How it Begins
As an instructional designer one of my most important tasks is to hold an initial meeting with an instructor, or subject matter expert (SME). During that first opportunity to collaborate on an online course design project the conversation typically focuses on key course design elements. Commonly we discuss the broad approach to the course, anticipated assignments, narrated lecture needs, assessment, video production and support, the mechanics of the development process and more. Rarely does art come up in the conversation.
Now, that may seem obvious why art is not outwardly discussed. However in the first meeting we do address the topic of look and feel for the course, and images for course banners and any special subject matter art that may need to be displayed. So, visual images are addressed as a way of supporting the learning focus for the course. Finding images that are copyright free and support the general course topic are fairly easy to find in the more obvious online image repositories like Unsplash.com, Pixabay.com, and Pexels.com.
For courses with education, agriculture, forestry, medicine, and other more general themes finding usable images is pretty straight forward. If your institution also owns licensing for GettyImages.com, the largest stock image collection in the world, you have really nice access to images. Even so, sometimes we don’t have access to the right images for the right course.
In those cases I have found myself chasing down images or building visual metaphors using multiple images to create one image that communicates the theme, unique message, or topic of a given course. Scrambling to create images that support a course can be a challenge for instructional designers. We can do it, but it is not ideal.
For those courses where stock images are not helpful there is a need to re-imagine the image sourcing process. Key to this is recognizing two important factors that will influence your new thinking; 1)The need to find images that do not require copyright clearance or purchase and 2) the need to have images that reflect the unique theme required for the course. How might this be done?
Asking the Question
Sometimes the answer to finding the right image for a course is not about the image but the artist who made it. Every college community has dozens of artist who produce many pieces of art. Some might just be what you need for your course. If you found the right artist would you be willing to invite them to contribute their artistic creations to your course? Would you ask an artist to be part of your course design?
That question came up while working with a course instructor, Dr. Mark Edwards, on the development of his sociology course addressing welfare and social services in 2019. In addressing this issue we knew finding stock art for this topic would be difficult and perhaps inappropriate. During our discussion the instructor said he had seen some examples online of street art addressing homelessness that he though might fit the course. I asked him if he would be willing to reach out to the artist and ask him if we could get permission to use his art in the course. Dr. Edwards said yes.
To our surprise and delight the artist responded positively by granting written permission to use photographs of his art in the course (see Figure 1. below). The artist participated knowing the art would be used for this particular course and would be behind a password protected site in Canvas. We also agreed to credit his work and link back to his art source page.
Course Artist-in Residence
Asking an artist to share their work in this way may be a challenging ask on both ends of the question. We did not know what the outcome would be. Some artists vigorously and rightly protect their work. Some correctly want compensation. Some artists see their work differently and are willing to share their creative efforts in the right circumstance or to support the right cause. In this case, I felt it was best for the instructor to make the ask as he could best communicate how the art might dovetail with the outcomes of the course. So, in this sociology course example the ask worked.
In the summer of 2021 I collaborated again with Dr. Edwards. His new course was a graduate course on research methods in the public policy program. At our first meeting he shared that he had already been in discussion with a colleague in Equador who was a chef and artist. The instructor thought about using images from a series of bread baking images from the chef /photographer for the course. The course theme was organized around the analogy of baking bread as a way to explain the art and science of social research methods. We would use the images (see Figure 2. below) to spur and reinforce understanding about what students were learning.
With the development of this second course the concept of a course artist-in-residence became intentional. There are a number of benefits and also limits that come along with this approach to image sourcing and use (see Figure 3.).
Traditionally artist-in residence (AIR) programs are a way for artists to find a place and unfettered time to extend their creative efforts. There are hundreds of such art programs throughout the country and many can be found listed at the Artist Communities Alliance. A wide variety of artists are served by these program.
The Course AIR described here is quite different from traditional AIR programs. Where an AIR participant might create a piece of art as part of their AIR experience the Course AIR is intentionally sharing artistic creations within a course space to help foster the objectives of the course. Depending upon the level of integration of the art with the course activities the role of the Course AIR may vary from contributor to collaborator.
The role of an instructional designer in this process is to first assist the instructor in vetting art appropriate for the course. Secondly, the instructional designer helps shape the application or use of the art in the course then designs course pages to showcase and compliment the artist-course connection.
The Course AIR concept has been a happy accident that holds interesting potential. Art comes in various form and is experienced through various senses. What music, photographs, video, illustrations, or other types of art might be just right for your next online course?
Would a Course Artis-in-Residence contribute to achieving the course learning outcomes for a course you are developing? If our experience is any type of guide you will never know unless you ask the question and invite art into the online course design.
A special thanks to Dr. Mark Edwards for his work on the courses, willingness to make the ask, and support for this post. Thank you also to my colleague Chris Lindberg for his contributions to this post.