MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses


Image from the On Their Own travelling exhibition produced by the ANMM. Photo courtesy National Archives of Australia.

Massive Open Online Courses (aka MOOCs) present an opportunity to reach a huge amount of adult learners for a modest investment of time, budget and re-purposing of already published content:

“A MOOC is a model of educational delivery that is, to varying degrees, massive, with theoretically no limit to enrolment; open, allowing anyone to participate, usually at no cost; online, with learning activities typically taking place over the web; and a course, structured around a set of learning goals in a defined area of study”. (Thompson, 2013).

In the museum space, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was a pioneer in this area, running a series of art-based courses using the Coursera platform. The inspirational story behind the establishment of Coursera is outlined in Daphne Koller’s 2012 TedGlobal presentation, What We’re Learning from Online Education.

I’ve long felt that MOOCs will shake up the way higher education is delivered (Kelly, 2013) but up until this stage had wondered how this might work for museums in a sustainable way. Attending the MWXX workshop run by @debhowes (formerly of MoMA) and @Ajay_Kapur, from Kadenze, opened my eyes to a platform and process that I realised could make this a reality. Ross Parry, et al’s paper, also presented at the MWXX conference, Why MOOCs matter: the consequence of Massive Open Online Courses for museums, universities and their publics, gave interesting insights into MOOCs as a great learning platform for students and as a tool for organisational change:

“The last two years have seen an extraordinary expansion in the number of massive open online courses (MOOCs) around the world. MOOCs … flip the traditional university [OR museum learning] model. Rather than managing student numbers, MOOCs potentially accommodate a simultaneous learning cohort of thousands—if not tens of thousands. Rather than place the learning experience behind a pay wall of tuition fees, MOOCs instead can open up their teaching for free. Rather than maintaining admission criteria (built around prior academic attainment and experience), MOOCs are open to all with an internet connection”. (Parry, et al, 2016).

Two particular MOOCs I have been looking into are the Shipwrecks and Submerged Worlds, from the University of Southampton, and the Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum, a massive open online course developed by the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in partnership with National Museums Liverpool, both using the FutureLearn platform. The latter course used an Australian National Maritime Museum travelling exhibition, On Their Own, Britain’s Child Migrants, as a case study, opening the museum to a whole new audience that was never anticipated when the exhibition was first built.

So what can MOOCs do for museums (and vice versa…)? As MOOCs now put the power of education within the hands of the consumer, they open up a range of opportunities to people to take courses in areas of their own interests without the need to apply to enter an academy, as noted by Parry, et al (2016). They also provide a suite of opportunities for museums in distance education with potential to reach a massive audience, in a formal, yet also informal, learning environment. As Greenfield (2013) observed: “MOOCs present educators with opportunities and challenges as we adapt and mould them to fit multiple learning styles along with different types of museum education programs”.

MOOCs also provide museum staff with ways to think about providing online learning experiences, through active participation in a MOOC – video lectures combined with notes, online and email discussions, Facebook, Twitter, hangouts, etc (Bowan, 2013). It is this kind of democratisation of education that theorists and activists, such as John Dewey and Paolo Freire, were championing decades ago, and we are now coming closer to achieving their dreams.



4 thoughts on “MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

  1. Seb Chan (@sebchan) says:

    Ellen Lupton at Cooper Hewitt has turned two of her recent exhibitions into MOOCs . . . Ellen is a bona fide design guru (she’s half time at the museum, half time at MICA in Baltimore) so her star power brings a lot clout to her courses. But I think its a good approach to use the exhibition and the museum’s physical space as a ‘set’ for a course – see her two Demystifying courses at

  2. Brett McLennan says:

    Hi Lynda.

    Back in late 2012 and 2013 I was knee deep in the the MOOC space building the learning content for Open Universities Australia’s Open2Study — still Australia largest MOOC platform. Whilst my work was focused on the University sector there was clearly a gap in the market that galleries and museums could colonise. What was intriguing, possibly due to the timing, was the high proportion of PhD and Masters qualified students in our space — despite the fact we have build these subjects as 4 week introductory level programs. Arguably the same professional engagement in the cultural sector would be present and active with the right programs and presenters.


    • lyndakelly61 says:

      Thanks for your comment Brett and I do agree with you about the audience. Maybe this is one case in museum-land where there audience is actually ourselves…

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