Beyond the virtual field trip: The online museum classroom

Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, USA, David Fredrick, University of Arkansas, USA, Kirsten Peterson, EDC, USA


Museums have traditionally attempted to engage virtually with students and teachers through the use of video or Web-based conferencing services. These programs typically emulate an on-site single or multiple field-trip experience. They are often synchronous, with a museum facilitator on one end and learners at the other. However, museums have the opportunity to be front and center in reaching students in ways that go far beyond the traditional virtual field-trip and Web-based activities. In an effort to increase its reach, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has developed a for-credit online course for high school students. The course, "Museum Mash Up: American Identity Through the Arts," explores American history through the visual arts. As students progress through the course, they learn about the curatorial, creative, and educational processes necessary to develop an exhibition. The course culminates with a student-curated exhibition in a virtual gallery space developed in the Unity Game Engine. Designed by the Tesseract Studio for Game Design and Immersive Environments at the University of Arkansas, the gallery is a virtual replication of the architecture of Crystal Bridges' 20th Century Gallery. Unity is a next-generation game engine widely used in independent game development and visualization applications in engineering, architecture, and medicine. It allows for accurate representation of terrain and structures while providing sophisticated control over textures and lighting. Because Unity publishes to the Web and mobile devices, it has tremendous potential for immersive, interactive museum applications and distance education. This demonstration will highlight unique aspects of the course and provide insights into the potential and pitfalls of developing a museum-based online course and increasing scale.

Keywords: online learning, high school, virtual reality

1. Introduction and background

Now is a time of disruption in the K–12 sector. Digital technologies have not only changed how people communicate and access information, but where, when, and how students learn. In 2009 and 2010, two hundred thousand K–12 students were enrolled in full-time online schools, and there were an estimated 1,816,400 additional enrollments in distance-education supplementary courses in K–12 school districts, with 74 percent of those students in high schools (iNACOL, 2013). Access to subject-matter experts is no longer dependent upon geographic locale. This challenges the K–12 model of educating students that took hold at the turn of the twentieth century. By the early 1900s, compulsory education was an effort to not only educate children, but also remove children from the factory to stabilize the workforce for adults and create a homogeneous populace. Based on the Prussian model of order and obedience, students progressed through the system in age cohorts. But schools are challenging this model by moving from seat-time as an accountability measure to personalized learning that is evaluated through demonstrated mastery.

This challenge provides museums with the opportunity to move from the periphery in the K–12 sector to the center. Museums have a history of taking their collections outside of their physical buildings. At the turn of the twentieth century, museums “served as the central administrative unit(s) for visual instruction by [their] distribution of portable museum exhibits, stereographs, slides, films, study prints, charts, and other instructional materials” (Saettler, 1968). Museums also often send curriculum to teachers in advance of a field trip, and some museums have even outfitted vehicles to bring exhibitions to a wider community. The Web afforded museums an opportunity to put their collections online, and synchronous technologies allowed many in education to engage classrooms through “virtual field trips.”

But these previous efforts still place museums in the margins of the K–12 sector. A social studies class may visit a website for primary source material, or an art class may engage with a museum educator through a video conference. While these opportunities certainly enhance classroom curriculum, recent policy shifts provide an opportunity for museums to become the classroom. In 2006, Michigan became the first state to require online learning for high school graduation. Since that time, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia have added requirements for online learning and graduation. All of these trends and policies have resulted in schools and districts hungry for high-quality, relevant, and media-rich online courses. Museums are poised to meet this need and should develop the means to directly reach more students and their teachers than ever before. But it will take more than simply making collections available online to the masses. It will require systematic instructional design that carefully considers the learners and the learning objectives, followed by the consideration of the best tools to meet those objectives.

2. Case study: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

In recognition of this emergent opportunity, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art decided to embark on a distance learning initiative. Part of this motivation was informed by an external evaluation of the educational and cultural value of a one-time visit to an art museum. After opening on November 11, 2011, in Bentonville, Arkansas, a region that previously did not have an art museum of that scale, there was a demand for school field trips that exceeded the initial capacity. Greene, Kisida, and Bowen (2013) recognized that this provided an opportunity to conduct a large-scale randomized control trial. They surveyed over ten thousand K–12 students, half of whom were randomly assigned to visit Crystal Bridges on a tour, and found increases in knowledge about the art, tolerance, historical empathy, and critical thinking. Further subgroup analysis revealed that the impacts were two to three times larger for students from low socioeconomic and/or rural schools. Crystal Bridges planned to develop its distance learning initiative with an emphasis on targeting students in rural locales.

