The Bergen Distance learning project

Britt Kroepelien

The Background for the Project

'An introductory course in Art History for distance teaching' is a distance teaching project which is designed to be cheaper, more efficient and qualitatively improved compared to the existing introductory program. Norway has only four universities, and until recently Art History has been taught at two of them only - in Bergen and in Oslo. In this small country with widely separated regions, there is a marked need for distance teaching in Art History in many of the smaller cities along the coast as well as in some inland regions. The geographical situation may be illustrated by pointing out that the distance between our northernmost city, Hammerfest, and our southernmost city, Mandal, is comparable to the distance between Oslo and Rome. There has been a lively interest in art history in many of the smaller cities and at a time when the student population is growing, there is a clear need for distance teaching in this field.

At present distance teaching in Norway is being offered by Folkeuniversitetet (FU) which roughly corresponds to The Open University in England though without being accredited, so students must sit for exams in Oslo or Bergen. The Norwegian Folkeuniversitet sends teachers into the districts to present the curriculum in a series of lectures. Art History is a subject which does not easily lend itself to self-study as it is impossible to acquire insight in art history through books. This is due to the fact that for a full understanding of the text, it must be accompanied by good reproductions. There is a mutual dependence between text and picture, the text being meaningless without the pictures and the picture mute without the text. This presents a problem for present day distance teaching for two reasons:

  1. students have access only to those reproductions which are rendered in the textbooks or in the slides which are presented during lectures and
  2. it is impossible to teach students techniques of analysis for paintings, sculptures and architecture based only on these reproductions.
If we are to create a distance teaching program which is cheaper and more effective than that which is offered by the Norwegian Folkeuniversitet today, we must find solutions to the problems mentioned above. In our view, this can only be done by taking advantage of modern communication techniques such as satellite transmission, electronic mail, the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) as well as the new developments in digital image processing.

The Project

With this starting point we propose the following model for using modern computer technology to improve the quality of the distance taught introductory art history course.

In this IT-based teaching, we plan to make use of satellite-transmitted and video-recorded lectures (videograms), as well as the WWW and the Internet. This part of the program corresponds to what is offered today, in a cheaper, though not superior form. What is new in our program is what we have called the supplementary teaching, which is provided in addition to what the distance taught students are offered today. The central aspect of this supplement is a database with high-resolution images, scanned in with a digital camera (Kontron ProgRes 3012 ) which will be located at the University of Bergen. Initially, the database will include 10,000 pictures which more or less correspond to the reproductions of paintings, sculptures and buildings with which the students in the introductory course are expected to be acquainted. According to our plan the database will be expanded to include the 70,000 pictures with which a graduate student should be acquainted. The distance taught student can make direct contact with the database through the net in order to study any details which may be of interest. However, we are also planning a database on a CD-ROM which will allow the student greater ease of operation.

In addition to the database CD-ROM we will develop two further CD-ROM's - one which includes the pictures most commonly presented in such courses, arranged chronologically and sectioned according to the course presentation. Important key-words with explanations and references to specific pictures will be included as well as amplifying texts which might not be readily accessible to the distance taught student.

The other CD will offer three courses in art analysis - one for paintings, one for sculpture and one for architecture. As far as we know, this has not yet been attempted elsewhere. The object of these courses is to give the distance taught students perceptual training in viewing and analysing paintings, sculpture and architecture, making this CD a perceptual tool. On this disk there will be references to pictures in the central database, and the user will be given the opportunity of submitting questions related to the analyses. In this way it will be possible for the distance taught student to achieve a better understanding of 1) terms used in the field of art history, 2) material and techniques, form and composition, and 3) the historical context through interactive use.

While satellite-transmitted and videotaped lectures follow the presentation techniques of traditional teaching at universities, the project's central database and two CD-ROM's represent a significant improvement in pedagogical strategy. Courses teaching analysis of paintings, sculpture and architecture have been given low priority at our universities and have been virtually non-existent in the districts. With this project we seek not only to make such analysis courses more widely available, but also to improve the quality of the courses. Modern technology offers presentation tools for analyses which are much more instructive than the traditional presentations in books and lectures. A digital medium such as the CD-ROM can add a whole new dimension to this field of study. The advantage of using CD-ROM technique is that by arranging the material in a suitable way, we can construct a basis for interactive communication.

The course can then be based on an extensive degree of self-study supplemented by the use of electronic mail for communication between distance taught students and teachers as well as between students. The course relies on the use of Internet, e-mail and WWW as a means of organisation, communication and electronic access to course material. Using the WWW the students can search in the University of Bergen's central image database for pictures not covered by the CD-ROM. They can also visit exhibitions in 'virtual galleries' world-wide. A further possibility is a so-called 'global window' where for example, a student and teacher are viewing identical windows on their respective machines, both viewers' cursors being visible on the screens simultaneously.

In short - we have attempted a project based on technology which is perfectly suited for improving efficiency and raising the quality of the pedagogical outreach while being within most anyone's reach.

Advantages of Computer-based Teaching

In our view, the program we are planning has some clear advantages:
  1. the distance taught student is given access to all the relevant pictures,
  2. with the help of some analysis tools, the student has the option of manipulating images,
  3. the student will be given perceptual training which has hitherto been unavailable,
  4. regular communication with lecturers in Bergen is made possible,
  5. the student will feel part of a student community through lectures transmitted in real time over satellite, and
  6. all students can take an active part in discussions through questions and answers relayed over the Internet/WWW.
Courses in analysis of paintings, sculpture and architecture are centred on a pool of pictures used as illustrations for these courses. Important paintings, sculptures and buildings are scanned in using a high image resolution. The illustrations include architect drawings, three-dimensional pictures, animated picture series, geometrical models (for example of a Greek amphora), film clips, and sections of buildings.