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Museums and the Web

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Tate Online Courses

Rosie Cardiff, Tate, UK


Tate has been producing and running our current Online Courses for three years with the launch of the Artists Techniques and Methods Course in 2008 and a second Introduction to Drawing Techniques Course in 2010. There are over 1,500 registered users on the Tate Online courses, many of them based outside the UK. The courses are based upon a unique model of trying to provide the equivalent of an online evening class rather than an accredited course. The courses are designed to be informal and practical so that students can learn about techniques, try them out at home and then share the results with other students on the discussion forum and in the image gallery. This paper provides the background to how Tate’s online courses were developed. It examines how to create a business model for producing and running online courses so that they generate revenue for your museum. The paper looks at how cost effective tools can be used to create online courses incorporating new or existing content, including video, animation and images. This paper also shares the user research Tate has carried out to discover what students look for in an online course and which course features and formats work best with this user group.

Keywords: online courses, Moodle, adult learning, authoring tool, learning management system

1.   Background to Tate’s online courses

Tate first developed an online course, Introduction to Contemporary and Modern Art, in 2005. This course had two levels – level one consisted of eight self-guided units and level two was a tutored course that ran three times a year with around thirty students each time. The course was one of the first of its kind and the level two course was especially popular; however, running the course presented Tate with a number of problems:

  • The course was not profitable. The cost of paying tutors and maintaining the learning environment exceeded the money generated through sales of the course.
  • The course was developed in a bespoke learning management system designed especially for Tate. This meant that it was costly and complicated to maintain and update.
  • The level 2 course was quite expensive at £295, but it was not accredited so students did not receive a formal qualification at the end of it.

An external evaluation of the course was carried out and the key recommendations were to:

  • Develop more focused courses offering a range of topics and themes for learners;
  • Explore sustainable business models for course delivery;
  • Enhance the help information and navigational facilities offered to learners;
  • Develop assessment strategies, paying particular attention to the need for monitoring and mentoring of learners and to implement an appropriate learner management system for these purposes.

In 2007, members of the Tate e-learning team started to investigate alternative business models for online courses. The online courses needed to be cost effective and easy to maintain. We set out to answer a number of key questions:

  • Should the courses be tutored? Students obviously enjoyed receiving feedback from a tutor and were willing to pay more for a tutored course but providing tutors was a big overhead for Tate.
  • Should the courses be accredited? Would it be possible to partner with a university to provide courses that would lead to an official qualification?
  • Could we use a commercial or open source learning management system and authoring tool to make the courses cheaper and easier to maintain?
  • Could we find a way to re-use existing content (e.g. films) within the courses?

In order to answer some of these questions, we conducted an online survey on the Tate Learning section of the Tate website. 60% of visitors to the Tate Learning site said they would be interested in studying an online course. In addition, 32% said they would be prepared to pay up to £50 for online courses, and 21% were prepared to pay up to £100.

Based on the survey and findings from the evaluation of the Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art course, we decided to develop a new model for the online courses. It was decided that tutored courses were too expensive to run and would only be worth producing if they were developed in partnership with a university and could be accredited. Although students greatly enjoyed receiving tutor feedback, they were not prepared to pay a lot of money for non-accredited courses and so it would be difficult for Tate to cover the costs of tutoring. Instead, we decided to develop online courses that were more similar in style to an online evening class than a university course.

2.   The audience for online courses

Adult learners represent a very wide and diverse audience and it can be difficult to pinpoint the different types of learner that make up this group and target material that will appeal to them. In the 2007 survey of the Tate Learning website, visitors were asked, “As someone who uses learning materials, which of these best describes you?” and given a number of options such as teacher, higher education student, community group leader and adult learner. 31% of the respondents identified themselves as adult learners but many people chose ‘other’ as an option and then described themselves in different ways such as ‘banking professional who enjoys art’ or ‘artist in hospital’. It was interesting that these people did not identify themselves as adult learners but seemed to be precisely the kind of people with a general interest in art who might engage with the online courses. This raised questions about how to reach these groups of adults and how to design a course that would appeal to them.

From the results of the learning survey, 65% of the visitors who said they would be interested in taking an online course were female and 49% were from the UK. This meant that 51% of the potential target audience was international, indicating that the subject matter of the course should be general rather than fitting into a national curriculum of any kind.

