By Amber Bhatty and Eleonora Sermoneta
Over the last year, COVID-19 emerged as a global crisis that greatly impacted communities and deeply affected the way we learn and experience heritage.
Taken by surprise, heritage and teaching institutions around the world faced difficult challenges in order to continue serving their communities. Universities and museums were forced to close their doors, and as a consequence, students were profoundly affected as the closure of universities resulted in a lack of hands-on learning opportunities, and museum placements were no longer feasible. In response to this, the institutions began to explore alternatives to sustain engagement.
In the midst of uncertainty, innovative practices and opportunities for collaborations surged in response to the societal changes triggered by the pandemic. In this environment, it became apparent that there was a need for dialogue and connection between institutions to overcome the challenges of the pandemic. The “Heritage Conservation Learning in the COVID World” webinar was organised as a response to this need by ICCROM, Athabasca University and IIC.
The purpose of the webinar was to facilitate discussion between educators and students of heritage conservation and explore the challenges that both faced during the first wave of COVID-19. The panel brought together international speakers: four teachers and two student representatives. Each panellist was assigned a question to address during the webinar.
Coming from different disciplines within the heritage sector, namely heritage conservation and heritage management, we acted as representatives for heritage conservation students’ concerns. Our designated question to answer during the webinar was “What are the priorities for heritage conservation students in a COVID and post-COVID world?” In order to answer this, we wanted to create a virtual community and provide students the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns.
Our goal was to reach out to students world-wide to ensure that diverse perspectives would be represented. Engaging with students and listening to their experiences allowed us to collect data to understand how COVID affected their learning and their expectations for their professional future.
Different social media platforms were used in order to maximize our reach and allow for a large scope of people to engage in a global dialogue. Our username incorporated keywords from the webinar, including:
We created our own visual identity, logo and graphic content to differentiate our student social media from those of the webinar organisers. The social media functioned as a communication channel with students and as a promotional tool for the webinar. This medium seemed to be the natural choice for a project such as this, as it elicited spontaneous feedback from the users in the form of likes, shares, reactions and comments. It also allowed us to connect with pre-existing virtual communities of practice, such as heritage and conservation Facebook groups and pages.
Over the course of two months (August-September 2020), we collated students’ comments and coded and thematically analysed them to identify emerging trends regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their learning experience. Supporting user engagement and communication was critical to the success of our social media research; this was achieved through a range of digital content that was relevant to heritage conservation students.
A survey for teachers of heritage conservation had been disseminated by ICCROM1, the results of which were to be presented during the webinar. We compiled our own questions to mirror this survey, and together with our designated panel question, this formed a more nuanced picture of student concerns whilst bridging the gap between teacher and student perspectives. Questions touched on issues such as:
· Whether or not students were able to continue with their learning.
· Whether their course/training shifted online.
· Whether or not they felt supported by their instructors.
· How they felt a lack of hands-on experience would affect future employability.
· Some positives or opportunities that emerged from changes to their learning.
The staggered posting of these questions worked as prompts to sustain online engagement and maintain consistent communication flow with students. The question posts were integrated with content promoting the webinar organisers’ activities and online resources, as well as lighthearted posts such as memes and follower milestone celebrations to express our appreciation for their growth.
Due to the heterogeneous nature of the interactions we recorded on social media, data were extracted through a mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis approaches. Quantitative approaches included volume and relationship analysis and provided data through social media analytics on user demographics, number of social media followers, number of comments, likes, shares and reactions. Qualitative approaches included active and passive nethnographic analysis2, as we observed users behaviours and directly interacted with them. Particularly, thematic analysis of textual material such as social media comments was used to identify priorities and emerging trends among the students.
Over the first month, we gained over 1,000 organic followers, and our posts reached more than 13,000 organic users across the three platforms3. Our data shows that users originated from 46 countries across Europe, Asia, North America, South America and Australia (Chart 1). Of the students that interacted with us online, about 78% shared that they experienced some level of disruption of their learning during COVID; a majority of these, however, were able to continue with their studies or training in other forms such as remote or virtual learning.
The interaction with students highlighted their priorities and concerns about learning heritage conservation in a COVID and post-COVID world; emerging trends included:
· Finding alternative placement and volunteering opportunities; students expressed that they would like support in finding alternatives to traditional placements.
· Wanting to make sure they would have enough hands-on learning and lab time.
· Students recognised that the theory elements could be learned online, however, nearly all of those who commented said that they felt online learning could not replace the practical element of heritage conservation.
· Students expressed concerns regarding employability post-COVID due to a lack of practical experience.
