Engage on your own terms: How 3 museums create welcoming online learning experiences for adults

We spoke with educators at the Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Barnes Foundation about their experiences designing and hosting online courses this past year, and what they’ve learned from participant feedback and engagement.

Engage on your own terms: How 3 museums create welcoming online learning experiences for adults

In this post, we’ll explore the learner experience in museums’ online courses for adults, focusing on the elements that build community through fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment. We spoke with educators at the Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Barnes Foundation about their experiences designing and hosting online courses this past year, and what they’ve learned from participant feedback and engagement. Many of the strategies they discuss are applicable to a broader range of virtual and in-person programs, with elements that have developed through the past year’s experimentation and innovation online.

One of Martha Lucy’s favorite moments from an online course came in 2020, when she was teaching about Van Gogh and asked participants to write in the chat where they were joining from. The international, geographic spread of synchronous participants amazed her. “I was very surprised at how much people wanted to do online learning. There was really an appetite for it,” Lucy, the Deputy Director for Research, Interpretation and Education at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, told me in a conversation last month about the Foundation’s successful online course program, which developed from their traditionally onsite courses during last year’s closure.

Gathering virtually with others across the globe is an experience shared by many people who have attended or hosted online programs this past year. In our previous post, we highlighted the geographic reach of online courses for adults by two museums — the Barnes Foundation and the V&A Academy in London — and the impact of increased reach on revenue and content. We explored how they optimized their courses by leaning into digital experiences as distinct from those in-person, and reflected on online courses as models for online community building due to the potential for deep, sustained learner engagement.

For Lucy, international demand for the courses prompted the question: “How can we encourage a feeling of community among a group of people who aren’t together in person?” In this post, we’re taking up that question as well as the questions we posed earlier. We’ll explore in greater depth the learner experience in museums’ online courses for adults, focusing on the elements that build community through fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment. We spoke with educators at the Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Barnes Foundation and audited their online courses to identify some shared principles that can apply more broadly to museums’ digital and in-person programs and environments. As Jennifer Yee, Associate Director, Public Programs at the Guggenheim noted, “a lot of participants are joining for the experience of the courses and the topic is sometimes less important.” Many of these strategies have parallels in or are drawn from longstanding practices in museum education, with elements that have developed through the past year’s experimentation and innovation online, and can in turn inform other programming. As you read, consider how you might apply these strategies to your museums’ programming, and let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

Thanks to Sara Bodinson and Arlette Hernandez from The Museum of Modern Art, Jennifer Yee and Laili Amighi from the Guggenheim, and Martha Lucy from the Barnes Foundation for their generosity in sharing their time and experiences with us. Author’s note: I formerly managed MoMA’s online courses with Sara Bodinson and Arlette Hernandez.

At a glance: Structure of 3 museums’ online course programs for adults

The course programs we explore in this post vary by price, quantity of courses, formats, specific topics, and more, but there are also important overlaps and similarities. Both the Guggenheim and Barnes Foundation developed their online course programs during the closure from existing adult education offerings; MoMA’s Massive Open Online Course program began in 2012 but saw significant growth in enrollments throughout 2020 in particular. Each museum views their online course program as a valuable offering that will continue while in-person programming returns. In our conversations, each museum shared some of what they’ve learned from the past year of experimentation, piloting, and expansion of the course program. Below, we’ll start by exploring three elements of framing and structure, and then, we’ll highlight strategies for soliciting and valuing participant contributions, and creating space for participants’ lives, experiences, and contexts beyond the course.

Part 1: Elements of Framing and Structure

Titling sets the tone

The learner experience starts with the course title. Titles can communicate subject matter, time period, methodology, what, if any, prior knowledge is expected, and more. Understanding the motivations of current and intended audiences through surveys and personas can guide the process of determining a title. As MoMA was designing a new course about contemporary art in 2019, for example, they referred to surveys from their existing courses, which revealed that a key learning goal for many participants was gaining confidence in museums by learning how to look at and talk about art. The course title that resulted, “What Is Contemporary Art?,” was intended to validate audience questions and signal an invitation to dialogue and discussion. Similarly, the Guggenheim experimented with offering classes that are branded as “getting comfortable with contemporary art,” and found in feedback that participants cited the title as their motivation for enrolling. Barnes Foundation course titles also respond to varying learner motivations and prior experiences with art, ranging from “What Is Minimalism?” to titles that reference artists’ names such as “Demuth, Hartley, Sexuality, and American Modernism.”

