Integrating a Web Component into the Classroom
The New Museum's Mission
The mission of the New Museum of Contemporary Art is to advance innovative art and artistic practice as a vital social force through its exhibitions, programs and organizational structure. Primary to the Museumís purpose are education and public outreach, original scholarship, and critical investigation of the museumís role and function.
One of the unique features of the New Museum is that it holds no permanent collection. As is evident in the mission summary, people are the resources, making the exchange of ideas more dynamic.
To understand the role of the Education Department within the New Museum, it is important to mention the following projects which it supports and maintains: public programs; internship program, high school and advanced; Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education guide (Routledge, 1996); Security and Admissions program; and the Visible Knowledge Program.
Due to the museum's philosophy that education should permeate all aspects of its activities, the Education Department collaborates with many of the other departments. One major contribution is interpretation, in both wall text and brochures, which is shared with the Curatorial department, as well as some of the programming and planning of academic events, such as panel discussions. Planning of special events and social activities is done in conjunction with the Marketing and PR department.
Many of the Education departmentís key objectives have been fulfilled by the creation of vkp.org and its incorporation in the already established Visible Knowledge Program. Following are some of the shared goals:
Visible Knowledge Program
The Education department at the New Museum of Contemporary Art has been working with alternative high schools and at-risk students in the New York area since 1984 as part of the Visible Knowledge Program (VKP). Pairing artist-instructors with classroom teachers on a semester or year-long basis, the Education department provides professional development and technological support to VKP participants collaborating on the integration of contemporary art with core high school curricula (Social Studies, English, Science) and the development of online Classrooms and Studios. In liaison with museum staff, the teachers and artist-instructors develop and teach weekly lessons that explore the connections between contemporary art practice and current cultural and social issues introduced in the different subject areas.
Two years ago, the Education department, with the support of the teachers and artists, introduced a third component to the program, an exhibition-related theme. The intent of adding the third factor to the curriculum is to integrate the school program more closely into the museumís programming and vice versa. It is also a wonderful incentive for both the teaching artist and the students to have their work shown alongside "professional" artists in a high profile museum.
In the beginning of the summer, the Education staff meets with VKP participants to choose an upcoming New Museum exhibition that both coincides with the end of the school year and deals with a suitable theme. Though not mandatory, it is strongly recommended that the artist/teacher pair considers and ties in the topic of the show when planning the lessons and the final project. For example, last yearís school collaborations were based on the museumís The Time of Our Lives show, which was about aging and the issues and stereotypes that surround the aging process. The VKP participants were asked to address the aging topic in their classes in an interdisciplinary manner. One clever response to this challenge was from a Chemistry class that designed an installation representing a bone molecule afflicted by osteoporosis. An Environmental Studies class compared the aging body to the aging city and made outlines of their own bodies but filled them in with the characteristics of a city. This year the classes are working with the Picturing the Modern Amazon exhibition, which deals with hypermuscular women and their representation. Those artist/teacher pairs that feel the topics of strong women, gender issues or the story of the mythical Amazon society tie in well with their subject area are incorporating this theme into the VKP curriculum.
Launched in March 1999, the Visible Knowledge Program Web site (www.vkp.org) uses cold fusion programming to provide an interactive and continually expanding resource and work space for educators, artists and students. The site complements the practical in-class learning experience by providing a cyber learning environment consisting of four areas ñ Classrooms, Studios, Galleries and a Library.
The Gallery area includes VKP online exhibitions, with work by students, artist-instructors and New Museum exhibitions, as well as resource images from the curriculum units. For example, the gallery displays student work from a VKP collaboration that was featured in the Summer 1999 exhibition at the New Museum, The Time of Our Lives.
In the Classroom area, teachers and artist-instructors in the VKP have established online spaces (cyber-classrooms) where they create projects as part of the regular classroom collaborations. In the Class Showcase, they may post recommended readings, upload their studentsí art and writing projects, post class assignments and upload lesson plans in progress. On their Virtual Bookshelves, they may submit links to other Web sites, which are immediately indexed in the Library. In the Forum section of the Classroom, they may respond to users' comments and communicate with other Classrooms on the site. Both the Classrooms and the Curriculum Units are linked to Forums where visitors and registered users may participate in dialogue and offer feedback on the lesson plans and posted work. Visitors to the site may browse the Classrooms, and interested educators are encouraged to contact the Web administrator to open their own Classrooms on the VKP Web site.
All students, educators, and artists participating in the VKP may create their own Web-pages in the Studio section of the site. They may post personal statements, cite urls for project-related Web research on a Virtual Bookshelf, participate in Classroom discussion Forums, upload images and hand in assignments.
All materials available for downloading from the site are accessible through the Library area. Included are curriculum units, arts education related resources and information on the VKP program and collaborating schools. The Library also contains the urls for selected arts and media organizations as well as the Web documents that VKP artists, students, and educators have added to their Virtual Bookshelves.
