A Model for Creating an Art Museum-University Partnership to Develop Technology-Based Educational Resources

In D. Willis, J. Price, & N. Davis (Eds.), Information Technology and Teacher Education Annual 2001. (pp. 11-15). Charlottesville, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Bernard Robin, University of Houston, Instructional Technology Program
Sara Wilson McKay, University of Houston, Art Education Program
Beth Schneider, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Education Department
Sara McNeil, University of Houston, Instructional Technology Program
Donna Odle Smith, University of Houston, Instructional Technology Program


The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) and the University of Houston (UH) have collaborated on the design and development of multi-faceted web sites related to both permanent and traveling exhibitions at the museum. In this paper, stakeholders from the museum and the university will describe the web sites and their various educational resources, including multimedia games and activities for K-12 students. The authors discuss the collaborative efforts from their individual perspectives, including the UH Instructional Technology (IT) program, the UH Art Education program and the MFAH education department. The paper also includes an examination of the development of online educational resources for K-12 teachers and students and describes how students and instructors in two graduate IT courses participated in this partnership. Students in the courses came from not only the IT program, but also from art and art education programs. The paper also includes an overview of the role of technology in art education in general and in art museums specifically to suggest the importance of context in the development of art educational materials. Preliminary evaluation data that describe student perceptions of multimedia resources are also reported.

The two graduate IT courses at UH use community-based content and resources as the foundation for the technology-based projects that student teams design and develop. In the first course to be discussed, Project-Based Web Design & Development, the entire course deals with the planning and creation of a web project for the MFAH. In the second course, Collaborative Design & Development of Multimedia, students also work in collaborative teams, but these students design and develop multimedia resources for stand-alone kiosk presentations and web-enabled content.

Collaboration between the university and the museum has been a tremendously beneficial experience for both institutions. Being able to work with so much of the museum’s rich and diverse content has elevated the courses to more meaningful and fertile educational experiences for all involved—the students, the instructors and the museum’s education staff. Recruiting additional museum staff members to serve as course facilitators and consultants will add even more value to the partnership since they help articulate the goals and objectives of the museum and provide insight and expertise related to works of art and how they are exhibited, both in the physical museum and online.

The University Perspective – Part I: Creating a New Kind of Instructional Technology Course

In the fall of 1997, faculty from the University of Houston (UH) met with representatives of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) to discuss how the museum could take a small amount of grant funding and develop innovative uses of new technologies that would enhance public access to the arts. Since Instructional Technology (IT) faculty members at the university were searching for authentic and meaningful projects that students could work on as part of their course of study, it was decided that the museum would provide the content that students would use in a web design course. Project-Based Web Design and Development is the name of a graduate IT course which is offered twice a year in the UH College of Education. In this course, students work in small collaborative teams to design and develop online educational resources that the museum wants to make available to a larger audience. Students are challenged to explore authentic investigation techniques and, working with museum staff members, they attempt different creative approaches to presenting museum content online.

The first museum/university collaborative project in which students used content from the museum was the development of a web site for Bayou Bend, the American decorative arts wing of the MFAH. In this project, student designers created the overall appearance and layout of the site. Students worked with museum content experts to develop site navigation, page design, and educational resources to showcase Bayou Bend and its collection. Student teams created searchable databases, produced virtual room tours, and integrated streaming media content into the site. In addition, several students conducted research to evaluate the effectiveness of these technological components as educational resources. The Bayou Bend project is described in greater detail in the paper, A Museum-University Partnership to Develop Web-Based Educational Resources (Robin, Jenkins, Howze, & O’Connor, 2001).

