton (Liquid Learning 15/11/2007, ‘How do we interpret technologies in use?‘) charts how the same tool can appear with different patterns of characteristics in different situations – his model above (or in larger format), shows that blogs can be used for personal self-reflection, or as a multi author community tool –

8. Blogs can be used for debate

While you may not observe any flaming or verbal violence (I certainly didn’t), the Museum 3.0 community does have conflicts of view on what works in museum technologies, or in evaluating external resources or reacting to artworld news. You may learn by following the debate as much as by participating in it.

My experience of Museum 3.0

Yes, you as a specialist cultural worker in an art gallery or museum may find that Museum 3.0 gives you the chance to do all these learning activities.

I however am not currently employed in a cultural institution. When logged into Museum 3.0, I only felt I was contributing when I was able to speak from my specialist area of knowledge (publishing).

Social comparison theory (Saunders 2008, p. 15) would explain both my appropriate reticence and my desire to spend time in crafting useful and accurate responses to match the quality discussion around me.

As an opportunity to reaquaint myself with the industry, my participation in Museum 3.0 was completely engaging – but I certainly didn’t ‘give back’ in equal measure. I was like the lowliest apprentice in John Seely Brown’s analogy (Seely Brown & Adler 2008):

Open source communities have developed a well-established path by which newcomers can “learn the ropes” and become trusted members of the community through a process of legitimate peripheral participation. New members typically begin participating in an open source community by working on relatively simple, noncritical development projects such as building or improving software drivers (e.g., print drivers). As they demonstrate their ability to make useful contributions and to work in the distinctive style and sensibilities/taste of that community, they are invited to take on more central projects.

My experience of the community so far has been very peripheral, and, rather than learning the ropes, I have twiddled with just the end of a small bit of string. Nevertheless, as Engeström’s discussion of social objects (2008) predicts, I have added multiple connections (a personal arborescence) to my own understanding of museums and Web 2.0 technologies by branching off to follow community leaders on Twitter, or watch feeds from fascinating thinkers, or plan to visit the physical museums of members: and I feel a commitment to keep returning to this environment, and learning more.

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