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Archives & Museum Informatics

Developing a Museum Web Presence for Higher Education ñ the Evaluation of an Online Course at Richmond, The American International University in London

Evan Dickerson, Richmond, the American International University in London and Susi Peacock, Queen Margaret University College, UK


This paper discusses an online module: Museums and Galleries: The Cultures of Display for Junior level, undergraduate art history students at Richmond, the American International University in London (RAIUL). Published on the University's IntraNet, this module is part of a university-wide IT and Teaching Initiative. We specifically address the educational rationale for the project with reference to the institutional context and the impact of such developments on the University's support services.

General Introduction

Richmond, The American International University in London <> (RAIUL) was founded in 1972 as a not for profit professional and liberal studies university. Based principally on two London campuses with study centres in Florence, Italy and Shizuoka, Japan, it has a student cohort from over a hundred countries. RAIULíS curriculum currently covers seventeen majors and twenty-nine minors; it adheres to the standard American four-year format with progression through credit accumulation. The University awards BA and BS degrees, in addition to a Masters in Business Administration and a MA in Art History. Its undergraduate programs recently became the first of any international university to be dual accredited by the Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom (UK) and the Middle States Commission for Higher Education and Instruction in Delaware, United States (USA).

The module discussed in this paper, "Museums and Galleries: The Cultures of Display", forms an integral part of the art history program at Junior level in the Humanities Department at RAIUL. Although not a compulsory requirement for the art history degree, this module offers students the combination of theoretical knowledge of the museum and art market world together with practice. This offers insight into the world of professional art historical application post university study. It is a semester in length, runs twice a year and is an introduction to museum and art market studies. Throughout the semester students examine aspects of what has, in recent years, become known as "the culture industry". The focus of the module is visual culture and specifically upon the purpose, role and practice of museums and galleries and the role and practice of art dealers and collectors, commercial art galleries and of the auction houses. It is structured as two interweaving strands. The first of these consists of a weekly lecture series designed to acquaint students with some of the current issues in museum and art world studies, such as:

  • the nature and purpose of the museum in contemporary society; cultural property and the ethics of collecting; the notion of national heritage;
  • the role of the museum within education; art world crime; the philosophy, ethics and practice of conservation and restoration, funding and the economics of cultural institutions; museum management and governance; the role of the art dealer and commercial art galleries; the role and operating practice of the auction houses.

The second strand consists of a series of visits to museums and other art institutions, both to sample the various categories of museum and to provide the opportunity to study how, on a practical level, museums deal with the various aspects. We consider such topics as:

  • how museums balance their public service role with scholarship and research;
  • the use of buildings and facilities; adapting old buildings to current notions of display;
  • the use of new technology;
  • museum access and the provision of facilities for the handicapped visitor; security and the protection of art;
  • how museums "interpret" their collections, museum and exhibition design;
  • collateral money-generating enterprises.

The two tracks interweave to provide a theoretical understanding of a number of major issues and the opportunity for students to study at first hand some of the ways in which art institutions confront these issues in practice. Discussion is an important part of this course and students are expected to verbalise their thoughts and perceptions and to develop a critical response to the material under consideration.

In fall 1999, twenty-four students completed the module, twenty of whom were female. During spring 2000, forty-one students are enrolled on the module and thirty are female. Typically 95% of these students are participating on a study abroad programme and have chosen to spend a semester or academic year studying at RAIUL away from their main university in the US.


To date, this is the only art history online module available on RAIULís Intranet (Campus Wide Information Service or ëCWISí). We specifically selected this module to provide insight into the following:

1. How does an online resource module encourage student-centred learning?

Eighteen months ago, when we started development of the online module, the framework and content of "Museums and Galleries" were being modified for the art history accreditation submission for the OU. There was an awareness of the need for greater integration of teaching and information technology with the aim of developing more student-centred learning, for example, in the Dearing Report (Dearing 1997). In addition, many of the galleries and museums visited during the module have an extensive web-presence. This provided the opportunity to incorporate meaningful external hyperlinks which we hoped would encourage the students to take more charge of their learning, through accessing materials and following hyperlinks (autonomous learning).

