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Teaching and Learning

Innovators Awards 2010 Penn State University

An effort to facilitate the online submission of studio arts assignments developed into a full-blown web-based arts studio, complete with galleries, peer feedback, and rubrics-supported instructor evaluation.

Back in 2005, faculty and instructional designers in the e-Learning Institute at Penn State University’s College of Arts and Architecture sought a way to take advantage of two clear trends at their university: rising enrollments in online courses coupled with an increased popularity of online general arts courses.

Thus was born the Assignment Studio, a Drupal-based open source application that allows students to submit assignments for studio-based art instruction in a fully online course. If “studio-based” and “fully online” seem like contradictory terms to you, you are not alone. Project lead Keith Bailey and his e-learning team managers, Bryan Ollendyke, lead programmer, and Bill Rose, senior instructional designer, knew they had taken on a steep challenge.

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But their boldness paid off. Since 2005, the Assignment Studio has grown to be used in six online courses reaching more than 4,300 students. The e-learning team has constructed a virtual studio that mirrors the structure of physical studios, complete with galleries where students exhibit their artworks corresponding to class assignments, and where instructors provide embedded video demonstrations of technique.

But the enhancements made in the last year to the Assignment Studio have taken the project to new levels. Bailey proudly points to the creation of a genuine open studio experience where all the normal instructional modalities that occur in a studio course are supported—including submission of creative works, peer critiques, and instructor feedback—as well as the development of rubrics to support evaluation of student work.

“We had originally started the Assignment Studio concept purely as a means to submit assignments,” explains Bailey. “But as time progressed we began, in collaboration with our faculty, to re-conceptualize it as a virtual studio or open studio—a more open, interactive environment where students submit their own work, describe it, and then critique others. It’s a true studio environment that leverages standard web 2.0 technologies. And we can layer the rubric tool on top of a submitted assignment to help standardize on some of the repetition that is normally done in the evaluation of materials, so that instructors can ultimately spend much more of their time on custom feedback.”

The Assignment Studio, including its open studio functionalities and rubric tool, is built with the Drupal—now Drupal 6.0—open source content management system, running on an Apache web server with PHP 5+ and MySQL.

Bailey comments that designers at Penn State were able to correlate Drupal taxonomies with the vocabulary of studio art instruction, resulting in a more intuitive experience for faculty using the system. For example, in the visual arts, the program refers to “galleries” and to “exhibits” within galleries (students submit their work within gallery exhibits). “So, we can use terms that make the Assignment Studio more of a true studio environment,” Bailey says.

Bailey also notes that developing the Assignment Studio using open source technology has resulted in reduced dependence on learning management system (LMS) vendors and the prospects of a volatile LMS marketplace. “We have a core philosophy within our e-Learning Institute, which services the seven departments within the College of Arts and Architecture, that we keep content separate from the communication spaces or the LMS’s, so that we can protect ourselves. If those environments change, our material is still separate from those environments and we can transition much more quickly and easily.”

This open source environment, Bailey adds, has enabled faculty to be true partners in the course design process. “Drupal has allowed faculty to be more active participants in the construction of courses, speeding up time to completion. While we do have learning designers on staff working closely with faculty, the faculty empowerment has been big,” he notes. “We want faculty to be able to create more, and feel more independent. With the Assignment Studio they can, in a sense, construct the environment themselves.”

The Assignment Studio and Rubric modules can be downloaded at:

About the Authors

Meg Lloyd is a Northern California-based freelance writer.

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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