A Case for Wide Access: Developing Art Education Web Projects for Everyone

NAEA 1999 Convention, Washington, D.C.
Public Policy & Arts Administration

© 1999 June Julian

Introduction

To begin, I'd like to define my use of the terms "wide access" and "everyone" in relation to designing online art education projects, and to situate this report within the frame of reference of my own particular research on this topic. Here, "wide access" to a Web project in a non school setting assumes the availability of appropriate hardware and software, and certain design considerations within the project itself that make it accessible to the largest possible audience. Since the Web standard is English HTML, it presumes localized solutions to language and software translations as necessary, and the hardware modifications necessary to meet the requirements of special needs users.

I use the term, "everyone" as a hyperbole for an optimum condition for my objective of inclusiveness, already realizing, of course, the idealism in such a claim. Yet, in casting my net wide, I have not been disappointed. Using aesthetic inquiry as my method of research, I have examined early Internet ecology art projects and have identified 6 points for development. Then, in 1996, I launched a new online project as a metacritique of them. This research has shown me that to best utilize the huge embrace of the Web to form an inclusive community of learners in non-school based art education necessitates deliberate design considerations from the start based on the following 6 points: 1. Participation, 2. Interaction, 3. Content, 4. Promotion, 5. Information Collection & Distribution, and 6. Evaluation. I will illustrate each category with examples from my own project and from other Web sites. Although the main context for my observations continues to be my online study, A World Community of Old Trees," http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/ and I use it to illustrate some of the points, my observations would easily transfer to collaborative Web projects on any theme.

Participation

I suggest adopting of the postmodern attitude, where the readers are invited to write the text, or in this case, Web page, according to the the project theme. The following is a partial list of people from around the world who contributed their strengths and interests to the my project.
-tree lovers of all ages from kindergarten to self described elders
-the physically disabled and bedridden
-film makers
-tree activists
-photographers
-global K-12 , undergraduate & graduate students
-practicing studio artists
-secretaries
-librarians
-mourners seeking tree memorials
-authors
-astrophysicists
-educational software producers
-conservationists/preservationists
-university professors & researchers
-people searching for lost relatives in Eastern Europe
-dendrochronologists
-physicians

Here are some specific examples:

Marrchila Class Elementary School, Darwin N. Territory Australia
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/home.html

Rick Thomas, Wildlife Inventory Training Coordinator, Vancouver, B.C.
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/arbutus.html

Washington Edison School, Sherman, TX
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/edison.html

Nancy Schneider, Photographer, New York, NY
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/schneider.html

Celia Freese, Elderhosteler & teacher, MI
http://www.nyu.edu/projects//julian/elder.html

Willie, Albert Lowry High School, Winnemucca, NV
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/willie.html

Craig Brown, Graduate Student, Ohio State University
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/brown.html

Philippe Lejeune, Painter, Cape Cod, MA
http://www.vse.cape.com/~lejeune/

Viktoria & Gintare, 6th Grade, Silute, Lithuania
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/v&g.html

Peggy Hansen, Tucson, AZ
http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/tucson.html

I found that to encourage inclusiveness, it is best to be clear on your intent and implement it with a Call for Participation that is global, intergenerational, and targeted to both individuals and groups. Send it out via e-mail and the Web as well as through conventional print media, before the project begins and also while it is in progress. My research has shown that repeated Calls get results and in my case, "Trees, Please!" and other gimmicky phrases in the e-mail subject line got more response than more conventional invitation language. Also remember to consider the time frame of your project as it will be effected by geographical differences in season, cultural holidays, academic calendars, etc. around the world.

Interaction

To optimize interaction within the thematic parameters of the project and to encourage interaction among project participants themselves, it is advantageous to provide opportunities for the exchange of material in many diverse modes, such as text, imagery, multimedia or even actual artifacts. In "A World Community of Old Trees", for example, both artists and non-artists alike could send comments on online forms, contribute their unique art works as well as interact with material already on the site.

In several cases, graphics files were sent in response to preexisting images, or were, in fact, computer manipulation of existing project art. My favorite example of this scenario, is Josh's page in "A World Community of Old Trees" This eighteen year old high school senior, embedded his own interactive space within the project inviting the world to respond to his imagery in his "Tree Chaos Series." The interaction he received was multiple and varied. An NYU doctoral student responded by manipulating one of his "Tree Chaos" pictorial icons with PhotoShop. An eight year old girl from Toronto sent in a sound file of herself singing, "I am a tree", and a bedridden disabled woman in the Pacific Northwest manipulated one of his tree images in four separate computer graphic images. http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/josh.html

Content

To maximize the potential for the open interpretation of thematic content, it is necessary from the start to encourage inclusive and flexible thinking about the project's conceptual basis. One way that worked was to embed several varied demo pages initially on the site. I began my project with scanned paintings of trees, computer graphic tree images, text about trees, including participatory annotated bibliography and URL lists, a multimedia video demo, and outside links to old tree sites. This seemed enough to prime the pump for many spirited contributions in diverse modes from artists and non artists from around the world. Because their was no prevailing metanarrative, encouraging open interpretation of subject matter brought unexpected results. For example, I received a very old "family" tree, a tree poem and image made with number symbols (Freese), and an embedded project about the proposed exchange of actual soil (& seedlings from old tree seeds) from every state in the union, among others.

Promotion

Of all of the points observed, none is more critical to the success of the online project than promotion. Any project will sit silently on its host server unless it is vigorously and aggressively promoted. From the start, identify diverse audiences and compose invitations that highlight those aspects of the project that are of special interest to them. You may distribute your promotion material via e-mail and listservs, on Web forms and complementary links, through traditional print media, or on a spot on the project site. I have found that engaging in determined, consistent and targeted promotion efforts quickly pays off. After a while, you can relax a little, and observe your project gathering a life of its own as it develops in real time.

Information Collection & Distribution

To provide for expedient information collection and distribution, accept all means of receiving materials from project participants. Make it known that content may be sent as standard e-mail text, URLs, or as e-mail attachments for graphics, documents, multimedia, and HTML. For optimum participation, include snail mail as an option for sending in material. Try to put the new materials on the site as soon as they come in, and quickly notify participants of their new URL. I've found that this approach always generates new response, and the chain of effect grows.

Evaluation

To provide for opportunities for open evaluation, I included online forms for e-mail, comments, http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/comments.html, and a survey, http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/ on the project site. You may wish to include a listserv or interactive archive. From my research, I have found that evaluation procedures on the Web can be as dynamic and alive as the medium itself, and allow for ongoing project modifications as appropriate. Each collaborative Web project is its own community and evaluation of it should derive from open conversation within that community. It can embrace clear criteria, goals, and standards, but its form may and should be as open to possibility as the project itself.

Conclusion

Operating at the metacritical level of aesthetic discourse, the tree project developed early Internet ecology art projects on 6 points: 1. Participation, 2. Interaction, 3. Content, 4. Promotion 5. Information Collection & Distribution, and 6. Evaluation. My research has convinced me that careful consideration those 6 points from the start is the key to a widely accessible, open Web project in the arts that everyone can enjoy.

Note: Plans are underway to launch "A World Community of Old Trees" Version 2.0. Please keep watching!


"Ecology Art Education On-Line: A World Community of Old Trees" / A Story of the Research http://www.nyu.edu/projects/julian/research_story.html

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Please send e-mail to: June Julian jj68@nyu.edu

© 1999 June Julian
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