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Taking Distance Out of Learning

Imagine that you are a student at North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville, Indiana. It’s 9:30 on a brisk October Friday morning, and your art teacher has just announced that today your class will use the current exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, located forty-five miles away, to discuss contemporary glass sculpture. Since you haven’t been excused from the rest of the day’s classes or been asked to have your parent sign a field trip permission form, you know that you’re not about to spend an hour aboard a bus headed for Indianapolis.

Just as you begin to wonder if you’re in for a passive “art in the dark” session of looking at slides or videos, the image of internationally celebrated glass sculptor Howard Ben Tré flashes across the 53″ video monitor positioned at the front of the room. “Good morning, North Montgomery!” Ben Tré bellows. “Hey, you in the front row, nice shirt!”

While this scenario might sound like science fiction, it’s actually played out several times each week as part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s distance learning program. Thanks to pioneering efforts by Ameritech, the local telephone company serving midwestern states, the IMA has been delivering distance learning programs via video conferencing since 1993. Since then, we’ve gone from viewing these sessions as “electronic field trips” aimed at duplicating the tour experience to understanding the potential of this medium to fundamentally change the museum’s relationship with schools.

Nuts and Bolts

Through its Opportunity Indiana program, Ameritech has extended an advanced communications network consisting of broadband wire, data, and interactive video application with broadcast quality to every interested school (a potential of 1,700), educational institution, library, hospital, and major government center in its Indiana service area. This initiative included the creation of the Corporation for Educational Communications (CEC), an independent, not-for-profit corporation that provides grant administration, project planning and administration for educational programs utilizing evolving communications technologies.

The CEC has formed twelve planning clusters around the state where schools and content providers (such as museums) collaborate to develop plans and submit annual grant applications. A distance learning coordinator is housed at each cluster hub. Today, more than 200 schools and content provider institutions are connected to and using Opportunity Indiana distance learning network. This translates to nearly 125,000 K – 12 students and 80,000 college and university students who have access to the network. An average of 2,500 of these students participate in IMA distance learning programs each year, and our numbers are growing as the network grows.

No Talking Heads!

Back to North Montgomery High School. As taken aback as you were by the ability of the person on the video monitor (provided through your school’s grant from the CEC) to see and hear you, your attention begins to wane as the artist’s presentation seemingly evolves into a lecture. Suddenly, however. everything changes. In the middle of an impassioned statement advocating the art of rebellious living, Ben Tre tells everyone in your class to get off their chairs. Everyone does. The next thing you know, Ben Tre is cheering you on as you stack your chairs into what becomes North Montgomery High’s newest towering on-site sculpture.

This delightful scene, which actually happened, demonstrates the IMA’s cardinal rule of distance learning: Don’t even think about using this medium to present a lecture! As difficult as it is to engage students this way in person, it’s almost impossible to do so when you are an image on a video monitor. At the IMA, we have adopted several techniques to ensure that our distance learning sessions generate active learning experiences. Each educator who books a distance learning session from our regular menu of programs receives a set of IMA-developed preparatory materials several weeks before the broadcast. That’s because we have found that students who have been prepared by their teachers before the programs are much more interested and engaged during the sessions. We have also learned to ask teachers to submit seating charts for each class participating in a session. The power of this simple tool lies in the ability that it lends to IMA presenters to stir even the most seemingly disinterested student with a prompt such as, “Jason, in the last row, what do you think?”

In addition to these practical catalysts to interactivity, we have also developed a number of hands-on sensory materials that students may handle during the session. Our first experiment with this approach was facilitated by a museum board member who returned from a trip to Washington State with a piece of driftwood cast in bronze by Walla Walla Foundry, a facility that casts sculptures created by Deborah Butterfield. Because our “Telling Times” distance learning session includes the work of Ms. Butterfield in its discussion of contemporary art, we now send our piece of cast driftwood to participating classes before the session. Their ability to interact with the cast bronze driftwood during the session, and to feel for themselves how surprisingly heavy it is, adds an important dimension to this popular program.

Hola, Indianapolis Public Schools!

