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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Collaborative Teaching and Learning Between Continents: a Case Study

Marjo Mäenpää, UIAH — University of Art and Design — Helsinki, MediaLab, Finland; Slavko Milekic, UARTS — University of the Arts, Philadelphia, USA; Riikka Haapalainen, FNG — Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland


In this paper we present a critical overview of an experiment in collaborative teaching/learning using Web-based tools. Collaborating institutions were the University of Art & Design in Helsinki, Finland, and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, USA. Graduate level students attending different (but with substantial overlap) courses in Finland and the US were connected using Future Learning Environment (FLE) developed at the Media Lab of University of Art & Design. 

Key words: collaborative teaching, collaborative learning, Web-based tools

1. Introduction

Within the past several years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of institutions offering 'distance education' courses. Although many of these courses include Web-based tools like 'chat rooms' and discussion lists, the prevalent conceptual model is that of a traditional correspondence school. This model works well in a number of cases but is not as efficient in knowledge building for 'ill-defined domains' like most of the Arts and Humanities subjects. The model that seems more promising in this area is the one of technology supported collaborative learning/teaching. In this model the focus shifts from building more efficient tools for information distribution to the development of tools that support collaboration in knowledge building. Although the model has been considerably conceptually developed (see Koschmann 1996, for an overview, or Leinonen at al. 2002 for recent practical implementation) the number of practical applications is relatively small. The reason for this probably is that the population who would benefit most from implementation of such tools is traditionally technology shy. This presents specific design challenges that require cross-disciplinary input. In this paper we describe an attempt to create a collaborative learning environment for the students from US (University of the Arts, Philadelphia) and Finland (University of Art & Design, Helsinki) as well as their connection with experts and content providers (Finnish National Gallery).

2. Division Of Work And Goals

What follows is the short description of the courses offered at the two Universities.

The course at the University of the Arts was designed to prepare art and museum educators for the development, supervision and assessment of the use of new technologies in the art classroom, museums and outreach education programming. During the course the students learned, in a hands-on fashion, how to design and create an interactive multimedia project. In addition, this course covered a variety of issues and approaches in regard to educational programming using interactive media. The potential for use of new technologies for effective communication with various audiences was examined via related literature, field observations and critiques/assessments. The main focus of the course was on the development of technology supported collaborative teaching/learning environments.

The goal of the course at the University of Art & Design (Helsinki) was to allow the students to create models of interaction with the works of art. They focused on creating a prototype of an interactive interface that would enhance the user experience and facilitate knowledge transfer. The interface could be either between the user and the knowledge base (using chat bots, avatars, interactive applications), or between an expert and the user/learner (in this case the interface should facilitate communication between the two — Web-based video, interactive whiteboard, etc.)

2.1. E-team Building

The members of the student teams working on projects chose teams based on their individual expertise and background. Ideally, each team had students coming from different educational backgrounds and interests; for example, an educator, industrial designer and new media designer. Each team member was able to contribute to a different aspect of the project — an educator brought the knowledge of appropriate content and learning theories, industrial designers contributed to the design of actual physical environment where collaboration takes place and multimedia developers were able to prototype the proposed solutions. Media designers studied the models of human communication and users behavior in order to design user-friendly interfaces when executing the concept. Expected number of students for this course was 12-16 at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia and 6-8 students from the University of Art & Design in Helsinki. This would allow building of 4-5 E-teams. Finally there were 9 students from Philadelphia and 5 students from Helsinki.

2.3. Course Content



Overview the systems of representation of digital cultural heritage, techniques like Meta Card etc in the use of Art education

Overview of the types and suitability of the existing multimedia authoring tools for the development of arts-related and educational content.

What is the purpose to digitalize the cultural heritage? What are the means for presenting digital heritage in museums? How could media designers add usability and accessibility? How could users/visitors of the exhibition interact with the art?

A review of the potential of new technologies to address a wide variety of learning styles — young children, youth, adult, beginning, scholarly, individual, group.

The principles of digital interface design in collaborative teaching/learning context.

Creating communication between art exhibition and visitors of the exhibition, chatbot technique Rapid prototyping techniques and the creation of multimedia applications.

