An alternative to the undergraduate research paper: Online Exhibitions with ArtSteps

The release of a public version of OpenAI’s generative AI platform, Chat GPT, at the end of last year has prompted undergraduate educators to rethink the viability of the standard research paper as an assessment of student learning. Examples of the chatbot producing poetry, short stories, and even code with a fair degree of readability made their way through the internet. Enterprising college students posted videos and clips of Chat GPT doing their homework and even writing long essays for them. This has catalyzed departments across the university system to address the implications of this AI engine’s inevitable effect on how students are evaluated in the classroom.

While clever essay prompts might make using these AI platforms difficult, addressing the issue by designing an assignment that is iterative and promotes originality may be a more sustainable option in the long run. A successful alternative to the research paper that I’ve used in the past for my undergraduate classes is to have students design a museum exhibition. Although this is a natural project for students in an art history classroom, it can also work well for subjects where visual, material, or textual culture is used as a primary source (ex. history, archaeology, and literature classes). In this post I’d like to introduce a free and easy to use online tool called ArtSteps that can be leveraged in any classroom to build engaging virtual exhibitions.

The beauty of ArtSteps, and its suitability for an undergraduate project, is that it is easy to use right out of the box. In five steps, you can have an exhibition online and available to the public. After creating a free account, you are prompted to “define your space.” Here you can use preset templates (some are free, though most must be purchased). However, I would recommend building your own 3D space because it is quite easy and you can tailor it to suit the flow of your exhibition’s pacing and objects. The two construction tools available are building walls and building doors. You simply select a tool, click your mouse (which will appear as a trowel in the virtual space) and drag to build a wall. After you’ve created your walls, select the door tool to open pathways within your built space. One drawback is that you can only create straight walls and the doorways are only one size.

Screenshot of the door construction tool in use.

Next, you will design your space. There are two things to note about navigating the VR space at this stage. The default view is an aerial perspective, called “orbit camera.” You can switch between three different views by clicking on the icons at the top right which self-identify and self-explain when you hover over each. The most useful is the “first-person camera” which allows you to see what your space looks like from the vantage point of an individual inside. To see what your space looks like, place the “START” icon within your built environment and then click the “first-person camera” which will give you the perspective of an individual standing wherever you located the “START” icon. You can navigate the space using your keyboard or a mouse/ trackpad. I would recommend using a mouse because the trackpad on my laptop was just not as responsive with this software.

Orbit camera’s view in the ArtSteps environment showing the alignment of a wall text, the “START” icon in the center of the first gallery, and the information that pops up when you hover your mouse over the “First-person Camera” view icon.

Now the design of your space can be quite simple with present themes like “White Cube” which will paint all of your walls white, and cover your floors with a beige wood panel. Or, you can upload your own texture files and create patterned walls or floors with an image file of your choice. Playing around at the design stage can be very rewarding as the space will take on different atmospheres based on the color and texture scheme you select.

The texture tool can be used to create a wall paper design on any wall.

The third step is to populate your gallery with your images, objects, audio files, videos, texts, and 3D objects which are called Artifacts in ArtSteps. Click “Add image” and you can upload files from your computer, paste a url, or search for an image on Flickr. You can also add metadata such as titles, descriptions, height and width, and tags to each artifact. In my assignments, the descriptions are what the object labels are in a real museum. Objects are clickable and the accompanying metadata will be displayed in a popup window. The text artifacts work well as wall labels and exhibition introduction texts. You can also display objects in display cases, as well as adjust the size of your objects or display cases to fit into your virtual space. In literature classes, for example, students might use manuscripts of texts studied in a class into their exhibitions.

Inputting metadata and contextual information relating to artifacts in the ArtSteps environment.

Now that your exhibition is set up, you can then plan a guided tour. This step allows you to take your visitor through the exhibition in a set path with text or audio prompts. Again, the simple interface allows users to quickly create a tour through their virtual space. But, without a lot of options, tours are quite linear and straightforward. For an undergraduate project, this is not a bad thing. In fact, I have found that other online storytelling tools that offer many more features distract students from the content of their exhibition, and they end up spending much more time fidgeting with the software rather than engaging in research or thoughtfully conceptualizing their exhibition. Once this step is complete, you are ready to publish and share your work with a static link (some examples  here, here, and here).

First three steps of a guided tour in the ArtSteps environment. A preview of the third stop can be seen in the upper right hand corner inset.

As the barrier to entry is so low, students are less intimidated by the software and end up feeling more in control of the project and more invested in the outcome. Assigning exhibitions in lieu of research papers requires a bit more time spent on explaining and developing these projects throughout the semester. This is because the structure of an exhibition is different from that of a research paper. For example, the supporting arguments of an exhibition’s main thesis can often be in the juxtaposition of objects that highlight connections which may otherwise go unnoticed. In this way, having students create multiple iterations of their exhibitions over the semester helps them see and create those discussions for themselves. 

For educators who are looking for assignments that can address the reality of generative AI platforms in our classrooms, I would suggest looking into virtual exhibitions with ArtSteps.

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