When the site was first launched, the Education staff was so eager for Web activity that there was a "hands-off" approach as to how the site should be used to enhance the program. Participants' contributions were allowed to organically develop, irrelevant of "quality." After the first semester of use (Spring '99), it was clear that standards and requirements had to be prescribed. Teachers and artists felt neither obligated nor compelled to use the site in the classroom and those who did, developed no criteria as to what was uploaded or for how studentsí online work was to be evaluated.
During that summer, the department worked on a set of guidelines for use of the Classroom and Studio areas and suggestions for an appropriate way to integrate the site into the school curriculum. It was also determined that as the site grows, editing decisions will need to be made. Because the database is constantly expanding, it is up to the administrator to archive many of the older Classrooms and Studios or delete irrelevant documents, so as not to overwhelm viewers or the server. How does the site administrator choose what remains and what is removed? At the moment, editing decisions are left to the discretion of the administrator and the rest of the Education staff; there may be a need in the future, however, to implement an official set of criteria for objectivity and consistency.
Obstacles to success
The site is still in its first full academic year and the activity online consists only of the teachers, artists and students from the schools with which the museum has established collaborative programs. Despite the requisite of mandatory Web participation, the use of the site among VKP participants has been sporadic. The challenge the department has faced during this past year, and is still facing, is how to fully incorporate the site into the classroom learning process and curriculum and then how to organically extend it to accommodate the needs and accentuate the talents of each unique group of students. In this section, I will outline the difficulties encountered in trying to incorporate a Web-based program into the "real" classroom.
To begin, teachers and artists who had little to no experience with technology were somewhat resistant to the new Web component. In addition to technophobia, most of the teachers claimed to already be overburdened by Board of Education requirements and New York State Standards. Consequently, they geared their curricula and focused much of their class time on improving Regents scores and there wasnít much time left for what was perceived as "extra" work. Many of the teachers have not been getting support from school administration, either financially or otherwise; the principal is sometimes unaware of VKPís presence in the school. They donít get paid by the schools to come to extra meetings and professional development workshops and therefore do not make the time or effort to attend them. Due to chronic absenteeism, professional development workshops were cancelled this year.
On top of the teachersí issues, the transient student population in the alternative school system makes it very difficult for any consistency in a long-term project. The artist-instructors get frustrated, as the students in the class often change from one week to the next. The collaborating schools are usually selected for their flexibility in scheduling; longer class periods are better suited for the VKP. However, some schools change their schedules mid-year or mid-term and a VKP class might decrease from double periods equaling an hour and a half to a class of only forty-five minutes.
One of the major obstacles to the vkp.org component is the poor and outdated technology in the schools. Often, the schools have computer equipment but are not online or have older versions of browsers and prohibitively slow systems. In some schools, the server crashes constantly, which is extremely frustrating to the students and administrator. There have even been incidents of vandalism in the schools, in which the computers have been disabled. Due to the interactive nature of the site, the Board of Educationís restrictions on student email accounts limits one of the most outstanding features of the site. In one participating school, all the computers in the lab share the same IP address and therefore make it impossible for more than one student to be logged onto the site at a time. It also eliminates the possibility of group chats online. As if these impediments werenít enough of a deterrent, the schools are rarely provided with a technology support staff; so there is no help for the students or teachers within the school.
Finally, neither the Visible Knowledge Program nor vkp.org receive very much support in terms of funding from the museum for new development or maintenance. The site is particularly ambitious and needs money to maintain its position on the "edge", but these educational components are, unfortunately, not a priority for the institution and, consequently, get a very small percent of the monies they are granted.
Increasing online activity
The measures taken to generate more interest in and activity on the site have been great but, by no means, exhausted. The site administrator continually looks for new search engines and directories to which to add the url. There is also a long list of online journals and people in the technology or art education fields to whom press releases and emails have been sent; this should be done continually.
Besides electronic promotion, it is important for the Web administrator to make frequent visits to the schools and offer technical support for the sites. Making "school calls" certainly pays off by keeping the confusion and frustration levels of participants down. If users feel there is someone they can call anytime and who will provide them with a prompt response, they will be much more likely to try new things and feel comfortable about it. When it is not feasible to go out to the schools, frequent emails and phone calls will maintain the nurturing relationship established with the participants.
As mentioned, the overall activity on the site has been poor, but the biggest problem area is the bulletin boards or Forums. After an initial lack of valuable responses in this section of the site, the department decided to create a structure that facilitated more regular and evocative discussion in the Forums. In response to this need, time was planned into the professional development meetings for teachers, artists and museum staff to engage in Forum discussions online and respond to comments and questions from browsers and other participants. As the year continued, though, professional development was eliminated, which made it nearly impossible to engage all the participants in a simultaneous dialogue.