Teamwork, design and problem solving.

2.4. Instructional Methods

The primary emphasis of the course were on a) planning, design and production of an interactive multimedia application, but the course also included b) lectures, discussion, outside readings, and c) field observations in city environment. Class activities required attendance at guest speaker presentations.

2.5. The Division of Tasks




Medialab/UIAH, Helsinki

actors involved

Slavko Milekic

9 students

Riikka Haapalainen

Marjata Levanto

2 experts

Marjo Mäenpää

Leena Saarinen

5 students


Interactive Media — study project

Images of Urban Environment

MUMMI -study project



DVD and exhibition

Find models of interaction between piece of art and a museum visitor

techniques, tools

Multimedia authoring (MetaCard)

Semantic Web tools

chat-bot technique (java, open source)

expertise, resourses

MetaCard scripting tutor, AMICO database, various graphic design programs (Photoshop, Illustrator)

Digital archives of FNG

art education

art historian

modeling the interactive situation, HCI

dialogues for chat-bot


graphic design


individual and team work on designing a digital narrative & interactive personal portfolio


problem based design process, collaborative working and knowledge building, scriptwriting and designing a chat-bot


With UIAH students, peer-critique of individual projects

tutoring the content script writing of Mummi-students

With UArts — students via email, common evaluation of ideas and museum media

With the producer of FNG, chat-bot is for the FNG

time table

final individual project in December '03


prototype in December 03, project in spring 04

3. Collaborative and Course-Specific Projects

A sample assignment for the mixed Finnish/American team of students follows:

Assignment for week 6:

1. Create a working group comprised of 2 students from UARTS Philadelphia and one from Media Lab UIAH.

2. Choose the target of your evaluation, a museum-Web page, or other similar kind of a place in the internet,

3. Evaluate the media, paying particular attention to use of interaction design, other mediadesign (animation, film and video). Pay attention to design. Is it accessible, usable? Write up critique (2-4 pages) in a group with students from Philadelphia. (write 1-2 pages each for a total of 3-6 pages with urls). Use e-mail or FLE to communicate and evaluate. Put critiques to FLE-discussion knowledge building area. (http://virtu.uiah.fi:7070/ant).

Although assignments of this kind were interesting to students and were carried out successfully, the collaboration between two groups did not extend much beyond working on a common topic and reviewing each other's project proposals. For the factors that affected the quality of collaboration see the Analysis section.

3.1. UARTS / Interactive Media

The goal of the Interactive Media course at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia was to prepare art and museum educators for the development, supervision and assessment of the use of new technologies in the art classroom, museums and outreach education programming. A large part of the course was devoted to teaching the students how to design and create an interactive multimedia project using a (relatively) simple authoring environment (MetaCard). In addition, this course covered a variety of issues and approaches in regard to educational programming using interactive media.

3.2. Media Lab UIAH / Mummi-group

The aim was (and still is) to create a model of interaction between the piece of art and visitor of an exhibition. We decided to create a chat-bot which communicates with the visitor, gives information (some kind of, according to its character and nature) and leads the visitor to see different aspects from the piece of art. For this conceptual and demo-version we chose one painting from the coming exhibition of Urban Images and created one interactive chat-bot.

4. Analysis of the collaborative study project

Analysis of the collaborative activities between cross-national teams of students revealed numerous problems but also great educational potential of this approach.

4.1. Strengths & potential

  • Multi/cross disciplinary collaboration
  • two teachers, various researchers from two Universities and Finnish National gallery
  • dividing the knowledge and experience in working for interactive media
  • real user centered project with real target group
  • real assets from museum
  • students between continents create contacts for further collaboration

4.2. Problems

  • unclear goal setting (a common kick-off meeting trough video conference would have helped)
  • small / minimum funding
  • lack of awareness of partners study design and production processes (museum wanted only an illustration for their ideas, UARTS students worked on their individual projects, UIAH students worked for the models and ideas of interaction)
  • the benefits of the collaboration not evident to students
  • time zone differences
  • technological problems in communication and in changing the information and assets
  • lack of common project (UARTS students worked with their individual projects, UIAH with their own project)
  • lack of technological recourses (lack programmer, specialists of net communication and virtual platforms)

