The Shift from Personal to Professional: On Today’s Learners and Their Credentialing Needs

The EvoLLLution | The Shift from Personal to Professional: On Today’s Learners and Their Credentialing Needs
As ongoing learning becomes increasingly important to participation in the labor market, learners who may have previously been enrolled for personal growth are beginning to see the professional value of education as well.

The discussion of badges and credentials for online learning is inherently linked to motivation, which is informed by a range of influences.

A recent Pew Research Center study noted that 73 percent of Americans consider themselves lifelong learners. This learning takes place both in physical settings taking courses or attending meetings or conferences but also online.

The study splits this audience into two groups: “personal learners” and “professional learners.” Personal learners are motivated by rewards that are psychological and social such as feeling more well-rounded, opening new perspectives, making new friends, or feeling more connected to their local community. Professional learners are motivated by expanding social professional networks, training to advance their careers, be it in a current job, new job or an alternative career path.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded on an educational charter to “help people enjoy, understand and use the art of our time.” From the start, MoMA offered educational classes that involved experimental pedagogical approaches to learning with art for high school students, returning veterans from WWII, and for people from two years old all the way through adulthood, through the People’s Art Center.

MoMA’s creative approach to teaching was even extended to a broader audience of children and families through the emerging technology of television, with two seasons of Through the Enchanted Gate, a series that demonstrated art teaching methods that fostered individual creativity in children, while simultaneously offering modeling and advice for parents across the nation. MoMA continues to offer programs for people of all ages and abilities today, and has similarly extended the reach of classes and teaching resources through online learning technologies, from apps to courses.

Our Education Department began developing online courses in 2009, drawing format and inspiration from on-site, non-credit courses we offered at the museum. We experimented by creating a standard modern art history survey course and an online post-war painting techniques studio course. Immediately, they were in great demand, and over the next five years a total of seven courses were developed.

Throughout the process we continued to do research to understand the value of these courses and learn more about the students, their needs, motivations and interests. Courses were initially instructor-led, and now continue to be offered in a self-guided format so that student can purchase the course and use the content when they choose. Self-initiated student communities of former course takers (primarily those from studio courses) on Facebook arose and continue to thrive today. They share and critique each other’s work, share resources on artists, and they meet up in different locations around the world to see exhibitions together and even visit us at MoMA in the Education Department when visiting New York.

The final course we created on MoMA’s platform, Catalysts: Artists Creating with Sound, Video and Time was the first and only class for which we offered badges and only a handful of people opted for them. I believe that student motivation and demographics may be a factor influencing this response. These online courses tended to draw an audience of primarily women in their 50s and 60s, and simply from observation I would suggest that these learners are motivated more by the personal or intrinsic rewards that are both enhancing their lives and meeting new people rather than those of professional learners, who may want to improve job skills, gain a recognized credential, or improve or change their careers. Although we do continue to get requests for MoMA’s course completion certificates for self-guided courses, as we no longer offer the instructor-led model.

In 2012, MoMA began a partnership with Coursera, the massive open online course platform. Since then we’ve developed four online courses, Art & Inquiry, Art & Activity, Modern Art & Ideas: Teaching with Themes (for K-12 teachers), and, for general audiences, Seeing Through Photographs. These courses have reached over 280,000 students from over 160 countries. What’s more, we will be offering Seeing Through Photographs in Mandarin starting this fall, and we recently updated the Modern Art & Ideas course to gear it more towards a general audience. Student data on these courses indicated early on that they drew primarily female students in the 20- to 30-year-old range.

For Coursera courses, certificates of completion can be purchased if all completion requirements are met. The percentage of MoMA course takers who complete the Coursera certification ranges from 1.6 percent to 3.4 percent, and, anecdotally we have learned that students frequently post those credentials on LinkedIn profiles or other career development sites. With the changing nature of the economy towards more “gig” (short-term) work, and the shift from singular, lifelong careers (the norm of the 20th century workforce), to a more diverse number and range of jobs, the need to continue to learn seems more a prerequisite for the future and less an optional endeavour. As such, credentialing may become increasingly desirable as more professional learners enroll.

What is interesting to note is that the Pew study indicates that many learners were not aware of new online learning on digital platforms or of new opportunities for credentialing. According to their data, 80 percent of adults do not have much awareness of MOOCs, and 83 percent have little awareness of digital badges.

Clearly there is an opportunity for greater reach for digital badges and other credentials. However, the study also notes that America’s learning activities are tied to a variety of factors including level of education, household income, race and ethnicity, access to technology and their personal attitudes toward learning. Although we’d like to think that technology provides a democratic platform for all, we still must consider that all Americans are not equally able to participate in the rapidly expanding educational ecosystem required to navigate the 21st century.

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