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How Museums Can Use Social Media to Engage Different Types of Learners

*Can’t see the chart because you are receiving this post via email? Check it out here.

Social Media and online engagement helps museums to reach more people more effectively by communicating content in ways that resonate with different types of learners. In this way, social media can be seen not only as a marketing tool, but a method of engagement for community building– and above all, a tool for learning.

Many have likely heard of the three most widely acknowledged types of learners: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. In Dr. Bruce D. Friedman’s book, How to Teach Effectively, he identifies a fourth type of learner: the reader-writer. I have included it in the chart above because I believe that the onset of the increasing popularity of online tools has given this kind of learner a bit more spotlight in recent years. According to psychologists, most people identify strongly with one of the particular learning profiles mentioned above. Though it’s thought that folks have one main learning style, it’s more likely that an individual learns through a combination of these methods, with one or two standing out has the most prominent.

Museums are heaven for kinesthetic learners, but what about other kinds of learners? An interactive museum is an ideal informal learning environment for a kinesthetic learner who retains information and gains understanding through hands-on activities.  It would be crazy to think that museums aren’t, in many ways, heaven for certain kinds of visual and auditory learners as well. But social media and the unspoken call-to-action for involvement that comes with increased social connectivity allows folks to learn from the museum- even when they are no longer at the museum.

  • Visual Learners- These individuals learn best from pictures, videos, diagrams, and visualization. YouTube and Flickr serve as powerful ways to reach and engage these learners from home. Facebook is a secondary tool because it allows fans to be connected to a museum’s YouTube and Flickr accounts. In other words, it allows links to these sites to come from one aggregated place– assuming your museum posts statuses that connect to other social media accounts. Moreover, Facebook allows visual learners to observe a sort-of timeline of organizational happenings. This way of showing a museum’s news is helpful to a visual learner. Museums can reach this audience via social media by updating Flickr and YouTube accounts with content related to the museum or the area it covers.
  • Auditory Learners- These natural listeners would rather have something explained to them than to read it. Want to get their attention? A podcast should work. YouTube can also serve as a powerful platform for engaging auditory learners, and it’s a tool with twice the power when used with folks who are a part visual and part auditory learner. Museums can reach this audience via social media by creating a podcast or explaining inner-workings of the museum or topics of interest on YouTube.
  • Read/Write Learners- These learners like to see things in writing, and many often need to get their thoughts down on paper (or on a computer screen) in order to take reflection to the next level. It seems as though social media is ideal for these learners, as reading and writing are strongly connected to the Internet, and it the primary method of communicating via social networks. It makes sense that these learners would like social media sites like Facebook and Twitter which allow them to read-up on happenings while also providing the opportunity to contribute. I’d guess that most bloggers and blog commentors are read/write learners. Museums can reach this audience via social media by hosting active Facebook and Twitter accounts and maintaining a blog which allows for site visitor contributions.

In sum: while museums are beneficial for kinesthetic learners and other types of learners as well, social media provides an opportunity for museums to engage these learners in a new way. When responsibility for social media is shared among departments within a museum (or content is created in collaboration), the opportunities for spreading the museum’s mission increases. As a side thought, I wonder if for folks there is both a preferred way to learn in general and a preferred way to learn online. For instance, I think even kinesthetic learners have another preference for learning online. Learning from resources on the Internet is commonplace though we frequently have to be wary of our sources. There’s an opportunity for museums to help “own” a chunk of online learning– and social media may be just the key.

Like the photos of kinesthetic learning in action above? The first photo of the Arizona Science Center, the other is from a very cool article about the California Science Center.

Posted on by colleendilen in Blogging, Community Engagement, Education, Exhibits, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Social Media, Technology 3 Comments

A Theory for Breaking Through Nonprofit Sector Constraints

It seems that, without even knowing it, we’re all working together to limit nonprofit innovation.

In the nonprofit sector, risk (an important element in innovation) is stifled due to nonprofits’ need for multiple stakeholder acceptance in order to survive. This makes large-scale change difficult, if not impossible, and the only way that we will solve this is if we put our minds together to think about it.