One of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned along our journey into distance learning is that, when it comes to museum education, there’s more than one kind of distance. Five years ago, we interpreted the phrase “distance learning” literally and decided that the value of our new video conferencing technology lay in its ability to take students located at schools geographically distant from the museum on an “electronic field trip.” Then, in late 1996, an IMA organized exhibition entitled Painting in Spain in the Age of Enlightenment: Goya and His Contemporaries inspired us to take a chance. We heard through the grapevine that a teacher with Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) was already teaching Spanish-language classes district-wide via video conferencing. Although IPS schools are all geographically near the museum, they were – in some senses – a world away. Diminished funding for field trips, school-wide academic probations and waning support for the arts had contributed to a decrease in the participation of IPS teachers and students in IMA programs. So, we were thrilled when the IPS Spanish teacher accepted our invitation to teach her classes from the IMA using images from the exhibition.

By this time, we had enough video and audio difficulties broadcasting from exhibition galleries to convince us to use digitized images transferred to Photo CD’s and broadcast from a museum classroom newly dedicated to distance learning. Taking her cue from the IMA’s commitment to teaching through the arts rather than solely about the arts, the IPS teacher engaged over 3,000 Spanish-language students with the IMA’s exhibition by using it to bring foreign language lessons to life. Rather than memorizing endless Spanish vocabulary lists, beginning students were able to practice Spanish terms for vegetables, flowers, and fruit by naming objects in colorful still-life paintings created by Luis Melendez. Advanced students practiced their conversational skills by participating in lively dialogues focused on paintings by Francisco de Goya and conducted entirely in Spanish. This match between the Spanish language curriculum and the museum’s exhibition was so successful that we now use the IMA’s permanent collection of work by Spanish artists to conduct a popular ongoing distance program entitled “Habla Espanol: Conversational Spanish.”

Although the barriers between IPS students and the museum are real, they are not as tangible as those separating inmates at the Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility from the collections and exhibitions of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Located just outside Indianapolis, Plainfield is Indiana’s maximum security prison for juveniles convicted of serious crimes. About 300 male students aged 13 – 18 are enrolled in Plainfield’s Indiana Boys’ School, which successfully applied to the CEC for distance learning equipment and service.

Despite the seemingly inherent difficulties in working with a group from the Indiana Boys’ School (IBS), it was, in fact, a group of IBS inmates who poignantly proved to us the power of distance learning during a recent session dealing with contemporary art. Rather than ignoring the nature of the participants’ life experiences, IMA educators related issues in the students’ lives to issues in contemporary art by posing questions such as, “Who has the power to decide what is and what is not art?” and “Does art matter in our society?” When one of the inmates indicated toward the end of the session that the program had made him forget that he was in prison, we knew that we had accomplished something special.

Users or Visitors?

During the early years of our distance learning program, we often heard the question, “But won’t these sessions replace visits to the museum?” This is an understandable concern given the importance of viewing original works of art to both the aesthetic and the museum experience. The problem with the question is that it assumes that distance learning sessions and museum visits fit the same mold. They do not.

To be sure, the payoff for any museum educator is to walk into a crowded gallery and see visitors actively and productively engaged with objects. But visitors like these are not created in a vacuum. They have lived a life in which art (in the case of art museums) matters. They developed a connection — or a connection has been developed for them — between their lives and the content of our museums.

Five years ago, it probably never would have occurred to an IPS Spanish teacher to use works from the art museum to develop her students’ language skills. It may be another five years before the same teacher physically brings a group to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. During those five years, however, the teacher will be using the collection of the IMA to enhance the knowledge, skills, and development of her students. Those works of art will become woven with IPS curriculum in a way that they never had been before. And, students in those classes will develop a familiarity and a comfort with the role of art in their lives that may well find them, later if not sooner, actively and productively engaging with objects in the galleries of our institution.

Susan Longhenry is the director of education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The education divisions four departments include the department of teacher and school programs, which is responsible for developing, promoting, and presenting the museum’s distance learning programs.

Longhenry, Susan. “Taking Distance Our of Learning,” The Docent Educator 8.4 (Summer 1999): 6-8.

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