Status Update: Educator or Edupunk? Shifting Roles for Museum Educators Embracing Disruptive Technologies


Traditional ‘programming’ and informal ‘community outlets’ have indeed broadened, deepened and diversified audiences in museums. The field must now consider new strategies for engaging audiences with increased expectations as informal learners, both online and offline. The next few posts here are my attempt to grope for new words to articulate how some of the most forward-thinking museum educators I know are pushing boundaries into new, and often uncomfortable, spaces in their institutions.

As traditional museum educators mine the spectrum between formalized and informalized education, a new breed of museum educators are inspired by open-source/DIY/crowd-sourced initiatives, and motivated by “edupunk” methodologies that upturn traditional museum education practices beyond K-12 school visits through disruptive technologies. These include, but are not limited to: on-site laboratory spaces, online courses, expansive social media programming, and community-based practices to reach audiences that rarely otherwise visit museums.

Educator or Edupunk? Shifting Roles for Museum Educators Embracing Disruptive Technologies

Image courtesy Steve Gemmel, Digital Media Specialist at J. Paul Getty Museum (thanks, Steve)
Fitting that the exhibition, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” was on view at the Experience Music Project during the opening reception of Museum Computer Network (MCN)’s conference, “Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies.” I used this image to introduce the panel the following day. Hollah to Steve Gemmel, Digital Media Specialist at J. Paul Getty Museum, for snapping this for me.

Status Update. New York, October 8, 2012.

No faster than several rapid-fire entries for Wikipedia’s definition of MOOCs back in September 2012 (“way back in September”) have a series of terrific and detailed white papers emerged on the Internet this week, documenting the successes and failures of online courses offered by major universities. This white paper by Sir John Daniel pointedly explains why apocalyptic hysteria around MOOCs may actually underscore ways that they are not just a passing fad. Several participating institutions in this movement have not been conflicted commercial partner bear the costs of building such platforms and keeping them running. There are ways to utilize such partnerships so that they are for managed for the greater good and not pressed to turn a profit, which can also become their downfall. Google research director Peter Norvig commented: ‘it’s a confusing or an exciting time… I think schools are experimenting and they don’t quite yet know what they want to do’ (Azevedo, 2012).

The most influential revolution that may emerge from this seismic shift towards what can be also called a “free, world-class education for everyone, everywhere” – Khan Academy’s clear and dynamic mantra – will be that in this parallel universe of online learning, masterful and talented teachers will become rockstars on the Internet. Not just famous, but quoted and studied and embodied as offering the world new ways to learn. A teacher that can explain complex material online, and in a way that is accessible and can be understood – could elevate teachers into a new kind of uplifted status that is much-needed in education.

I keep thinking about that line spoken by Jeffrey Canada in Waiting for Superman (2010), in which he says that watching a master teacher is just like watching a world-class athlete. It’s unmistakeable. You know when you are watching someone teach in an extraordinary manner, when faces listening look illuminated and when someone is able to connect to the group before them in ways that surpass mere conversation and rote teaching.

Maybe MOOCs will open up ourselves to celebrate and exalt masterful teachers just like we do with other celebrities in pop culture, in sports, in music and online. Why couldn’t an incredible video on how to understand trig or stats or any other subject become the next viral video? Vi Hart‘s has. I know there are more like Vi out there.

So here’s the problem: too much fantastic, out-of-this-world teaching happens behind closed doors. I often hear about “needing to create a safe space” to test out new ideas, so that an online space that allows teachers to work in public is shunned.  A legitimate fear includes fear of letting the principal/parents/teachers-next-door find out that one teacher has decided to go rogue, and pour his or her soul into teaching students real-life learning that connects to their everyday lives by not teaching to the test. I’ve also seen fellow teachers roll their eyes when they hear about retirees who wish to enter the classroom, saying with disbelief that it’s not a profession that “just anyone” can enter into.

And yet all of these survival skills that truly exemplary teachers learn to protect themselves also serve to keep them in silos from the rest of the world. Safe spaces are like no places – they are great for incubating ideas, but then teachers need a place to start working in public. It’s sadly no wonder that few individual teachers are actually recognized for the work that they do in education; the very system that scrutinizes their work and makes exemplary teaching nearly impossible also serves to publicly shame and humiliate them in the press and in the media.

I can’t see why anyone in higher education, either as enrolled students paying the $40k per year tuition or professors fearful that they may be out of a job someday would worry about 144,000 students enrolled for free in xMIT or Coursera or any of the other MOOCs available out there in the world. The completion rate is somewhere around 7%, according to the above article. And enrollment in an Ivy-League university buys social privilege tied to race, class, socio-economic status. If it’s a liberal arts education, and it’s also tied to cocktail parties, social networking and entrance to power circles that do not yet happen online. But they could.

