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Up Close: Distance Learning & Art Museums

By Anne Kraybill, Distance Learning Project Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Check out Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Distance Learning website, which includes research and resources made available to support your distance learning initiatives.

The term “distance learning” can seem antithetical to art museums that espouse the power of an authentic experience with an object. As I worked to develop a distance learning initiative at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I struggled to reconcile the rationale for such a program. After all, Crystal Bridges has a robust and well-funded school visits program that brings students from all over the region. Why would I want to create a program that did not take place within our walls?

First, let me provide a little context. Crystal Bridges decided to pursue a distance learning initiative shortly after the field trip study conducted by Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Dan Bowen at the University of Arkansas. The findings revealed that student gains from a one-time fieldtrip in a variety of outcomes were two to three times higher for students in rural locations. With these findings in mind, we decided to create a distance learning program that would reach more students overall, but particularly students in these rural schools.

Where to Start?

We began with some formative research to determine what path we might take. In July 2013, we hosted a Distance Learning Summit, which brought together more than 40 art museums and arts organizations to better understand the current landscape and approaches to distance learning, as well as envision the future of how art museums might further leverage distance learning. Case study presentations included traditional approaches such as synchronous video conferences—often branded as “virtual fieldtrips”—that connected classrooms remotely, to blended approaches that utilized Learning Management Systems (LMS) before and after an onsite program, to asynchronous approaches such as a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that engage thousands of learners at one time.

While all of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages to consider, the model that resonated with our particular situation was presented by Michelle Harrell and Emily Kotecki from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). In an effort to increase their reach to teens, they partnered with North Carolina Virtual Public School to develop online courses in the visual arts for high school students throughout the state of North Carolina. This model resonated for a few reasons. First, in the state of Arkansas we have the Digital Learning Act that requires all high school students to take an asynchronous online course for graduation, so this approach was a natural fit. Second, the notion of having such a direct role in a student’s school career was appealing and provided a level of accountability not found in most art museum/school partnerships. Following the trail Michelle and Emily had blazed, Crystal Bridges set out to develop a for-credit online course with the aim of deeply connecting high school students to art history, American history, and museum studies.

Course Development

After an RFP process, we selected Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) as the development partner. Over the course of a year, a cross disciplinary team of museum educators, instructional designers, subject-matter experts, graphic designers, and programmers, developed Museum Mash Up: American Identity through the Arts. Rather than progress through the artworks chronologically, the course begins with contemporary art. The guiding questions ask students “How did we get here? And how have artists shaped and reflected upon American identity?” Crystal Bridges partnered with Virtual Arkansas to offer and deliver the course. Like North Carolina Virtual, Virtual Arkansas is a supplementary provider of online courses that any public school student in the state can take. EDC and Crystal Bridges trained a few online arts instructors from Virtual Arkansas with volunteer students to test the activities and get formative feedback from both instructors and students.

The course has now launched through Virtual Arkansas with a pilot group of about 40 students from all over the state, including the community of Deer, population 680; the community of Hugh, population 1,441; and the community of Star City, population 2,248. Students typically log onto the course during one of their class periods at school. Though the course is asynchronous, students are paced in weekly units and use tools to engage in online discussion. This was one of the most important elements for the design of this course. While there are many valuable websites and other online resources to learn about the arts, we wanted to be sure that the act of “collaborative meaning-making” was not lost. Similar to an onsite program, students begin their lesson by looking at the work of art and sharing their initial observations and interpretations using VoiceThread™. This tool allows for a conversation in the cloud using text, video, or audio and is an excellent platform for students to build on one another’s ideas. Following their initial observations in VoiceThread™, the students read about the art and engage with multi-media materials to ascertain some context about the art, artist, and historical time period. They then participate in another, more in-depth discussion about their new and evolving interpretations.