2. How will students react to an online module presence?

In earlier iterations of the module, many of the students had demonstrated a high level of Information Technology (IT) competence and high expectations for the use of Learning Technologies (LTs) within the curriculum. Much of the student cohort is from US universities where, in the main, LTs are more widespread than in a typical UK university. However, given our understanding of student competence in IT, we wanted to evaluate how students reacted to our online module.

3. How can an online resource module help faculty?

Faculty expectation at RAIUL, in the main, reflects those reported by Littlejohn and Cameron (1999) believing that teaching and learning will be via centralised resources accessed by C & IT with an increased emphasis on distance and open learning. However, in stark contrast, there is tremendous reluctance to launch into the development of online modules with the increasing demands on faculty time coupled with the belief that online module development is extremely time-consuming

The class size for "Museums and Galleries" has increased with a corresponding growth in the day-to-day administration. Students have sixteen visits to galleries and museums throughout the London area. Prior to the online module development, each week students were provided with hard copy handouts of maps, directions and basic information. This would take, on average:

  • four hours per week in preparation by the lecturer
  • ten minutes each week in the lecture to distribute

and students would invariably lose these handouts. Therefore, we wanted to ascertain if the development of the online module could relieve the high administrative burden of the module and if there were significant time overheads for faculty in the development of an online module.

4. Is an online module suitable for a subject such as art history?

The development of the module was seen by many of the RAIUL art history department as being a prototype for the kinds of use of this technology within the discipline area. We were most concerned that the online module reflected the subject matter and was mindful of the visually-literate audience. We consciously wanted to develop an online learning presence that contains a sense of aesthetic awareness reflecting the subject.

5. What are the resource implications for a small liberal arts university, such as RAIUL in deploying LTs such as online module?

We wanted to explore:

  • The amount of training required for a member of faculty with average-level of IT skills to develop an online module. Also, we wanted to explore the possibilities of the Internet for teaching and learning, as Littlejohn and Cameron (1999) state, "Working effectively within an integrated online learning environment requires the development not only of practical IT skills, but also of pedagogical skills."
  • The impact on the support services including IT, the audio-visual services and the library to support online module development.

Many American universities are attempting to find a model that will effectively support the deployment of large-scale LTs. At EDUCOM 98, Christoph, Culp, Kerns, Koffenberger and Kumar (1998) presented a number of possible models to support the growing use of LTs within their respective institutions. Culp described the centre for instructional technologies at the University of Texas at Austin. This helped faculty with multimedia production, instructional design and in their technical skills. In comparison, at George Washington, there was a more phased approach: in the initial stages supporting full-time faculty to develop LTs and then gradually using these early adapters to support other faculty in experimenting with LTs. By the development of this online module, we wished to explore the type of support required for faculty at RAIUL in developing an online module and to advise senior management on the way forward to support large-scale development of LTs.


Both of the writers are engaged in a self-reflective, critical enquiry, which could probably fall under the title of ëaction researchí As Kemmis and McTaggart (1998) state,

"the linking of the terms ëactioní and ëresearchí highlights the essential feature of the approach (action research): trying out ideas in practice as a means of improvement and as a means of increasing knowledge about the curriculum, teaching and learning."

Another essential element of action research is the collaborative: involving colleagues so they may benefit from the research. A strong element of the project was dissemination to:

  • our art history colleagues
  • all members of RAIUL
  • those within the wider educational community.

The immediate impact of this approach is change. The online module is constantly changing and has a major overhaul at the end of each iteration reflecting our experience, the comments of the students and our colleagues within and outside the art history department.

The First Iteration

1. Development

Initially the online module was developed in a very limited format and had four sections:

1. Course Outline

This includes course description, objectives, learning outcomes, weekly breakdown of visits, lectures, follow up reading for each week and assigned texts Most of this material had already been generated in Word and was transferred into HTML format. The only modifications to this were the addition of navigation links, as found on the default page, and the standardisation of visual appearance, as discussed in the next section (see image one and two).