Over the last three years, the structure of the course has undergone significant changes and revisions as the partnership between UH and the MFAH has evolved. First, because the web projects that students create are complex and multi-faceted, they cannot be completed in a single semester. Consequently, the course is now offered in both fall and spring semesters to enable work to continue throughout the school year. This poses a considerable challenge as each new semester brings a fresh group of students into the course that must first investigate the work done in the previous classes and then devise strategies for building upon that work. We have dealt with this transition from one semester to the next by employing course facilitators who work with each new group of students. The facilitators come from a variety of sources, including graduate students who previously took the course and want to continue working on the project, other faculty members who are interested in the content, and museum staff members. Facilitators are in charge of different components of the web project and they provide guidance and continuity to the new student teams that continue the work that previous students began. One of the interesting effects of working with the museum is that students participate in a cross-disciplinary exploration of such topics as history, geography, religion, economics, politics, and other cultural influences associated with works of art and artifacts, not the typical type of exploration normally found in a web design course.

Another modification to the course is that students from outside the IT program are encouraged to enroll and participate in these museum-based projects. So far, students from both the College of Education’s Art Education program and the university’s Art Department have enrolled in the course. These students have been extremely helpful to the success of the project and the course. Even though they often do not possess the same level of technical skill as the IT students, their knowledge of art and art education nicely complements the technology expertise of the other students. In future semesters, it is hoped that students from additional programs, such as history and social studies education, will also enroll in the course.

The Museum Perspective

The MFAH has moved slowly into cyberspace. Developed as a pilot project funded by a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayou Bend web site was the first effort of the partnership between the MFAH and the UH Instructional Technology program. Brochures on Bayou Bend’s collection, founder, and gardens, and the newly published catalogue American Decorative Arts and Paintings in the Bayou Bend Collection provided important information and images. Also, with access to the Bayou Bend director and curator, UH students and faculty had a wealth of information about Bayou Bend and produced an innovative web site that featured a rich assortment of information and educational resources.

The success of the Bayou Bend project led to discussions between the IT faculty and the MFAH education director about future projects. In all aspects of its programming, the MFAH education department forms collaborations with a wide range of community organizations including libraries, schools, the city parks department and housing authority, colleges and universities, hospitals, and community centers. The education staff recognized the need for a greater web presence and was eager to collaborate with the team of professors and students at the University of Houston.

The next project the collaborators undertook was to develop a comprehensive web site for an exhibition, The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer (http://www.fm.coe.uh.edu). This exhibition from the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City consists of approximately 130 works that will travel to the MFAH and two other American venues and present the rich artistic heritage of colonial Mexico during the viceregal period (1521-1821). The museum education team and faculty from the university mapped out the following components as the focus students would work on over four semesters:

  1. A thematic exhibition introduction
  2. Resources for teachers
  3. Interactive multimedia games
  4. A comparison of colonial art from Mexico and the U.S., including a comparison of Bayou Bend and the Museo Franz Mayer as well as their collections
  5. An historical and cultural timeline
  6. A documentation of a cultural exchange between art students in Houston and in Mexico City
  7. Web-casts of exhibition lectures and symposia

This latest project presented a major challenge–a lack of readily accessible information about the Franz Mayer collections and few images of the works of art in the exhibition. Museum staff members know that images and texts relating to exhibitions often are not available far in advance. However, the students, who began working on this project in the fall of 2000, and newer classes of students who continued this work, needed images and content in order to design and develop the basic structure of the web site as well as the content pages and educational resources. At the beginning of the project, the exhibition curator gave presentations to all classes and discussed a small number of works of art for which the museum had slides. The education director was responsible for providing as much information as was available and researching additional background information. Late in the spring semester of 2001, students had access to catalogue essays and entries and a complete set of exhibition images which greatly facilitated the project.

For the museum, this collaboration has built stronger ties between the university and the museum; introduced students to the museum as a resource for learning; provided web site design services; and supported the museum’s commitment to education. The potential of the web site to provide information about the exhibition to a very large audience is of great importance to the museum. The collaboration with the university has further enabled the education department to put its teacher resource center catalogue online, to work with middle school students on a pilot museum web site for kids, and to be a partner in a major grant-funded project developed by UH focusing on teaching American history.