In July 2013, in an effort to inform Crystal Bridges’ distance learning initiative, the museum hosted a Distance Learning Summit. The summit included many presentations by cultural institutions in various stages of developing distance learning programs for K–12 students and teachers. Following the presentations, the attendees envisioned the future of how art museums and arts organizations could leverage distance learning. Consistent among all of the attendees was the call for museums to directly and significantly impact and effect change within the K–12 system. This call, combined with an identified need to reach rural students and the Digital Learning Act passed by the Arkansas State legislature in 2013, which requires every Arkansas high school student to take an online course for graduation, led Crystal Bridges to decide to develop a for-credit online course for high school students, rather than take a more traditional “virtual field trip” approach.

As we began to develop the online course, criteria were established. First, the course needed to be engaging and relevant for high school students. Second, it had to be aesthetically well designed, but flexible so any Learning Management System (LMS) could import the course. After a request-for-proposal process, we selected Education Development Center (EDC) as the course developer. Working with their diverse team, we brought together expertise from instructional designers, museum educators, Web developers, and subject-matter experts. Following a long and often messy development process, the course, Museum Mash Up: American Identity through the Arts, came to fruition. The course is eighteen weeks, or one semester, and fulfills the required 0.5 credit hours in fine arts and the requirement to take a course online. Developed in Drupal™, the course can easily be installed in any LMS system, while still retaining the aesthetic. Students progress through the course in a retrograde design, beginning with contemporary art and framed by the question, “How did we get here?”

Created in Drupal, any online teacher can place the course within their LMS, which retains the navigation and design.

Figure 1: any online teacher can place the course, created with Drupal, within their LMS, which retains the navigation and design

3. Interactive Tools

While there are many valuable websites and other online resources to learn about the arts, we wanted to be sure that the process of “collaborative meaning making” was not lost. Students begin their lesson similar to an on-site program, by looking at the work of art and sharing their initial observations and interpretations using VoiceThread™. Similar to a traditional, in-gallery experience, there was a wide range in the breadth and depth of the responses in the discussions. For instance, students were asked to look at and respond to George Tooker’s The Ward in VoiceThread™. Their only prompt was: “What do you notice and what do you wonder?”

Student One: it looks like there is a bunch sick people laying (sic) in hospital. like it looks like the ones already laying down are dead.

Student Two: George Tooker’s “The Ward” is a very interesting piece that’s (sic) shows to have many subliminal messages. In the background there are many American flags hanging on the wall in a much brighter contrast to the rest of the painting. I recognize this as a representation of patriotism and American pride. Going on to the next part of the painting, the elderly people lined up in rows on beds. There isn’t much to identify the various elderly by- except as Madeliene said, they have little to no hair- so they are most likely men. The elderly people are lined up on these beds- which do not appear to be comfortable by their stiff appearance. It seems that these people are just existing, not really being anything other than a case number or a medical condition. I believe that this represents the wounded soldiers that have returned from the various wars. When the soldiers came back from the war wounded this is how they were treated oftentimes, in a lifeless building or tent, not having anything to do or participate in, often making them become depressed which slowed or stopped the healing process completely. When Tooker made this painting I wonder why he depicted the wounded soldiers scene as so dreary and negative when he could have followed in the footsteps of others and sugar coat it to pacify the public and make it seem appealing enough. For Tooker’s honesty in this painting I admire him greatly. He really got his point across that the war wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t pleasant afterwards either, because these memories still haunt you…

Using VoiceThread, students respond to works of art similar to discussing what they notice if they were physically in the museum.

