How does inquiry-based education work when learners are distributed and asynchronous?

Blog Post

I’ve just wrapped up week 1 of my first MOOC experience, Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroomtaught by MoMA educator Lisa Mazzola on Coursera.

(It is still open and I encourage you to join! It’s not too late. If you’re not entirely sure what a MOOC is, see this helpful explanation of a Massive Open Online Course from Educause.)

As a museum professional who specializes in digital engagement and a museum studies professor, I come to this course with several layers of questions related to inquiry-based learning and how it intersects with online platforms:

What are the best practices for inquiry-based learning in art museums?

After nearly a decade in a national history museum, I am fairly new to art museums and how they engage learners with works of art, as opposed to other kinds of museum objects.

What aspects of inquiry-based education translate well to digital spaces?

Should I change my approach as an educator for formal online education experiences (e.g., online university courses) vs. informal learning experiences (e.g., social media)? My professional speciality is digital outreach and engagement for museums and other nonprofits, with an emphasis on both learning and marketing outcomes. I am also an adjunct professor for the Johns Hopkins University museum studies program, which involves teaching entirely online. I’m curious to explore further how the context of the learner impacts the effectiveness of inquiry-based education . . . for example, does a Twitter follower get as much out of inquiry as a formal student?

What are the challenges that educators face in using inquiry-based methods online to engage learners that are not in the same room and are not participating at the same time?

In teaching online graduate courses, I have found the asynchronous nature makes the process of constructing knowledge together as a group more difficult than I experienced when teaching graduate students in a physical classroom.

How does observing an object digitally change the experience of observation for the learner?

How does being online affect some of the other aspects of inquiry-based learning, such as communicating with a group about one’s ideas and interpretation? As someone who designs digital museum experiences, I am especially interested in outreach projects for audiences who cannot come and see museum collections in person. How does this change the way I structure an inquiry-based experience?

How does a MOOC really work?

I’ve been reading about them for months but this is my first personal experience as a student in a MOOC.

Should museums be using MOOCs as an educational platform?

And for what audiences (e.g., adults, teens, teacher professional development, homeschool audiences)? Part of my role at a national art museum is to figure out how to leverage our expertise and resources for maximum impact. I am curious about how museum educators can bring something unique to the MOOC space and am excited to learn from the model MoMA is presenting here.

So far I have found the readings and lecture video to be quite good at addressing the first question (how can inquiry-based education work in a physical location). I highly recommend Laurel Schmidt’s “Great Teachers Don’t Take No (or Yes) for an Answer: Teaching by Asking Instead of Telling” and John Hennigar Shuh’s “Teaching Yourself to Teach With Objects” (I was able to read both in the course of two metro rides).

I look forward to noodling over some of my other burning questions with other Coursera students as we learn by doing, digitally.

Note: You can follow some of the discussion about the MOOC on Twitter using the hashtag #artinquiry.

What are your thoughts on how inquiry-based learning translates to online learning? Does it matter if the learners think of themselves as such (e.g., part of a formal class environment) or not (e.g., simply following an educational institution on social media)?

Image credit: Network visualization by Flickr user yaph

5 thoughts on “How does inquiry-based education work when learners are distributed and asynchronous?

  1. This post about using Twitter in the classroom may help:

    They found that Twitter deepened the relationships and helped the shyer students engage.

    Don’t know if you came across this article, The Nature of the Future in Education ( The point that resonated with me is “…what learning spaces might look like” in the future, and what are the best platforms to encourage inquiry-based learning. To me the web is all about encouraging that kind of learning due to it’s inherent nature of fluidity and connectivity.

    Enjoy the rest of the MOOC – be keen to hear more about it!

    1. Great links, Lynda. Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t come across the Nature of the Future in Education and I look forward to digging in. Are you participating in the MOOC? One flaw in the forums that I’ve found is I can’t search for posts by user.

  2. Dana,

    I’m taking the MOMA MOOC too, and enjoying it. So far it’s been pretty much about teaching in museums, or in classrooms using museum objects. There’s a promise of discussion of teaching via google hangout later in the course.

    Much of the technique presented so far has been about how to get students to speak up, to respond to art and artifact – and a lot of that technique depends on being there, looking at them, waiting. It wouldn’t work in an asynchronous class, at least not without some real changes.

    You and other museum folks might want to take a look at my other summer MOOC, the “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” MOOC on Coursera, taught by Sue Alcock, my colleague at Brown. It taught with artifacts very directly – everything from the piles of paper on the instructor’s desk to sessions filmed in the museum on how archaeologists look at things, and included assignments that sent students out to look at and write about objects and sites. I enjoyed it, and learned a lot.

    The challenge with museum MOOCs, I think, is to get beyond the straight video of talking heads. It’s clear that if you can do that, you can reach a large number of students, and that those students can become very engaged in the subject matter. The discussion boards on both of my summer MOOCs have been very impressive… people from around the world carrying on discussions that clearly mean a lot to them. I wish I could convince some of my students to engage so thoughtfully!


    1. Hi Steve,

      Great tip about the Archaeology MOOC. I’ll take a look.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about how “object-based learning” seems to mean something quite different for art museums than my experiences at the National Museum of American History. The role of “information” (as this week’s article called it) seems to shift heavily and there is more emphasis on encouraging interpretation by students that doesn’t “require” any prior knowledge. There is something really freeing about this emphasis on personal interpretation but it makes it harder, I imagine, to circle back to those larger questions and goals for understanding a topic or sphere of human experience beyond oneself.

      I think you’re right to pinpoint the asynchronous part of my challenge. The Google Hangout examples show quite clearly how inquiry can work even if students are distributed. (Though the examples were flat objects, not three dimensional items that might only work well with great digital reproductions available). The sequencing of questions and guiding the conversation in time seem to be more of a challenge online, as I’ve experienced all too well with Twitter chats.

      One last note/question: I’ve tried to find your posts in the forum but haven’t come up with them by searching first or last name. Can you share links to your forum posts with me here or by DM on Twitter? Would love to see your discussion activity.



      1. My posting is here: – some quick thoughts on how one might use the #artinquiry method to look at technological items, or industrial design.

        You raise a key question – how to provide information beyond the student’s own experience – that this week’s reading began to get at. History museums are traditionally less about personal experience than about understanding a bigger picture. At least they are to curators… are they to visitors?

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