The powerful force of online learning may shape our attitudes towards teachers, serving to provide legitimate platforms that elevate and celebrate the teachers that are not just rockstars, but model citizens, paradigm shifters and agents of change in their community, their school, their town or city. It can happen. We’ll know it when we see it. And for now, I’m just going to remember that Ivy-League universities are exemplary because of their contributions in scholarship and research. Not because of the quality of teaching and instruction, even if its implied. Any assumptions that online learning will replace other types of learning is a red herring; what we are looking for are more opportunities for great learning.

Status Update. New York, October 7, 2012

The below adds a few more listings 16-19 from my previous post of the top 20 things I need to be reading this fall:

16. Nina Simon’s Khan Academy and Online Free Choice Learning
17. Gretchen Jennings’s Museum Educators – What’s Next and a second post on the topic
18. Erin Branham’s First Steps to Embracing Digital Literacy for Musem Educators
19. Tina Barseghian, Mindshift Cathy Davidson’s blog
20. Stephen Downes, Half an Hour and Stephen’s Web ProfHacker
21. Will Richardson, Read. Write. Connect. Learn.
22. George Siemens, elearnspace

23. Drum roll… while although previously mentioned, but worth mentioning again as I consider ways that Khan himself scrupulously avoids posting his own face or other human faces in his video content, this link for MIT’s research about “the shaky hand” as a contributor to impactful learning online.  

The Shaky Hand

Much of the research that is worth examining has been conducted by Harvard and MIT, the very same universities seeking arguments that can bolster and strengthen the push towards MOOCs in the first place. The edX platform was envisioned not only as a means of delivering  course content, but also as a test bed for educational experiments.

This article outlines one of the first such experiments that have already been performed by an alumna of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who is now working at Microsoft’s research lab in Bangalore, India. 

The researcher conducted a usability study in which students compared versions of video lectures in which diagrams were presented either as slick PowerPoint slides or as shaky hand drawings that took shape as the professor lectured, much as they might on a classroom blackboard.

Students  preferred the hand-drawn diagrams by a substantial margin. “It lets you pace  yourself,” Agarwal says. “The PowerPoint is going to flash a picture on the  screen, and you don’t develop the idea in the same way that you develop the  idea by drawing a picture on the chalkboard.”

I find that I connect to the concept of “the shaky hand” to the concept of sketching in a journal before presennting a final or finished work. The skecthes, the shakes of the hand, can be more easily understood precisely for their roughness and looseness. The concept of “the shaky hand” is especially interesting to me because I cannot fathom how videos about living artists wouldn’t include the face of the artists themselves. Is this an exception? The collection I work with now is one of humans that create objects. face of the artist speaking about the work would make such videos inaccessible or lessen their ability to connect audiences with the subject matter. Humans discussing artworks. Humans talking about other humans. If the artist is still alive, seeing the artist speak about his or her own work seems especially relevant.

I have felt free to speak and think about “collections” in dramatically different ways now that I am no longer working and teaching in a museum. Could a collection be of people? Of stories and texts? Filmed and captured in time?  

Status Update. New York City, October 2012.

It’s time to set aside my diversion readings and begin amassing a list of 20 things that I must read this. Not all of them are books, but most of them fall into the category of theory and theorizing, online education, disruptive technology, and museum practice.

The sad part is that on the same day that Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction arrived on my doorstep, so did my long-awaited copy of Trampled Under Foot (2012). Somewhere, there has to be a space to consider overall driving forces behind rabid fan-bases this month, as Art21 also releases its 100 Artists: Box Set, which is the only other box set I really have been amped to get my hands on. Trampled Under Foot: the Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin is a book that is named for a song by the same name on the album Physical Graffiti (1975), and the song was even played in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony a few weeks back. Powerful. Unobtainable. Unattainable. Really, there just has to be a connection here.

Led Zeppelin was a band that never grows tired on my weary ears. Reading the cover of that book, sitting atop Pierre Bourdieu is rather agonizing in the face of the above list. Reviewer for the Guardian Michael Hann asks why 20 million people applied for tickets in their one-off reunion in 2007, despite no recent albums. Those 20 million ‘bestrode the world like a priapic, all-devouring monster of depravity in the 1970s.’ Why, he asks? The answer is in those albums. He quotes the sinuous, thrilling interplay of instruments in “Nobody’s Fault But Mine“; the preposterous bombast of “Kashmir“; the magnificent idiocy of “The Immigrant Song” (“The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands!”); the brutal combination of 60s freakbeat and proto-metal in “Communication Breakdown“.

There were the songs that made Led Zeppelin the biggest band in the world, he writes, and it was being the biggest band in the world that also made them a horror show.