In addition to training and supporting the adults, the site administrator also goes into the schools to do a training session with the students on how to open and maintain their individual Studios. If the school is not online, the students are encouraged to go to the museum, where the administrator can work with them on the computers in the education seminar room. It was also our hope that time would be allotted during the class period for students in one classroom to respond to feedback from students in another, so that there was continual communication among the youths. This happened to a much lesser degree than planned. Due to the above noted technology issues, it was impossible to get the whole class online together. So, we turned to a resource that we could rely upon, our high school interns. High school interns are appointed from all the collaborating schools and act as liaisons between the museum and the "real" classroom. They are also trained on the Web site so they may offer technical support to their class when the administrator is unavailable to make school visits. Because there is an interested core of adolescents dedicated to the mission of the Education department, we appeal to them to make postings to the Forums, both in response to their work at the museum and in response to their fellow students work online.
Another helpful practice is running and analyzing Web statistics. Tracking such data as user sessions, unique user number and average length of time spent on the site or various pages, helps to determine what areas of the site are being used the most, which pages need to be revised and what periods are the busiest. A quarterly report is generated by the Web administrator to monitor the activity on the site. So far, we've been able to assess that the activity on the site jumped dramatically from the end of summer to September and then decreased a bit again in October, which coincides with the beginning of the school year when many educators are researching and preparing for the semester ahead.
Suggestions for smooth integration and sustainability
Sustained participation in a collaboration, both online and in the classroom, begins with the motivation of its members. The following is a list of questions that were used to initiate discussion among participants:
In addition to discussion, frequent visits to the sites and continual contact with participants via email and in one on one meetings encourages open communication and keeps museum staff aware of potential conflicts.
Most important to the success of a program is that the classroom teacher be convinced it will enhance the class, that there will be benefits to the students and that it will incorporate state requirements. They need to know that the program will not be adding work to their hectic schedule and detracting from what they need to cover in class. Also, the teachers will feel more confident trying something new and different if they have the support of the principal. It is sometimes difficult to maintain contact with the school administrator after the initial discussion of the program. New Museum staff have to be quite persistent in this area; they have even been known to "stalk" principals at their schools in order to utilize those few moments between classes.
Regarding the integration of the Web component, both artists and teachers are required to attend a training session with the site administrator before the start of the school year. During this session, they learn how to use the site and access and maintain the areas for which they are responsible: Classrooms and Studios. The museum has no binding contracts with the teachers, so it is left to the participating schools' to reimburse their teachers for time spent in professional development and training workshops. Because this is rare, many teachers do not make it to the sessions. In these cases, the Web administrator offers to go out to the school and work with the teacher on site to make accommodate them as much as possible. As for the artists with whom the museum does have contracts, there are very specific requirements that must be met as outlined in their agreements, like the monthly submission of lesson plans and updating of online Classrooms.
It is imperative to create firm and concrete guidelines and standards for participants so they know what to expect and what is expected of them, as far as their role in the integration of the Web component. There are no perfect and universal solutions for effectively using a Web component in the classroom so that it meets the needs of both the teacher and the students, but following is an example of guidelines we presented at the first professional development workshop in August:
Web Site Guidelines
For those with Internet access at school:
A similar list was created for those schools without Internet access. By setting concrete dates and objectives, it is easier for the participants to be held accountable for their part of the collaboration.
Beyond technology training, the use of the Web site and its integration into the Visible Knowledge Program has been addressed at professional development meetings. Though these have been cancelled this year, time will have to be scheduled at the beginning of the school year to discuss ways of including the site into the curricula and ideas for new media and Web-based projects. Of course, as with any addition to a class lesson, standards and measures of evaluation must be considered and employed to assess the technology-based work. Teachers need to decide, with the help of artists and staff, how much of the class grade the technology and art aspects constitute and how much class time is devoted to these components.
As always, critical, constructive and continual feedback is needed for the progress of any endeavor, new or well-established. It has been difficult getting people to respond to our online survey. It is embedded deep in the Curriculum area and has, consequently, been overlooked by many visitors to the site. The inappropriateness of its placement has been recognized and it will be changed to a more prominent location on the site. However, we have received encouraging feedback, such as that from Ellen Kirshbaum, Director of Arts Education for Alternative High Schools on the New York City Board of Education:
The long-term objective of the museum is to have an international network of educators using the site as a work space and sounding board for current museum and art education practices. The New Museum aims to promote replication of the Visible Knowledge Program, either in its existing form or in modified versions appropriate to particular learning institutions. With classroom teachers and museum educators worldwide participating in this dialogue, schools without art programs and museums with few educational resources will benefit from the fruits of the VKPís collaborative efforts. To that end, the site strongly encourages feedback about the program, lesson plans and pedagogical philosophy of the Education department, as well as undergoing a rigorous evaluation process. The education staff acknowledges that the continued success of the Web site depends on dedicated participation by all members of the program and its benefit to the students. After a full academic year with the Web site functioning and integrated into the VKP, the staff will now begin to assess its effectiveness and future potential, and address the question: How does one assess the value of a Web component to participants? This sounds like a good topic for next yearís conference.