4.3. Opportunities

  • good division of work
  • good division of tasks
  • UIAH produces concept of chat-bot, UARTS studies interactivity with multimodal interfaces, FNG produces and digitalizes assets and research art historical facts
  • combining different areas of expertise together
  • creating concepts which could be used in various museums

4.4. Lessons learned

  • students need to be aware of the benefits of collaboration; otherwise there is a lack of motivation for work
  • collaborative tasks and goals have to be designed in a such a way that the outcome is beneficial and rewarding to all collaborating parties
  • course designers have to plan for time devoted to learning how to use collaborative environment tools (FLE)
  • ideally, collaborating courses should have available the support of a network specialist

5. Study projects

5.1 UARTS — Interactive media

The initial purpose of the common study project was to promote the methods and good practice of user centered design, visitor studies and accessibility matters (Design for All principle) and to unite the expertise of both institutions for common objectives. The project aims to incorporate the content rich and versatile cultural heritage information with the latest innovations on digital interactive applications and installations. It also aims to enhance the understanding of museum visitors, their expectations of museum visit (both on-line and in-site) and their various needs during the visit.

During the course the students created a model of interaction with the works of art. They were focused on creating a prototype of an interactive interface that would enhance the user experience and facilitate knowledge transfer. The interface could be either between the user and the knowledge base (using chat bots, avatars, interactive applications), or between an expert and the user/learner (in this case the interface should facilitate communication between the two — Web-based video, interactive whiteboard, etc.)

greeting card

Figure 1: Greetings from Philadelphia: UARTS students presented their projects — UIAH students commented.

5.2. Media Lab, UIAH and MUMMI

The Media Lab of University of Art and Design Helsinki was formed in 1993. Today the Media Lab coordinates two 2-year masters' programs: the MA in New Media and MA for New Media Professionals, both programs with interdisciplinary students. The mission of the Media Lab is to explore, discover and comprehend the new digital technology and its impact in society; to find and exploit the possibilities it opens to communication, interaction and expression and to evaluate, understand and deal with the challenges it poses to design and creative production.

The MUMMI as a “Design for All & accessibility to art history” - study project aims to benefit from the concepts like accessibility and usability, and methods like Design for All, Universal Design. Another goal is to gather together all the cumulative knowledge and research done in Media Lab about these issues. What do these principles mean when designing and planning media for wide audiences, media presentations for museums and virtual museums? Naturally, these methods should also be self-evident principles when designing new media solutions for every kind of public usage. To study Multimodal interfaces is to understand the conversational interface design of the future. (Jokinen, Raike 2002)

In order to serve museum visitors better, the MUMMI project wishes to create cultural heritage content that is meaningful, intelligible, and communicable for its users - regardless of their backgrounds, skills and learning styles or strategies. (Haapalainen, Mäenpää, 2003)

5.3. Designing A Chat-Bot In Collaborative Study Project

Media Lab UIAH students started to plan alternative, realistic models of interaction. At the beginning they had pictures from the collection of Finnish National Gallery; they chose Skating rink by Sulho Sipilä from 1932. They wrote different scenarios; finally one scenario about chat-bot on the museum wall near the painting. In the demo they created user can communicate with the chat-bot with the keyboard and written words; group will continue its work and tries to find more user friendly way to communicate. Durign the design process Medialab students communicated and presented their ideas in the commonn Web-based platform. Their aim was to make communcation with UARTS students and mentors from Finnish Nartional Gallery as transparent and open as possible. The aim was to share ideas, evaluate each others' projects and give feedback and have comments. Unfortunately FLE - the Web-based environement - did not work fluently and students became frustrated when they had to solve technical problems instead of problems of the content.

discussion threads

Figure 2: Collaboration in Future Learning Environment. In knowledge building area students are solving problem-oriented tasks and evaluating each other's projects.

