University of Florida: The difficulty with distance learning during a pandemic

In February 2020, researchers undertook a broad study of how museums used distance learning in their education programs, not anticipating the world would soon be turned on its head. With the sudden spike in the number of COVID-19 cases the following month, 90% of museums and science centers around the world closed their doors to the public. Distance learning, once a tool seldom used in museums, ballooned into the communication medium of choice virtually overnight.

The researchers, who distributed a detailed survey through professional Listservs immediately prior to the outbreak, were perfectly poised to observe the ensuing changes as they unfolded. By sending out two follow-up surveys over the course of a year, the researchers compared distance learning initiatives and the way museum staff perceived them before and knee-deep into a global pandemic. Their results were published this week in the Journal of Museum Education.

“Many of the survey responses were a split between people who were really excited about this opportunity to do new programming that they considered important and others who felt overwhelmed, overworked, stressed and undervalued,” said lead author Megan Ennes, assistant curator of museum education at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Before the pandemic, most museums that were engaged in online learning offered a small number of programs geared toward K-12 schools. These often involved detailed lesson plans and digital activities that educators had ample time to develop from scratch. As the need for online content skyrocketed when people started working from home, museums reflexively began repurposing their existing material for online use.

But what works best in person may not work as well online, Ennes said. “Many of the respondents loved the hands-on aspect of museum education. People who got to facilitate students engaging with real artifacts or animals suddenly found themselves communicating via a one-way transmission.”

Educators also struggled with the technical challenges inherent in implementing online programs from the ground up within the span of a few weeks.

“Many museum educators had never taught online before, and some indicated they didn’t even know where to start looking for the best cameras or where to go for the technology they needed,” Ennes said. “Several respondents mentioned needing to buy hot spots in order to conduct virtual tours because the museums they worked in didn’t have service in some of their spaces.”

With the need for new resources, many museums found themselves in the precarious position of having to pay for equipment and costly web-based services from a dwindling pool of funds.

Some museums were unable to absorb the financial blow, requiring the difficult decision to fire and furlough staff members they could no longer afford to pay. And educators, Ennes said, were at the top of the list.

“One of the biggest issues, unfortunately, was some museums cut their education staff after the closures, meaning the people that may have had the expertise on how to translate their in-person programs online were the first to go.”

Nor did the problems facing museums stop once they’d transitioned online. When educators launched their content, they found themselves wading through a sea of similar material from other museums in the same boat, all vying for the attention of an audience that was becoming increasingly weary of distance learning.

One respondent commented in the survey, “The reception we’ve gotten has been crickets. It’s as if nobody is interested, and that’s been very difficult.”

When the content did manage to garner interest, the results were often less than lucrative. According to one survey respondent, potential audience members and school classrooms repeatedly backed out when they realized the material could only be accessed with a fee.

Despite the many barriers to success, several museums managed to crack the digital content code after a few fits and starts. Lectures that had been scheduled as in-person events were retooled for broadcast, on-site summer camps were reenvisioned as interactive virtual spaces and educators invented programming they would have been hard-pressed to offer before the pandemic. Some museums created kits they sold through their gift shops that facilitated hands-on activities educators could guide virtually. Others hosted virtual trivia nights and dance parties to keep their communities engaged.

And while 60% of the respondents indicated their institutions charged for at least some of their online content a year into closures, much of it was also free to the public, allowing museums to reach underserved and remote audiences.

“A lot of educators loved the opportunity to be creative and teach programs they normally wouldn’t have, and many felt they reached people that they would not have been able to otherwise,” Ennes said.

Now that museums are seeing a slow trickle of attendees returning for in-person visits, the question has become how to balance the type and amount of content they offer to the public. While it’s likely that virtual programming is here to stay in some capacity, the online route isn’t necessarily feasible for every museum and science center.

“I think museums will have to assess where their capacity lies and whether they should focus on in-person, online or a hybrid of the two,” Ennes said. “Because as wonderful as it is, not every institution has the ability or the desire to engage in distance learning.”

Whatever the outcome of pandemic closures might ultimately mean for museums, Ennes notes she was consistently impressed by the way educators took the challenge in stride, coming up with innovative solutions when problems seemed unsolvable. “People really went above and beyond this year, and what they’ve put out has been absolutely impressive given they were dealing with a pandemic on top of all the things a museum staff member handles on a normal, everyday basis.”

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