The online courses were also of interest to people in a wide age range with the majority of respondents aged between thirty-one and forty-five.

3.   Course format and content

It was decided that the new Tate online courses would be self-guided and aimed at adult learners with a general interest in art and Tate’s collection. These would not be tutored courses but would enable learners to study online in their own time. The subjects covered should appeal to those with a general interest in art and give an introduction to popular topics rather than having an academic emphasis. The courses would not be accredited or aligned to any educational qualifications but would be engaging and fun and give learners an opportunity to interact with Tate and each other online. The courses would encourage peer-to-peer learning by building an online community around the learning materials and facilitating opportunities for discussion and sharing of knowledge.

Having decided on the new format for the online courses, it was important to choose a subject matter that fitted with this model. The Tate Learning survey presented users with a number of different possible subject areas for online courses and the ability to suggest subjects of their own. By far the most popular subject areas were Art History (55%) and Artists’ Techniques and Methods (45%). Tate investigated both subject areas and decided that Artists’ Techniques and Methods presented more opportunities for self-guided study with practical activities that could be carried out at home. Although Art History was the more popular subject area, it was felt that it would be difficult to teach this effectively without a tutor. The subject matter also presented less opportunity for students to carry out practical activities and share their work online.

4.   The Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course

In 2008 Tate developed the first online course using the new format, “An Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods.” The course introduces students to a number of key works in Tate's collection and examines the techniques the artists used to create their work. The course looks at a range of techniques from drawing, watercolour, collage, and oil painting. There are six self-guided units:

  • Gaudier-Brzeska's Drawing Techniques
  • Collage Techniques
  • Turner and Watercolour
  • Pre-Raphaelite Composition and Symbolism
  • Whistler's Oil Techniques
  • Richard Hamilton and Mixed Media

Each unit examines different artists in Tate's collection and looks at how they created their work. The units contain video clips and step-by-step guides to using the techniques and encourage students to create their own art works at home.

Each unit is accompanied by a downloadable worksheet that students can print out and follow in their own time. Students are encouraged to upload images of their work and share them with other students via an online image gallery. Students can also pose questions to other course students and the course administrator on the online discussion forum. When students have completed all the units on the course, they are automatically issued with a Tate certificate that they can download and print out.

There is no time limit for the course and students can spend as much or as little time on each unit as they like. Once students have purchased the course and received their login details, they have unlimited access to the course website and content.

The Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course is priced at £20. Tate wanted to make the course as cheap and accessible to students as possible while also covering development and copyright costs. The course is far cheaper than tutored, accredited courses but it designed to appeal to large numbers of people and the learning management system can support large volumes of students using the course at the same time.

5.   Course development    

Having decided on the format and subject matter for the online courses, we started to investigate possible learning management systems and authoring tools to develop the course. The learning management system needed to meet the following requirements:

  • Ability to track students’ progress through the course and automatically issue a certificate on completion;
  • Support the creation and hosting of learning units that are trackable using the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM);
  • Creation of a discussion forum and an image gallery;
  • Enable students to contact the course administrator and find help where needed;
  • Be cheap and easy to set-up, maintain and administrate;
  • Integrate with an online payment system.

Rather than updating the existing proprietary system, we decided to switch to a new learning management system and chose Moodle.

Moodle is a free open source learning management system widely used by universities and other educational establishments around the world. It has a large online development and support community and is easy to install, customise and administrate. Tate’s Information Systems team installed a test Moodle site and the e-learning team found it easy to set-up, configure and create new courses. The Moodle LMS supported all of our requirements and has proved to be a very stable environment. Moodle also has a free add-on that allows integration with paypal as a payment system but we decided to integrate Moodle with Tate’s existing online payment system, Enta. This required some additional work but Moodle fully supported integration with external systems.

A new template was developed for Moodle that incorporated Tate’s branding and online style. The Tate design for Moodle can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Each unit in the course would need to provide a self-contained interactive e-learning experience. In order to develop the course units, we needed an authoring tool that would meet the following requirements:

  • Be visually engaging with clear design;
  • Display images clearly and on quite a large scale;
  • Run on a variety of platforms without relying on installing too many plug-ins – could use Flash for cross-browser compatibility and ease of download;
  • Provide an interactive experience with the ability to embed animation, video and audio;
  • Track each learner’s progress through the unit and enable people to see how far through the unit they are;
  • Track whether a student had successfully completed the unit through some form of online assessment.

