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Patricia Briggs, Lecturer
Art and Design Department, UW-Stout

Teaching Art History as Distance Education

I taught Modern Art History (post-Impressionism through Surrealism, 1880s-1930s) as a distance education course in the spring of 1997. The course originated at UW-Stout, where I presented material to roughly thirty-five students, while eight UW-Stevens Point students received the course via video and audio transmission (full motion interactive television course via fiber optics). When I set out to teach Modern Art History as a distance education course, I anticipated that it would differ only slightly from teaching in a conventional art history classroom. In fact, I walked away from the experience with much more than I had bargained for. Not only did I enjoy the opportunity to broaden the boundaries of the traditional classroom to include students hundreds of miles away who would not otherwise have had access to the course, but teaching art history using distance education facilities offered me the opportunity to reflect on the teaching paradigms common in my discipline. Teaching a distance education course allowed me to take notice of the ways in which art history's normative teaching paradigms had come to shape the content of my course.

Conventional art history classrooms are equipped with two slide projectors. Lectures are delivered in dimly-lit classrooms, which are partially illuminated by two large images projected from slides onto screens at the head of the room. Instructors physically gesture toward these images in order to illustrate points regarding stylistic differences between works of art or to identify significant details about a specific work of art, essentially guiding students to become better viewers (or "readers") of art objects. The habit of using two images for the purpose of comparison and contrast is a pedagogical strategy deeply embedded in the fabric of the discipline of art history, dating back at least as far as the late nineteenth century. It is a strategy particularly well-suited to the analysis of stylistic development and connoisseurship.

Until I taught Modern Art History as a distance education course, I had not realized the extent to which my approach to teaching had developed in relation to the comparison /contrast paradigm and to the physical context of the conventional art history classroom. I found that distance education facilities were not suited to slide presentation, nor did they accommodate slide comparisons. Video monitors are the means of display in distance education, and this calls for the use of digitized images or television images of slides. In my case, one video monitor was located at the far end (receiving site/Stevens Point), and multiple video monitors and a large screen video projector were in place on the near end (originating site/Stout). Only one image at a time could be projected. And at the far end (receiving site/Stevens Point) students received either an image of the instructor speaking or an image of an art object. Although the instructor controls which image is seen, on the far end students see one or the other. Thus, the far end students never see the instructor physically gesturing toward the image.

I was surprised to find how many things changed in my classroom with the use of video monitors instead of slide projectors. For instance, with video monitors there is no need to dim the classroom lighting. And as a result of working with video, I came to understand the difference between video and film. Is this medium, film, which uses light as a conductor of the image, fast becoming an anachronism? I found myself less compelled to physically gesture toward a video monitor than I had been toward a slide projection. Additionally, because the far-end students could not see me actually discussing the images, I avoided such gestures, and instead verbally described the location in the image of the point under discussion so that students could find the detail themselves.

The most dramatic pedagogical change I encountered with distance education was focusing discussion around the image of one art object at a time instead of two. Teaching with one image, I came to see how deeply my teaching habits had been wedded to the comparison and contrast format. I found that the combination of factors -- working with a single video image instead of a slide comparison, and the fact that the far-end students could not see me physically gesturing toward the image -- made me demand less of my students with regard to issues of style and aesthetic engagement within the context of the classroom itself. Yet, by adjusting to the Distance Education facilities I learned to rely less on aesthetic and stylistic concerns in my teaching, and rather came to focus more heavily on conceptual, theoretical, and historical issues raised by the visual material. This worked well with the topic of my course, modern art, a period in the history of art which provides rich opportunities to explore the theoretical issues concerning the shifting definitions of art and its function. In the end, I found that teaching Modern Art as a distance education course gave me a new perspective on teaching modern art in a conventional classroom. I find that rely less heavily on stylistic issues when teaching this course even in my face-to-face teaching in a conventional classroom.

As a result of teaching distance education, I have become more self-reflective about my teaching. The experience cultivated in me an awareness of the way that normative teaching paradigms shape the content of my courses, and it encouraged me to imagine alternative classroom presentation techniques. I look forward to teaching Modern Art History as a distance education course in the spring of 1999.

For more information about her upcoming course, you can reach Patricia Briggs at