E-learning - an approach to teaching art history in the
In March 2000 the University of Bergen launched its first
course taught entirely online via the Internet. "E-learning Art
History", a full-credit two-year undergraduate level course, proved to
be a hit among the pioneering participants - all students who started the
program finished it successfully and on time. The article summarizes the
educational goals guiding the development strategy of the course, the
technical advances in computer software and databases determining its
structure, and the state-of-the-art visual-imaging technology facilitating
its sophisticated design.
Today, it is perfectly feasible to move university courses from the
confines of the lecture hall to the cyberspace classroom of the Internet. It
remains to be seen, however, if this is a sound approach to teaching.
In 1996 the Institute of Art History at the University
of Bergen, Norway, initiated a project to test this approach. After a four-year development
period, Internet-based classes for an introductory course in art history started
on 15 March 2000. Sixty students were enrolled in the distant "e-learning"
course. All teaching was conducted via the Internet; only exams were arranged
off line. The course had no videocassettes, no satellite lectures, no live
Internet broadcasts and no on-campus seminars. After nearly two years of
studying over the Internet, all of the original students were awarded degrees in
Since its debut, the course has gained such popularity that the Institute has
now employed two full-time co-ordinators. In addition, the University has been
forced to limit the number of enrolled students to ensure the original goals and
standards are not compromised.
The positive response to the course was especially gratifying since the
development of the content was a lengthy and challenging process both
conceptually and technologically. My colleague at the Institute, Professor
Gunnar Danbolt, and I worked together to develop the pedagogical foundation. I
then converted this synopsis into a computer-based model - a hierarchical
network of tree structures connected by hyperlinks. This model evolved into the
structured hypermedia system now known as SOFU (Strukturert Opplegg for
A search for answers to two fundamental questions guided the development of
||How do we generate enthusiasm for the subject matter?|
||How can we ensure effective subject-related interaction with each student when they are isolated at their own computers? (Especially in
Norway where a student may be isolated by mountains, fjords, weather or very long
In a traditional classroom the teacher and students can talk together, have
eye contact, emphasize a point by gestures, and so forth. Outside the classroom
students can meet on or off campus and discuss the subject among themselves.
Since these modes of interaction are less available over the Internet, it was
important to find pedagogically sound alternatives in order to maintain the
interest and commitment of the students throughout the two-year duration of the
course. Regardless of the subject or course design, this is a rather long time
for a person to study independently.
From the earliest development discussions, four pedagogical "tools" were
identified as essential in the quest to successfully address the two guiding
||a modular structure|
||visually interesting presentations|
||opportunities for direct, two-way communication of assignments,
ideas, concerns, etc.|
In contrast to an on-campus course in art history where students at the
University of Bergen earn 20 credits by studying full time for one year, the
Internet-based course is divided into four modules of five credits each. The
complete course takes two years, with a module-based exam at the end of each
semester or module.
In our program, the first module deals with paintings and sculptures from
ancient Greece up to the Baroque period. The second module continues with
paintings and sculpture from the Baroque period to the present. Module 3 is
purely architectural, encompassing everything from Greek architecture to
post-modern. Module 4 focuses exclusively on Norwegian contributions to these
periods and forms of art.
We took great pains to develop an on-screen working/learning environment that
would make it easy for a student to maneuver, minimizing the number of buttons,
navigational levels and clicks of the mouse. Graphical design was a high
It was also important to be efficient as well as economical in structuring
the database of information and images. On one hand a wide range of examples was
essential while, on the other, the selections needed to be multi-purpose.
Presenting material on-line made it possible to use a variety of techniques to
supplement lectures and artwork analysis,
(painting and sculpture
that would not otherwise be readily available. These ranged from virtual
galleries (see examples for architecture
and painting A + B),
excursions (Rome, London,
and construction sites (see examples 1
+ 2) to image and terminology banks to analysis of microscopic details in digital images.
An on-line, course-specific "campus"
(Faglig Forum) was established as a forum for two-way communication between the University and
the students as well as among the students themselves.
By the time the pedagogical priorities of the course were clearly
technological advances - especially in the fields of digital imaging and
interactive media - had reached a level that enabled us to set quite ambitious
content and presentation goals. Digital imaging technology makes it possible to
examine details of a work of art by analyzing,
visualizing and even manipulating
the images. New digital image storage techniques enable immediate interaction
and many levels of hyperlinks.