We researched a number of different authoring tools and looked at how much work would be needed to develop the existing Tate tool that was used for the Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art courses. It soon became clear that the existing Tate tool would require too much work to redevelop. Ideally, we wanted to work with an open source authoring tool. We investigated the eXe open source authoring tool but at the time of development, this had a limited range of templates and did not support a lot of the functionality that we required. Instead, we decided to purchase the Articulate authoring tool. Articulate enables users to create learning materials through an add-on to Microsoft Powerpoint. Users are also able to create their own animated screens based on a variety of different templates and output the units in Flash. There are a good variety of different animated templates and quizzes available and Articulate also allows users to embed their own animations, videos or audio. The units that are produced are SCORM compliant so that progress is tracked through the Learning Management System. One of the templates particularly useful for the Tate courses was the ability to create hotspots on images and click to see pictures in greater details. An example of this is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

6.   Creation of course content

Because this was the first time Tate had developed an online course in this new format, it was an opportunity to experiment a bit to see what kinds of content and structure for the learning units worked best. Three different writers created two units each using slightly different styles and concentrating on different aspects of artists’ techniques and methods. One content writer was a freelance writer who wrote about art for books and magazines. The second writer was a member of the Tate learning teams with experience of producing interpretation materials for works in Tate’s collection. The third writer had studied with the Tate conservation department and came from a more academic background. The writers were given a set of Word templates to write into so that they could plan their content around the e-learning templates available in Articulate. This meant that the writers were able to plan the text and images that would appear on each screen and stick to given word limits. This made it easier when the content was passed to the e-learning team. We were able to copy and paste most of the content into the Articulate authoring tool and build the Flash units without the need for too much editing.

The units on drawing, watercolour and oil techniques were designed to be very practical. They included videos of people demonstrating the techniques and giving step-by-step instructions for how to try the techniques at home or in the studio. The collage unit included an interview with an artist describing how he used collage and gave lots of ideas and stimulation for projects that students could carry out at home. The units on mixed-media and the Pre-Raphaelites’ use of composition and symbolism included a lot of material from the Tate conservation teams, analysing the materials and processes used but without providing ‘how-to’ style information. The content for the units came from a variety of sources. Where possible, we re-used content that had been developed for other projects. For example, the videos on Turner’s watercolour techniques were developed for an in-gallery display but Tate approached the license holder for permission to re-use them in the course. In this way, Tate could reduce the cost of producing the course content and also give some of Tate’s existing content a new life online.

Another consideration when trying to keep costs down was copyright fees.  As this was a commercial project and Tate would be selling the online courses, the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS) would charge commercial rates for the use of images from living collection artists. We were careful to strike a balance between DACS artists and works in the collection that were out of copyright.

As we were using three different writers it was important to keep the structure of the units the same and provide Tate editorial guidelines to ensure an overall coherent experience for the students. The structure of the units was embedded into the Word templates given to the writers and consisted of:

  • An introduction screen setting out the learning objectives of the unit and explaining what the unit covers;
  • An introduction to the artist and technique that the unit covers, and an introduction to one of the key works that the unit focuses on;
  • Contextual information giving some background to the artist and their work, with an examination of elements within the work, designed to encourage the learner to start questioning the art work and forming their own ideas;
  • Information on the techniques used by the artist to create their work. This section has a practical focus – giving the learner instructions on how they could practise the techniques at home;
  • A consolidation section with a quiz to encourage students to reflect on what they have learnt. The section also offers guidance on carrying out work at home and uploading images to the online gallery;
  • A summary of what the unit has covered and main learning points.

