2 September 02003

Tate E-learning — a quick critique

After other dot.com models have been (sometime over-hastily) discarded, e-learning still has that sense of being a 'public good' that, coupled with vestigial fashionability, makes it irresistible to many public/subsidised organisations.

The Tate now has an 'e-learning portal'. But learning about art collections isn't the same about learning how to make MS Office software do what you want, or, say, GCSE English.

I'm not aware of any major arts/culture organisations partnering with with educational institutions to offer full accredited courses by e-learning (if you are, please add a comment to this post). Mostly they dip their toes in the water by taking bits of their archives or collections and putting a thin wrapping around those bits to turn them into in 'digestible packets'. The design is driven by the content available rather than a coherent programme of learning objectives.

With those prejudices of mine in mind, the rest of this post is made up of reviews of a few elements of the Tate's e-learning resources.

The Bad

Let's start with an easy target, because things can only get better from there. How do you make the history of the Tate galleries themselves an interesting and educational experience? The Tate attempts this in one of its 'Archive Journeys'.

Archive Journeys are frequently a euphemism for digitising some old pictures and stringing a few words between them, plus some diagrams, to try and make them less dry. This one's available in regular old HTML, but, to sex it up a bit, there's a Flash version as well — because, well, Flash is supposed to be the dynamic, interactive, and more 'arty' sibling of boring, flat HTML web pages…

Good Flash e-learning materials exist, but these are not among them. By committing to having both HTML and Flash versions of the same basic material, Flash can only be used to add bells and whistles (i.e., you can't exploit it's potentially for radically different presentation modes). And these materials provide a case study of how such bells and whistles can be at best gratuitous but more often plain distracting:

  • On the first page of the Flash version, text and moving image compete for your eye's attention — the continuous movement makes it harder to read the text, while there is no direct reference between text and image, so one does not augment the other in any way — there is no learning gain from making the images move, just extra 'visual noise';
  • The Flash version of the 'Timeline' is harder to scroll through than HTML version — see how long it takes you to find the dates when each new director was appointed on the Flash timeline, and then do the same task on the HTML timeline, and I'm sure you'll find the latter is quicker — and as well as losing usability in Flash you also lose functionality because you can't click on the pictures of the directors to find out more about them, as you can in the HTML version;
  • Some things are so bad they're funny, but this is worse than that: apparently Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham was protected behind a brick wall during the Second World War — the HTML version shows just the painting, but the Flash version (to which I cannot provide a direct link because Flash doesn't allow that) 'enhances' this presentation by providing an animated conjecture of what the painting might have looked with a wall in front of it. Can you guess? Yes, blow me down, it looks like a wall. With bricks. We all feel a lot wiser now.
Just to remind us that we're learning, there's a multiple choice quiz tacked on the end. Like many a multiple choice, the dummy answers stand out a mile, so after reading less than a third of the materials, I got 6 out of 8 right first time, and the other two on my second attempt. I hope my diploma will be emailed through to me soon.

The Good

As a rule of thumb anything called 'bite size learning' is superficial and liable to be forgotten as quickly as it is learnt ('junk food learning' might be a better term for much that goes under the 'bite size' banner). However I have another rule of thumb that says anything about William Blake is likely to be interesting (even if wrong). Thus the Bite-size Life of Blake that forms part of Blake Interactive turns out to be quite a substantial meal.

It doesn't try anything fancy: it uses long-established hypertext features (the whole thing could have been produced on Hypercard on a Mac II in 1990), deployed simply to add flexibility to a strong central narrative.

The treatment of Blake's 'illuminated poems' shows how multimedia can genuinely enrich the kind of art that Blake made. Check out the Look, Listen and Think features in this example to see, inter alia, how mouseover functionality helps elucidate the symbolism in Blake's work.

Paradoxically the PDF and Flash materials in the Learning Tools section are among the flattest of what is on offer in Blake Interactive.

Sidenote: I was thinking how I'd love to see a similar treatment of Tom Phillips' work, a thought that led me to discover the rich resources of his web site, where Phillips — invariably keen to explicate the processes behind his own work — gives detailed accounts of the development and imagery of some of his paintings such as his portrait of Iris Murdoch. Then there is audio of Tom Phillips reading from his Humument book (beautiful scratchy, hissy analogue quality!) at the Humument web site, but there is scope for this to be a much richer site, and I'm sure it will be.

The Indifferent

The Tate has started a series of Works in Focus, linked from its elearning portal. The treatment of Millais's Ophelia looks superficially similar to that of Blake, but when you work through it, differences in the construction become apparent.

Where Blake Interactive gives you a sense of real narrative — and not only in the biographical elements — the Ophelia resources feel like disparate essays.

The Blake materials use their embedded hypertext links in a small number of restricted ways, building expectations in your mind that help predict where a link will take you, and thus enabling you to stay in control of your 'journey'. A consistent set of page layouts also enhances the sense of predictability and control, so you can focus on the journey itself, rather than the 'driving'. Navigating Ophelia is a less transparent, more effortful, process, because the links are used in different ways (sometimes a text link will jump you to and fro between sections, sometimes within a page, and sometimes to a curt 'pop-up' footnote).

The net effect is that Blake feels like a learning journey with extra flexibility, Ophelia feels like a jumble of snapshots with a mix of snakes and ladders between them.

Good hypertext design is old news. You can read about it in books written in the 1980s like this one (from the era of 5.25" floppy disks!), so there shouldn't be excuses for not heeding the old lessons.

Oh, and the dreaded Flash-based timeline makes a ghastly reappearance in Ophelia (this time as an 'interactive biography'), and there's another multiple choice quiz, which sadly won't run at all using either Internet Explorer or Safari on my Mac.

Old Fashioned Education

The treatment of another Work in Focus, Damien Hirst's Pharmacy, is different again. At least the biography is blessedly uninteractive.

Elsewhere the materials divide into:

  • an 'asset dump' including a modestly useful 360-degree panorama of the Pharmacy installation at the Tate, and photos of the installation in other galleries;
  • an interview with Hirst, available in transcript and audio form;
  • a spot the difference game which poses the intriguing question "Why do you think the artist changed the way he installed his work in the different galleries?" but offers no clues, so I have to wonder how many of the 8-12 year olds at whom this is allegedly aimed will come up with meaningful answers.
Where the Pharmacy materials are most interesting is in the section aimed at schools, which offers a set of themes and questions related to the installation. The themes are linked to Key Stages in the National Curriculum, and the questions prompt school children to think about some of the issues that can be laid over the work, using the interview quotes as starting material.

You can envisage that this could work very well, in the hands of good teachers who take their classes to see the installation, and print off and adapt the resources on the web site as part of classroom discussion and activities. School children might really learn from the challenges with which this would face them. But gallery visits, classroom discussion: you wouldn't call that e-learning, would you?

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Human-Computer Interaction, Reviews on 2 September 02003 | TrackBack