Asynchronous Art History: Teaching Online with Picasso

When people find out I am an online art history instructor, the most common reaction I get is “How does that work?” Most of the time, people assume that because art is such a visual outlet that somehow the online classroom is not the most appropriate place to teach art. I have to admit, when I was first approached about teaching art history online, I was skeptical as well. But as time and terms wear on, so too does my belief that teaching art asynchronously can be an effective, and dare I say it, better way to teach art history. Here’s why.

Many students thrive the online environment, due in part to the familiarity of the online environment itself as well as the autonomy online education offers. In my experience with online art classes, there are a variety of strategies an instructor can use to teach and assess the historical context and formal/stylistic qualities of art from different periods in art history. With a little preparation and patience, instructors can provide online students a meaningful and memorable experience with art history. I would suggest that a similar approach could work in a whole variety of disciplines.

Part of the effectiveness of art history online derives the framework I set up weeks in advance. To that end, the first and most effective strategy for teaching art history online involves delivering a primer in art vocabulary. In the first week of the course, students are asked to review a PowerPoint lecture that establishes the formal and stylistic criteria for evaluating art. Often, students approach art history with a great deal of anxiety due in part to the status and language of fine art. By equipping students with the language to speak about art in a meaningful way from the start, they feel less intimidated by the art they encounter later in the course. Terms like “line,” “shape,” and “color” are not as menacing when decoded, and students quickly realize they are pretty familiar with the way these elements appear in their own material culture.

Each week students participate in the class through a variety of means, such as doing the readings, reviewing an online lecture, participating in a discussion board forum, writing a summary paper, taking an online quiz, or a combination of activities. When students are assigned to one of the learning activities, they are asked to relate the work or context to their own life in some way. This helps the student develop an understanding of the material scaffolded from their own experiences, thus providing a meaningful connection with what they see.

By design, the asynchronous discussion board forum allows the student ample time to answer the question effectively. When an instructor lectures in a traditional classroom, students usually do not have time to reflect on the instructor’s questions, which can often be met with blank stares (and complementary cricket sounds) or the “What do you want me to see?” response. The asynchronous nature of online courses provides students ample time to consider their own knowledge of the topic as well as refer to their course materials when constructing their answers. It is important to provide the questions well in advance, so the student can discern the most important nuggets from their required readings and accompanying lectures. In essence, as the instructor, I am providing a framework for the student to work from, guiding them toward the most important information.

Lastly, in addition to giving students ample time to confer with their text and instructor-provided resources, asynchronous art history coursework affords students time to complete their own research surrounding the topic. Granted, this can be a bit dangerous, but if the instructor directs the students to an “approved” list of links to virtual museums, videos, social media and academic friendly websites, the student can use the tools most aligned with their own learning style.

Melanie J. Trost is an instructor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tiffin University. She also teaches in the Language, Literature and Arts Department at Jackson Community College.