Figure 1. Course information

Figure 2. Course outline details

2. Museum Specific Pages (for each weekly visit)

Each page, specifically created for the online module, contains a description of institution and contents, location (all with maps provided), nearest public transportation, opening times, entry charges, facilities at the institution and, most importantly, a link to the Museumís Internet site (see image three).

Figure 3. Example of a museum specific page

3. Online Resources

This started as a set of links to useful, relevant websites. There was much debate about what should be included here; we did not wish students to become so complacent as to ignore the mass of in-depth museology information that is only provided in monthly printed journals and other more traditional academic resources. This section has since developed to include links to online lists of museum personnel email and snail mail addresses, which students utilise to obtain interviews for primary research material for the semester research project. There are also links to specialist museums discussion lists, for example; The Group for Education in Museums (see image four).

Figure 4. Image four shows some of the online resources section. It shows links to art crime websites and where to contact Museum Personnel.

4. Class Messages

This area is used to keep a running history of messages displayed throughout the semester on matters such as: assignment deadlines, changes to visits, notification of major museums-related news and new relevant journals or online sites. They are lecturer-generated. At RAIUL, our email system is based on Microsoft Exchange but we specifically selected a messaging system within the online module to ensure that the students returned on a regular basis throughout the semester.

As we have stated earlier, the appearance of the online module has always been important. We wanted to give a positive and attractive visual perspective of the module to our student users, and to make a statement about the potential for visually sensitive and aesthetic webpage creation. As a matter of principle, all the material is presented in a forthright and matter-of-fact manner; we did not wish to undermine the seriousness of the material itself in studentsí perceptions.

The central image of the home page (see image five and six) is an ornate gilt picture frame containing a "painting" of the logos and photographs of institutions visited. The overall image was generated using Adobe PhotoShop. Permission was sought from the museums and galleries prior to using their logos and images in our module. The gilt frame image was scanned in from a catalogue about frames and the canvas background JPEG was downloaded from a royalty-free site on the Internet. This part of the process consumed about a dayís work from the educational resources unit at RAIUL.

Figure 5. This shows the front page of the online module with gilt picture frame and links to the institutions visited.

Figure 6. This shows the lower section of the home page. There are links to class messages, assignment information, museums of the week and information about the tutors. This has changed over the three iterations.

To ensure consistency throughout the site each page has a common appearance

  • The Title is in Lucinda Calligraphy font, red and bold text
  • Hyperlinks to other pages of the site and externally are given in black (also Lucinda Calligraphy font)
  • Page text is in black Arial, for ease of readablity and standard distribution on our internal network.

2. Student Introduction to the Online Module

At the beginning of each iteration, faculty demonstrate the online module to students. Faculty expectation of student usage is clearly defined - students should make full use of the appropriate online pages and explore the museumís web site in detail prior to each visit. The faculty also explain the rationale for the online module. For example, students are told that we wish to use to the full the time in the museums and galleries to explore specific issues as opposed to administration details. Hence all information about the visits are online. We also explain that we want to help them develop critiquing skills for assessing websites and develop student autonomy.

3. Student and Faculty Reaction to the Online Module (after the first iteration)

As we have already stated, action research links action and research. After each iteration, we spoke with students and faculty and the online module began to take on a life of its own. Following the initial iteration of the project, much time was spent correcting inconsistencies that had crept into the online module during the semester. Most of these were due to the speed and short notice with which changes were often enacted. Some additions simply meant modifying existing pages of the site or creating links to other items already published on RAIULís CWIS.

The majority of the students were happy with the level of access, content and communication offered to them by the site and welcomed its continued development. Issues were raised by the students that resulted in some rethinking and organisation of the online module. Subsequent developments were made which included:

1. Additional information about assignments

Students particularly requested this. Notification of assignments are given during the lecture sessions but specifics are only available online. For example, the design project in which students have to propose their ideas for the redesign, interior decoration, display methodology, lighting, security and public information given in the Islamic room at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Their understanding of the conventions employed throughout the institutions visited, combined with their own imagination for redevelopment in sympathy with the artefacts form the basis of the methodology in this assessment component. In this instance the information is presented in the form of a competition entry brief that all students are invited to enter, as "designers sympathetic to current concepts of room redesign" (see image seven).