The strength of the partnership, its educational focus, was also its major drawback. The students who worked on the project, with a new class arriving each semester, were a very diverse group with little or no background in art or art history. The pace of progress was often slow and frustrating from the museum’s point of view, although necessary for the students’ learning. In the educational setting of a graduate course, students need to learn to assess their own work and try several approaches before reaching a solution. The museum is both client and teacher, which sometimes becomes a conflicting role. But overall, the project has been a success, as measured by the quality of the web site and the eagerness of students to enroll in a course. In the future, it will probably make sense to focus the museum/university partnership on the museum’s own collection for which images, publications, and research materials are readily available and deadlines are not as critical.

The University Perspective – Part II: Creating Multimedia Educational Resources

In the second series of IT courses, Collaborative Design & Development of Multimedia, students also worked in collaborative teams, but these students designed and developed multimedia resources using Macromedia Authorware™. Students enrolled in two courses sequentially (fall and spring) that focused on instructional design principles, the application of technology to multimedia design and the use of teams to develop effective instructional initiatives. The challenge for the student teams was to develop a learning module that could be incorporated into the museum web site and presented on a kiosk at the museum.

At the start of the course, students completed an initial assessment of computer skills, multimedia skills and team strategies. In addition, this survey also asked students to rate their multimedia project experience in such areas as designing navigational structures. Students were presented with brief descriptions of projects by the clients and were asked to rank their first, second, and third choices. The second week of class, students were assigned to different teams based on a combination of factors: the skill assessments, the instructor’s knowledge of each individual’s background, and student preference. Teams were given the job of visualizing, designing, and developing a module to meet the requirements of their client. The team that worked on the MFAH project consisted of five members, each with a variety of backgrounds and experiences ranging from K-12 teaching to corporate training.

The fall semester focused on team building and developing competencies in the authoring software that would allow students to complete the project. The team developed ideas and prototypes for the project and presented these to a representative of the MFAH. It took the team several weeks of meetings to develop a plan and direction for their project, and students soon realized that working in a team and trying to develop a piece of software is an intensive process that requires a multitude of skills. By the end of fall semester, the team had decided to integrate all information in short game-like activities. Based on the previous findings of museum visitor attention spans, and of visitor preference for self-directed learning, the activities were designed to be short in duration, with a menu of individual activities so they could be accessible by choice, and in any order.

During the spring semester, six activities were developed along with a finished menu interface with links to all activities. The activities that were developed include Dot-to-Dot, Make a Vase, Trade Routes, Paper Dolls, Concentration, and Story Book. In the Paper Dolls game, users may select any combination of dress and hair taken from portraits from the Franz Mayer and Bayou Bend collections, and drag those components onto a face on the computer screen. When finished, the program displays the visitors’ combination, along with an image of the face in its original portrait for comparison. The Concentration game differs from the original in that the matched pairs are not identical but are conceptual. For example, the cocoa cup from the Franz Mayer collection is a match for a teapot from the Bayou Bend collection, because both beverages were extremely important in social gatherings in their respective countries.

At the end of spring semester, seventh graders in a local school district evaluated the six activities using a survey that included questions that might indicate student engagement as well as the efficacy of these activities for conveying museum content. Student endorsement of the interactive multimedia activities was high and indicated that these users preferred this type of activity to merely reading for content. The highest rated activities, Make a Vase and Paper Dolls, were coincidentally the two activities that allowed the participants the highest measure of individual choice and control. Although the formative evaluation testing was carried out in a classroom setting as opposed to a genuine museum setting, the student responses to the interactive multimedia activities seems to align with the literature about visitor studies regarding interactive experiences in museums. The students expected to learn, but they were also interested in playing computer games to reveal the content and enjoyed the delivery method. This experience appears to parallel the literature indicating that museum visitors come to the museum expecting both to learn and to have an enjoyable experience while there.

These prototypes were developed by the team in anticipation of an increasing presence of interactive multimedia incorporated into museum exhibits. The MFAH is still developing new concepts toward inclusion of projects like these in museum education. The team hopes that these activities will lay a foundation toward on-site testing and evaluation and that we will see a continued development toward capitalizing on the growing strength of technology inside museum exhibits.

