Shall we simply move online?
Extracurricular STEAM learning in times of the pandemic
First reactions to the pandemic
To be clear – at Raumschiff we did not (yet) switch to online. A picture story taped to the door told why we all had to stay home, a few links on the website redirected visitors to Science Center Exploratorium activities. This is how, in March 2020, we closed the doors.
In July we were able to finish the interrupted children’s astronomy course and in September/October we managed to run some mini-workshops with a new Covid concept. Since November, Raumschiff is closed again. In the meantime, it is obvious that the pandemic is a longer story that we cannot simply sit out.
Other organizations, especially larger science centers, moved content and activities online in a short time and with a great deal of commitment and creativity. So did Science Gallery Dublin or Ars Electronica in Linz: exhibitions, guided tours, festivals, symposia, workshops – everything accessible from home and much of it even live. I was impressed.
Some started experimenting with live online tinkering sessions, for example Wonderful Idea Co. who organized a big tinkering workshop for the online conference of the European Science Centers Ecsite. My first experience with online tinkering was fun!
Experiences with distance learning in public schools
First investigations into Corona-related distance learning in public schools took place in April. The results were sobering. About one third of the children had learned little or nothing, because online lessons lacked direct supervision by the teacher, Franziska Peterhans from the umbrella organization of teachers summarized the findings. According to UNICEF, one-third of children worldwide did not have access to online instruction during the first lockdown. At the same time, I heard from acquaintances that their children learned much better at home than at school. The education gap is just opening up widely.
Left: Distance learning via radio during Covid-19-related school closures in Rwanda. © UNICEF/UNI319836/Kanobana. Right: Distance learning in Switzerland. Few were able to learn well. ©SRF
Learning places outside school
Similar studies related to informal/nonformal learning have been lacking so far. The first challenge for museums and science centers was survival as an institution. Did employees have to be laid off? Was there even a threat of bankruptcy? In November, the American Alliance of Museums estimated that 30% of institutions might not be able to reopen after the pandemic without significant government support. In Switzerland, the Museum for Digital Arts MUDA already closed its doors at the end of June – for good. It is incomprehensible that this small yet extraordinary and highly topical museum with its quality STEAM activities for schools didn’t recieve the much needed support. What a loss!
Research on the ‚museum industry‘ focused on consumer behavior and sentiment analysis. Would people come back after the lockdown? Would they have money to spend?
Some institutions planned to invest their dwindling resources in affluent visitors to generate income again. This triggered a debate about ‚the survival of the institution‘ versus ‚the social responsibility of the institution'.
Compared to the public school, which was able to focus on teaching despite the difficult situation, it is staggering to see how vulnerable extracurricular venues and cultural institutions in the ‚free market‘ are. One gust of wind, and the financial house of cards collapses. Valuable resources are lost because working time must be devoted to raising money instead of maintaining services to society.
Fragile, but perhaps agile? In a short time, countless attempts to maintain a limited service either outdoors or online emerged. However, as a business model to save pandemic-affected institutions, neither outdoor actions nor online offerings are any good. Who would pay for that?
Towards a digital society
One of the big societal impacts of the pandemic is the increase of digital technologies, tools and practices in the workplace, at school and in private life.
In the course of 2020, the Internet has become a lot richer in video tutorials for STEAM activities, stories about museum objects, insights into research, and much more, often of high quality. But there is scope for improvement, for example, in terms of social interactions, pedagogical quality, as well as equity and inclusion.
Reducing rather than increasing inequality of opportunity during the pandemic is a huge challenge. In November, UNICEF called on governments to close the digital divide to ensure that all children have access to education during the pandemic. Although learning venues outside school cannot relieve governments and public schools from the task, we should pay the utmost attention to the issue. If we don’t address how and to whom learning opportunities are accessible, the digital divide will continue to widen.
At Raumschiff, our next steps will go in this direction. We are examining how the technical and social conditions of participation in online opportunities can be included into the design of new programs. As a first step, we are working on online workshops where everyone can participate with minimal technology at home, e.g. cell phones. The children of the neighborhood will show us whether this will work.
It has become clear that we can’t just keep doing what we did before. The crisis will last too long. After this one, a new pandemic can restrict our lives again at any time. We must learn to deal with this creatively.