Pre-Sessional English and The New Normal

In June, GSA Archives and Collections embarked on the (slightly daunting) task of adapting our teaching activities for the digital realm! The guinea pig for this transition was an Object Based Learning module which we run each year in collaboration with the Pre-Sessional English department. Our Archives and Collections Assistant Cat Doyle shares a reflective account of this below. 

For those that don’t know, GSA’s Pre-Sessional English Course for the Creative Disciplines is a language and study skills course for international students. It is designed to support them in their development and use of English, enabling them to participate more fully in the critical discussion which underpins GSA education.

Students would normally visit us to explore objects from our collection in detail to help them construct meaning, develop skills in primary and secondary research and practise English in an authentic context, before going on to produce a creative outcome. You can find blog posts about these activities from previous years here and here

The New Normal: Digital Object Based Learning

In the transformation into digital, the module consisted of a series of short presentation videos to introduce students to the course content. These were interspersed with bursts of activity for the students to work on autonomously or as part of a group. Students engaged in the activities using collaborative software tool Padlet, where they could post comments, links, images and videos relating to each activity for the whole group to see and comment on.

Similarly to the live sessions in previous years, the first activity that the students completed was to share their own experiences of archives and museums through a short written paragraph and any related images. They then engaged in the first video which broke down the definitions of “archives” and “museum objects” and the difference between the two, illustrated with examples from our collections. In the next activity, they were instructed to find an example of something that could be considered an archive object and something that could be considered a museum object in their own home and post pictures and descriptions of these on the Padlet. The second video then gave examples of how different creative practitioners had used archives and museum collections, as well as giving an overview of the resources available to the students at GSA Archives and Collections and other key things to consider when using archives in creative practice, such as copyright and crediting. The activity following this video was for the students to choose one of the examples of creative practitioners using archives and comment on why this example stood out to them.

Possibly the most challenging aspect of this translation to the digital was how to do an Object Based Learning exercise without physical objects. Luckily, a great deal of our collection is currently being professionally digitised so we had a wealth of good quality images to provide students with. The final video consisted of a demonstration example of a digital object analysis which guided the students through how to approach this exercise for themselves. The students were then asked to virtually pair up, select photographs of an object and work together to analyse these photographs using the same traditional Object Based Learning question prompts that they would be given in a “live” session. They were encouraged to discuss and use notes and sketches in English as far as they could manage. They then had to collaborate on a digital presentation which they delivered for myself and their Pre-Sessional English tutors in a “live class” using video conferencing software the following day. This also gave me the opportunity to answer any questions that they had about their objects or the Archives and Collections in general.

So…did it work?

Despite apprehension about delivering this class online for the first time, it resulted in many unforeseen benefits. In the “live” learning sessions delivered in previous years, learning was crammed into a two-hour session, which was quite a tight space of time to deliver the suite of learning activities that we intended to. However, the new digital model allowed the learning to be better paced, which appeared to make the students noticeably more focused on its core aspects. The Padlet activities also effectively captured their learning and allowed myself and the Pre-Sessional tutors to evaluate it. From the responses, it appeared that the students had a strong grasp of the learning concepts which we hadn’t been able to capture in the same way when running the class previously. I also got the impression that the online format of delivering the learning in small bite size chunks allowed the students to be more focused and they weren’t fatigued with information in the same way that can sometimes be evident in more traditional teaching settings.

The new learning format also lead to another significant benefit; increased number of student learning hours. In previous “live sessions” there was normally a class size of 23 students, each learning for 2 hours which equated to 46 student learning hours in total. In the new digital model, there were still 23 students but each one engaged in 5.5 hours of learning which meant that the total number of student learning hours in this case equated to 126.5 hours of learning. That’s more than double the output of learning hours for much less preparation input, considering that the same learning materials can be re-used in the same way next year.

The “live classes” also worked well as a platform for the students to present their ideas to us. The “share screen” functionality meant that everyone was able to see each person’s presentation clearly at once as opposed to a traditional setting where a large group of students are gathered round. The fact that the majority of the learning had taken place in the student’s own time also meant that we could give the entire focus of these live classes to the presenting students, rather than the focus being on us lecturing them. Again, I felt that this allowed us to evaluate the learning much more effectively than in the traditional setting, where the two-hour time constraint and large class size means that students don’t always get the same attention to presenting their ideas. Another useful tool was the “chat” functionality of the video conferencing software, which allowed a typed conversation during the live class. This meant students had a safe space to ask questions or for clarification, particularly with any words that they found difficult to understand.

Although some of the students expressed frustration at not being able to engage with the objects physically, the digital images had the advantage of allowing the students to zoom in and see details that it wouldn’t be possible to see with the naked eye. One student was given an animal skin on their object and was able to identify the marks of the animal bone by zooming in on the object closely. The session also fostered a feeling of curiosity and anticipation about the “real archives” amongst the students, with many of them asking “are we allowed to visit the archives in person?”. It will be interesting to see if this interest is sustained when more traditional learning environments resume.


As outlined in this report, it is clear that translating the learning to online delivery brought a number of significant benefits. However, I am not suggesting that this means it should replace traditional learning means. On the contrary, I would argue that there will never be a substitute for the haptic experience that engaging with real objects offers (Willcocks, 2017), particularly for art and design students who are used to interrogating sources for inspiration for their creative projects (Cook, 2010). Furthermore, individuals have been proven to retain more information through haptic, multisensory learning than observation alone, particularly art and design students who are more accustomed to recognising materials through touch (Willcocks, 2015, Gallace & Spence, 2008).

Instead, I would argue that this experience has taught us at GSA Archives and Collections that there is value in a hybrid model of online and traditional learning and teaching methods. This would allow the majority of the theoretical aspects to be delivered online and give students the space to loose themselves in the physical objects when they visit the Reading Room.


Cook, B, 2010, The Design Student Experience in the Museum from Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See, Ashgate, England, pp. 91–103.

Orr, S, Shreeve, A, 2017, Art and Design Pedagogy in Higher Education: Knowledge, Values and Ambiguity in the Creative Curriculum, Routledge

Willcocks, J, 2015, The Power of Concrete Experience: Museum Collections, Touch and Meaning Making from Art and Design pedagogy from Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education, Routledge, Taylor & Francis, London, p.43–56 (Accessed June 2019).

Willcocks, J, Barton, G, 2017, Object-Based Self-Enquiry: A Multi-and Trans-Disciplinary Pedagogy for Transformational Learning, Spark: UAL Creative Teaching and Learning Journal 2, p.229–24 (Accessed June 2019).

Willcocks, J, 2017, Presentation on Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection, (Accessed May 2019).