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Testing the Possibilities of Online Education with Museum MOOCs

Still from Sarah Meister, from Seeing Through Photographs. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art
Still from “Sarah Meister,” from “Seeing Through Photographs” (© 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

MOOCs (massive open online courses) have been both hailed as a possible solution to providing low-cost, high-quality education and derided as a destructive reallocation of resources from public education to private corporations. Much of the existing debate is centered on the possibility of replacing a physical experience of education with a virtual one; the dispute is also necessarily entangled with the crisis of rising educational costs in the United States.

Institutions of higher learning are not, however, the only organizations experimenting with online education. On February 10, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) released its first MOOC for a general audience on the popular platform Coursera. “Seeing Through Photographs” draws on MoMA’s collection, as well as an impressive array of original content, to provide participants with an introduction to the art of photography. The course includes 16 audio slideshows of interviews with such artists as Martha Rosler, Susan Meiselas, Walid Raad, and Carrie Mae Weems; six short films featuring artists including Vik Muniz, Nicholas Nixon, and Hank Willis Thomas; five slideshows exploring different themes in photography; and four video conversations with artists David Horvitz, Ilit Azoulay, Lucas Blalock, and Anouk Kruithof, all of whom are featured in the current MoMA exhibition Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015. Led by MoMA curator Sarah Meister, “Seeing Through Photographs” offers a treatment of its subject that goes far beyond introduction in depth and breadth.

MoMA is at the forefront of art institutions experimenting with MOOCs, and one of only three museums on Coursera, along with the American Museum of Natural History and the Exploratorium. While “Seeing Through Photographs” is not the first MoMA content offered on the platform, the museum’s three previous courses were geared specifically towards educators. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Sara Bodinson, director of Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning at MoMA, explained one impetus for the new focus: “Through ongoing research, we found that approximately 40% of our MOOC learners did not identify as part of our target audience of K–12 educators.” In other words, a general audience was interested in the MoMA content, regardless of its intended, specialized one.

Research also revealed that a majority of course participants had not been familiar with MoMA before taking the MOOCs. “I was pleased to help develop a course for people — many who have never heard of MoMA — who are interested in this medium that is simultaneously a means of creative expression as well as an omnipresent practical phenomenon,” Meister told Hyperallergic. “With this audience in mind, we continually asked ourselves ‘Does this give people the tools to look more critically at photographs in the world around them?’”

Still from Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters, from Seeing Through Photographs. © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art
Still from “Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters,” from “Seeing Through Photographs” (© 2016 The Museum of Modern Art)

For MOOC detractors, two salient failures are the murky financial value of paying for an official certificate of completion and low course completion rates. While simply taking a MOOC is almost always free, obtaining proof that one has fully completed a course is not: as an EdSurge article states, the average price of a certificate on Coursera is $56. “Seeing Through Photographs” is no exception; although one can take the course at no charge, a certificate costs $49. Depending on who’s taking a course, the relationship of cost to value breaks down quite differently. The issue is most important for undergraduate or graduate students, for whom certificate money might be reasonably expected to produce an end value comparable to a course taken for credit — especially if a university is offering MOOCs in place of physical classroom experiences. However, when considering an audience of educators or the general public, assigning value to a certificate becomes murkier, as it’s dependent on the reasons a participant is taking the course. According to a 2014 article in the PIE News, some companies pay for their employees to take certified MOOCs for professional development purposes; in this case, the student is not burdened with the certificate cost. In others, if participants are just enrolled in the course for personal edification, then they’re not coerced into paying for a certificate as they might be with an educational institution; the freedom to purchase one does no harm.

Similarly, low completion rates are only a problem when MOOCs are taking the place of other educational experiences. When it comes to a course offered by a museum, a participant might be particularly interested in one artist or one module, or the course may function as supplementary material to an in-person visit. “Seeing Through Photographs” is thoughtfully designed as a whole — “Our hope is that each module in the course will be like a potato chip: you can’t eat just one,” says Meister — and MoMA does encourage course completion, but there’s nothing inherently problematic with using a MOOC in a fractured way, especially if one is doing so for free.

“Seeing Through Photographs” has its faults, including a style of non-editing that causes interviews to drag. But the conversations with artists, original videos, access to MoMA’s collection, and thoughtful approach to subject matter compensate for any shortcomings. Art institutions are still experimenting with how best to use technology to increase access and engagement — buzzwords with undetermined benchmarks. The controversies that have plagued MOOCs in the educational realm seem, fortunately, not entirely applicable to museum MOOCs. Whether they function as a resource for art lovers or provide an introduction for an audience that can’t attend — or simply hasn’t — the museum in person, these courses are increasing access in inventive ways.

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