Figure 2: using VoiceThread, students respond to works of art in a way similar to discussing what they may notice if they were physically in the museum

Following their initial observations, the students gather contextual information about the artwork, artist, and historical period. Each work of art has primary, secondary, and multimedia source materials, including essays and videos. In addition, throughout the course are videos that unpack the curatorial and exhibition process through interviews with staff. All of this informs the final project: a student-curated exhibition within an immersive three-dimensional rendering of the one of the museum’s galleries. This virtual gallery application was created in the game engine Unity3D, by staff and students from the Tesseract Studio for Game Design and Immersive Environments at the University of Arkansas. Unity is a good choice for this project because of its ability to publish to the Web, which is crucial first for accessibility and second because the Web application can be scripted to communicate with a server. This allows students to create multiple gallery projects, save their work, and share it with fellow students and their teachers. Discussion among Crystal Bridges staff, designers from EDC, and the design team at Tesseract established several essential features for the virtual gallery application: navigation, placement of artwork, and first-person experience.

An exterior rendering of the 20th century "bridge" at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Figure 3: exterior rendering of the twentieth-century “bridge” at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

“Navigation” refers to how the gallery space is presented to users: how do they see the space and maneuver through it? How do they get an overall sense of how they might want to arrange their artworks? For this we decided on a three-quarter overhead perspective (common in real-time strategy games) with the ability to orbit the view and zoom in and out. We also built in the ability to toggle the roof and glass windows of the gallery off and on. A schematic mini-map is provided at the left margin, to keep users oriented to the space and allow users to adjust their position by dragging the camera icon on the mini-map. For artwork placement, we provide a drop-down “tray” of artworks represented by thumbnails; users can select by clicking on the thumbnail, which closes the tray and presents the artwork as a movable object in the 3D space. Users can then place the artwork on the gallery walls by dragging to a position and releasing the left mouse. At any point, artworks can be removed from the wall and returned to the tray, so that placement is always editable.

We also provided tag functionality, which allows users to enter text describing the artwork and position the tag at any point around the piece. An eye-level guide can be enabled, which allows users to gauge where a piece lies relative to visitors’ average eye level. Finally, we provided adjustable lighting so users can position lights within the gallery to highlight specific pieces and provide a sense of transition between pieces or thematic groups. So that users can test how their virtual gallery feels, we provided a first-person walk mode that allows free movement anywhere in the virtual gallery space. Users enter this mode by clicking on the floor of the gallery, which transitions them from the overhead perspective to first-person view at the clicked location, with automatic orientation to the nearest painting on the wall. Users are then free to walk through gallery and adjust the placement of the paintings while in this mode. While it is not very efficient for the initial placement of the paintings, player testing showed that being able to adjust the arrangement in first-person mode was something many users wanted, as it is much more tactile and immediate.

A design imperative throughout has been simplicity of use. We know that our student population includes both many avid gamers and many who are not. Our target audience for the virtual museum application also includes the teachers and parents of the students, and even fewer of them will have significant gaming experience. Nonetheless, it is crucial that all users rapidly become accustomed to using the application, and that they are not frustrated or confused by the interface. The goal is to allow our students to communicate creatively through their placement of artwork, their tags, and their use of lighting, and the application needs to be as natural and transparent as possible in supporting that function.

Looking ahead, we anticipate that significant additions to the application will include sculpture, mixed-media pieces, and avatars, allowing students and teachers to meet and collaborate in the virtual space. We also look forward to engaging the students in considering the relationship of their artwork placement to the environment and lighting conditions outside the gallery, which is framed by continuous glass panels on the north and south, and considering likely movement patterns given the floor plan of the gallery. Finally, it is important to note that the upcoming release of Unity 5 will remove the need for the Unity plugin to play the application; from this release forward, Unity content will play natively in major browsers. This will remove a significant barrier for some schools and other institutions in accessing Unity content.

Once inside the virtual gallery, students can place artwork, toggle the roof, and navigate on foot.

Figure 4: once inside the virtual gallery, students can place artwork, toggle the roof, and navigate on foot

4. Accessibility

An important legal and ethical consideration is accessibility. Curriculum and instruction should include accessible alternatives that engage students with different backgrounds, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities (Simoncelli & Hinson, 2008). Online courses should also be designed to differentiate instruction and provide multimodal ways of engaging with material. This course was developed with universal design on the front end. Instruction is differentiated because the information is presented through text, audio, video, and static imagery. The use of VoiceThread™ allows students to participate though audio, video, or text. Students progress through the material at their own pace (though within a set time frame), and the work is archived, allowing students to access previous content. The teacher is also available through a variety of means including e-mail, open and closed discussions, and a weekly live session.