Figure 7. This shows the assignment page detailing the design project in the Islamic room at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

2. Faculty Contact Details

A large percentage of students wanted faculty contact details, office hours, and email. Therefore, links were created to faculty profiles on the CWIS and the provision of email links from the default page.

Other additions were made after our discussions with our art history colleagues and included:

  • A "Museum of the Week"

This is a hyperlink to the site of a gallery or a museum that we do not visit, a museum-related body or a specific site of interest. These have included: the Freud Museum; <>, the Science Museum <>, The Museums Association <> and the Evening Standard newspaperís online archive of articles by the prominent art critic, Brian Sewell <http://www.thisislondon/briansewell/>.

We had specifically included this area to broaden the horizons of interest for our many study-abroad students on the module who can simultaneously expand their knowledge of museums and enjoyment of London this way. At the end of the second iteration, 44% of students reported having visited two or more of these institutions after visiting the web site in fall 1999, or having learnt more on a specific issue.

  • Additional Resource Links

Links were added to other sections of the CWIS detailing use of the CD-ROMs of the National Gallery, London; Galleria dellíUffizi, Florence, the Musee DíOrsay, Paris and Cities of Europe; available from RAIULís Library for student and faculty use.

The Second Iteration

After the second iteration, we again interviewed students and faculty. Most of the changes required some more ëfine tuningí but there were two significant new features

The Conversion of the Extensive Research Bibliography

Compiled over the last ten years this bibliography aims to be an extensive listing of conventional printed source material applicable to the content of the module and the requirements of the final research paper. Currently it lists over three thousand books, scholarly articles, newspaper items and other sources, such as press releases, Government commissioned enquiries into museums policies, procedures and funding initiatives from many countries (UK, USA, France, Germany and Italy) and specialist interest papers on topics including latest updates on conservation and restoration techniques.

Originally presented in hard copy, this was converted into HTML and was linked from the default page. It may be searched by authorís family name or general subject area, for example, art crime, curators, or new museum design. Whilst this delivers greater flexibility and transparency of use for the student, this does create greater maintenance issues.

The Development of a Study Skillsí Section

Most academics are concerned about studentsí generic study skills but given the highly multinational mix and large proportion of study abroad students at RAIUL, it was felt that this was an area requiring special emphasis to implement standard University-wide guidelines. There are links to other sections on the CWIS including "Writing across the Curriculum"( a supplementary study skills program run under the direction of the University Writing Co-ordinator, to promote good academic writing practice within the RAIUL community.) and a RAIUL Library generated guide to MLA citation system. In addition, there is information on other library and research resources on arts and museology in London that is available to RAIUL students.

This also related to our studentsí usage of the Internet Resources page; students quickly assumed that because faculty had listed websites on the page, they therefore had faculty approval as sources to be (often quite heavily) used in researching the major paper for the module. It took students sometime to realise that this was not the case. Although the information linked to, might be of a sound nature, it was not always the most authoritative source available, and the Internet was not to replace the traditional skills of library-based research carried out through books, journals and periodicals. Therefore, as part of the study skillsí section, we also include a link to the online tutorial, Internet Detective <>, formulated at the University of Leeds, UK. The aim of this tutorial is to give the user the skills required to evaluate the reliability and standard of information contained on Internet sites. Completion of this tutorial is something we recommend to all students during the first two weeks of the semester.

Preliminary Findings

We are now approaching the end of the third iteration of our online module and we return to our initial thoughts at the onset of this piece of action research.

How does an online resource module encourage student-centred learning?

During the first iteration, we began to observe students being more proactive and responsible in their approach to finding materials and information through the online module. They had visited galleries that were included in ëMuseum of the Weekí and actively sought other websites that they were quick to inform us about and asked to be included on the online module.