Let’s take the hot topic of increasing salaries for nonprofit leaders (though we could pick any topic that challenges perceived sector constraints). A nonprofit might seriously consider higher salaries in order to attract high-quality leaders, establish itself professionally, or ensure that competition for the position allows the organization to choose– or continue to motivate– the best candidate for the job.  This could be a great idea. It could work wonders. But questioning sector constraints at all is often much like trying to give a big hug to a hand grenade. Here’s why:

  1. The board and staff will need to approve this risk. In the case of increasing employee salaries, they will consider that every extra dollar given to a staff member is a dollar that could be spent on programming. These immediate stakeholders must believe in the potential of the idea.
  2. Then the nonprofit will have to face the multiple foundations that may no longer award the nonprofit otherwise-much-deserved grants because their administrative costs exceed (or come close to) a percentage set by the foundation in advance.
  3. You have to face the people who don’t understand why you made this change (regardless of its nobility), and the media may tear you apart. Even worse, other nonprofit leaders at The Chronicle of Philanthropy may even give you bad press for trying to take a risk to aid in sector evolution.
  4. Your amount of in-kind donations over the year may suffer because of the bad press– which defeats your whole attempt at innovation because you can no longer afford to pay a higher-than-before salary to your employees… so you are back where you started– but with fewer funds, a lot of bad press, alienated foundation connections, and unhappy employees.

In the private sector, innovation breeds new business practices and monetary success. The system is quite simple: a firm must gather capital to take a risk, take that risk, and if the company makes a profit, they are onto something. Other companies catch onto the company’s new tactic and next thing we know, every company has to be doing that innovative thing in order to continue to stay in the game. The same is true for nonprofit organizations except, in the nonprofit sector, raising capital may mean raising social capital.


Please click on the image to enlarge

So what can be done to alter sector constraints in order to allow nonprofit professionals to be innovative in organizational management?

First, double loop learning must take place. Double loop learning occurs when leaders question their own basic assumptions about the world. Single loop learning, by comparison, is the tried-and-tested routine that we fall into when we do everyday things like write grants and conduct meetings– but we also use single loop learning when we devise wages (continuing with the case of nonprofit salaries as our example). We have an idea of what works and we stick to it. Double loop learning, on the other hand, makes us ask ourselves, “Why do we do X? Maybe I should be doing Y.” When we ask this question, possibilities are born.

Second, the nonprofit must be transparent about their new idea and share it among networks. The nonprofit could ask for input via social media networks, get dialogues going with staff members; make everyone (stakeholders especially) aware of the possible benefit of taking this risk. This includes spreading word about the importance of innovation among stakeholders, the public, and other nonprofit groups. Technology is a great mechanism for information-share, and getting brain juices flowing. Who knows? A few other nonprofits may consider the idea and try it out alongside you.

Through this, social capital is created. Spreading the message creates connections. Asking people for their input (even if it’s negative) creates connections. Connections build social capital. Social capital increases overall support of the new practice because friends and community partners can share your idea with their own networks, and become part of idea formation and collaboration.

Then intellectual capital is built as stakeholders become educated on the issue. The more people hear about the issue, the more educated they will become on the need for innovation, or rather, the more accepting they will be when you actually follow through in challenging sector constraints. Lets go back to the example of a nonprofit taking on higher administration costs to motivate employees. If we learn that there’s a nonprofit leadership deficit on the way, then we may be more likely to outwardly encourage and support (or at least understand) nonprofits that are raising employee salaries.

And finally, the innovation is accepted. This does not mean that people will agree with your new (hopefully) innovative practice– but, because of your transparency, they will fully understand why you have challenged sector constraints, and also that you have the best interests of the community you serve at heart. And whether they agree with the idea or not, folks may be more inclined to respect the idea. Foundations may still award grants to the organization, and donors may stick around for at least another year. Who knows? Maybe your active desire to contribute to the sector and your fresh views of management will earn you a few more donors.