Offer multiple modes of engagement to allow participants to engage on their own terms

In our previous post, we reported how offering synchronous and asynchronous content enabled learners across time zones to participate in online courses. Offering multiple modes of engagement through varying media, formats, and activities allows learners to engage in a way that is most comfortable and accessible for them. The Guggenheim and Barnes Foundation’s courses are built around weekly live sessions that blend presentations with discussion, and in some cases artmaking, often allowing learners to unmute themselves or speak with the instructor and each other in the chat. They provide optional additional readings and resources for those who wish to go deeper or prepare for the next session. Laili Amighi, Associate Manager, Public Programs at the Guggenheim described the value of this as providing entry points for multiple learning types: “Some people will find enrichment from live experiences, while others will appreciate having the extra opportunity of readings and resources.”

MoMA’s courses on the Coursera platform are primarily asynchronous, with weekly thematic units of video, audio, readings, and assessments available for learners to access at their own pace. Discussion forums invite engagement between participants, and several live Zoom sessions per quarter offer opportunities to engage more closely with the instructors, guests, and other participants. Arlette Hernandez, Volkswagen Fellow for Digital Learning, noted that a value of the discussion forums is in making space for those who may not be comfortable speaking in a live session, but still wish to reflect or engage with others in the course.

Build comfort and familiarity over time

To address the distance between educators and participants in an online course due to the mediated experience of learning through a screen, Yee and Amighi intentionally designed the Guggenheim’s courses as multisession so participants could develop comfort over time sharing ideas with each other and asking questions. In a recent course, for instance, the instructor began their sessions with presentations primarily but increasingly layered in questions each week for participants to add their own thoughts. With each session, participants responded more frequently by speaking, typing in the chat, or using Zoom’s Q&A function, and often referenced earlier sessions. When I audited courses from the Guggenheim and Barnes Foundation, I saw participants and instructors engaged in dialogue that felt like ongoing conversations, building through multiple sessions, with recognition and familiarity within the group. The success of the multisession format has in turn prompted Yee and Amighi to consider how they are building relationships with audiences through onsite public programs, and explore creating similarly consistent, regular series of onsite public programs that would allow participants to develop comfort and familiarity with each other.

Part 2: Enhancing Participation

The ideas above explored three elements of program design and structure that contribute to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment in the three museums’ course programs. Below, we’ll focus to a greater extent on how the museums are enhancing the quality of engagement with participants, through valuing participant contributions and the contexts and experiences that they bring to the program.

Be mindful of the contexts from which participants are engaging

Each of the interviewees spoke to the importance of being mindful of the contexts from which participants are engaging. Their own experiences over the past year with approaches that were new in the pandemic or uniquely available in a virtual space, coupled with longstanding practices for onsite programs, inform their perspectives. These can include mindful transitions into virtual programs through talk, music, or other modes of entry that are distinct from the main activity, and flexibly inviting participants to contribute through video, audio, writing, or simply be present by listening. Yee shared her experience of virtual yoga courses that begin with 15 minutes of open participant talk as a “wonderful way to forge community through having to do things differently than before.” Amighi described the value of her virtual language courses during lockdown as a “safe, reliable space that was very grounding,” and Lucy noted that audio-only virtual communities have been a welcome way to engage with others without deepening screen fatigue.

Sara Bodinson, Director of Interpretation, Research, and Digital Learning at MoMA, described how MoMA staff create intentional transitional sequences at the beginning and end of synchronous virtual programs, with elements such as playing intro and outro music, and displaying and reading aloud community agreements. Throughout the program, several staff members engage frequently in the chat by transcribing speakers’ questions and summarizing key ideas from the responses, prompting discussion among participants and responding to them — even using emojis to create a friendly atmosphere. Though the pandemic has often been a prompt for acknowledging participants’ lives outside of the virtual program space over this past year, these are enduring practices that build meaningful communities by acknowledging participants’ humanity.

Offer opportunities for making and sharing

Each of the museums’ online course programs offer opportunities for learners to discover new materials and artistic processes, and if they wish, to make their own artworks. In “Modernist Watercolor Techniques: Cézanne and Demuth,” led by Michael Williamson and offered by the Barnes Foundation, “students will learn how both of these artists approached the medium — especially how they made use of expanses of white paper to create dynamic spatial relationships. Taught by a practicing artist, the course will include demonstrations of color mixing and composition planning.” The Guggenheim’s course “Exploring Paper and Personal Records,” led by Karen Bergman, invites participants to “[use] items from home, including newspapers, photographs, and other found materials, …[to] respond to prompts to explore their environment and engage with their own and others’ personal histories.”

