musings

Great Expectations

“Now, I return to this young fellow. And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I have grey hair. The consensus is that its due to my two teenage daughters. Because I have teenagers, I spend too much time considering their college education, the impending cost of which is the largest contributor to my grey. Boyfriends aren’t helping either, but I think I have it in check by reenacting this masterclass performance, sometimes minus the expletives, by Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys II when meeting a potential suitor for the first time.

Aside from what their education will cost, I’m just as interested in what it will look like. I’ve been immersing myself in these thoughts since my museum’s recent partnership with Khan Academy and a discussion that is probably happening in many museums about MOOCs: should we or shouldn’t we? I’m currently deflecting the answer by asking, what are we trying to achieve with a MOOC?, but also by invoking my “go to” trend predictor, the Gartner Hype Cycle:

Gartner Hype Cycle

The Gartner Hype Cycle is the trajectory of expectations over time that can be applied to everything from the process of bringing a new Collections Management System into your institution, to the trajectory of a disrupting innovation like MOOCs.

Wait… How does bringing in a new CMS into your institution follow the GHC? Simple: events initiate the desire for a new CMS, the Technology Trigger. Everyone gets mightily excited as vendors arrive to demo the latest, sexiest version of their CMS that might actually help staff manage collection information – what a concept…

So now we’re rising to the Peak of Inflated Expectations which we hit as a selection is made and a frenzy spreads across the institution at the prospect of doing away with that cantankerous and aged system that raises your blood pressure at the mere thought of having to step through the convoluted and byzantine process of creating a new object record and linking it to an artist. And don’t get me started on the exhibition module…

Except… nobody thought to invoke the enlightened words of technology strategist Len Steinbach:

…there are so many desirable ways of using technology… your choice must not rely on intuitive, personal, parochial or political reasons…

From this moment on, its a steady slide to the Trough of Disillusionment as reality doesn’t match the expectations set by the demo that everyone drank the Kool-aid for:

“It looked so easy when the sales engineer did it!”

-sign up for the extended professional services training package…

“What do you mean there’s no provenance module?”

– the provenance module doesn’t come with the standard install package, you need the deluxe version…

And so, to prevent languishing in the Trough, your institution begins the steady climb up the Slope of Enlightenment, which should probably be renamed as the Slope of Begrudging Acceptance and Finger Pointing, to the Plateau of Productivity, which itself should be renamed as the Plateau of Making Do Until the Upgrade.

There’s no question that MOOCs are a disrupting influence, sites like Udemy are clear in their mission to “democratise education”, but for them in particular, its a partially democratised education, with some popular courses costing a capitalistic $500.

There’s no question that there is a problem with our education system, and museums have a very definite role to play in the solution. There is a high expectation that MOOCs offer some kind of Panacea, but while there are some headlining MOOC success stories, with claims of hundreds of thousands of students taught (how ever you want to define that), I would say that MOOCs have experienced their Peak of Inflated Expectations, and are about to make that inevitable descent into the trough of you-know-where, as reports such as Doubts About MOOCs Continue to Rise begin to emerge.

As an observer of, and player in, the museum field’s transition to digital, and the tortuous conundrum of trying to figure out what it means to serve an audience who may never visit your museum, I find the emergence of MOOCs fascinating. Even after 20 years of debate, wailing and gnashing of teeth, most museums have still not fully come to terms with an online-only audience. And this is the very same dilemma that the Education system is about to face: what does it mean to educate an audience that will never visit your college?

So what has the museum field learned that would benefit the Education system? The first thing that springs to mind is skeuomorphism, my favourite word of the moment, which applies equally well to implementing a new CMS (don’t use the new CMS in the same way as you used the old one) as it does to thinking about online education (it isn’t just a talking head video of your lecture). The issue of skeuomorphism is more elegantly captured by one of my heroes (I’m a Physicist by training, by the way), Albert Einstein:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Expertly brought up to date by yours truly as:

“We cannot solve our digital problems using analogue thinking.”

In the same way that museums have to think differently about their online audience, so it is with online education, in fact it can and should be a better and richer experience than a “live” education, by integrating the plethora of resources available on the web, implementing rich media and interactive functionality, creative hangouts with students across the world to self-organised learning and teaching.

(At this point, one thought does spring to mind: The phrase, “I received a virtual education”, could easily be misinterpreted as “I virtually received an education”.)

But as we are now discovering, as museums think about print versus digital and physical versus online visitors, the reality is that a distinct separation should not exist, we should look to create rewarding digital interpretive experiences whether on or off-site, its about situation not location.

Similarly, I think the Plateau of Productivity for online education whether its MOOCs or not, is about no distinct separation but a blend, a combination of online and physical. We’re already starting to see online courses climb the Slope of Enlightenment by requiring attendance to a two week on-campus seminar, I think we’ll start to see this extend to a summer semester, so that regular onsite courses aren’t disrupted.

Ultimately, I think we’ll see all under graduate courses transition to a blend of online and physical, the economics are too compelling for colleges and students not to. AAM’s 2013 Trendswatch: Back to the Future, states:

An unwillingness to shoulder significant debt, may encourage more young adults to forgo college at 18 and leap straight into the workforce, trusting that the portfolio of accomplishments they build will be a good substitute for a traditional degree when they apply for later positions.  In the end, employers control whether and how fast these alternate modes of training and credentialing catch on.  As soon as employers show they are willing to accept online courses (even free ones) and portfolios of independent work in lieu of traditional degrees–well that sound you hear is the foundation of the ivory tower, cracking.

This either/or distinction is naive, nothing is ever that black and white and the education system has more at stake and needs a quicker resolution than employers do. If the academic year became four trimesters, three online and one onsite, colleges could half the cost of a degree and quadruple their student capacity. When they’re on campus it would be a focused experience of interaction, collaboration, debate and discussion, maybe that’s something that museums could learn a thing or two from. Oh, and lots of partying…

Wait… That means boys. Maybe there should be online-only degrees, and my daughters don’t need to go away, and a virtual degree is not virtually a degree, and the cost is much less, and my grey will disappear. I have great expectations.

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