· Many students expressed positives such as gaining knowledge via the increased offers and accessibility of newly available resources such as webinars, online courses and online conferences.
· Students mentioned spending their time focussing on in-depth research and digital skills building for the conservation heritage sector such as 3-D photogrammetry, Photoshop, documentation, writing articles etc.
· Some students stated that they missed the classroom experience and the social dimension of learning.
We shared these findings during the webinar, which, during the Q&A, provided the opportunity for viewers to ask questions and discuss additional issues. Among these were queries on the effectiveness and limits of online teaching, practitioners maintaining realistic expectations towards inexperienced students and gaps in access to ICT resources. The post-webinar reflection document with additional queries and their answers is available on ICCROM’s website4.
The webinar's attendance reflected the need for such a discussion as both teachers and students sought ways to understand and overcome the challenges that COVID-19 posed to the sector. Attendance records show that 1,205 people registered for the webinar, of these, 954 total users attended; this is roughly 79% of our total registered users, indicating that the webinar topic was relevant to the target audience, namely heritage conservation students and teachers5. Due to the capacity limitations of the platform used for the webinar, it was necessary to live stream the video on YouTube simultaneously to make it accessible to all our viewers. The views on the YouTube recording have since continued to grow, showing an ongoing interest in the matter; it currently has over 3,500 views.
Connecting with an internationally diverse audience provided us with the opportunity to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on heritage conservation students on a global level. The webinar brought a community together and highlighted the resilience of both teachers and students of heritage conservation as they came to terms with the “new normal”. Since the webinar, the world has experienced a second wave of COVID and there are challenges ahead as institutions and members of the conservation community learn how to be more proactive and prepared while continuing to find ways to adapt and cope with uncertainty and ever-evolving circumstances.
As much has changed since the webinar in September, we are hoping to have a follow-up event in June 2021 on the theme of ‘Pandemic insights: revealing the essential of heritage conservation” to learn about developments that have since taken place, and to discuss the new challenges and opportunities in heritage conservation learning.
2ON24 (2020), Webinar Benchmarks Report. Retrieved from: ON24 Webinar Benchmarks Report 2020.
Heritage Conservation Learning in the COVID World - Challenges and Opportunities, ICCROM-Athabasca University-IIC Webinar, September 22, 2020 / 16:00-18:00 GMT+2, Heritage Conservation Learning in the COVID World - Challenges and Opportunities Webinar
Heritage Conservation Learning in the COVID World - Challenges and Opportunities
ICCROM-Athabasca University-IIC Webinar (2020). Post-webinar Reflections. Retrieved from: Post-webinar reflections Q&A
Kozinets, R.V. (1998), "On Netnography: Initial Reflections on Consumer Research Investigations of Cyberculture", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 366-371.
Pedersoli, J.L. Jr. (2020), Teaching heritage conservation amid COVID-19. Survey Results. Retrieved from: Teaching Heritage Conservation amid COVID-19 Survey Results
1 Pedersoli, J.L. Jr. (2020), Teaching heritage conservation amid Covid-19. Survey Results. Retrieved from: https://www.iccrom.org/sites/default/files/Heritage%20Conservation%20Teaching%20survey_ICCROM-AU-IIC%20webinar_JLP_170920.pdf
2 In the context of this article, the word nethnographic refers to a qualitative research methodology that encompasses elements of anthropology research methodologies, and applies them to the research of online social interaction in contemporary digital environments, such as social media. The word Nethnography was first used by Robert V. Kozinets in 1998, in his publication "On Netnography: Initial Reflections on Consumer Research Investigations of Cyberculture".
3 Organic followers, as opposed to paid followers, are real, unpaid followers who actually view and/or engage with the online content. Organic user reach is the number of people who had an unpaid post from our page showing up in their feeds.
5 The average registrant to attendee percentage rate for webinars is between 35-45% (ON24, 2020, p. 12).
Eleonora Sermoneta is a museum professional with over 15 years of international experience. She currently works as the adult learning programmer at the Royal Alberta Museum. She received a master’s degree in history of art from the University of Rome La Sapienza, a master’s degree in cultural economics from the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and a graduate diploma in cultural resource management from the University of Victoria. She is currently a student of heritage resources management at the Athabasca University.
Amber Bhatty is a postgraduate student currently studying conservation practice at Cardiff University. She has a background in egyptology with a BA in egyptology and classical civilisation and an MA in ancient Egyptian culture, from Swansea University.
(Read the story in the April-May 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 83, p. 34-37)