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Posted by on Aug 5, 2011

Museum University partnerships; formalizing learning in informal learning centers

I read this article a few days ago on the recommendation of Sidneyeve Matrix, Assistant Professor of Media at Queen's University, and it lurked for a bit in the background and now I am embracing the trend I see being demonstrated there. 

Basically, the article discusses the partnerships being developed with museums and academic institutions towards formalized academic credit. Specifically, it discusses the partnership of the American Museum of Natural History with local universities towards graduate credit in botany, biology, etc. Several other museums have attempted these types of partnerships, including Museum of  Science and Industry in Chicago, The Getty Conservation Institute, and others. What separates the American Museum of Natural History is not their partnership with local universities per se (although there is certainly cooperation there), but rather their positioning of themselves as degree granting entity, basically usurping (or supplementing) the role of the university altogether. I think it signals a real shift in the decentralization of higher education. 

Here, it is the quiet home of the Richard Gilder Graduate School, whose 13 students are earning doctorates in the specialized field of comparative biology, teasing out what fossils from the Gobi Desert and leeches and frogs have to reveal about the evolutionary tree of life. The museum is the first in the nation accredited to offer a doctorate in its own name.

The first, but not the last I suspect. Bold move, but not entirely out of the realm of possibility in terms of mission and impact. Organizationally, specialized museums have the expectation of conducting original research and therefore have a demand for competent researchers and what better way to manage that need by producing your own researchers in-house. Supply internally funneled to meet demand. 

In terms of impact, this is a good move these partnerships and degree offerings. It reinvigorates the purpose of museums in statistical terms (x number of credits earned, x graduates produced, x workshops conducted, etc.), a real boon to securing additional sources of funding. And, like the transition of many libraries to social spaces, it establishes museums as both research and learning spaces. Not as a field trip or supplemental space, but the house of learning itself. The Richard Gilder Graduate School is the boldest move here by offering their own degrees entirely, but the partnerships are equally wise. Strength in numbers, pooling resources, eliminating redundancy (position the labs at the museum and the classroom space at the university, no need to replicate in both places). Good show. 

Alternative crediting/procedure. I am quite interested in this process as well, this process of using these centers of social, cultural, and scientific learning as accrediting agencies in their own right. Specialized research about a specialized topic being conducted at the root of specialized evidence (society's window onto the specialization, the museum). That makes sense for specialists. But what extension of this can be applied to the average museum-goer, the student, the lifelong learner? What credits can they receive for their desire to improve, to learn more and to learn more without clear incentives? Acknowledging that informal learning takes places at these centers consistently makes me think there is an opportunity there. Just go to the nearest art museum and try to figure out how many people are there because they have to be. They want to be there. For reasons not always clearly articulated, but there is a want to understand, to learn, to be inspired. We should be rewarding that in society as often and predictable as possible. The end result is a more informed, more learned, generally more innovative (tenuous link, I know) citizen. 

Informal accrediting mechanisms (even badges) via museums, research institutes, libraries, archives. Why not? These formal accreditation mechanisms (graduate degrees) being offered at traditionally informal learning centers (museums) are certainly steps in the right direction. Now bring on the informal. There is an opportunity here with mobile technology and learning. I just haven't figured it out yet. 

I wrote about some ideas of acknowledging decentralized learning before, including:
A paragraph of the article that speaks to its popularity. Financial support, specialized research, massive amount of contact time with mentor scientists? What's not to like. 

Given the size of the program, with 50 or more applicants a year, it is an achievement just to be admitted. The doctoral students get full support — tuition, a stipend and at least $2,000 of unrestricted research money, which can be supplemented by grants or further support from the school. Mr. Gilder, the brokerage founder who is the museum’s largest donor, provided a $50 million endowment for the school. The students get to work closely with the curators — the museum’s tenured scientists, the equivalent of full professors at a university.

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