These sections were then recreated in Articulate so that students could skip to the different section headings using the unit’s internal navigation. An image showing the unit’s internal navigation and one of the contextual information screens is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

7.   Course launch and administration

One of the challenges of the online course was trying to build up an online community of students around the course so that students could learn from each other. Unlike a university course, the students would have no opportunity to meet in person. In addition, there were no set dates to the course so different students would be logging on and studying at different times. In order to start up the online community and gain some initial feedback on the course, we put a message on the Tate website asking for volunteers. The first twenty volunteers could take the course for free provided they uploaded images to the gallery, took part in online discussion and provided Tate with feedback on their experiences. This meant that when the course launched to the wider public, there was already user-generated-content in the gallery and forum and the course didn’t seem like an intimidating empty space.

The Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course launched in May 2008 and was promoted on the Tate website and in the Tate Guide. In the first month 33 new students registered for the course. A year after launch, 562 course registrations had been sold.  By the end of December 2011, 1,365 people had registered for the Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course.

The Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course cost £8,691 to develop. This included Articulate licenses, setting up a Tate Moodle template, content writing for the units, some video production, developing the payment Web pages and copyright fees. Where possible, we re-used existing content or created content in-house to keep costs down. These costs do not include internal costs such as the time spent by staff on the e-learning team. These external development costs were recouped within the first year of launching the course.

Once launched, the administration of the online course was very straightforward. The online payments and registration took place automatically online. Most people found the course easy to use and navigate and did not experience any technical problems. Tate staff moderate the online discussion forum and image gallery and sometimes post information about events or exhibitions that may be relevant to the course. They answer any technical questions and assist people who have forgotten their login information but this only takes about an hour a week. In general, the course runs itself with students using the discussion forum and image gallery to interact with each other.

8.   Evaluation and feedback

In 2009 the e-learning team conducted a short evaluation of the Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course. We conducted an online survey to gain students’ feedback on the course and followed this up with some email exchanges. The survey showed that 79% of the students were female, 65% were aged over fifty with over 18% over sixty five. 31% of the students were based outside the UK with a high proportion (9.5%) living in Australia and New Zealand.

The aspects of the course that students enjoyed most were the ‘how to’ style videos that demonstrated the techniques with 77% of respondents saying that they found the videos most useful. One student commented that they liked, “The quality of the instruction, I learned more about abstraction and the reduction of detail in watercolours from this than from several completed adult education courses.” Students also valued the background information on artists and the ideas for practical projects that they could carry out at home. One student said, “I like the way it is set up, you follow the units but at the same time it triggers your motivation and imagination. I came up with truly interesting works at home.” They also liked the fact that they could study at their own pace and complete the course in their own time. One student said, “I think the idea of this online course is very good – especially not having a deadline to complete the course as it is difficult to find the time to log in sometimes.”

The aspects of the course units that students didn’t find so useful were the multiple-choice quizzes at the end of each unit designed to encourage students to reflect on what they had just learnt. Feedback on the more social aspects of the course was also mixed. Some people really appreciated being able to interact with other students on the course and share images of their work but many people were not interested in doing this at all. They would rather just work through the units in their own time and keep their work private. One respondent commented, “I have absolutely no interest in blogs, chatrooms or any other way of communicating with any other person who also happens to do the course.”

31% of the respondents to the survey said they didn’t know if it was useful to be able to view other students’ profiles and 29% said that this functionality was not very useful. A few people would even prefer that their name didn’t appear on the list of course participants so that they could take part in the course anonymously.

There was also a mixed reaction to the discussion forum with 20% of respondents saying they found it very useful while 18% said it wasn’t very useful. Interestingly, quite a few people expressed irritation at the content that Tate had seeded by encouraging the volunteer users to post content to the discussion forum and gallery. New users felt that these people were in some way taking over the gallery by posting too many images and were too vocal on the discussion forum. In the survey, one student said that the aspect of the course they liked least was “the students who flooded the course with their own work and comments.” In retrospect, it may have been better to have left the user-generated-content of the course to develop more organically as new users signed up rather than trying to seed initial content.

42% of users felt that the course was priced fairly, with an additional 54% saying they would be prepared to pay more if it meant covering the copyright fees needed to include more contemporary artists. Only two students said that the course should be available for free.

It was also interesting to discover that the majority of users felt that the course was a purely online experience and had no interest in visiting the galleries. On one occasion, the course administrator posted some information about the Tate print room on the discussion forum with suggestions for how students could draw from some of the art works featured in the course ‘in the flesh.’ There was little interest in this and some students also expressed disappointment, saying that they lived too far away to visit. At one point, a student on the course suggested meeting up with fellow students at Tate Modern in order to see an exhibition relevant to the course but this had little take-up.

