Engaged Gazes: Principles that Online and Flipped Teaching Can Learn From Themed Museum Exhibits

Museum exhibit reflects flipped teaching methods

Online instructors have known for some time that the primary work of creating an online course consists of “curation,” which is usually understood to be a matter of selecting and creating appropriate texts and videos (Davis, 2017). But if we were to look critically at museums, an ideal representative for modern curation, we would recognize that the work of curation is much more than finding the right materials; it’s also about crafting a visually arresting exhibit, a fact especially true at museums that adopt the kinds of trappings that theme parks do.

Indeed, some modern museums are akin to tourist attractions (Marstine, 2006). The specific choices made to render these exhibits interesting deploy several principles about attention, cognitive load, and preferences driven by the brain’s physiology. As these museum exhibits demonstrate, we are hard-wired to be interested in visually-rich stimuli, novelty, and initially only surface-level information—but if we are properly challenged by a mystery, we invest the effort to discover the solution (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

As a result, there are several lessons that online educators could learn from themed museum exhibits to make our online experiences as interesting as the newest museums. These lessons are presented here with the acronym GLIDE: Gaze, Layout, Immersion, Diversions, and Explore.

Gaze: Give priority to the visitor’s first glance.

Good exhibits offer a striking first impression and attract visitors from afar to come closer (not unlike an academic poster session). These first impressions in physical museums often appeal to emotion first and only use logical appeals second, if at all. Because the brain is interested by mystery, the primary effort should be paid to generating visual interest, even when there is little immediate payoff in learning. In an online environment built to harvest the lessons from museums, photos would play by far the largest role. In fact, they should dominate each online page, dwarfing what text remains on the page.

Layout: Craft layout intentionally to reward desired behaviors, such as playing, analyzing, or lingering.

Museum curators carefully plan the path through the space so that even as visitors go new places, they see familiar things at a new angle or with a new content twist. The layout can encourage playing or deeper ruminations. The same can be done for students in an online course. This is perhaps accomplished most easily by situating and orienting visually rather than with text, thereby creating a visual language unique to your content. That might be the form of online images that are used repeatedly, but in different ways across each new page in the course. Or in the use of images that are visually dense with a challenge issued to unpack them. This creates the attention-grabbing scenario of a posed problem to solve, rather than focusing on “delivering” content.

Immersion: Borrow ideas of “you-are-there” immersion from theme parks.

Museum exhibit areas are heavily “themed” individually, with an emphasis on place-making even when one area normally would not exist logically next to the adjacent one. Like theme parks, museums provide attention to minor details that many will miss, and use storytelling where possible to drive interest (Sklar, 2015). Examples of this principle employed online could be mini-themes visible through images chosen on each page, even allowing the theme to change from page to page. Digital tricks can be used to auto-play music on each page, further creating a sense of place or setting.

Diversions: Include games, optional diversions, and variety.

We know from cognitive science that the brain has a persistent drive for novelty (Sousa, 2011), which museums leverage by making each exhibit look and function completely unlike any of the others before it. Online, this might look like including Easter eggs, changing the layout and logic of each page, including games, or also providing optional links for those interested in learning more about the topic beyond the required information.

Explore: Students should encounter content in layered stages.

Rather than overwhelm the senses with text, students should be exposed to content one bit at a time. In a museum this happens by coupling the primarily-visual exhibit with callout boxes, drawers to open to learn more, and positioning each exhibit as presenting a problem that requires exploration to find the solution. In an online academic course, students could be prompted to click certain links for additional information, or callout boxes could be used online as well, with a variation of words overlaid atop images. In some ways, this is merely a call to incorporate the well-known concept of chunking (Smith, 2008) into a more visual format. The presentation of a problem and the need to click around to find solutions could work equally well in a learning management system.

A useful way to summarize the ideas of GLIDE is to imagine the online/museum comparison in reverse. If we took a poorly-conceived online course and translated it to a physical space, such a museum might be monochromatic, text-heavy, and visually quite boring. So it makes perfect sense to leverage the positive version of this comparison, and take the lessons of a bright, visually-rich, and interesting museum and attempt to import those concepts to the online academic environment.

An example of these principles put into action can be seen here, where German prepositions are taught as visually as possible (and still without using any English): http://bit.ly/engagedgazes

Bio: Kevin Yee is the assistant dean of undergraduate studies at the University of South Florida where he also serves as director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence.


Brown, P, Roediger, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Davis, J.L. (2017). Curation: A theoretical treatment. Information Communication and Society 20:5, 770-783.

Marstine, J. (2006). New museum theory and practice: An introduction. Blackwell, Oxford.

Sklar, M. (2015). One little spark: Mickey’s ten commandments and the road to Imagineering. Disney Editions, New York.

Smith, R. (2008). Conquering the content: A step-by-step guide to online course design. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Sousa, D. (2011). How the brain learns. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.