Here’s the final part of my impressions of the Future of Education retreat held by the New Media Consortium in rainy Austin, TX. The first part can be found here.
The final day of the retreat felt different to me, more intense. After a giddy first day of throwing ideas around and throwing them up on the wall, the tasks of synthesizing, identifying and ranking metatrends was more of a slog. Our brains were tired, and it’s hard work. The discussions and statements got more heated, especially when people felt that their idea might not get heard before it was too late. By the end, I was worried that we might get bogged down and not finish our task, but Larry Johnson, Lev Gonick, and David Sibbet are great cat herders and never seemed to tire of reminding us one more time to stay on topic. Great facilitation is like gold, and credit for getting any usable result from the event will rest firmly with them in my mind.
I came into the event still processing one of the small group discussions I’d had yesterday about the dueling dyads of Vision & Leadership and Desire & Will and how they should inform one’s work. Discovering your passion and deciding what is to be done are big issues, or maybe Big Issues. There’s still more to unpack there.
In one of the morning small groups (I’ve lost track of how many I was in overall. It was a lot, though.) we were charged with identifying metatrends. The conversation turned, as it did so many times, to how resistant academics were to the perceived loss of their privileged position as “authorities”. It occurred to me that I’ve had this conversation countless times in the past several months now. The “they” changes (directors/curators/academics), but they’re always the people not in the room. I wonder what they say about us at their conferences?
In the course of this, we touched on visitors/students ongoing need or desire to have ways to make sense of the superabundance of information that’s now available. I think you can view the whole app phenomenon as a manifestation of this desire, the move away from surfing around to get what you want to having an app that just gives you a tiny slice – a snack as opposed to a smorgasbord. People still want and value guidance, they just want “a guide on their side instead of a sage on the stage,” as Zoë Rose put it.
How many buzzwords has the museum sector given to popular culture? The only one I can think of is curation; the act of finding and gathering objects and information to tell stories. Do a web search on “curate” and you’ll find all kinds of thing being curated that have nothing to do with museum practice. It must be galling to many curators to have their highly-specialized craft abstracted to the point that you can now curate your clothes, your music, and, worst of all – content, whatever that is. I choose to look upon this as a mark of esteem that people value this skill so much that they want to identify what they do with what curators do. I’m working on being more of a “glass half full kind” of guy this year.
I also see it as our great opportunity in this emergent era of digital plenty. We may not be Google, or Apple, or Wikipedia, or ______, but if there is one thing we know better than anyone else, it’s curation and we already have the people and the repositories of information to tell the important stories, the universal ones, the ones that last. I think it’s no longer a question of technology or budget. What museums need to do to be the kinds of institutions that are vibrant and relevant to rising generations is essentially a question of vision and leadership, desire and will.
As one of the last to leave to event, I had plenty of time to think about what I learned from the retreat to take forward with me. I was rueing the fact that I didn’t get to spend more time talking to Liz Neely about careers. Seb Chan and I started talking about the lack of magic in science museum exhibits and how to capture more of that. Zoë Rose and I both work for large institutions that use the term “learning journey” and struggle to understand exactly what that means. And the list goes on… I decided that the sign of a good professional event is that it generates more dialogue than there is time to finish. I can’t wait to continue these talks online and off, and see where they lead.