The Art Education Perspective: How these Projects Fit into Art Education Pedagogy

The Art Education program at the University of Houston has only recently become a formal component of the fruitful collaboration between the MFAH and the IT program at UH. While a few students from the Art Education program have enrolled in the project-based web design course and have been involved in constructing the exhibition web site, the possibilities for further contributions from the field of art education generally and from considerations of technology in art education specifically are yet to be realized. In light of this, this section will:

An art educator was involved in the museum/university collaboration from the beginning in that an Art Education Professor Emeritus became involved in the collaboration by serving as a team facilitator in the early days of the project. Art Education graduate students then participated in the IT course and served as team members under the direction of the Art Education Professor Emeritus. Additionally, the Art Education program at UH, like the IT program, has made a commitment to focus on real-world projects within its course structures, and students in the program have suggested that their learning is increased because of the authentic nature of the intellectual endeavors. Knowing that the research the students conduct and the lessons they develop will be utilized by area arts organizations and teachers creates a level of motivation that is unmatched by class group projects or other assignments.

In keeping with its commitment to real-world projects, the Art Education program at UH also has a commitment to working with real works of art which further enhances the outcomes for all stakeholders in the museum/university partnership. Because the UH Art Education program subscribes to Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE) as its theoretical base for learning in the visual arts, working directly with and through works of art in the museum’s exhibition coincides with students’ pedagogical expectations of sound art education. DBAE is an art teaching methodology that considers a holistic approach to the study of art including its four disciplines: art history, art production, art criticism, and aesthetics (Wilson, 1997). Works of art figure prominently in this methodology asking students and teachers to engage with a work of art in a variety of ways prompted by the strands of DBAE. For example, students expect to consider the art historical provenance of an 18th century portrait and also ask aesthetic questions about the difference between oil paintings and photographs. Art Education students well-versed in these kinds of pedagogical ideas bring depth of content and multiple layers of experience to the courses and the collaboration.

One of the best ways to address the always expanding depth of content and the forever bifurcating layers of experience within the visual arts is through the appropriate use of technology. Art education has embraced technology as both an important art medium and an important forum for considering art virtually. Digital imagery in the art classroom is a 21st century venue for seeing and discussing art. New communication technologies and digital media are changing the practices of making, understanding, and responding to art (Bruce, 2000). The computer age has created a shift from the textual to the visual. Pedagogy of visual pragmatism acknowledges the informal curricula of the World Wide Web and values individualized learning recognizing that the education audience is larger than K-12 teachers and students (Stafford, 1998). The Electronic Media Interest Group of the National Art Education Association has as its expressed goal to promote informed and responsible applications of media and technology in art education, and over 50 sessions at this year’s national convention of art educators have a technological focus ranging from using basic technology in the elementary art classroom to considering the museum as a hypertextual narrative.


In extending the museum/university partnership beyond the IT component to include Art Education faculty and students, the collaboration grows in depth through the various layers that the different content areas and viewpoints add to the partnership. Expansion of new projects and the addition of even more content area experts and students will also increase the number of beneficiaries of this endeavor. The partnership has not been without its share of problems and frustrations, it seems almost inevitable that differences of opinion will result with this many creative stakeholders involved. But this model for creating a museum/university partnership has been worthwhile for the museum educators who are learning to harness the power of the web, for the students who are learning to create real-world technology projects while working with actual clients, and for the faculty who are learning to transform their courses into exciting new learning environments that are more challenging and more educationally meaningful than ever before.


Bruce, B. C. (2000). The work of art in the age of digital reproduction. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44, 1, p. 66-71.

Robin, B., Jenkins, A., Howze, W., & O’Connor, K. (March, 2001). A museum-university partnership to develop web-based educational resources. Paper presented at the 2001 Museums and the Web Conference, Seattle, WA. [Available online:

Stafford, B. (1998). Educating digiterati, Art Bulletin, 79, 2, p. 214-216.

Wilson, B. (1997). The quiet evolution: Changing the face of arts education. J. Paul Getty Publications.