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Two students sit outside painting on an easel.

Teaching the Arts Online

by Emily Bartelheim
March 2017

When first approaching course design, Joseph Brown, adjunct instructor of music, was unsure if it was possible to teach a music course in an online format. A large part of his online “History of Rock I” course focuses on auditory learning, which initially proved challenging for him because he had to find ways for students to listen to songs constructively and legally. He was also worried about student engagement. Because his course fulfills a general education requirement, a majority of his students are nursing students who are working full time, and perhaps not particularly interested in music. “It’s always been a challenge for me to find ways to construct content in such a way that’s meaningful to students but also meets them where they are,” he said.

Today, Brown utilizes lawful, accessible online playlists, and provides his students with tutorials on how to use them. Regarding maintaining student engagement, he ensures all course content is accessible across multiple devices, and is broken up into “chunks” they can consume on a short lunch break if need be and not feel overwhelmed. “Now after having done it, I think online teaching is very possible for any subject really,” he said. “If it’s done well, I think you can teach anything online. Just be creative.”

Jennie Klein, associate professor of art history, said there are certainly some art courses in which students must physically create something, in which case it becomes more difficult to have access to the needed materials/supplies/space, but in many cases, online courses present challenges that simply need a new approach. Klein gave credit to the fact that some may have a negative notion of online teaching, especially regarding the arts. She believes there are certain subjects that lend themselves better to an online environment (for example, doing a studio class online is difficult because they are hands-on and students are physically creating things).

Kamile Geist, associate professor of music therapy, teaches introduction to music therapy courses online every summer. She said technology can present its own challenges if an instructor is trying to teach music live, but also noted there are successful music therapy programs online across the country.

“Artists can be extremely creative, adaptive, and innovative,” said Matt Dingo, instructional designer for the Office of Instructional Innovation. “When they find their medium limiting, they find new means of expressing themselves, or they develop new techniques that allow them to communicate through their art. It is this same spirit of innovating, expanding within limitations and adapting to new advances, that are required to build a successful online environment.”

While there are challenges presented when teaching the arts online, faculty in Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts have pushed the boundaries of their online courses and found great success, proving it can be done.

Addressing Challenges of Teach the Art in an Online Environment 

Faculty who teach online need to approach student learning in a new way. “Instructors need to think about how to get around the lecture,” Klein said. Klein teaches multiple courses online at OHIO, including contemporary art, history, photography, and survey courses. Working around the lecture can be difficult, but there are ways to do so. She mentioned trying to flip a classroom, or the idea of a blended class. “I focus on things I think would be more interesting to students,” she said.

Sam Dodd, visiting assistant professor of art history, emphasized faculty should not try to simply replicate what they do in the classroom—they should think outside the box. “Teaching online has made me think about how I engage the student body,” Dodd said. “When transitioning a course online, faculty should ask themselves ‘What else can my class be in this format?’”

While teaching online allows flexibility in terms of the ability to work from different locations, it is also challenging in ways traditional face-to-face teaching is not. Geist reminds herself that students have access to resources outside the course, so she makes sure to allot herself time to “watch the changing of outside resources and maintaining/updating that content.”

A vital element of a successful educational environment—both in-person and online—is the idea of “immediacy,” which is defined as “the degree in which communication behaviors facilitate physical or psychological closeness in interpersonal communication … including any verbal interaction that increases psychological closeness between teachers and students” (Fahara & Castro, 2015, p. 365). There are many different strategies that can establish this important aspect of teaching and learning.

Both Klein and Geist added that an integral piece of teaching the arts online is maintaining the sense of connection felt between instructor and student. “Probably the biggest challenge is that the connection to the students is very important for professors and artists in the College of Fine Arts,” Geist said.

Connectivity Through Video

One way to make an online course more personable is through the instructor’s use of video. Joseph Brown finds video lectures essential for his online course, which has a high-enrollment at around 180 students each semester. He creates a “review” video for each week in his course. “I like my students to see my face,” he said. He uses these videos as an opportunity to make the course more personalized—to talk about the unit that was just completed, possibly touch on any overarching themes or problems students are having, and to give students a head’s up on what’s to come. His students have commented a great deal on his weekly review videos in his course evaluations, mentioning that they enjoy the connection created from seeing him.

Similarly, Geist creates PowerPoint lectures with a voiceover by using Panopto. She likes Panopto because you don’t have to be a tech guru to use it. “If you’re scared of technology, it’s really kind of fun once you try it!” she said. “The video element is really nice to have in an online environment.” She has even integrated it into her face-to-face courses, recording her lectures to provide as a resource for non-native speakers or students who need more time or repetition of material.

According to the Hanover Research Council, visibility is very important in an online course because in an online environment, text replaces in-person, face-to-face, verbal communication, making it easier for students to feel the instructor is not actively involved in learning. This causes students to also assume a passive role (2009). Ways visibility can be increased include:

  • “Designating a section of the course that includes personal and professional information about the instructor
  • Timely return of assignments and feedback
  • Regular course updates and postings
  • Mass and personal email communications with all students” (p. 8).

Student Engagement

An online course can easily become predictable if an instructor doesn’t devote adequate time up front in preparing the course. A course taught in a traditional lecture-based classroom cannot simply be “copy-pasted” into an online environment. If there is not engaging content, discipline and commitment will become more difficult for the student, so the instructor must find ways to keep the students invested.

