How Museum Studies courses are adapting to the pandemic

A lot of teaching has moved online for now, but this has not stopped student numbers growing at some universities
Jonathan Knott
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A 3D scan of Manchester Art Gallery used on the Manchester University MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies
A 3D scan of Manchester Art Gallery used on the Manchester University MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies Institute for Cultural Practices, Manchester University

The difficulties faced by some universities amid Covid-19 have become well-known. But this is not reflected in the number of students taking the MA in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Ulster University. Elizabeth Crooke, who directs the course, says that there are 17 UK and Irish students enrolled this year, about 20% higher than usual.

This situation is mirrored at similar courses elsewhere, which are seeing stable or rising student numbers. And while ongoing restrictions have led to a renewed appreciation of the benefits of face-to-face interaction, they have also sparked creative new approaches to learning that may permanently influence the way courses are taught.

Teaching for the Ulster course is normally based at the institution’s Belfast campus, but none of the course’s students are currently living in student accommodation. The university decided in the spring that all teaching for the majority of its programmes would take place online, at least until the end of the first semester in January.

Accelerating trends

For now, the course is based around recorded video lectures and written resources as well as webinars, set reading and tasks (for a recent assignment, students had to find text panels from outdoor heritage trails). Another important element is an online discussion board where students can discuss lecture content, share thoughts and upload photographs.

The pandemic has accelerated a trend towards digitising university study that was already well underway, in areas from borrowing books to submitting written assignments. Ulster’s approach is informed by its 14 years of experience running a part-time distance learning postgraduate course in Museum Practice and Management (where student numbers have also risen this year). Crooke says that an online approach has some advantages: recorded lectures mean students can listen back to the content and the discussion board allows time for more reflective responses.

She believes that being clear about what applicants could expect – a video was created to explain the plans – has helped students be “100% up for” the course in its current guise: “We were very up front that there would be no face-to-face teaching in semester one”.

The Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester, whose courses include an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies as well as one in Heritage Studies, has also significantly adapted its teaching methods, says director Kostas Arvanitis. For 2020-21 courses will be delivered primarily online for the first semester – and possibly the whole year – with some face-to-face teaching if the situation allows. “We designed the modules so they can exist only online, or with a face-to-face element such as a seminar, museum visit, or workshop,” he says.

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The institute has stepped up its use of software that enables interactive online learning, such as pre-recorded lectures that can be annotated by students and lecturers, online seminars, a virtual collaborative notice board, and an online whiteboard. It has aimed for consistent use of this technology among lecturers to deliver a “homogenous learning experience”.

The numbers on Ulster University's museum studies course are a fifth higher than usual
Virtual visits

It has also used a 3D camera to scan some local museum spaces, allowing students to virtually visit exhibitions they would normally be expected to go to in person for their course. Like many of the other online tools, this is not completely new, but the emphasis on physical and online interactions has now effectively been reversed, says Arvanitis: “Before Covid-19 you’d say that the online visit was complementing the physical visit. Probably now it’s the other way round”.

With the university’s current level of restrictions under Department for Education guidance, the courses cannot include face-to-face teaching, but this will be regularly reviewed. Although some people applied before the pandemic, all applicants were kept up to date and were informed when being offered a place that semester one would be delivered primarily online, says Arvanitis.

As the city enters Tier 3 lockdown restrictions this week, parts of the university campus will remain open but there is an option for online-only tuition. The situation appears not to have deterred applicants, with the Art Gallery and Museum Studies course seeing a rise in numbers of about 25% to 55 – its highest ever level. Not all of its students are living in Manchester

Student numbers have remained steady on the MLitt in Museum and Galleries course at the University of St Andrews, where director of Museum Studies Agnes Bos says there were more applications than usual this year. The course moved all teaching online for the spring lockdown and the start of this academic year, but is now using a dual delivery model, with teaching provided both online and in small face-to-face groups for students who can attend them.

Bos says the pandemic “has pushed us to be more creative than ever in our teaching”. The use of new online learning tools has boosted students’ tech skills, and online meetings have enabled the course to host international speakers.

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For some international students, however, the situation presents considerable barriers. Often there might be one or two international students on the Ulster course, says Crooke, but none are studying this year. The 2020/21 St Andrews course has nine international students: a typical number, but one that includes no Asian students, when in previous years there could be up to five. “The Asian students who had been accepted on to the course have all deferred,” says Bos. The current Manchester course has about 20% international students.

Hands-on experience

For those who can study, Covid restrictions are impacting the ability to gain practical hands-on experience – an important element of many courses. At St Andrews, students normally undertake individual projects with a museum or heritage site over the year. All this year’s students have a placement, but some are doing them partly or wholly online. And at Ulster, voluntary work experience in museums – which many students opt to do alongside their studies – is likewise having to be rethought. There are currently fewer opportunities for on-site volunteering, although some institutions are exploring online possibilities.

Group trips to museums and heritage sites have also become impossible, and there are reduced opportunities to socialise and bond. Bos says that small groups and in-person teaching still seem the best way for learners to share their “common passion for art, museums, and heritage”. Recent experience has demonstrated to her how essential face-to-face teaching is: “How can we set up a session on object handling without hands-on activities?”

The challenges of the situation mean that teaching staff are being particularly careful to check in regularly with students and refer them to university support services if needed. And while it is not possible for this year’s cohort to meet together in person for now, Crooke hopes this will be possible at a later point. “We’ve made the best of a bad situation,” she says. “The learning is still there, the academic content is still there, and there’s still an experience that I think is valuable. I think as the weeks progress, it will make us want to meet even more”.

The adaptations that have had to take place could change the way courses are taught over the long-term. Arvanitis says his MA courses may include more online elements in future, without losing the benefits of face-to-face interaction. “We need to wait and see how this year goes,” he says. “I think this will now be a very dynamic process where both students and staff work together to see what works best”.

The Museums Association website has a wide range of support and guidance on entering the sector. See our courses guide for more

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