Social Learning and Social Networks: Untangling the Theoretical Thread Between Museum Education and Communication Technologies

Robert Rutherford, USA

There is a persistent element that threads through discourse between museum administrators, collections managers, curators, and educators regarding museum presence in digitally networked spaces, and how digitization of collections and online engagement impact the museum-going experience. Put simply, how is the online museum experience different from the offline museum experience?  The communication framework offered by mobile and online technology is an amorphous, hardly predictable force driven by consumer markets and this reality makes for shaky ground on which to build a communicative relationship between museum educators and the public.

The technological developments that have taken place within museums have also run parallel to a shift in how museum educators design pedagogical experiences.  Museum educators are uniquely situated in this regard, because museums are filled with objects that relate experience in ways that didactic textual instruction cannot.  Museums serve as sites where visitors can construct knowledge and where we can facilitate the social, communicative act of learning.  The challenge for museum educators then is to create experiences in which “meaning-making” occurs, and to that end they have used everything in their bags of pedagogical tricks, including communication technologies such as the internet and mobile devices.

In this presentation, I evaluate constructivism as a prevalent educational theory used in museums, how communication technology provides affordances for creating constructivist experiences in the museum, some of the persistent false dichotomies that have arisen as a result of technological “difference questions,” and the connection between museum education scholarship and communication technology scholarship that, if explored further, may alleviate some of the tension that arises between museum educators and new communication technologies.