Online instructors should promote active learning in their courses, in order to foster students’ active, constructive participation (Hanover Research Council, 2009.) This can be done by frequent encouragement that students use the Internet for researching information while remaining critical of sources they find; that students be proactive learners by logging into the course site regularly, submit assignments on time, and participate in discussions; encourage participation by designing thought-provoking questions, encouraging responses at a deeper level; and providing multiple discussion formats (Hanover Research Council, 2009.)

Dodd has found particular success with creating different “levels” of engagement in his online course, “Art History II”; each module includes something factual (reading assignment), something analytical (writing assignment), and an application/synthesis exercise (oral presentation on VoiceThread). Having three different ways for students to absorb information keeps his course from getting too monotonous or dry, while at the same time maintaining a sense of stability.

“VoiceThread was really the highlight,” he said, “because it allowed us to show our faces, and talk in our own voices and our own words.” When he first started using this tool, he was pleasantly surprised with the level of students’ engagement and the increase in personal connection. “Some of my students even bought things after they learned about them in the course, and they’d share what they bought in their videos,” he said. It serves as a way for students to visually show and demonstrate pieces of art and express their experience in their own voice.

Screenshot of Sam Dodd using VoiceThread software to teach class remotely
Screenshot of VoiceThread used in Dodd’s online course.

Course Organization

There are many different techniques and strategies instructors can use to create a personalized, engaging online environment. Some examples include sharing video lectures, using programs such as VoiceThread as a way to have students visually and audibly interact, implementing discussion boards, providing outside sources for reading assignments and videos, featuring forums, and having optimal course organization. But Geist said for her, the most important thing in a successful online environment is students’ access to information quickly and easily.

Students generally choose to take an online course because it provides more flexibility in their schedule, but that also means they need to know what is expected of them so they can organize their time accordingly. “Students have to be very diligent in an online environment,” Geist said. According to the Hanover Research Council, “this increased time management responsibility of the learner also means that there is an increased organization responsibility on the instructor” (2009, p. 8).

Brown makes sure his students have everything they need up front, and course expectations are clear from day one. He also has found it beneficial to have an entire section on Blackboard that includes the course syllabus, grading rubrics, information on how to submit assignments, information about tech support, privacy policies, accessibility, and more. “I try to anticipate questions,” he said. Brown also gives his students a quiz on the course syllabus, which he has found to increase student success.

Klein also agreed on course organization being of utmost importance. “It’s not about what you’re teaching,” she said, “but it’s how you organize your class. It’s amazing how that’s about 80% of it.” If an online course is well-organized and easy to follow, it provides a better experience for the student.

“It is a necessary norm to have a well-organized course that facilitates learning in a logically sequenced way,” said Patrick Mose, instructional designer in the Office of Instructional Innovation. “A well-organized course enables learners to engage and make connections with their content and other learning activities.”

Screenshot of Jennie Klien's Blackboard course online
Screenshot of Klein's organization on Blackboard.


 Instructional Designers at OHIO

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) has a team of instructional designers that has helped numerous OHIO faculty in their online course development and design. Dodd met with two designers weekly over the course of a couple months. They helped him with designing and laying out his course in Blackboard, produced videos for his course, ensured the course was satisfying quality control measures, looked at assessment–objective alignment, and helped identify tools that would allow Dodd to accomplish what he wanted to do. “Learning to align teaching objectives with assessments is helpful for anything—online or not—and the instructional designers were good at that,” Dodd said.

Dodd especially liked the instructional designers’ method. “The instructional designers would start with my goals, and show me what tools fit those goals, instead of the other way around,” he said.

OII’s instructional designers also worked with Brown on his history of rock course. “They helped me with a lot of technical things,” he said. “I had the ideas of what I wanted to do with the material and the pedagogical approach, and they helped me with how to get there.”

Brown also attended a week-long online course development workshop in 2014, led by OII’s instructional designers, that helped him prepare for the first time he offered his online course. “I met with an instructional designer weekly for a couple months,” Brown said, “just bringing things and ideas and content to him and having him look at it and saying ‘This is a good start, but maybe you want to try this to make it more effective.’” During these meetings, the designer helped Brown with Blackboard and the Adobe Creative Suite, as well as provided information on best practices for online teaching.

Jody Monk speaks with a faculty member about emerging educational technologies
Jody Monk, an instructional designer in OII, speaks with a faculty member about emerging educational technologies at an OII event.

Along with this shift in learning formats comes a shift in teaching approaches. “I think there’s a trend in education not just to moving online but to moving toward different ways of learning and different ways of engaging students to learn,” said Klein. “Things like Universal Design for Learning (UDL), organization, and online or blended classes are all things that are appealing to more and more students in today’s age.”

“The new information age, coupled with life commitments, has shifted learning dynamics,” said Mose. “Most people value convenience and efficiency, making favorable online learning environments that are easily customized or personalized.”

“I’m very in favor of online teaching and I’d love to do it more,” Geist said, “because there are people that can’t come to this campus that could access it from elsewhere. I want it to continue moving forward at OHIO.”

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of promising new approaches to instruction. OII provides a variety of services to academic units and faculty, online programs and students, as well as additional initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.