The course also addresses what Crow (2008) has identified as four categories of disabilities: visual involvement, auditory involvement, mobility involvement, and cognitive involvement. All multimedia content contains subtitles for students with auditory involvement using the services of Amara. More difficult to address in an online course that features artwork is how to accommodate learners with low vision. During the first offering of the course, one student with low vision from the Arkansas School for the Blind used the assistive software ZoomText to magnify imagery and text, and the Reader feature translated text into audio. She was able to fully participate in the course activities, including looking at and responding to the art.

More common issues with access have to do with cognitive involvement and accommodations for students that have an Individualized Learning Plan (IEP). Two students in the course had the accommodation of shortened written assignments, and one student had the accommodation of extended time. Simply reducing the number of discussions and allowing students to work with the archived material easily accommodates their IEPs. In addition, students that have mobility involvement have access to facilitators at their school to assist, or through the use of voice command programs. The virtual gallery app also affords anyone to navigate the space as if on foot, eliminating physical boundaries to engaging with the space.

5. Scaling up

While in the end everyone was pleased with the quality of the course, another criterion the project had to fulfill was scale. This left Crystal Bridges with a dilemma. First, what was a reasonable scale? Should we be thinking of reaching a billion learners? Though simple quantitative measures of enrollment are no barometer of quality or determinant of learning outcomes, why think small if museums have the potential to reach more learners than ever possible as a result of online learning? As Michael Edson (2014) states, “If we want to take on the challenge of improving education in America, we’ve got to get big or get out. Half-measures won’t cut it.”

Could the museum provide the human resources required to teach this course to thousands of potential students? Though the museum has a sizable education department to serve school tours and public programs, Crystal Bridges was not prepared to have a fleet of online instructors. Rather, the museum chose to identify partners that did have online instructors and leverage their capacity to ensure the course was available to any teacher or online provider that wished to offer it.

The museum began a pilot partnership with Virtual Arkansas, a supplementary online provider available to any public high school student in the state. Crystal Bridges provided the course at no charge to Virtual Arkansas’ teachers, and the course was included in their portfolio of online offerings. Because Virtual Arkansas receives funding from the Department of Education and the districts whose students are enrolled in their online course offerings, the costs of employing online instructors are contained within their funding structure. This becomes a win-win for both organizations, as Crystal Bridges can reach more students than if it retained authority over teaching the course, and Virtual Arkansas now has new and rich content in the visual arts from museums.

To scale the program beyond the state of Arkansas, Crystal Bridges decided to invest in the development of an online teacher professional development program. This professional development program will certify any teacher that wants to offer the course to their school or district in an asynchronous online environment. Once certified, any teacher or online provider will be licensed the course at no charge. This model has the potential to reach high school students across the state and around the world, and have impact in their high school careers. Crystal Bridges will need to commit institutional resources to maintain the course, similar to that of a website, as well as support the teachers who are licensed to teach the course. But this model allows the museum to reach far beyond what it was capable of doing alone at a fraction of the cost.

6. Conclusion

K–12 education is undergoing a revolution in when students learn, how they access expertise, and the pace at which they progress. As more states pass legislation such as course choice and digital learning acts, more public schools will need access to high-quality, content-rich, and relevant courseware. Museums need to respond to this call by thoughtfully designing instruction that takes place asynchronously online, and need to release their authority as the subject-matter experts by training online teachers. Many opinions and sometimes vitriolic language surround reforms in K–12 education, but online learning will only continue to grow in this sector. Museums have a pivotal and central role in designing a new curriculum that brings knowledge and opportunity to all students regardless of their geographic location. Museum Mash Up is a step toward developing this new form of democratized, twenty-first-century curriculum in art history, art education, and museum studies.


This endeavor required many contributions from a variety of expertise and partnerships. We would like to thank: Kirsten Peterson and Stacie Green from EDC for their dedication to this project; Bruce Friend for his expertise in K–12 online learning and policy; Cathi Swan, Arkansas state coordinator, Distance Learning and Technology, for all of her guidance in offering the course; and Diana Garrison, teacher at Virtual Arkansas, for piloting and offering the course.


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Cite as:
. "Beyond the virtual field trip: The online museum classroom." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published February 23, 2015. Consulted .