Unfortunately during the first iteration this positive approach was not always reflected in quality of work as students had not developed critiquing skills of online sources. The development of the study skillsí section we hope has begun to address this issue.

How will students react to an online module presence?

Some of the art history faculty were anxious about student reaction to an online module and level of IT competency. Throughout all the iterations, most of the students showed average and above level of IT competency ñ often exceeding our own! The majority of the students in all three iterations was very positive about the online module and in the questionnaire asked for it to be continued. One or two had some initial reluctance but when our rationale was explained, they gradually ëacceptedí the online module.

How can an online resource module help faculty?

As stated in the introduction, there is much faculty concern about the time taken to develop an online module. During and after each iteration, significant changes were made to the module, reflecting our methodology of action research. For example, in fall 1999 the default page had to be changed to remove the link to the Museum of the Moving Image information page, due to the museumís closure. This took at least a dayís work and several more in subsequent broken links. In addition, the online module became almost an extension of oneís psyche and would draw one in to tinker relentlessly. For example, mid-way through the semester, we suddenly had to develop a ëprevious museums of the weekí area. We estimate that the development of an online module took approximately twenty times as long as to prepare for as a traditionally taught module.

However, the online module did make significant reduction in the administration overheads. Perhaps most significantly it constantly challenged the faculty in their approach and educational rationale to the teaching of the module. Students would make numerous suggestions about the online module and this would result in us reflecting in the content and delivery of the module. For example, there were many requests for online placement of lecture notes and past final exams. We decided not to provide these as we feel these could essentially be detrimental to the development of good study skills and academic practice: the essential functions of university education.

Is an online module suitable for a subject such as art history?

Our experience of developing this module for online use, in comparison with that of other American institutions, has pointed out that indeed the online module provision format can be of great benefit to the discipline of art history. Whilst many institutions have sought to incorporate web based technology into teaching practice (Costache, 1998), to our knowledge few institutions have sought to develop such encompassing projects regarding museology.

5. What are the resource implications for a small liberal arts university, such as RAIUL in deploying LTs such as online module?

Over 300 hours have so far been expended on the development of this one project. It has had an significant impact on all of the support services; this will need to be considered if similar and more extensive online modules are to be developed and maintained.

Many of our initial teething problems were connected to the process of publishing to the CWIS and this is a good example of ensuring that procedures are in situ before launching into such a project. IT and AV Services had little time to organise a standard publishing process Therefore, in the first iteration there were problems and delays in updating the content of the site: changes to the online module could be enacted only by the Web Development Officer in IT and not individual faculty.

It became very clear in the early stages of the project that extensive and continued staff training is required in two specific arenas:

  • IT technical training
  • Staff development in using C & IT to improve teaching and learning

In line with all other CWIS web publishing, the software used to generate and maintain the module was centred on Microsoft FrontPage. It is commonly used throughout RAIUL because it does not assume any prior knowledge of HTML or other programming languages. The user does not to learn HTML to generate web pages. It was hoped that once IT & AV Services had assisted faculty in generating the initial site, it would then be possible after minimal training for individual faculty members to maintain their own course sites.

However, after the initial stages, it became apparent that technical support would be required on a semi-regular basis. Unfortunately FrontPage has a number of idiosyncrasies and often IT and AV Services is required to advise faculty on these. In addition, for such an online visual presence, image generation is fundamental. IT and AV Services helped in the production of all the central images especially on the default page. The images were generated in Adobe PhotoShop, which is a non-trivial package, and this service is always required in the generation of any significant online module of this type.

The Dearing Report (1997) recommended that faculty should develop learning and teaching strategies which focus on the promotion of student learning. As the online presence was fine-tuned, the faculty would call upon the services of the learning technology advisor as a ësounding boardí ñ discussing the best way forward to enhance the online module. This continued throughout all the iterations.

Proposals For The Way Forward

There has been a certain amount of interest expressed by colleagues at other UK universities who run parallel Museum Studies modules in the possibilities of collaboration. One area might be to explore the possibility for computer conferencing between the students of multiple institutions towards a mutual furthering of understanding museums and associated issues. Exactly how we as faculty might wish to direct this venture has yet to be decided.

