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Social Learning & Museums

Chapter 7 of Lankshear & Knobels New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Social Learning features a lot of information about social learning theory that is very relevant to contemporary museum education challenges and initiatives. With the recent shift in visual and performing arts standards in schools, museums are working to better align their school visits and interactions with families and groups to the framework. Interactions with groups at the museum can be a helpful window to explore the many facets of social learning theory, including artworks and exhibitions that promote "interests of environmental and ecological sustainability" and activitys that allow for "collective reflection and problematization".

Art museums also function as a venue for exploration and celebration of individual and shared heritage. The sociocultural context of the visitor becomes central to the experience, and the museum becomes a location where knowledge producing processes can occur. The Danish Agency for Culture has facilitated great conversations and collaborations about museums and social learning theory. In their 2013 publication Museums: Social Learning Spaces and Knowledge Producing Processes, Dr. Lynn D. Dierking takes an in-depth look at how museums can increase their value to their communities through creating opportunities for social learning experiences:

"Because most people visit museums as part of social groups, studies show that a large part of people’s attention during visits is devoted to the people with whom they are visiting. Data on what visitors recall from museum experiences many years later consistently indicate that the social aspects of a visit are rarely, if ever, forgotten and, sometimes, are primarily what a visitor does recollect... Whatever the group, what is important is that the museum experience is, in great part, shaped by the socio-cultural context, both the perceptions of museums as institutions brought to the visit, and the actual on the ground, in-museum interactions groups have during the visit or programme... We are so wired to learn socio-culturally that I believe museums should be positioning themselves in the 21st century as social learning spaces."

In addition to the on-site visitor experiences with museums, we must also consider how new technologies can enhance and contribute to the development of new opportunities for engagement. Museum attendance is in decline, and if these valuable cultural institutions that are a great venue for social learning do not adapt to the new ways of consuming and producing knowledge they may not be around in the future. If museum interactions with community members can also occur online through social media platforms, digital tours, and accessible learning resources, the geographic barrier is taken down and the idea of visitors vs non-visitors becomes less important.

With a larger audience comes diversity of ideas and experiences that can contribute to Lankshear & Knobel's ideas of "collective reflection". This "paradigm shift" involves creating "platforms" for learning that "involve varying mixes of access to physical and virtual environements, depending on local contingencies, but always on the basis that these environments and resources provide opportunities for learners/newcomers to participate in authentic practices with acess to support and guidance from...scholars, reserachers, and other disciplinary and technical professionals".

Consequently, there is an urgency for museums to reevaluate how they facilitate experiences and how they engage those who are unable to visit in-person. Both for the sake of creating an opportunities for learning for individuals and groups, but also to foster a sustainable way to demonstrate the museum's value to the community.

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