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Dr Sophie Hatchwell (University of Birmingham, Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies) & Dr Hannah Halliwell (University of Edinburgh, History of Art Department) discuss Adapting Object-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom

Object-based learning (OBL) is a form of active, multisensory learning practiced in many higher-education arts and humanities disciplines. Scholarship on OBL tends to focus on the educational use of museum collections (e.g. Paris, 2002; Boddington, Boys and Speight, 2016). However, with the Covid19 pandemic driving teaching online and continuing to prohibit physical access to such collections, we needed alternative approaches to OBL that would still engage students, enhance their understanding of their subjects, but that could be used within a virtual or hybrid teaching model (see Woodall, 2021; Irving, 2021). We look here at how to translate object-based learning into the virtual classroom by substituting objects from museum collections with everyday household items.

Why practice object-based learning?

  • OBL is a constructive method of learning centred on multi-sensory engagement. Students learn through engagement with objects relevant to their course; and then apply their newly-gleaned knowledge in other comparable contexts (Chatterjee and Hannan, 2016).
  • OBL meets learning outcomes relating to knowledge acquisition and skills development: students learn about objects/materials/process, then build their analytical skills through tactile interaction with objects.
  • OBL lends itself well to group work: scholarship demonstrates that OBL is ‘socially distributed'; it works through the ‘active participation’ of a group of peers (Rowe, 2002). Exploring different perspectives on objects means students are encouraged to consider alternative viewpoints and think critically about their own responses.
  • OBL in a group setting offers an inclusive experience. It presents opportunities for knowledge construction suitable for different learning styles, e.g. visual, kinaesthetic and auditory (Brewis and Clements, 2019).

Adapting object-based learning for the virtual classroom

Key Aims:

  • Maintain focus on tactile, multi-sensory engagement with objects, in line with learning outcomes.
  • Ensure tasks remain accessible to all students, respecting varying individual circumstances.

Our approach:

We integrated OBL into our online teaching by pairing an informative didactic lecture with a live online object-based seminar. The lecture and seminar were connected by an asynchronous group activity in which students were instructed to ‘make’ their own objects, using everyday household materials. We chose items we were confident each group as a whole would have access to (in our case, for an art history class, they were making art photographs and films using smart phones).

The lecture provided them with information about the process, materials and history of the sort of objects they would be making.
The asynchronous group activity provided the opportunity for groups to make their objects, supported by detailed written instruction and verbal guidance, communicated via our VLP.
The seminar then provided them with the opportunity to critically analyse and compare each groups’ object, shared via our Virtual Learning Platform (VLP).

These activities were then linked to a following seminar, in which students analysed and compared objects of the same nature, but produced by other makers (in our case, films and photographs made by artists over the last 40 years).


  • Linking the OBL seminar to other teaching sessions scaffolded the student’s knowledge and understanding.
  • It gave them the confidence to contribute fully to the task, and to appreciate the wider application and relevance of the skills and information they gleaned.
  • Group work meant that students had to discuss and debate the making process with each other, furthering their knowledge and understanding of different materials and processes.
  • Group work also allowed students to participate and contribute according to their individual strengths and skill sets. Even if one student had technical issues, other students in the group could offer support and the task could still be completed.

Student Feedback:

All students reported that they had the correct equipment at home to enable them to complete the task, demonstrating the feasibility of our approach. Student feedback showed that this task helped to improve both their knowledge of materials and processes, as well as their analytic skills:

  • 91% felt that making their own ‘objects’ improved their understanding of the materials and processes they were studying.
  • 85% reported that making their own work led them to feel more confident in their ability to analyse these sorts of objects in general.
  • Receiving a clear and detailed brief in advance was important for students’ understanding and confidence.
  • Occasional difficulty uploading work to the VLP means thought needs to be given to file-size.


  • Object-based learning can effectively improve students’ knowledge, understanding, and analysis skills, even when modified for the online environment.
  • Everyday household objects can, where appropriate, successfully be substituted for formal collections to enable object-based learning to happen in the virtual class room.
  • Object-based learning needs to be aligned to a module or course’s intended learning outcomes.
  • Requiring students to work in groups for object-based learning online encourages participation and inclusivity.
  • Students appreciate detailed instructions and the functionality of the VLP used to facilitate learning will be key to the success of this.
  • Object-based learning sessions work well when paired with other forms of teaching delivery, such as lectures and preparatory work.

Boddington, A. Boys, J. and Speight, C. Museums and Higher Education Working Together: Challenges and Opportunities, (London, Routledge).

Brewis, G; Clements, C; (2019) ‘Good practice case study: Diversifying the Curriculum and Engaging Students through Archives and Object Handling’. in The Inclusivity Gap ed. by K.Křčmář, (Edinburgh, Inspired by Learning).

Chatterjee, H.J. and Hannan, L. (2016), Engaging the senses: object-based learning in higher education (Surrey: Ashgate).

Irving, H. (2021), ‘Teaching with Objects in Lockdown’, Social History Society, [accessed June 2021].

Rowe, S. (2002), ‘The Role of Objects in Active, Distributed Meaning-making’ in Perspectives on Object-Centred Learning in Museums ed. by Scott G Paris (London, Taylor-Francis) pp.17-32.

Woodall, A. (2021) ‘Material Learning, Objects and Online Embodiments’ in Cultural Practices, [accessed July 2021].

Following the Covid19 pandemic, museums have investigated how best to use online and digital collections in learning and engagement, e.g. Show Museums and Heritage. Such scholarship provides a number of useful insights for HE practitioners.