Teaching with Physical Objects in Digital Environments

Instructors from a wide range of disciplines teach with physical objects. There are many different learning styles that incorporate physicality or physical materials: embodied, tactile, and slow, to name a few. Tactile learning incorporates a number of the senses (touch, smell, and even taste), and therefore poses a unique challenge to replicate with digital tools, or via remote learning.

How do we teach about food online? What does it mean to think about the physical body when we are reduced to rectangles on a Zoom call? These are all difficult but important questions to consider as we endeavor to teach individuals with differing circumstances, needs and abilities.

So, where do I start?

  1. Think through the characteristics of object-based or tactile learning. How do these characteristics connect to your learning objectives? How might these characteristics be conveyed in a virtual space, while recognizing the loss of the tactile experience? For example, the Khan Academy produced this video entitled, “Listening to the Medieval Book,” that offers an auditory experience that normally accompanies in-person engagement with these materials.

  2. Create opportunities for close-looking or slow observation in synchronous and asynchronous settings. Participants and instructors might consider incorporating intentional silences into their meetings.
  3. Building trust is a crucial part of this practice, particularly in a virtual space, so fostering a safe and supportive community is key.
  4. Incorporating grounding moments and exercises not only invites your students and/or colleagues to re-engage with their physical body, but also helps to build community. Liz Schneider-Bateman, LICSW, Director of Counseling, offers these 5 Grounding/Body Based Exercises.
  5. Visit the Digital Resource Center’s website to determine what equipment is available for scanning and presenting materials.

Working with Collections

Although they by no means replicate the in-person experience of engaging with objects, online collections offer digital surrogates that may be useful within the context of your work. In the absence of physical materials, it is also incredibly useful to discuss the value and role of archival research in your discipline, and beyond. Please visit Macalester College Archives: Teaching with Collections to read further suggestions and contact Macalester’s archivist and special collections librarian.

Image resources are available on the Copyright & Digital Resources page of this website. Many museums also offer access to portions of their collections online.

As the Tactile-Learning in a Digital Environment Workshop recording demonstrates, faculty at Macalester have made use of Art Stories at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for example. In some cases, students can see images and 3-D models of objects, and write reflective posts or sample object labels from there. This page of the website offers more information about creating online exhibitions.

Additional Resources

Readings and further thoughts about object-based learning are also available on the Critical Digital Pedagogy website.

Duke University Libraries has also published this helpful research guide: “Teaching Materiality Online with the Rubenstein Library.”