Here is a stab at the top 20 other things I need to read this fall:

In Theory:

1. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a Social Critique in the Judgement of Taste (1984)

2. Mike Apple, here plus Ideology and Curriculum (1979)

3. Jean Anyon, and Anyon’s notes on both Bourdieu and David Swartz

4. At least one social theory reader like this one

In Disruption:

5. Clay Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (2005).

6. Sal Khan, The One World School House (2012).

7. Walter Archer, D. R. Garrison, T. D. Anderson. Adopting Disruptive Technologies in Traditional Universities: Continuing Education as an Incubator for Innovation. University of Alberta  (2000).

8. The Myth of Disruptive Technologies, as Dvorák’s definition of disruptive technology describes the low-cost disruption model, plus overuse of the term – as many disruptive technologies are not truly disruptive.

9. Some other selections from this bibliography, especially as it relates to libraries and higher education

On Learning, In General:

10. Diane Ravitch. Must read more Diane Ravitch.

On Online Learning, In General:

11. Many articles gathered here on about interactive learning and teaching

12. This study from MIT about the power of the “shaky hand” in online learning

13. Something about Agarwal at MIT

Museum and Education Links:

14. This one from yesterday about the Khan Academy

16-19. There are so many readings I should be assigning my students on museums, education and technology that this space is being left intentionally blank

20. How to give a great Ignite talk, since it seems lots of what I will be doing this fall will be a series of five minute peppy-talks in 20 slides or less about research interests I am currently or quietly considering.

It’s not yet a daunting list because most of these are texts on my desk or open in a browser window, and the list is decidedly theory-free, save at the very top. Which means Trampled under Foot will stay trampled under the foot of Bourdieu and field theory, since there really is no way around understanding that all of our judgments of taste are related to social position, or more precisely, are themselves acts of social positioning. My head space is lost in box sets of yore, and at the end of the day, there isn’t that much more time left to delay wading neck deep into theory at this point. So I am going to not lose sight that there will be more fun reading ahead, and soon, and then the rest of it will be fun, too.

“Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss, the devil’s in his hole”

– Led Zeppelin on Achilles Last Stand

Groping For Words



Museums have long-alligned themselves with libraries, especially with respect to funding opportunities available locally, nationally and globally. This article by Andras Szanto warrants a separate blogpost on Groping for Words, stating that

“the urgent search is on for a more compelling vocabulary. The challenge is to make a case for the arts without flipping back to utilitarian rhetoric or language that may sound, to some, hopelessly romantic or elitist. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

Disruptive Technology In Education

Today I am preparing for a series of talks I will moderate on disruptive technology in education, and without question my reading list is growing daily. Out there on the web, there are already entire bibliographies that have been inspired by Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Technology (2005). Quite a few became interested in how his theory of disruptive technology explained events that continually are shaping libraries – academic and otherwise – and higher education in general.

Museums have long-alligned themselves with libraries, especially with respect to funding opportunities available locally, nationally and globally. This article by Andras Szanto warrants a separate blogpost on Groping for Words, stating that “the urgent search is on for a more compelling vocabulary. The challenge is to make a case for the arts without flipping back to utilitarian rhetoric or language that may sound, to some, hopelessly romantic or elitist. It’s not as easy as it sounds.”

If you find anything else along these lines, please let me know — many of us would like to keep growing this bibliography. An entirely comprehensive list can be found in a Zotero library on Christensen in Higher Education, plus Christian’s tag on technorati that leads to more writing by Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square.

Museums and cultural organizations have lost their way in how to speak about the work that they do, and many of the words to describe passion, or love, or inspiration to shape the argument of the arts falls flat in the face of funders and anyone else. I know that disruptive technologies in museum education, and of course in higher education, figures high here – the question is how.

Someone else I plan to spend some time following is Dick Costolo, interviewed earlier this week by Charlie Rose on September 18, 2012.

It should be noted here that according to a 2008 interview with Dorsey, he has regularly cited that three guiding principles, which are shared by the whole company and throughout its culture at Twitter: simplicity, constraint and craftsmanship.[1]

Simplicity, constraint and craftsmanship – certainly these three guiding principles could be applied to art-making and teaching, as well as innovative ways to assert disruptive technologies in education.


Jack Dorsey is an American software architect that had an interest in making “instant messenger” updates available for friends to see. This was a refined concept that eventually grew into what we now know as Twitter. Three guiding principles of this innovative idea are simplicity, constraint and craftsmanship.

Jack had an early fascination with cities and how they work, so he would always carry maps around with him. His attraction with mass-transit and how cities function led him to taking advantage of public transit databases in Manhattan. He built off of his original idea that gave meaning to his overall concept. His idea make clear though working on dispatch software, programming real-time messaging systems for couriers, taxis, and emergency vehicles.