This theory is just that: a theory. I do not know how to encourage nonprofits to take responsible risks and challenge constraints that hold them back in serving their mission. I do know that, if the sector means to evolve, nonprofit leaders must begin to think about blazing new trails— and we should think about ways to allow them to do so.

Posted on by colleendilen in Leadership, Management, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future 6 Comments

When Learning is Cool: What it Means to Be Sparked

Sparks fly at the Boston Museum of Science. Photo from

From a little spark bursts a mighty flame” -Dante Allghieri

The spark is more than just a concept that museum professionals carry around on a day-to-day basis. Creating sparks is a real and actual everyday goal, and for some museum professionals, it is a decided lifetime mission… At least, this is the way that sparks functioned at Pacific Science Center.

Generally, the spark is understood to be the moment in which a visitor realizes that something– the educational object, experiment, or work of art in front of them– is deeply and sincerely cool. It’s a moment of connection. The spark is a synapse that bridges the junction between the way that we understand the world and how we understand a thing in front of us. Often the spark seems so cool because it gets you to think about something in a new way.

You’ve been sparked before. Try to remember a time when you saw something or took part in an activity (in a learning environment or elsewhere), and you uncovered something that you considered wholly and incredibly awesome. Some things that have sparked me are Paul Revere’s Ride, this speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, this poem, and this scene from Dead Poet’s Society, for example.

That’s not to say that these same things should also spark and inspire you. Sparks are personal connections– and they happen in museums everyday. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to say that the creation of these connections is often the aim of integrative exhibitions and museum programs. Sparks don’t always necessarily inspire a person to change career paths, but they ignite or strengthen interest in something.  There has been research performed and theories drawn on how to inspire certain kinds of connections in certain kinds of museums, and curiosity (often a post-spark result) has been called a key to happiness by psychologists.

The following is an excerpt called On a Thing Called Art, written by Jeanette Winterson. This clip is about art, but she presents a case for the importance of connections. I find it to be the best case for sparks that I’ve yet to come across. Have a listen:

Sparks ignited in museums and other learning environments (informal or otherwise), lead to connections and curiosity. Schools, museums, community centers, and educational programs provide unique opportunities to open ourselves up to new sparks of interest that may have lasting impressions on the way that we view particular subjects and situations.

I write this post to provide an outline of what I mean when I use the word “spark” in blog posts. Because the spark (inspiring it, sharing it, and understanding it) serves as significant fuel for my professional interests, I felt the need to introduce the topic in my own terms. Please feel free to respond with your own takes on the concept, or with messages about things that have sparked you.

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Blogging, Community Engagement, Education, Museums 3 Comments

3 Important Lessons I Learned at my First Full-Time Nonprofit/Museum Job

pacsciAt the end of May, I left my first full-time nonprofit job to spend the Summer with loved ones before starting graduate school in the Fall.

I worked at Pacific Science Center in Seattle for almost two years as the Special Events Coordinator. I developed, planned, and executed over 45 special events to enhance community engagement for visitors. The job was thrilling and unique; I served as the ringleader for hundreds of talented and often unusual exhibitors, vendors, and visiting scientists with incredible abilities to ignite initial sparks of science interest in children and adults.

When Ian Sefferman wrote the post “Leaving Amazon: What I Learned over the Last Four Years,” it made me reflect upon the career-shaping lessons I learned at my own innovative workplace. I would like to share the three most important lessons that I learned at Pacific Science Center. They are not the biggest lessons (those are regarding professional environments, the way nonprofits are run, and how a museum behaves during an economic recession), but rather the lessons I learned at Pacific Science Center that fundamentally changed the way that I think about projects and day-to-day life in a museum/nonprofit environment.

1. (Take a Moment to) Embrace the Messy Middle

I’ll credit Hammerstein for the decent and catchy advice he bestowed upon youngsters, urging them to “start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” While it may be true that the beginning is a good place to start, I’ve learned that the middle is the best place to start– at least when tackling a complex problem in a museum/nonprofit environment.

