Tag Archives: Education

On Big Ideas

Hmm, another strangely personal post…

In between wishing I was at NDF2012 in New Zealand and InterComm2012 in Sydney, I got to hang out with some old friends and wound up talking about some of the same themes I think about in a professional context.  So, since it kept getting in the way of the other things I should be writing, here it is.   

Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend I had the rare privilege of spending the evening with some of my oldest friends, people I’ve known since high school and kept hold of over the years. It was full of wonderful moments, like realizing that my daughter is now the age we were when we first became friends, and how marvelous it is to have people around who knew you when you were just starting out on this whole “being a grown-up” adventure.   It was also interesting to realize that we were still having the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” conversation.  Only now, we weren’t talking about colleges and majors, but about half-built careers and new directions.

Partway through the night, when there were just three of us left, my friend asked us if he could share something very confidential, with that look that says he was serious. We of course said yes, and he told us his big secret; he had a Big Idea, something that could be his life’s work if he could figure out how to get his brain around it, which he hadn’t been able to do. He hoped that by finally telling somebody about it, we might be able to help him figure out A) was this even really a Big Idea, or was it just a silly, unattainable dream, and if it was, B) how to figure out how to move forward. The resulting conversation brought together a lot of ideas that have been appearing over the past few months here and at conferences about personal professional development and agency. As I’ve written in previous posts, personal learning networks are something in which I’m very interested. Part of that interest comes from being involved in a number of strategic projects that require all kinds of skills I used to consider being outside my core competencies as an exhibit developer. Part of the interest comes from finally getting a better handle on exactly the same question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Four hours later, we realized it was time to head our separate ways and far from answering his question, we’d just replaced his huge, nebulous concern with a legion of specific concerns. But everyone was smiling and energized by the conversation, and I look forward to seeing how he synthesizes what we discussed into a plan of action.

The context

My friend is a budding humanities scholar and had found that rarest of academic treasures; the important question that nobody seems to have asked yet. I obviously won’t go into details, but he had realized that there was an unanswered question that was global in scope and impact and he was trying to figure out whether he needed to apply to a PhD program so he could work on this problem. He was very concerned about not sharing the question for fear of someone stealing it. As he saw it, his prize was an academic book on the subject, and the problem was how to do the staggering amount of research necessary to tackle the question without giving away what the question was until he was ready to publish. And of course the ever-present American concern of how to manage the debt load of higher education. It was a tough knot to unravel.

So, like good friends do, we questioned his framing of his problem and spent hours hammering on the same themes I often seem to cover at work these days; going back to first principles and asking the hard questions like; “What does success look like to you?” “What role do you see yourself playing in this endeavor?” “Who is the audience for the work, and is the vehicle (an academic book) the right one to reach them?” What we were really doing was help him articulate a career plan/personal learning program, and it’s a good exercise to undertake.

Here are some of the highlights of that conversation that, I think, are broadly applicable whether you’re an EMP, a mid-career type, or even a senior manager.

Find the right people to help you figure out what’s the real story

My friend had only one image of what working on his dream looked like; get a PhD, have to teach somewhere and work on his Big Idea as part of the package of being an academic. As described his problem to us, we immediately saw trouble with this; the kinds of skills and expertise he’d need to really tackle his Big Question were not likely to be what he’d get from a PhD. Most of what he described as being essential to the project involved normalizing and analyzing mountains of scattered quantitative data, and trying to draw research from another field into his field. Really interesting, cross-cutting research requiring a diverse array of skills, and a lot of grunt work. But the only model he had was that of his professors, who were at least a generation older, with the corresponding skill sets. His problem, as he saw it, was one thing. The minute he had to put it into words and describe it to us, it became clear to all of us that his problem was a very different one. Years of internal dialogue hadn’t gotten him as far as four hours and a couple of rounds of drinks had with two friends. I’ve had this same thing happen to me a couple of times over the past year, and both times my big nebulous problem turned into a very different-looking list of specific problems that were individually tractable enough to allow me to make progress.

