Art: 5 facts about why it helps online learning

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Images are just one kind of art that can be used as a teaching tool in online learning. Professor Dr. Beth Perry has also used poetry, music and even something she calls "conceptual quilting."

Images are just one kind of art that can be used as a teaching tool in online learning. Professor Dr. Beth Perry also uses poetry, music and even something called “conceptual quilting.”

Dr. Beth Perry is a professor in health care studies at Athabasca University and an authority on using arts-based teaching strategies in online learning. On November 17, she added another credential to her CV: recipient of the 2014 Award for Excellence in Nursing Education (Tenured) from the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN). In honour of Beth receiving this award, the AU blog asked her to share some of her findings on why art is a helpful tool for online learning.

Dr. Beth Perry, professor, Athabasca University Centre for Nursing and Health Studies

Dr. Beth Perry, professor, Athabasca University Centre for Nursing and Health Studies

1. When did educators start using art as a teaching tool in general?

Educators have likely always used art in their teaching, and famous teachers throughout history have used various kinds of art to teach. Anne Sullivan tapped percussively on Helen Keller’s hand, teaching her with musical rhythm. Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen and Jesus taught lessons though stories. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Confucius embedded learning in poetry. Thinking of ways to use art in online teaching has been a natural progression.

2. Where does the term “artistic pedagogical technologies (APTs)” come from?

Margie Edwards and I started using arts-based teaching strategies in online course design after we did a study on what makes online teaching exemplary. In this study, students said one of the more important elements in successful online teaching was instructors who were able to make their presence apparent. That is, students had a desire to “know” their instructors as real humans who were involved in their learning experience.

Since the arts are infused with humanness, we had a hunch that sharing lessons and bits of ourselves through arts-based approaches might help convey our instructor presence in courses. We came up with the name “artistic pedagogical technologies” when we were approached to write a book chapter on new technologies for online learning.

3. What are some examples of APTs in online courses?

Some of our most successful APTs are:

  • Image-based exercises: Using photos, videos and associated questions to motivate reflection.
  • Conceptual quilting: Students reflect on the theories and ideas in the course that are most meaningful to them and construct a virtual quilt of these. The students also share their quilts in a virtual quilt gallery.
  • “Haiku it!”: Students are challenged to condense very complex content into a haiku.
  • Reflective poetry: The instructor creates a short poem on a course topic. Students continue the thinking on the topic by adding to the poem or writing a response poem.

We describe these and other strategies in more detail in Teaching Health Professionals Online and Emerging Technologies in Distance Education.

4. Why are APTs effective?

There are three main benefits we’ve been able to demonstrate in our research:

  1. Increased interaction and collaboration among students and between students, instructor, and course materials.
  2. Development of a culture of community in which students feel a sense of belonging.
  3. Experience of social presence in online courses. That is, students express a sense that their instructor is a real person who is actively involved in the course. Likewise, students became real to one another as they participate in APTs in their online courses.
Here we use a photo to give you a sense that Dr. Beth Perry is, indeed, a real person.

Dr. Beth Perry at work.

In general, arts bring a human factor to online courses. When students and professors have means to share about themselves (beliefs, values, interests) in an appropriate way, they become more comfortable with each other. This comfort paves the way for more genuine exchanges of ideas. As this happens, a culture of community forms, and the conversations become enriched and even more fulfilling of learning outcomes.

We’ve found other clues as to why they are effective. Students and instructors have told us that arts:

  • increase energy and the expression of compassion,
  • enrich self-awareness,
  • promote meaningful engagement, and
  • help people find a concrete way to share lived experiences.

Importantly, APTs are also very challenging for learners, particularly those who don’t commonly think in creative ways. This can lead to the achievement of higher-order cognitive domain learning outcomes related to analysis and evaluation.

One last hunch regarding why they work: the novelty factor. Students can get “hooked” on a course topic because of a learning activity that is different from what they’ve come to expect. For example, in some of my courses I use an image at the start of each unit, initially hidden behind a paperclip, to stimulate discussion. One of my students once said, “I can’t wait to open my next unit and see what you have hidden behind the virtual paperclip!” She was hooked!

5. What does the future of APTs in online education look like?

Arts-based approaches may be well-suited to only some course content. For example, I find it useful in courses on organizational change, nursing leadership, and qualitative research — but these are topics I know, so I can visualize how to use APTs in these courses. These are also topics that have a very human element. Those with expertise in their course content are the best to judge if arts would enhance their courses and the student learning experience.

But as educators search for ways to enrich the online learning environment and suit it more to the learning style of the current generation, I think teaching approaches like APTs will become more accepted and widespread — they embrace personalized learning, creativity, innovation, and multimedia, all of which are ideal for our current and future learners.

More about Beth

Learn more about Beth at her 2014 CASN award bio as well as her AU bio.