When presented with a task (or in my case, an upcoming event), I was given the basic who/what/where/when information needed to do my job… along with a comprehensive collection of big and small ideas; specific details and vast generalizations passed along through the pipeline. It was my job to take these often-ambiguous ideas and specific details and make everything work.

I discovered quickly that my best events were produced when I wasn’t afraid to immediately lay all of the information out on the table and embrace the mess. That is starting in the middle; taking a moment to wade through the great creative vomit of good and bad ideas, resources, connections, partnership details, long-shots, and no-brainers for the project, and look at them all together.  Yes, this can be an overwhelming way to approach a project in the beginning, but I was constantly surprised by the new ideas and community partnerships that resulted from a good hour of continuous, multi-page brain-mapping. Accepting this moment to embrace the mess at all stages of project coordinating kept me constantly in perspective, and enabled me to maximize creativity in each event. More than anything, it reminded me that projects are often composed of moving parts, and it’s important not to get too wrapped up in specific details or too-big-ideas in the beginning. As hard as it may seem, the meat is in the middle and starting from there can keep you both open-minded and detail oriented— and it provided a terrific framework for my own good ideas to surface

2. Know the Cards You Hold

I’ll start with a story: Only two months after I started working at Pacific Science Center, I began planning our annual week-long holiday event for the public.  Remaining true to the traditional planning process of past coordinators and managers, I began calling science-related entertainers across the state to see just how much it would cost for them to give up their holiday break in the name of science education… Then the single most embarrassing Strike Of Obvious hit me: Why am I calling these people? Pacific Science Center offers some of the very best science education programs in the entire state! My manager and I proposed a re-creation and rebranding of the event in the form of a ten-day science celebration called Science Extravaganza that highlighted Pacific Science Center’s own incredible talent and resources. We saved thousands of dollars, showed off our own programs, bumped up the morale of our own departments, and attracted a record-setting 25,338 visitors during the event– just by being ourselves.

If you skipped the story, start here: That’s the moment I discovered the extreme importance of knowing the cards that you hold; you probably have more than you think. I made an effort to learn the talents of coworkers and volunteers– and it paid off. I was thrilled to learn of coworkers who were part-time magicians, kite designers, or astronomy experts– and we utilized these folks in events. These examples may sound unique to my workplace, and perhaps they are, but it’s not much different than knowing who in the office is the best copy-editor or fax-machine-fixer.

Despite my silly story, if it wasn’t the way that Pacific Science Center always was, then it certainly became a place of incredible resourcefulness and versatility in my eyes throughout the last two years. There seemed to be absolutely nothing that couldn’t be achieved when combining the unique talents of our staff members… I just had to piece it together. It’s no secret that connections can provide you with incredible opportunities, but I’m grateful that I learned that lesson before even leaving the institution.

3. Remember to (Always)  Learn Something

If you reach a point in your job when you believe that you’ve been a victim of some 80-20 rule (In this case, 80% of everything you need to know to do your job, you learned in the first 20% of your time there), then I charge you to prove yourself wrong: Every day, write down one thing that you’ve learned.

It’s easy to be conscious of learning in the beginning, especially if it’s your first full-time nonprofit or museum job! Each day is filled to the brim with lessons, from the name of the woman working in Accounts Payable to discovering the way that information is dispersed and tasks are delegated. Once you know these things, though, it sometimes gets hard to see the less obvious (but just as important) lessons. I kept a journal of the things that I learned every day and it was never hard to find something. I began actively looking for that daily lesson, and when I was aware of lessons, there was never just one. And keeping my eyes open for lessons increased my positivity! Here’s a memo from the bright side: the worst days often have the best lessons.

When you think of each lesson as a gift for later or a thing you can improve upon now, then it makes lesson-searching exciting– not to mention extremely beneficial in the long run.

Posted on by colleendilen in Lessons Learned, Museums, Nonprofits, The Small Stuff, Words of Wisdom 1 Comment