Jack Dorsey’s experience helped him see his idea in a completely new perspective. Taking his seedling of an idea that would update friends of his status, Dorsey completed several field tests before recognizing that the technology available didn’t support his innovative idea. There are times when putting off a project is irrefutable. Jack Dorsey originally came up with his idea in the year 2000 but wasn’t able to execute effectively until 8 years later. Jack was effective in not letting his idea sit for too long but instead taking action when technology would let it thrive.[2]


I finally did order Bourdieu’s Distinction, which I will be posting about in a week or so.

Status Update. New York City, September 2012.

Presented this one-pager draft today to get ready for my second exam in maybe a year, using the only words I had available this week to get something down:

“Since my first museum job in 1993, I have held a long-standing commitment towards using technology as an interpretive tool for reacting and responding to art. In previous positions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, I have concentrated my educational and professional pursuit within the intersection of education, contemporary culture, new media, and civic engagement in museums. In my current role as Director of Education at Art21, my focus and interest has remained within the intersection of museum education, technology and informal learning, and now also includes human-based interactions between artworks and artists. I see my role as providing platforms in which artists are viewed as creative role models and innovators.

After dedicating my practice to the use of technology as an interpretive tool to learn and react to works of art in several institutions, I am turning my research focus towards the study of technology-based informal learning systems in museums and arts organizations, especially for those who will not or cannot go to college.

This area of future study may include:

  • Online learning classes (such as painting classes at MoMA that include international audiences who are seeking to learn English as a second language)
  • Open University models (MIT, Harvard, and open-source platforms such as Coursera, Lore)
  • Open space learning models in New York City (such as Skillshare, General Assembly)

My current doctorate study has allowed me to examine the struggle that K-12 teachers face on the battleground of public school education. While I have largely held an interest in creating ideal scenarios that are tightly edited and structured within the context of a museum visit, and have overseen three art education technology centers in various capacities, I believe that the museum field has yet to harness the power of art, design, technology and social media to broaden, deepen and diversify audiences. I believe that the growth of an individual’s appreciation and personal connection with an original work of art expands in direct correlation to instances in which they find deeper connections to their everyday lives.”

Somewhat relatedly, Jean Anyon high-fived me today. And that was amazing.

The word “choice,” meaning a choice made by those who cannot or will not go to college, remains a place of contention. I liked the openness of “those who cannot or will not to to college” because the phrase infers that there is a variety of reasons why college did not present itself as an option. Many young people decide not to go to college because they cannot afford it. But many more still begin college despite the financial risk, and then figures like how our national college drop-out rate after freshman year rise to rise to something like 55%, where completion rate for an actual degree may be closer to 8%.

And, since I am making a theoretical turn this semester in earnest, the next stop will be Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), who is luckily seems to still be pretty active on Twitter. Or at least, someone who knows him is.

(1930 - 2002)
Pierre Bourdieu, looking rather worried.

Status Update

Shane Brennan’s talk about the Creative Time show reminded me of earlier examples of artists working with social media – which may not be the focus of a course, but make for fascinating class discussions nonetheless. I was thinking of Rachel Perry Welty’s 2009 performance piece “Rachel Is,” in which she updated her Facebook status once a minute, from the time she woke up until she fell asleep. It was painful to witness, and many of us found ourselves unable to stop hitting “refresh” until past 11pm – that is, until her comment page started blowing up. “Are you asleep yet?” “Did you fall asleep? “Is Rachel asleep?” “She’s asleep!”

She’s a sculptor known primarily for her installation work with found materials – which perhaps was why watching that work was particularly mind-bending for me.  Even though I am now at Art21 even I can’t keep up with the blog, but this post from around the same time – 2009 – is a terrific one:

That shift Facebook made from using the prompt  “What are you doing right now?” to “What’s on your mind” should have scared more people. Scarier still, I don’t think I even notice the prompt anymore.

“Status Update,” the Haskell/Yale show from around the same time underscored the importance of viewing social media as just another tool, although clearly one more mutable and more reactive than something like a browser window, still bound by a frame.

And the writer of that Art21 blogpost was also one of the artists also included in the show:

Identity through social media is also the core of An Xiao’s work. Trained in philosophy, Ms. Xiao, 28, came to art through photography, writing and an interest in communication that goes back to her childhood, when she wrote letters to her grandmother in the Philippines. The letters, she said, related little moments that add up to a portrait of the writer, the way social networking does now with a series of — as she put it — “totally inane things.”

Her installation, called “Nothing to Tweet Home About,” is a group of postcards written as Twitter feeds that she is mailing to the gallery. “Sometimes I take the slow bus just to get a seat. And talk on the phone,” she wrote on one from New York.

“The mediums change,” she said in a telephone interview. “But the basic human need to communicate, to share your life and talk about your life — that’s going to be there forever.”

Change they do. Never underestimate human desire to share, and over-share in a share-share kind of way.