Amighi noted how creative explorations like these can bring the courses out of the virtual space and into people’s lives and surroundings. MoMA uses a similar approach in discussion forum prompts that invite people to make and share their own artworks, or share images they’ve found. This was in part inspired by the success of the discussion forums in their course “In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting,” which was the first in MoMA’s course program to invite participants to make and share their own artworks as they learned about artists’ processes and materials (read more here). The collaborative environment that developed in the forums, in which participants encouraged each other through creative blocks and asked questions or offered constructive feedback, led the museum to add creative and image-based prompts into their non-studio courses. In many cases, the visual prompts create an opportunity to localize and personalize the lesson’s key ideas, such as in this prompt from a module about photographic series in the course “Seeing Through Photographs”:

Take a series of photographs over the course of a week. Develop a set of parameters or rules for your series: it can be as loose or restricted as you wish. Some rules might include:

● take one photograph of the same thing at the same time for one week

● take a photograph of everything you see that is a certain color, shape, or texture

● take a photograph every time you think about a specific person, topic, or thing

● take a photograph that represents a ritual or a daily activity, such as cooking, eating, making your bed, taking vitamins or medicines, sleeping, walking, etc.

What story does your series tell, if any? What do you learn from the series of photographs that you couldn’t learn from a single photograph?

The success of the creative discussion forums, as indicated both by the quantity and quality of learner exchange, paired with requests from surveys and feedback, led Hernandez and Bodinson to start “Creative Corner” subforums in each course that will be activated regularly with creative challenges — sometimes related to works on view, but not necessarily dependent on artworks featured in the course — and will have space for participants to ask each other questions about materials or tools, and solicit advice or feedback on their creative projects.

Acknowledge and affirm participants’ contributions and interests

Enhancing the quality of participation is a two-way process, both in-person and online, and in synchronous and asynchronous spaces. Reading learner feedback in MoMA’s courses has reinforced for Hernandez that finding “connection and affirmation” are among the most important elements of a meaningful learner experience. When she reviews discussion forum posts from hundreds of learners, she tries to comment on or respond occasionally to learners’ reflections or their creative contributions. “There was a learner who regularly submitted to the creative prompts, so I responded to them and acknowledged their posts. Their response was, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect anyone to respond!’ Everything should be coalescing around those smaller moments. People are being very generous with their time, and they appreciate the human connection.” Instructors in courses that I audited from the Barnes Foundation and Guggenheim similarly validated and responded to observations, questions, and comments from learners, creating an atmosphere of open and equal exchange. Having a meaningful experience in an online program with a museum is as much about social connection as it is about learning. As Hernandez noted, “What’s important is seeing things that are relevant to you, that make you feel good…and hearing that someone else has the same interests and experience.”


After a year of experimentation and innovation in museums’ online course programs, where do we go from here? Each of the museums we spoke with intends to continue offering online courses based on learner demand and the successes in terms of offering meaningful opportunities for learning and participation, reaching new audiences, and increasing revenue. Amighi and Yee explained that participants see the courses as a “stepping stone” towards deeper engagement with art and the Guggenheim, both for those who can and can’t visit in person. They, like the Barnes Foundation and MoMA, are also critically evaluating how to reach people who aren’t yet engaged with the museum, through partnerships and decreasing cost barriers, and are further exploring supplements to the online courses such as in-person activations.

Bodinson emphasized the sustained popularity of MoMA’s online courses, many of which have been live for 3 or more years, which she attributed in part to the appeal of their accessible, thematic content. Learners’ responses to the course content and thematic structures have, over time, informed the development of accessible content on moma.org, such as the addition of an Art Terms glossary with links to examples in MoMA’s collection. Bodinson and Hernandez noted the ongoing, central role that learner feedback plays in continuing to optimize and refresh the courses years after launch: pre-, mid-, and post-course surveys guide their prioritization of improvements by identifying strengths, pain points, and opportunities.

In sum, the three museums’ online course programs have found success in meeting audiences’ interests and needs by adapting museum education practices for a virtual space, and developing new approaches that are responsive to the challenges and opportunities of engaging remotely. At Gather, we’re inspired by how they are building inclusive and welcoming online spaces for learning and meaningful participation, through experimentation, iteration, and refinement over the past year. We’re excited about how the elements of these programs contribute to creating rewarding and sustained online communities. As we collaborate with institutions looking to use learning to bring people together, both in-person and online, we’d love for you to join us in that conversation.

Image courtesy Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

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