5.4. Problems of Communication

Because the intercontinental communication didn't work fluently, students from both universities thought that there might have been differences in working and studying cultures. Both groups were eager to give and have feedback and they were ready to spend more extra time to build common understanding. Whereas Medialab students expected that the study projects' working methods were on both sides on collaborative, problem based learning, self-directed by students, students from USA were more used to studying under exact guidelines and well-designed given exercises.

It was obvious that more precise tasks and objectives for both student groups would have helped their communication. The benefits of common knowledge building were not clearly announced.

It is clear that the role of the tutors is emphasized in flexible and distance education. It means twice as much work as physical lecturing. Also the building of a virtual team is a difficult task. Finally, in this case too few resources were devoted to collaboration and building a real working virtual e-team. Professor Tapio Varis writes about how a competent e-Learning team should function:

A team for producing quality e-learning material would consist of something like 16 members. First, one person is needed for managing the whole project. Secondly, three members are needed for designing the course, including a lead designer, module designers, and subject matter experts. Thirdly, six members are needed for building the content. They would include course integrator, writers, graphics specialists, multimedia developers, html/xml coders, and programmers.

Fourthly, three members are needed to provide the technical infrastructure. These people are network/service administrators, server/database programmers, and technical support specialists. And fifthly, three members are needed for conducting e-learning. They are an administrator (curriculum), course facilitator, and online instructor. (Varis, 2003)

5.5. Attract, Engage, Motivate, Activate, Satisfy: The Mission of the Museum

Chat-bot is a virtual character helping users to communicate with a written language. Chat-bot technology is based on the metadata of words and lines; a certain word or line written by the user gets a certain answer from chat-bot. The user could have a feeling of natural communication when chatting with a chat-bot. (Saarinen 2001) The metadata of words and lines is collected after research of the potential user groups — middle aged women, school pupils and others most common museum visitors.

The assignment to design a concept for an interactive situation was at the beginning from Finnish National Gallery. Basically, the chat-bot provided background information concerning a certain piece of art in a certain exhibition, in this case the exhibition Images of Urban Finland. All the history of art and sources for the chat-bot project were from the Finish National Gallery. When the media were designed in open virtual platform, all the experts could comment on the discoveries of students.

user with computer chat screen open

Figure 3: Conversation with cat-bot Sanelma, background Sulho Sipiläs painting Skating Rink from 1932.

The aim is to represent the background of the art of Sulho Sipilä, the urban culture of Helsinki from 30's. Sulho Sipilä used to look out from his apartment window to the Viiskulma and Punavuori districts and paint the scenes from his window. The second aim is to represent the changes in the atmosphere in mental life in Finland; nationalism turned to internationalism, National Romanticism turned to city optimism.


Díaz-Kommonen L. (2002) Art, Fact and Artifact Production. Design Research and Multidisciplinary Collaboration. UIAH-publications, Helsinki.

Haapalainen, R., Mäenpää M. (2003) Multimodal Interfaces for Museum Audiences: A Collaborative Study Project of Finnish National Gallery and UIAH Media Lab. A presentation held in ICHIM03 Seventh International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting, 13. September 2003, Ecole du Louvre, Paris. PDF-url: http://www.taifuuni.com/maenpaa/mummi-studyproject.pdf

Jokinen, K. and Raike, A. (2002). Multimodality - technology, challenges and visions for the future. A presentation held 18th October 2002, Multimodality IT-seminar, Castberggård, Denmark.

Koschmann, T. (ed), (1996) CSCL: Theory and Practice, LEA Publishers, New Jersey

Leinonen, T., Virtanen, O., Hakkarainen, K., Kligyte, G. (2002) Collaborative Discovering of Key Ideas in Knowledge Building, paper published in the proceedings of Computer Support for Collaborative Learning Conference. Boulder, Colorado, USA, January 7-11, 2002

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Saarinen, L. (2001). Chatterbots: Crash Test Dummies of Communication. URL: http://mlab.uiah.fi/~lsaarine/bots/

Varis, Tapani (2003). New Literacies and e-Learning Competences. elearningeuropa.info. URL: http://www.elearningeuropa.info/doc.php?lng=1&id=595&doclng=1 (read 31.1.2004)