(Re)Mapping the Learning Ecosystem

Guest Post by Marsha L. Semmel.
Marsha L. Semmel was the Director for Strategic Partnerships at the Institute of Museum and Library Services from 2003-13. She is currently Senior Adviser, Noyce Leadership Institute, and Independent Consultant on Leadership, Partnerships, and Policy for Cultural Institutions.

A proposition: let’s remap our understanding of our learning ecosystem to include the nation’s more than 140,000 museums and libraries. These highly trusted institutions, representing almost every academic discipline and present in almost every community, are too often absent from our conversations about the future of learning. Yet many of them provide those meaningful, personalized, and accessible lifelong learning experiences that fit the bill—often even better than the classroom—for what John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas describe as “a new culture for learning,” one that cultivates “the imagination for a world of constant change.”

I’m not a futurist, but I’m keenly interested in – nay, passionate – about today’s learning revolution. Therefore, I eagerly consumed KnowledgeWorks Forecast 3.0, Recombinant Education: Regenerating the Learning Ecosystem, with its description of five societal “disruptions that will change everything” and concomitant opportunities and challenges for education. Just as the formal P-16 educational system is reframing its role in this new environment of ‘learners” and “learning agents,” the existing networks of museums and libraries are going through similar sea changes in light of broader societal, social, scientific, and technological shifts.

In my recent position as Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency funding grants, research, and other projects that build the capacity of museums and libraries, I worked with many public and private partners to spotlight and leverage learning trends that will impact these institutions. Through funding incentives, publications, resources, and convenings, the agency has used its federal mandate and “bully pulpit” to strengthen the ways in which museums and libraries accelerate their efforts to make a difference in the new world of learning. Initiatives have included Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills; the IMLS/Salzburg Global Seminar (and report) on Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture; a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to create 24 learning labs for teens around the country; a STEM Video Game Challenge partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop that supported gaming workshops in libraries and museums; and grant support for several library- and museum-based Maker spaces.

Recently, the agency joined forces with the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to engage libraries and museums in the Campaign’s efforts to address the nation’s urgent challenges in the areas of school readiness, summer learning loss, and chronic absenteeism. The Campaign roots its work deeply in connecting disparate elements of the community’s learning infrastructure, including the home, pre-school, social service organizations—and libraries and museums. It recognizes the need to include digital resources and engage parents, caregivers, and the young learners themselves, preparing them for the skills and competencies needed for the future. Thus far, this partnership has included a series of museum/library collaboration grants and a new report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners.

What are some characteristics of museum and library learning? At their best, museums and libraries are welcoming, accessible places where people of all ages—individuals, families, or peer groups—can pursue their passions, create their own learning paths, and have their learning horizons stimulated and broadened through experiences, programs, and the guidance of by knowledgeable staff and volunteers. These experiences and services take place on-site and off-site, in physical spaces or online—and in multiple venue combinations. All of the boundary blurring described in Recombinant Education is occurring in our libraries and museums, with virtual exhibitions; distance learning courses; and mobile, pop-up spaces at farmer’s markets, churches, and shopping centers happening with increasing frequency. Many projects are co-created with audiences, including crowdsourcing and public “curation” of exhibition content, “citizen digitization” of museum and library collections, “gamification” of educational programs, and everything from homework help, nutrition tips for parents, to customized way finding available on mobile devices.

Museums and libraries have always worked with schools, through student field trips, artifact trunks, after-school and summer programs, and pre-service and in-service professional development for teachers. That work continues, with new themes and variations (such as electronic field trips) afforded by new technologies. Many of these organizations are working closely with schools on the enhancement of state and local standards, including the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Further, museums and libraries are expanding their partnerships with housing authorities, hospitals, homeless shelters, Head Start centers, faith-based organizations, universities, and neighborhood and civic associations to work collectively on community problems. In this way, they are active players in, sometimes the spearheads for, powerful, community-based learning ecosystems.

Not all museums and libraries are on the new learning frontier, however. Behind the early adopters are many still deeply rooted in past practices that preserve the old models, including traditional organization charts, bricks-and-mortar-bound budget priorities, and static programming. As organizations where preservation and conservation of knowledge, artifacts, and documents have been hallmark values, the types of dynamic change and nimble reinvention called for today can seem irrelevant or daunting. And all of our organizations—even those in the lead—are coping with the repositioning required by the forecast’s disruptive challenges. Therefore, just as our museums and libraries have much to add, they have much to learn from the insights of Recombinant Education.

As we all chart our paths through our emerging learning ecosystem, I hope that we recognize the potential of museums and libraries as vital learning hubs that can play an essential role in its realization.

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