Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum Launches Online Courses and Teacher Training

Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum Launches Online Courses and Teacher Training

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / Photo by Wikipedia user Charvex under CC0

Have you always wanted to teach an art class but couldn’t find an online resource on a Walmart budget?

Despair no longer. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the expansive museum founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton, has launched two free distance learning courses and opened applications for educators to become certified to teach them. Applications close April 25.

Museums, with their vast collections of rare and valuable resources, offer boundless opportunities for learning, but they’re often relegated to the realm of field trip destinations, visited once a semester or year. And that’s only if students are fortunate enough to have field trip programs.

“Reducing outcomes to basic numeracy and literacy privileges who gets to play in the world of ideas,” said Anne Kraybill, Director of Education and Research in Learning at Crystal Bridges. “Lower socioeconomic brackets don’t often see art museums as accessible, and people begin to think the humanities are a luxury. Access to this kind of coursework is a civil rights issue. Our courses are one small effort to level the playing field.”

After an evaluation of the museum’s field trip program, Kraybill decided to expand the number of students viewing the collection, though not through virtual field trips.

“There’s always a glitch with video conferencing and virtual field trips,” Kraybill said. “Then, when you do get the technology working, the class or trip becomes kids in a box trying to angle to see the artwork.”

According to research by the University of Arkansas, the people who benefited most from field trips were the students who didn’t usually have access to such facilities. So Kraybill set about building a course for students at rural schools with small or no arts faculty and others who could not easily visit museums.

The courses, “Art Appreciation and American Identity” and “Art+Process: Creating a Body of Work,” cover American art history and art practice, respectively. Each grounds itself in a different way within the museum’s extensive collection, a massive archive housed in 217,000 square feet of galleries and that spans five centuries of American art. Art Appreciation aims to teach American history through the works, whereas Art+Process uses the museum’s contemporary pieces as inspiration for students’ creations. Both are designed to be taught remotely, but Kraybill has seen classroom teachers make use of them as well.

Between 25 and 50 high school teachers accepted into the training program—likely half from Arkansas, Kraybill said—will be flown out to Bentonville, Arkansas, home of the museum, for a five-day session from July 18-22. Museum educators will instruct educators on the ins and outs of the courses. Each teacher will be required to commit to teaching at least one of the classes each semester.

The training will skew heavily to the technical elements of managing an online course, with a large element of the session devoted to understanding the course management system and the online tools involved. There will, however, also be training on the pedagogy of teaching works of art and the instructional design that undergirds the course.

When designing the courses, Kraybill wanted to make two elements central: the teachers and the collection itself. “We could have just created lots of digital resources, but the people facilitating are hugely important,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that there are great teachers on the other end.”

Art appreciation courses are often taught like history courses with fun little detours into art. There’s a beginning point in the past, and the materials work their way towards the present. The end. Crystal Bridges’ class, however, begins in the 21st century and works its way backwards.

“We also found that teaching Art Appreciation in chronological order felt like American history with a side of art, which is not the point of the course,” explains Kraybill. “It’s about how themes relate over time and how artists both shape and respond to history.” Case in point: The final exercise of Art Appreciation is not a test of students’ recollection of history but a virtual curatorial challenge.

Likewise, the Art+Process course uses the contemporary works in the collection to teach students about how artists generate ideas. Each week in the course focuses on several works united by an idea or a process, and the course culminates in a virtual exhibition of each student’s work.

A few teachers are piloting both courses now. Diana Garrison, an art teacher with the online high school Virtual Arkansas, has taught Art Appreciation for two semesters as part of the test before the public launch. She is now piloting the Art+Process course, which she helped write. She said it was “an easy ‘Yes’” when she heard Crystal Bridges needed teachers to volunteer.

“I hadn’t even been to Crystal Bridges yet when I signed up,” Garrison said, “but I had heard it was top notch. I’ve taught it now and I’ve been to the museum, and it’s been everything I expected and more.” Her favorite periods of art to explore with students are the Antebellum and Civil War.

Her first class consisted of roughly 30 students, though she never saw all of them at the same time. Virtual Arkansas allows students to drop in on live sessions twice per week with the teacher. This format worked well for a larger class, but she’s having trouble with only three students in her first Art+Process class. Working out the kinks is part of her job as a pilot teacher, though. She’s in constant communication with Crystal Bridges about what’s working and what’s not.

“Each student is required to give and receive feedback,” Garrison said, “And that’s been tough with so few students. I’m going to suggest that we have a minimum number of students for this class so everyone can have feedback.”

Otherwise, her challenges have largely mirrored those of teachers in brick-and-mortar classrooms. “One of the biggest hurdles is student motivation,” Garrison said. “We’ve had seniors who are about to graduate and don’t need the credit. This can be exacerbated by distance learning, especially for alternative environment students, but it’s true of all classrooms.”

Kraybill predicts that the thorniest obstacles with the program will not be technical difficulties but larger conceptual dilemmas she has already seen when students visit the museum.

“I hope teachers will relinquish the authority on what a work of art means,” Kraybill said. “Creating personal meaning and connecting art to students’ lives is vital; otherwise they won’t remember it. That’s a big challenge with in-person field trips, too. We work hard on this problem with museum educators, who are facilitators for students.”

As the program progresses and improves, Kraybill hopes that museums will take a more active role in K-12 education.

“We have been on the periphery, as support for education,” she said. “We have so much more to offer, so we need to step up to be a central player in partnership with schools. Digital technology is a part of that, but not the most important catalyst. We can do a lot more than we are now.”

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