Learning Under Lockdown: Moving work experience online

Laura Turnage shares how the Museum of London has transitioned its successful work experience programme into an online offer for students aged 14 -18 years old

27 August 2020

How work experience at the Museum of London usually works

Funded by Arts Council England, the Museum of London’s work experience programme is managed jointly as part of the museum’s volunteering programme and the Secondary Schools programme. All departments across the museum are encouraged to participate by choosing a designated work experience champion who manages the workloads of the young people joining us for a week, with an aim to provide authentic work tasks that contribute to the museum’s strategic objectives.

To be eligible for the programme young people must attend an Insight Day where they learn from our work experience champions about their career pathways and the types of skills they apply daily. The young people are then asked to choose their three favourite departments. In 2019 we were able to offer work experience placements to 40 out of the 80 young people that attended the Insight Day.

Responding to a need

During the planning for our May 2020 Insight Day, the Government guidelines changed, closing the museum to the public. After considering alternative options that we soon realised were not possible, we decided to explore the possibility of offering online work experience sessions that did not include access to the museum, office or stores. Crucially, at this point we asked the young people what they wanted from us via a survey.

Our first surprising discovery was that there was a demand for online careers sessions that included conversations with our work experience champions. Our second less surprising discovery was that anything we planned would need to be scheduled for the afternoon, with 88% of the respondents asking for sessions to start after midday. We also learnt how long the sessions should be (60 minutes was fine, 90 minutes was not), what content styles most interested the young people (a series of shorter workshops, not a long, one-off workshop) and what format the workshops should take (where possible, interactive!)

Transitioning to online work experience

Next, we consulted our work experience champions and discussed the feedback from the young people. We were overwhelmed with how willing they were to consider adapting their tried and tested work experience tasks to an online world. We agreed that the most important part of this opportunity was maintaining the authenticity of the work experience tasks, providing ‘real work tasks’.

These discussions resulted in a series of ten afternoon workshops across three weeks in the summer term, with our work experience champions designing unique tasks that had real outputs. These ranged from training sessions delivered by the Human Resources department and the Memories of London team, who engage people living with dementia. The Venue Hire team asked the young people to think of innovative solutions for how to solve social distancing problems at their events, while the Curatorial Team created tasks analysing how objects tell a story. At the heart of these tasks, and the others planned, were the much-loved museum and its collections that we could evoke through the website and our engaging work experience champions.

Our focus was to engage young people, whereas a wider museum initiative was looking into engaging other audiences. This ranged from providing families with fun activities to do at home through the Museum of Fundon webpage, to a series of live streams for families based on the museum’s popular Great Fire of London live stream for primary schools. We also ran an in-depth project with students from School 21 in Stratford, consulting them on the gallery plans for the new Museum of London and gathering their feedback.

What we learnt

Beyond considering how safeguarding procedures must be adapted for online sessions, and that the internet can be unstable (regardless of how stable it was before the session begins), we’ve learnt lots along the way. One of our initial hurdles was briefing the work experience champions. For some of our staff who were furloughed, this meant the planning and delivery of the session happened very quickly, or they were unable to participate at all. For other departments, their work experience tasks could not be translated into an online format, as they were hands-on and based on the museum’s collections.

Delivering sessions online also took more staff capacity than we originally anticipated. We thought we would be able to manage with only two staff members per session; the facilitator and the work experience champion. However, the more detailed our risk assessments got, the more we realised we would need an additional staff member in the session to lead on safeguarding, and monitoring the chat box and webcams when other staff members were sharing their own screens.

In the comments section of our initial survey the young people gave us hints about things we might need to consider. Most of this was content based (for example, they really wanted to learn about how to create exhibitions), and other comments around access to webcams and technology helped with housekeeping and safeguarding. For us, these hints were vital, and helped shape the guidelines we sent to the work experience champions and to the participants.

What the participants thought

During the 10 sessions we engaged 52 young people, with many of them attending multiple times. As they took place over Zoom, we used the opportunity to gather feedback using an online tool. This meant we had data for each session from almost all the participants. Generally, the sessions were marked positively, with 93% of the young people stating the sessions were either brilliant or great.

We struggled however with how long the sessions should be and what the pacing should be like. This was often linked to the difficulty of finding the perfect online real work task. Each work experience champion designed a unique task, which meant that the young people might need shorter or longer time to complete it and send it back to us. But we knew nothing about their competency, enthusiasm and technology available, so without knowing this we struggled to identify the right amount of time.

Another challenge was ensuring the sessions felt interactive when the participants were unwilling to unmute or speak verbally throughout the workshops. We responded to this by gamifying some of the elements asking direct questions that required the young people to respond in the chat box.

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The evaluation also showed the young people wanted individual feedback for each task they completed, so if we were to do these online sessions again, we would build this into the work experience champions’ time.

What next?

A month after the programme finishes, we’ll be sending out attendance certificates to the young people and asking them to complete one last survey, in the hope it’ll help us understand the impact of the sessions in more detail. Collecting this information is useful for the work experience champions and it will help us prepare if we need to offer online work experience again in the future.

From our evaluation of each session we know that online work experience does not replace the experience of being in a workplace, but these sessions did support the young people to discover more about careers in museums and provided them with examples of independent activity they could add to their CVs and Personal Statements during these difficult times.

Laura Turnage is a Programme Manager at the Museum of London.

Image credits: Museum of London

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Our Learning Under Lockdown blog series forms part of Reset – our programme of support in response to the pandemic.

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