An ideal area for collaboration in the way forward and expansion of this project would be for us as an institution to work alongside the educational department of one or more museums. Examples of this might be the COMPASS project under development at the British Museum (Loverance, 1998) or the 24-Hour Museum Curriculum Navigator <> in which student and faculty evaluation of the ongoing developments might seek to contribute to the educational goals of the final project outcomes in both cases. However, despite past serious attempts to establish such working relationships, no projects have so far been forthcoming.

In terms of additional learning support materials provided for this module, a set of thirteen CD-ROMs covering major world collections was recently purchased, and is available for student use on a short term loan basis. These CD-ROMs are published by the Spanish publishing house linked to La Vangardia newspaper in Barcelona, Spain. The written material is in Spanish, but it has been evaluated as being a useful and applicable resource for our student cohort considering that many Americans learn Spanish as a preferential second language, and also the advanced level of Spanish tuition within RAIULís Modern Languages Program. Online guides to this set, similar to those provided for the other CD-ROMs on the CWIS, will be developed. The wide and varied world art content of this set also reflects the multicultural ethos of RAIULs educational mission, and clearly demonstrates how LTs can serve this aim.

The other major development we wish to see in the area of learning support materials provision is the acquisition of the full CD-ROM archive of The Art Newspaper, since publication began in 1983. The Art Newspaper is, for our purposes, the single most authoritative source covering the latest developments and news within the broad spread of topics, events politics and economics which impinge upon the art world encompassed by the module. The coverage is international, being published in joint co-operations involving the U.K., Italy and the USA. The single major advantage that the CD-ROM version offers over either the printed or web-based based <> alternatives is that it allows students the ability to sequentially track the development of an issue (for example, a development in art law, such as droit de suite, or critical debate surrounding the effects of restoration with regard to the Sistine Chapel). Whilst printed copy versions can be searched by hand, this is a time consuming process, the CD-ROM version eases this process, thereby encouraging initial student involvement to further their research objectives. CD-ROM updates to the archive are produced at five-yearly intervals, therefore requiring only modest and sporadic financial outlay on behalf of the institution to maintain the resource.

  • We are also proposing to the senior management at RAIUL a number of options for supporting the large-scale use of C & IT in the curriculum. This would include:

  • Workshops for faculty which discuss the pedagogical implications of moving to an online course as well as practical IT skills

  • Using early adopters as facilitators to other faculty

Providing ëtime outí for faculty to develop online modules, similar to the model adopted at Coventry University (see,

Conclusion - Changing Times

Over the past eighteen months, we have seen institutional web sites develop at an alarming rate, most with greater imagination of display and content than in our online module. In some instances, this has happened to such an extent that for our purposes some, such as The Wallace Collection <> now are valuable resources in their own right as revision or aide-memoire tools for students following visits too. This has had inevitable consequences in altering the manner in and frequency with which students use the CWIS site, as their access point for museums on the web. These developments we could not have foreseen, nor the extended use of the CWIS site prior to examination periods, as has been noted in ad hoc observations by faculty of students.


Costache, 1998. Dr. Irina D. Costache, "The Work of Art (Historians) in the Age of Electronic (Re)Production", CHArt conference, 1998.

Christoph, K., G. Culp, C. Kerns, W. Koffenberger and V. Kumar 1998. "Teaching-Learning-Technology Centres: Emerging Models for Faculty Support" Presentation at Educom í98, "Making the Connections" October 13 ñ16, 1998, Orlando, Florida.

Dearing 1997. National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society (the Dearing Report) HMSO/NCIHE.

Kemmis, S and R. McTaggart 1988. The Action Reseach Reader. Geelong: Deaking University Press

Littlejohn, A. and S. Cameron 1999. "Supporting Strategic Cultural Change: the Strathclyde Learning Technology initiative as a model." ALT-J Volume 7, Number 3. University of Wales Press.

Loverance, R. (1998). COMPASS: A New Direction for the British Museum. Computers and the History of Art, CHArt 8.1, 5-11.