9.   Introduction to Drawing Techniques course

Following the evaluation of the Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course, the e-learning team started to develop ideas for a second online course. We decided to carry on developing courses around artists’ techniques but focus in on one particular technique and cover it in more detail. Drawing techniques were chosen as we felt the materials required to carry out the practical aspects of the course were cheap and easy to obtain and in the evaluation of the previous course, 73% of students had expressed an interest in pursuing further study in drawing techniques.

The overall course format remained the same but we tweaked the format and content of the individual units based on student feedback. The course concentrated on a more practical approach with more ‘how to’ style videos and presentations demonstrating particular techniques. We reduced the quizzes in the course units and used question screens in a more constructive way to prompt students to think about what they were learning. This meant also changing the way the course was assessed in order for the completion certificate to be issued. Whereas previously this had been dependent on the students’ quiz results, instead we made this more dependent on whether the student had completed the units.

For the drawing course we commissioned one writer to produce all the content and we chose someone with a background in teaching fine art who also had experience in producing online learning resources. This meant that the style of the units was kept consistent and the course maintained its practical focus.

The Introduction to Drawing Techniques Course launched in September 2010, also priced at £20. After a year, there were 343 students registered on the course and many students who had taken the Introduction to Artists’ Techniques and Methods course also registered for the drawing course.

For the drawing course, we did not seed the discussion forum or image gallery with user generated content but simply presented a few ideas of what the forum and gallery could be used for. At first the course administrator was concerned that this would mean that students wouldn’t know what was expected of them and would be reluctant to upload content but in fact the opposite occurred. Students seemed more comfortable with the idea that they could use these spaces as they chose and discussions developed in a more natural way. There is currently a very active group of students on the discussion forum who call themselves the class of 2012 and have been taking part in lively debate and sharing their work in the gallery.

Initial feedback on the Introduction to Drawing Techniques course has been very positive with one student noting,

I must say that after completing the Introduction and Unit 1 I am very impressed by the material and the learning strategy…I've tried various online and tutor-led courses to date and although some of the more expensive ones were great I'm sure this Tate course matches the best of them.

10.       Future plans

The Tate e-learning team is planning to conduct a thorough evaluation of the existing online courses during spring 2012 and will then investigate what courses to develop in future. Now that the learning management system and authoring tools are in place, producing new courses is relatively straightforward.

Some students have also expressed an interest in studying the courses on mobile devices such as iPads. This would make it easier for students to watch the instructional videos in the studio and practise the techniques with the videos in front of them. Currently, the Moodle course environment works well on an iPad but the course units are developed in Flash so cannot be viewed on an iPad. We are investigating alternative authoring tools that output to HTML5 instead of Flash. Articulate is also developing a new version of their authoring tools that will output to HTML5 but this is not yet available.

There are potential improvements that could be made to the Moodle environment. The image gallery comes as standard with Moodle but it is quite clunky and difficult to use compared to image galleries on social media websites such as Flickr. We are also looking at ways to link Moodle with other social media sites so that people can share their experiences of the course. One of the course students has been blogging about the work they’re doing on the course but there isn’t an obvious way to bring this into the course environment.

To summarise, here are some pointers for any other organisations thinking of starting online courses based on what we have learnt at Tate.

  • Make sure you have a sustainable business model for your courses and factor in any on-going costs such as copyright fees.
  • There is a real public appetite for learning materials with a practical focus that use collection works as inspiration for students to create their own work whether this is art, craft, creative writing etc.
  • Make sure that the format of your course fits with the subject matter. For example, some subjects may be more difficult to convey without a tutor.
  • Students are becoming increasingly comfortable with using the more social elements of online courses such as discussion forums but this should be allowed to grow organically rather than being seeded by the organisation.
  • Some people will not want to engage with the more social aspects of online courses and may even wish to take part anonymously and you need to ensure that these people still have a valuable learning experience.



Keywords Associates (2005) Evaluation of the CGfL project, Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Art Online Courses

Tate Learning Survey 2007

Tate Online Courses Evaluation 2009

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