Lessons Learned: Museums’ Online Courses at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit

At the MuseumNext 2021 Digital Income Summit, the V&A Academy and Barnes Foundation shared how they've increased access and revenue with online courses.

Lessons Learned: Museums’ Online Courses at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit

Last week we attended the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit, a wonderfully collaborative 3-day convening of cultural professionals sharing research and findings on online revenue generation. We saw a lot of great online community practices within the summit itself: we loved the chat feature with ample sharing, encouragement, and questions; the homebase with profiles and invitations to share about yourself; and best of all, the recordings that were almost immediately available each day and allowed you to stay updated whenever it was convenient for you.

Keeping in mind Gather’s mission of enriching lives by creating connections through learning, we’re highlighting some of the key ideas that resonated with us about museums’ experiments with online courses over this past year. Will Cary, Chief of Business Strategy and Analytics at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and Ian Ellard, Head of the V&A Academy in London, shared inspiring findings from transitioning their pre-pandemic in-person adult courses online. As many museums review the past year and plan for the future, we can learn lessons about content offerings, internal collaborative processes, online community building, and more from the new online course programs’ processes and results.

Key finding: Adult online courses successfully expanded museums’ revenue streams and international access

Both institutions built on existing infrastructures from long histories of adult education on the programmatic side, and on the technical front, internal usage of the Microsoft Teams platform, where the courses are held. They began offering online courses shortly after their museums closed in spring 2020 and have continued since. Their results demonstrated both great revenue potential from the courses and significantly increased geographic reach and access.

Barnes Foundation online classes:

Since April 2020:

  • Price: $220 for non-members, $198 for students and members for a 4-week course
  • Revenue: $715,000
  • Quadrupled the amount of scholarships offered pre-pandemic
  • 4,500 students enrolled
  • 73 classes, with 4 to 7 new class offerings per month
  • Students enrolled from 40 states and 8 countries
  • For students who have taken more than 1 course, the average number of courses taken is 5.5
  • Customer support team is in the IT department with a full-time manager and new hires, underscoring the extent to which customer service has been critical to the overall course success.

V&A Academy

  • Price: £395 for a 12-week course
  • Revenue on track to fully replace lost onsite course revenue

First term:

  • Average of 80 students per course
  • 6 art history lecture courses, each 12 weeks long
  • 55% joined from outside London (double the rate from onsite courses), 15% joined from outside of the UK. 60%+ of students reported that they couldn’t have attended the courses onsite in London.
  • 24,000 hours of student engagement (equivalent to about 19,000 exhibition visits)

Second term:

  • Doubled the number of courses, students, and revenue.

Key idea: Lean into digital experiences as distinct from in-person experiences (spoiler: this goes beyond the technical aspects)

The success of the Barnes Foundation courses and V&A Academy, however, was not due to recreating the onsite courses but in quickly responding to the potential for online courses to be distinct experiences. At the Barnes Foundation, this started with taking advantage of the Deep Zoom tool that they launched in 2020 for nearly 1000 collection works, but it didn’t end there. As the museums welcomed students into their online courses, they also learned from them and adapted the courses — and their own internal processes — accordingly.

  • Synchronous and asynchronous content: The Barnes Foundation learned that 85% of its students were watching the courses live, but they were also referencing and rewatching materials even after the course was done. They realized that “building students’ digital bookshelves” with materials in the course is part of what makes the courses sticky. Similarly, the V&A learned in the first term of courses that two-thirds watched live, while one-third watched on demand. In the second term, they created flipped learning opportunities, in which they offered pre-recorded content that was paired with live tutorials for more meaningful interaction time between the students and instructor. A Q&A discussion board also allowed students to ask questions asynchronously. Creating both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities significantly increased their reach geographically and internationally.
  • Informed the development of more inclusive content: For the V&A Academy, increased enrollments and reach prompted them to expand their content areas to include, for instance, a course on Queer History of Objects, which used the collection to explore the LGBTQ+ experience in Britain, and a course on the History of the Caribbean 1673–1974, which explored both objects in and omissions from the V&A collections.
  • New cross-departmental strategy and working groups: At the Barnes Foundation, new cross-departmental collaborations that have come out of this past year include a courses working group and a strategic content team, which has goals of aligning and evaluating programmatic offerings and content and includes representatives from every department in the institution.

During the Q&A, Cary noted that one of the most important mindset shifts at the Barnes early in the closure was ensuring that the online experience would be different from the onsite experience. Similarly, the V&A Academy’s understanding of their value proposition shifted from great courses “at the V&A” to great courses “by the V&A.”

Alyson Webb of Frankly Green + Webb explored museums’ mindsets around digital content and engagement in “Museums Making Money From Online Content: Might Our Beliefs Be Holding Us Back?” We greatly appreciated her point about leaning into online offerings as distinct experiences:

“Quite often online content becomes dominated by the need to promote or mimic the onsite experience. In other words, museums have maintained a view that online works in the service of onsite and not as an independent experience in its own right. The data suggests that this is actively limiting the reach of our online content. [The participating museums in their study] hold collections that in whole or part have international appeal and that connect with peoples’ hobbies and passions but they haven’t yet managed to fully capitalize on those opportunities.”

Key idea: Museums’ adult online learning programs can be models for online audience engagement, connection, and community

Museums’ online courses are a great model for digital content that can be responsive to the interests and needs of both local and international audiences, including those who may never be able to visit the museum in-person. Through digital programs these audiences can develop a relationship with the institution — and with each other! In one of the V&A Academy sewing courses, for instance, a group of students started a weekly knitting group.

What can museums learn from the deep, sustained engagement found in the courses? These programs’ meaningful geographic access, inclusive content, and peer communities are factors of their success that can be more broadly generalizable for museums’ digital learning initiatives, adult programming, and other content. We’re continuing to think about how a variety of museums and cultural organizations might apply these findings to their content and online learning programs, audience engagement, and online community building. We’d love for you to join us in that conversation.

Thanks to MuseumNext for organizing this opportunity to learn from and with each other!

Image caption: Paul Cézanne. Plate of Fruit on a Chair (Assiette de fruits sur une chaise), 1879–1880. BF18. Courtesy Barnes Foundation.

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