Teaching Art History Online: Collaborative vs. Individual Virtual Exhibition Projects
I developed an online version of Art History I (Caves to Cathedrals) in Spring 2015 and taught a single section in Fall of the same year. I designed the course knowing that most of the students would be studio and graphic artists, residential students and online students from all over the country, a mix of traditional and non-traditional, non-art-history students. With that in mind, I posted a request for suggestions to AHTR’s Facebook page and received some interesting ideas, such as collecting images on Pinterest, and using Google hangouts, something my students chose to do on their own mid-way through the project. Most of the feedback I received, however, warned of the difficulties of online group projects. Yet, my department required a collaborative effort. After much research I decided to forego the traditional research paper and have my students work in small groups to create online exhibitions. I had used the virtual exhibition assignment previously with great success in on-campus classes with non-majors and adult continued education. The difference would be that instead of using PowerPoint, my online students would use an online program: Google Art Project, something several colleagues suggested on my AHTR post.
The students had smaller assignments due each week specific to weekly content, but the Collaborative Exhibition Project was to run as a unifying thread throughout the course. I envisioned my students working together in a virtual collaborative environment as they learned about art and produced a final project that had more relevance to their lives as artists than a traditional research paper. That vision was shattered in Week 2 when I was bombarded with student emails imbued with confusion, desperation, and anxiety about how they were supposed to work as a group online, when everyone lived in different time zones, and how to come up with possible themes for Step 1: Initial Ideas. By Step 2: Theme, most students were on the right track, though a few submitted modern and contemporary topics for Survey I. For this step, students submitted brief statements (approx. 100 words) describing their exhibition themes and what types of works they anticipated including in their projects.
Step 3 asked for a list of artworks to be included in the exhibition – five works for each group member. This step required the students to start using Google Art Project (GAP) which brought on another onslaught of emails from confused and frustrated students. I chose GAP because it touts the ability to create your own member galleries and exhibitions, drawing from their vast repository of high-definition images. Unfortunately, the exhibition format is not user-friendly and I had as much difficulty as my students learning how to navigate the program. Eventually I created a step-by-step guide for using GAP, but that meant more work for me and more reading for my students. It is not easy asking students to master a new technology during the course of an 8-week semester, but they pushed forward, thankfully.
For the fourth step, students submitted short summaries or bullet points of important information about each work of art they chose in the previous step. The fifth step required the students to work together to compose the introductory wall text for the virtual exhibition. This step posed more problems for group work than previous steps because it required students to collaborate on writing and revision. In most groups, one student took the initiative to write the initial draft followed by group revisions. In Week 7, the students submitted “rough drafts” of their work –links to their exhibitions in GAP for which they received substantial feedback. By Week 8 the groups completed all editing and revisions based on my feedback and submitted the link for their final projects. I was thrilled to see that my students had managed to create quality exhibitions despite the trial-and-error nature of the project. More importantly, they appeared to have met the assignment learning outcome: to critically analyze and synthesize art objects to curate a coherent exhibition; comprehend the meaning of works of art and how they functioned originally within the historical, social, religious, cultural, and political context in which they were made; identify correspondences between technical procedures (artist’s intentions) and their purposeful communicative and cultural functions; and master the skills of formal analysis and description in order to analyze works of art in terms of their content; to describe the subject matter of an image, its literary sources, and iconographical tradition, as well as to describe the formal properties of works of art, that is, to analyze composition, technique, scale, location, and use of materials.
Along the way I made some modifications based on student feedback. For example, I created group discussion board forums with different discussion boards for each step of the project. One group decided to skip Blackboard and use Google Hang-outs since they could download the app on their phones rather than having to be at home to access Blackboard on their computers. Also, they were able to get notifications when group members posted comments and assignments. If I were to teach this course as an online group project in the future, I think notifications for posts would be an essential component. Notifications would keep students involved as the project develops live over the course of each week, a sort of virtual group unification. Another change I would make would be to group my students according to time-zone since this seemed to be the biggest hurdle students faced – waiting on each other.
At the end of the semester I asked the students for project-specific feedback for my own pedagogical research and improvement. The remarks were unanimous: they enjoyed the project but not as a collaborative effort. I have included a few quotes here so we can hear the student’s voice more directly:
“There is too much risk vs reward in having members of the group that often do not have the same schedules and can get very stressful when relying on group members that may not have the time during the week to get with other students. In other words, there are too many variables involved in the lives of online students to have such a major group project done in this manner, especially when it comes to the subject of art.”
“I think that group projects are difficult in an online environment to begin with for any student. We all take online courses because we have busy and odd schedules. Some only do work on the weekends and others do their work the beginning of the week. Finding a way to make that all gel and fit in order to work through posts and emails is even more difficult. That being said, there was much to gain from this project. The project let us gain access to view art that the book and our materials did not cover. We learned more information than the general touch base over view a course like this is designed to cover. The course was well designed and this added to the amount of exposure and information we could be given. Additionally, it was a nice break in monotony from writing papers. We are art majors here to review and do art. Most of us are not writers and it is not something we are looking to advance in our field, though a necessity of the world around us. This let us merge improving our language arts with our digital and visual arts. Something that all art students need to keep in mind and learn to do well to succeed in the future. I enjoyed the project and think it is a great way to explore more within the topics we are covering in the course.”
“Many online students are online students because it fits their schedules and time constraints of their busy lives and trying to schedule availability for group meetings and to complete assignments with classmates in different time zones made the project much more stressful than it needed to be.”
Overall, the project was successful and I received extremely positive feedback from students, course designers, and faculty evaluators. Besides the issue of collaborative online work, my biggest concern is the limited usefulness of Google Art Project. The complex and convoluted program continues to confuse my students, but once they figure it out, they excel academically. In the end, I streamlined the process after the first semester to include fewer steps and switched from group to individual based on student concerns. I will cover the ups and downs of the Google Art Project Virtual Exhibition assignment in a subsequent post!