Open University Art History modules have offered optional face to face gallery visits as part of their tutorial offering for decades. Experience shows that there are a number of both tangible and intangible ‘tried and tested’ benefits of these visits for students who might not have many opportunities to do this. These include critical engagement with physical art objects; an enhancement of students’ understanding of the role of cultural institutions in the display and interpretation of art objects; and opportunities for students to discuss with tutors and fellow students how the visit relates to study of their specific module in a more informal, socially interactive way than might be possible in a classroom setting. Our scholarship project, Running an effective online gallery visit, explored how and to what extent these benefits can be replicated in the online situation by collating data on the experiences of students and their tutors, putting this in the context of other related scholarship, and coming up with recommendations and ideas for further investigation.
Online study visits have been an integral part of Open University programmes for some years, with the aim of increasing access and inclusivity. This project was originally conceived to evaluate how these sessions were being run, and to share ideas and identify best practice. An important part of this was to explore how students perceive the value they add to their studies, and how we can mediate this to them. The move to all-online teaching, forced by the pandemic, made this an even more timely piece of scholarship.
Each online gallery visit focuses on a specific museum or similar institution and is delivered using the same software package (Adobe Connect) as that used for online tutorials. The majority of tutors base them on a PowerPoint presentation which can include their selection of images of individual art works, whole gallery displays, interior and exterior architecture, historical and other contextual material, and quotes, references and questions from the module the students are studying. Both microphone and chat box facilities are available and can be supplemented by inbuilt facilities for polling (quizzes, surveys, etc.) and for sharing video and audio clips. The aim is to deliver, as far as possible, a similarly interactive and varied experience as would happen face-to-face. The majority of the events are recorded as another way of widening accessibility.
Our research covered the two main stakeholders in these visits, students and tutors. Students were surveyed following the online visits in the 20/21 academic year, using a qualitative survey with free-text responses, asking two main questions of those who had attended: ‘What worked well for you in your experience of this online equivalent to a gallery visit?’ and ‘What would have improved your experience?’, and following this up with detailed analysis of their responses. In the case of tutors, detailed interviews were carried out with colleagues who already had considerable experience of planning and running online gallery visits, and existing resources collated.
We also carried out a review of existing literature, to keep abreast of the way this is proliferating. The majority of the scholarly and professional literature and activity we reviewed had been centred on and emanating from the work of the museum as a provider of content and of cultural capital more generally: our focus came from a different direction, being on how we can best make use of this as professional ‘users’ of the art museum and similar venues.
Across the modules surveyed, there was a great deal of appreciation expressed by students for being able to virtually visit museums and galleries and get to know collections that would not normally be accessible to them, due to travelling distance and/or students’ personal circumstances (e.g., economic, disabilities, etc.). Allied to this was the opportunity to attend more than one online visit, and it was clear from responses that many students had embraced this with enthusiasm, seeing it as a particular advantage of having all the gallery visits online and most recorded. Students had also been able to experience different tutors’ approaches to delivery of this very specific kind of learning event. Many students praised the knowledge and enthusiasm of the tutors leading the visits, found them informative, and enjoyed sharing the experience with other students.
In terms of content and pedagogy, positive feedback was noted on the relation of material in the gallery visit to module content in general, or to the place in the module students were studying at the time. Comments on methods of presentation of the galleries and their contents suggest that we may need to clarify that different tutors’ approaches are underpinned by their own scholarly interests and methods, all of which also emerge at different places in the regular teaching materials. This may be informed by contextualising approaches, institutional critique, theories related to the artist or the art work (stylistic, iconographic, etc.), postcolonial or feminist studies, among others. Opportunities to work together on analysis of specific art works and images of the wider gallery/institutional context were clearly appreciated. A bonus aspect of an online visit was the fact that tutors had been able to include relevant works not currently on show in the galleries, or which students might not have spotted on their own, as well as covering images, displays and information from former exhibitions pertinent to their studies.
The need for a well-planned structure to online visits was emphasised by a number of students; while we can allow for a certain level of serendipitous ‘on the hoof’ change when physically taking a group round a museum, this can prove confusing in an online visit. This also highlights the potential value of preparatory and follow-up activities if time permits.
There were a number of reservations about the technological aspect of accessing these sessions; this is probably inevitable given the broad nature of the OU student demographic, and we continue to consider mitigations.
Our immediate aim on completing the project was to share our findings with Art History colleagues within the OU who are currently teaching student groups or engaged in module development. This has already been done and has proved its use both to experienced and new colleagues. The longer-term aim is that these findings will prove of value to colleagues in other subject areas, and beyond the Open University.
Dr Veronica Davies, Associate Lecturer in Art History
Dr Lindsay Crisp, Lecturer in Art History