When You View the Sistine Chapel, Where Does Your Eye Go? An Art History Class Used Digital Tools to Find Out

When You View the Sistine Chapel, Where Does Your Eye Go? An Art History Class Used Digital Tools to Find Out

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of essays by Duke faculty members whose normal fall 2020 class routines were disrupted by the pandemic. These essays will examine how faculty adapted.

When I started the fall semester, I was very worried about teaching my art history class, Virtual Museums (ARTHIST 305) — which usually has several digital lab activities — entirely online.

The enrollment was high, with 20 students from five different time zones stretching from Oregon to China and Singapore. This class was particularly focused on the impact of the COVID19 era on museums and cultural institutions, so we had the chance to reflect about cultural social challenges in class and in relation to a new and still unexplored topic.

My strategy of teaching was different from the usual face-to-face and it demonstrated that there is an enormous and uncharted potential in online teaching and research and my students did a fantastic job because of this new challenge. What’s new?

I brought in guest lecturers David Zielinski from Duke’s Art, Art History and Visual Studies department and Julia McHugh from the Nasher Museum of Art, and utilized tutorials on gaming, virtual collaborative environments and fresh case studies; one example was new online exhibits at the Nasher and in international museums. In fact, because of the COVID19, many museums extended their presence online and created new virtual exhibits, experimenting new forms of digital communication.

I introduced the systematic use of mind maps for the classification of online museums. Also, for the first time we used webcam eye-tracking systems for the evaluation of virtual museums’ design, interface, narrative, graphics and so on. The webcam eye tracking is a very sophisticated tool and it collects more objective information about cognitive impact, mind focus and more. For example, in a video sequence or in a single artifact, the visual exploration by eye-tracking can reveal our mind behavior, perhaps not consistent with our verbal interpretation. Also, it can explain how we explore a web site or a 3D space. Here’s one example showing how a person looks at the Sistine Chapel:

Every time I launched a new experiment using webcams with eye tracking, we had very stimulating discussions and follow-up during class time and after. Also, we used faster systems of communication like Microsoft Teams for facilitating the work in team. This let me stay in touch with the students almost all day.

The fully online format prompted a higher participation level with more discussions and engagement; in fact, online meetings, focus groups, collaborative teams and working groups went very well — even though some of our international students had to long into class at odd hours, sometimes in the middle of the night.

The lack of digital labs (which in the past were the core of this class) surprisingly pushed the students to be more creative and innovative and, in fact, they invented very clever projects just using online resources. They experimented with gaming, virtual reality, collaborative virtual galleries, web sites and new forms of digital media. One student created a virtual museum tour; another fully digitized a World War I textbook that is now available online, other teams created collaborative virtual reality galleries and more. We also adopted new classification and evaluation systems for virtual museums: mind maps, eye-tracking, digital media analysis. This approach will open new perspectives in the museums job market and beyond.

These results show again the relevance of cross-disciplinary learning and the potential of online classes, perhaps underestimated in the past. I think that this format could be extended in the future to a broader audience, for instance for international courses with a higher number of students in synchronous and asynchronous sessions.

I am proud to say that this was one of my best classes since I moved to Duke in 2013: it started as a challenge, it became a successful story. At the end of the semester we collected some of the students’ projects in a virtual exhibit edited by Raquel Salvaterra de Prada, a professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies. You can view that here: https://sites.duke.edu/fall2020exhibition/

Maurizio Forte is the William and Sue Gross Professor of Classical Studies and Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. He is also the founder of the DIG@Lab (for a digital knowledge of the past) at Duke.