These powerful capabilities were critical to the evolution - and ultimate
success - of the distant learning, e-learning course we implemented. As shown
in these examples, a high-resolution digital camera such as the ProgRes 3012
enabled us to capture and visualize the most minute detail of pictures taken
with this camera; better, in fact, than the human eye aided by magnifiers. For
example, the engraved design of a Nøstetangen glass,
dating from the 1700s, depicts a meal in the garden of the Hermitage Palace
outside Copenhagen, Denmark. The intricacy and quality of the engraving would
hardly be visible in a normal photograph or in a museum display case. Similarly,
by zooming-in on-line, it is possible to distinguish individual threads in the
design of a rosette on Norway’s Queen Maud’s dress.
Interactive media such as the Internet, CD-ROMs, DVDs, etc. made it possible
to link large amounts of course material, making it easier to search, retrieve,
and cross reference volumes of information.
Combining digital imaging technology with the Internet enabled us to teach
artwork analysis in a new and effective way. In his painting "Red Harmony",
for instance, it can be argued that Matisse does not aim for depth and space but
rather emphasizes two-dimensional surface characteristics by giving the
tablecloth exactly the same design as the wallpaper. Common, relatively simple
computer programs made it possible to manipulate the
painting to illustrate, among other things, a line of analysis and debate for
Although teaching students to interpret the visual expression of an artist is
an important goal, it is a topic rarely taught in more traditional classroom
settings (at least at the University of Bergen). The diverse resources available
to the e-learning students made it possible to access vast stores of information
or "knowledge databases" about an artist and/or work of art: the medium, the
tools used, the way in which these contributed to the artwork, details about
motifs, techniques, choice of materials, and so forth. These resources made it
possible to have the e-students examine the same artist or artwork in many
different contexts and to search independently for other resources.
After identifying the pedagogical foundation of the distant learning course,
we identified the topics to be included. This plan was then transformed into a
pedagogical computer model,
where each major topic is defined with related topics branching into a network
of subtopics. Basically, the same branching approach used in any artwork
analysis but, in this case, all subject-specific material was structured in a
hierarchy. In presenting the major topic "paintings", for instance, the
shows how an artistic device such as the choice of viewing angle, is first
analyzed in terms of a horizontal axis, then a vertical axis and, finally, an
axis of depth. The vertical axis, in turn, is identified as high, medium, or low. Hierarchies like this make it possible to present an overview of the
different devices used in different mediums. In painting, for example, it
becomes possible to identify the specific devices used by an artist in a
Organizing the material in this way, to increasingly finer levels of detail, was
an intense, time-consuming task.
When the design was complete we developed two computer programs
- one for
entering and organizing data, the other for presenting it. Talented students
from the University’s Department of Informatics, led by Stig Erik Sandø,
handled the programming. A series of timely project-coincidences made it
possible for the team to acquire state-of-the-art equipment (at least in 1998)
in cooperation with Silicon Graphics, Norway. The team and the equipment were
inaugurated by designing two electronic exhibitions for the Museum of Applied
Arts (Kunstindustrimuseet) in Oslo. These exhibitions were landmarks in that
they were "real" test cases for developing on-line content and presentations.
They also provided firsthand evidence that the e-learning concept could be
The hypermedia system, SOFU, evolved step-by-step, in parallel with the
development of the art history course. In essence, SOFU restructures
subject-specific information in an SGML file and incorporates it into an
ordinary, easily accessible database. As it has evolved, SOFU has become a
sophisticated, powerful tool, designed to meet the needs of several fields of
study, not just art history. SOFU’s development has kept pace with advances in
technology and is now in its third generation. SOFU is not used for handling
dynamic course data such as enrollment lists, bulletin boards, discussion forums
or course administration. These and other teacher or student coordinated
functions are handled by a browser.
After sitting for their first exam, an evaluation by the students of the
e-learning course was positive beyond all expectations. Over 90% of the students
submitted an evaluation and 58% of these rated the course as «excellent» while
42% rated it as "very good".
University of Bergen, Norway
Britt Kroepelien: E-learning - an approach to teaching art
history in the internet age,
in: zeitenblicke 2 (2003), Nr. 1 [08.05.2003],
Bitte setzen Sie beim Zitieren dieses Beitrags hinter der URL-Angabe in runden Klammern das Datum Ihres letzten Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse.
Zum Zitieren einzelner Passagen nutzen Sie bitte die angegebene Absatznummerierung.