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Simultaneously, students are also working on two major capstone projects. The first project is a curated exhibition about their own individual identity using the tool Kapsul™ somewhat similar to a Pinterest board. Through this project, along with videos by curators, designers, and educators, they learn about the curatorial, design, and interpretive process necessary to curate an exhibition. These skills are used in their final project: a virtual exhibition curated by each student using the artworks they learned about during the semester, and research new works in the Crystal Bridges collection. This amazing virtual rendering of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges was created by David Charles Frederick from Tesseract Studios at the University of Arkansas using Unity™, an immersive game engine that includes rich textures and allows the students to explore the space as if on foot. The rendering is completely accurate to the specifications from the museum blueprints and provides learners with an immersive experience in which they arrange paintings they have researched on the walls, write the labels and interpretation, develop the graphic identity of their exhibition, and most importantly, learn that they can make meaning and conversations between paintings and across history.

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Challenges

Along the way, there were many challenges to overcome and there will be many more as we continue to pilot the course. Content for all of the artwork had to be generated requiring a mass amount of writing. Image rights had to be procured, videos needed to be produced, and external content from primary and secondary sources had to be found. One of the most challenging hurdles we had to overcome was the course approval process with the Arkansas Department of Education. Because this was not a standard course, the state had to approve it under a standards framework. After much work and standards alignment, we were able to obtain course approval for students to receive .5 credit hours in fine arts. The course now satisfies two requirements all high school students must meet for graduation; a .5 credit hour in fine arts, and at least one course taken online.

Beyond the bureaucratic and logistical challenges we continue to encounter and amend, there are, not surprisingly, some challenges in working with high school students. There are a wide range of motivations, with some students passionately interested in learning art and history, and others who are more ambivalent about visual arts and museums. This results in a wide range of responses in the discussions. For instance, students were asked to look at and respond to George Tooker’s, The Ward in VoiceThread™. Their only prompt was “What do you notice and what do you wonder?”

Student One:  it looks like there is a bunch sick people laying (sic) in hospital. like it looks like the ones already laying down are dead.

Student Two: George Tooker’s “The Ward” is a very interesting piece that’s (sic) shows to have many subliminal messages. In the background there are many American flags hanging on the wall in a much brighter contrast to the rest of the painting. I recognize this as a representation of patriotism and American pride. Going on to the next part of the painting, the elderly people lined up in rows on beds. There isn’t much to identify the various elderly by- except as Madeliene said, they have little to no hair- so they are most likely men. The elderly people are lined up on these beds- which do not appear to be comfortable by their stiff appearance. It seems that these people are just existing, not really being anything other than a case number or a medical condition. I believe that this represents the wounded soldiers that have returned from the various wars. When the soldiers came back from the war wounded this is how they were treated oftentimes, in a lifeless building or tent, not having anything to do or participate in, often making them become depressed which slowed or stopped the healing process completely. When Tooker made this painting I wonder why he depicted the wounded soldiers scene as so dreary and negative when he could have followed in the footsteps of others and sugar coat it to pacify the public and make it seem appealing enough. For Tooker’s honesty in this painting I admire him greatly. He really got his point across that the war wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t pleasant afterwards either, because these memories still haunt you…

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In addition, for many students this is the first time they have taken an online course, so they need support in learning the tools plus very well-defined and articulated expectations of the level and quality of work the course requires.  Everyone is making significant progress. For example, early responses from all but a few students were rarely justified, but just five weeks in, student are better articulating their interpretations with more detail and inference, and justifying their claims with evidence.

Overall, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. There is a level of anonymity for each student that is freeing. They are not burdened by labels that they might encounter in their physical school. They are also able to contribute their ideas without ridicule. The way in which they engage with works of art and learn about the works is multi-model. And they are connecting with Crystal Bridges and the collection in a way that a one-time fieldtrip could never afford. In addition, Crystal Bridges is providing a unique course-offering to the state that expands access to quality arts education.