What role do you want to play in the story of your life?

One point we made to my friend over and over was to think about what role he wanted to play in realizing his life’s work. Did he see himself as the lone researcher, finding all the data himself and doing the hard work? Or, did he see himself as the vision keeper, marshalling his people to go out and find the data and inspiring others to pursue the Big Plan he had? Or something else? It seemed clear to the two of us hearing the story for the first time that it would be impossible for a lone researcher to accomplish the work he’d described in a lifetime, but we needed to walk through all the jobs that would be required in order for him to see it himself. Who was going to comb through archives and repositories on multiple continents for the data he’d need? Who was going to take on the serious number-crunching his project would require? If it was he, he’d need another degree just to have the chops to assemble a dataset he could query, let alone analyze. And he was able to say “No, somebody else could take that part.” and admit he didn’t really feel like getting a Stats degree, then it was easier to put down his obviously dearly-held vision that he’d do it all himself, and see himself needing to be more of an executive producer than a writer.

What does success look like to you?

My friend’s vision of success was one I could totally relate to; write the book on the subject.  It’s a great vision, but it’s quite a narrow one. As we talked, many different outcomes for his work came up, a film or films, crowdsourcing efforts to build a global network of volunteers interested in his problem, institutions that might sponsor his work, and/or take it on as part of their mission. Would any of these count as “success”? He thought they might. As he focused less on one product as the only indicator of success, the possible ways to move forward increased, pitfalls became less dangerous, and the steps he needed to take became clearer.

What do you know you don’t yet know, and how are you going to learn it?

One way to attack a wicked problem is to break it down. For my friend, figuring out how to proceed to realize his ambition would require lots of things to happen in a particular sequence. For many of those steps, he lacked specific knowledge, skills and access to the networks that would move him forward.  Though we’d dismissed getting a PhD as the only route to success, we spent a long time talking about how he could look at getting an advanced degree as a tool to validate his hypotheses for the Big Idea, gain specific skills he’d need down the road, and develop enough of an idea so that he could demonstrate how the full implementation of it might look, and put a flag in the ground, so to speak, establishing his claim on the idea. I wished at one point that I’d done the same thing when I embarked on my own Master’s program. I think it’ll help him enormously as he tries to sort out whether he needs a PhD or a Master’s degree, what schools might be more amenable to an outlier project like his, and what kinds courses he’ll need.

What are the milestones that will tell you you’re on the right track, and how must they be phased in order to bootstrap you from phase to phase?

My friend had been paralyzed by the size of the project he’d envisioned, not because he couldn’t do the work, but because he hadn’t been able to see it as a sequence of discrete steps that built upon each other to achieve his ultimate goal. Our other friend runs a very successful user interface R&D shop and was very good at taking his idea apart and turning it into a work plan. Figuring out what you need to do to get to the next step is a lot easier than trying to figure out the whole puzzle at once, and we were able to brainstorm a long list of steps, and milestones that could get him a good way down the road. Project Management 101 stuff, you might say, and you’d be right. But lots of us don’t tend to think of our careers as a project, and my experience has been that fewer still manage their careers as actively as a project manager monitors even a  simple project.

Who is your tribe? Where can you find them, and how can you start building your coalition?

This theme came up repeatedly at the MCN Directors’ Roundtable as a vital skill to possess in any museum, and I’d argue it’s probably generalizable to most fields. For the big ideas, the ones that stand a chance of having major impact, finding the people who can help you realize your goals is critical to overcoming resistance. This requires being a great communicator, and that is something worthy of attention and effort.

Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?

 

Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/making-a-museum-from-scratch-part-six/

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

http://www.nmc.org/

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

The Museum of Old & New Art

http://www.mona.net.au/

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
http://www.santacruzmah.org/

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach
http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/04/09/engagement-and-outreach/

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/dealing-with-your-cognitive-load/

Medical Museion

http://www.museion.ku.dk/