Distance learning is not new, but the Covid pandemic has made it a necessity. Museum studies courses have had to quickly adapt to blended learning. Practical courses and study visits have had to be cancelled, but digital platforms can encourage wider participation and many students have flourished with creative online learning.
“Not being able to give students practical experiences, such as visiting the museum store to choose items for their exhibition, has been one of the biggest challenges,” says Neil Curtis, the head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen.
“Instead, we created a course to help students reflect on the museum workplace and their own position, interviewing staff who would have been their hosts and developing a continuing professional development plan.”
“A visualiser lets us show small details of objects, while digitised archives mean that students can work in a place and time that suits them. Developing digital skills, such as virtual exhibitions, is going to be important for those joining the profession.”
This has led to a new course being developed, Navigating the Museum Workplace. “There has been even more thinking about learning and teaching,” Curtis says. “The model of long lectures didn’t translate well online. Small group discussions in chat rooms have been more effective.”
The School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester has had a flexible learning programme, Socially Engaged Practice, since 2016, with virtual study visits and remote work placements with National Museums Liverpool. It used this as the basis for an online placement module for campus-based students last summer.
“We looked at delivery models that could support students to have an equitable experience,” says lecturer, Katy Bunning. “The shift to live online teaching has been well received by students.”
Developing digital skills, such as virtual exhibitions, is going to be important for those joining the profession
Digital modes of teaching have also opened up new opportunities for staff through collaborations with practitioners across the UK and internationally.
“We have delivered sessions with museum professionals based in places we would not be able to travel to,” says Bunning. Another advantage is that online systems allow students to rewatch sessions and access an enhanced level of personalised support.
“We’ve pushed ourselves to create better learning materials, which make it more inclusive for different learning styles,” says Charlie Pratley, a lecturer on the MA course in museum and heritage development at Nottingham Trent University.
“We’ve been experimenting with filmed tours and cross-disciplinary discussions. Where we would have visited one museum and spoken to one staff member, three staff were able to give their time to an online talk.”
Despite the advantages, the lack of immediate feedback is a challenge. “In a classroom, you can pick up on mental health or engagement issues,” Pratley says. “Online, we have to work harder on relationships with students but there have been positive consequences to this.”
In one pre-Covid activity, students were asked to upload their work to an online discussion board and give each other feedback. “They engaged with the first part of the task, but not each other,” says Pratley. “This year, the activity has been successful; students now understand that their digital presence is as important as a physical one. Occasionally, babies join virtual sessions where previously childcare issues may have prevented students from participating.”
Enrolment on distance learning programmes is on the rise, with the School of Museum Studies at University of Leicester reporting a 26% increase on last year. Distance learning is here to stay, and the sector has shown that creative alternatives are available.
Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance writer
Engaging with remote working
PhD researcher Jenny Durrant is an experienced distance learner. As a guest lecturer at the University of Leicester, remote working has enabled her to continue engaging with students.
“I’m also the PhD rep for distance learners in my department, and I’ve heard students’ voices from around the globe. The most common problems are the loneliness, being isolated from your academic peers and colleagues, and juggling mental jumps between work, study and home life,” Durrant says.
“I hope there is a new understanding of the complexities of the distance learning journey. I’m relieved that perceptions of remote working have improved significantly – meetings, training and social events don’t need to be in person.
“This huge societal change enables access for a greater range of people and is especially important for the numerous students who have chosen this study route for health reasons.”