Next Steps

Crystal Bridges has a large agenda as it continues to expand upon this program. Next steps include:

  1. Conduct an observational study of the current section of Museum Mash Up to analyze instructional design and quality, and measure student perceptions. Follow the observational study with a rigorous, experimental design to measure student outcomes including critical thinking and writing.
  2. Develop an online teacher professional-development program that certifies teachers in any state to teach the course;
  3. Create a second course offering that is grounded in studio and design practice;
  4. Host an online professional learning community where teachers can receive support in teaching the online course.
  5. Host a second Distance Learning Summit (details forthcoming this summer).

Phew!

Final Thoughts

This project has been one of the scariest and most fulfilling in my career. The students are not the only ones who have a stake in the course; we as a museum cannot fail our obligation to them.  I could not have conceived of it without the ground-breaking work by Michelle and Emily at NCMA. I also have to thank the talented and dedicated Crystal Bridges museum educators, Emily Rodriguez and Donna Hutchinson, for all their help in developing, researching, and designing the course outline, as well as EDCs project manager, Kirsten Peterson, for her unwavering dedication and belief in this project, and Diana Garrison, teacher extraordinaire at Virtual Arkansas.

Read about the Distance Learning Project from the perspective of a participating student, “Museums and Online Learning: A Student’s Perspective.”

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About the Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL:  Distance Learning Project Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she is developing online accredited courses for high school students and online professional development for teachers. In her previous position as the school and community programs manager at Crystal Bridges, she developed and implemented all of the Museum’s programming related to K-12 students, teachers and pre-services teacher as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Norton Museum of Art , the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. Anne has a B.F.A. in Photography from Maryland Institute College of Art, a M.A. in Museum Education from The University of the Arts, and a M.S. in Instructional Technology from East Carolina University. She is currently a Doctoral Academy Fellow in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

5 thoughts on “Up Close: Distance Learning & Art Museums”

  1. thanks Anna , i few thoughts,questions,- does the course depend on computer access and suitable computer graphics software access ? Virtual Art works for Virtual students ??/,but what do the remote students experience in their everyday Actual Lives ? , is it just another guided gaming experience ? do the teachers on the ground ,so to speak, get inservice before the project starts or are they virtual teacher/students too ? I’ve had experience in the Australian outback as a FIFO art teacher/supervisor/ mentor . but I WAS based within 5-600 air miles of my students and teachers , in pre pc days, any questions ?,good fortune
    . PS, How do the teachers and students FEEL the brushes and Smell the Paint ??? xo Ian

    1. Hi Ian,
      Cool, in Australia! I know your country is doing a lot in this arena, particularly in regards to rural.

      The course was built using Drupal, so it is HTML 5. This was done to ensure that any LMS could be used. Virtual Arkansas uses Blackboard. The course “hangs” in Blackboard. The only thing students need is a computer or tablet, and internet.

      In Arkansas, many of the students live in rural communities based in agriculture. While they might not have access to a large art museum on a regular basis, they do have access to a rich cultural history that includes craft, music, and history. This course expands upon that rich cultural heritage.

      As Maddy said in her blog, experiencing art virtually can never replace the real experience. What we hope is some students, who may have never even contemplating going to a museum, are introduced to the possibility. Others like Maddy, who do make the effort to get to the museum (over two hours from her town), are able to go deeper in their understanding and experience with art.

      The teacher, Diana Garrison, is based in Arkansas. She has a weekly live requirement with the students, so there is facetime. This is not like a MOOC where students don’t have individual access to their teacher. It is very dependent upon the teacher to be successful. So to answer, yes, there is a lot of PD involved. We are starting small so we can better anticipate the needs of what other teachers will need to successfully teach the class.

      Regarding feeling the brushes/paint, this is course is based more in art history and appreciation. Although there are projects. For instance this week, students have to respond to an abstract expressionist work by Joan Mitchell. One self-proclaimed art hater is actually excited because he is going to use his welding skills on the farm to create an artwork. I agree, that teaching studio art is much more challenging, though not impossible!

      Hope this answers your questions and I’d love to learn more about what you are doing.

      Anne

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