Let's Play: An Arts-Based Approach by Dr. Selia Karsten

In my teaching and educational research, I find that an arts-based approach to teaching post-secondary computer-related courses has a beneficial effect on learners. In this paper, I look at the elements of story-telling, drama and art related to student projects created in a constructivist environment. These projects are student-centred and based on the interests and experiences of the learners.

Two of my courses in the School of Marketing and eBusiness (this site was created by students in the eCommerce course last spring) at Seneca College ( Computer Applications ; Essentials of e-Commerce ) are delivered mixed mode with computer lab and online components. The third (also at Seneca is an online course ( Web-Based Learning ) for educators and trainers whose goals are to design curriculum using technology.

I plan to use the same arts-based approach for an online course (Enhancing Holistic Learning with Computer Technology) that I will deliver for the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/ University of Toronto in winter 2002.

Arts-Based Approach

Arts-based activities such as stories, drawings, dialogue, collage, painting, split text, and dance/performance are forms for constructing and interpreting how we can experience or "know" our experience. (Diamond, 1999) The term "arts-based" is used for a range of activities related to the arts. For this discussion, the focus is on the elements of storytelling, drama and art as they stimulate creativity and self-confidence while learning new computer skills.

Storytelling is an important part of creating effective presentations and web pages. Drama is an underlying influence in preparing such projects. Art is another essential. Students are encouraged to go beyond clip art and to work with their own photographs and drawings. As they learn to create presentations (using Microsoft Power Point) and web pages (using HTML and Netscape Composer), the desire for originality in expression increases and web page projects frequently display original work such as personal stories, poetry, photography and art.


In the Computer Applications and eCommerce courses the primary objective is to help marketing students use computer applications in a creative and comfortable manner. Design choices and the use of various elements (layout, fonts, graphics, colours, etc.) are important factors. The same applies to educators who take the Web-Based Learning course. The technique of getting students to use familiar content (their life stories and career interests) while making new discoveries about using the computer serves to dispel fears of technology and engages students in a form of self-actualization. Students tend to become so involved in the projects that they are motivated to learn whatever software is available in order to complete the work to their satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi defined creativity as a process by which a symbolic domain in the culture is changed. He spent thirty years researching the creative process and wrote, "if the next generation is to face the future with zest and self-confidence, we must educate them to be original as well as competent." (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996) The first opportunity students have for being creative is in the selection of topics for their presentations and web page projects. Sports, entertainment, music, fashion, family and career goals are popular themes for marketing students; educators tend to choose hobbies and curriculum related ideas. I am not looking for great art in my classroom be it the virtual classroom or in the computer lab. What I am hoping to do is to engender the creative spirit.

"Over the centuries we have created the concept that artistic creation is the responsibility of a few gifted individuals. In so doing, we have denied the majority of individuals, within our urban and technologically advanced society their birthrights: that, as a human being, everyone has the right to make his of her own 'unique creative thumbprint' - one that no one else could make. We all have a need to make this 'mark', not because we necessarily wish to be the reminders to a future generation of long-lost culture but because each creative mark reaffirms self. It says 'I am here, I have something to express'. " (Warren, 1993)


One of the first activities in my courses involves telling a story to better understand how good storytelling is fundamental to effective presentations and web pages. In the web-based learning course, I encourage teachers and trainers to tell a "teaching story". The stories are told in an online Forum. Students learn to use the courseware BlackBoard early in the course. This gives participants another way of getting to know each other. The projects are all, to some extent, illuminations of the learners' on-going stories. When the presentations of assignments and projects are given and personal stories are shared, a sense of self is elaborated.

"Storytelling is one of the first ways we develop an awareness of others and of ourselves as spectators." (Booth, 1994) Jo Salas whose Playback Theatre work centers on stories finds, "From the telling of our stories comes our sense of identity, and our place in the world, and our compass of the world itself". (Salas, 1993) The act of creating stories to tell has a great deal to do with how we see ourselves according to Dr. Roger Schank of Northwestern University who uses computer generated story simulations in order to train people. "We define ourselves through our own stories, but through teaching (and preaching); we also define ourselves through the stories of others. Many people who are good storytellers know how to take advantage of this basic human need to define oneself through the stories other people live." (Schank, 1990)


Drama is an aspect of learning beyond merely standing up in front of a class to show a series of slides or web pages to an audience of peers. Communication happens on all performance levels; attitudes are shown whether in the lab or when projects are presented to classmates online. If we are in the lab, the work appears on a screen on the classroom wall. If we are online, the work is posted and the student tells classmates about it in discussion forums. Because of the nature of the projects (self-reflecting), the work is a form of personal drama played out on the computer stage. We learn about each others' lives in many respects.

Through the activities of the courses, students are learning to work with computer software programs, they are developing performance skills, working to solve a variety of problems in imaginative ways, and all the while, success is building confidence. For an in depth interpretation of "computers as theatre" see the work of Brenda Laurel . (Laurel, 1993) Try thinking of the computer monitor as a small stage on which to perform stories. The drama of the learner's life is told in text and graphics and hyperlinks in preparation for the adventures ahead and on reflection of stories and achievements from the past. For those who go into the realm of imagined lives, the projects become a form of mask and students may create new identities behind which to perform.


The computer courses provide opportunities for artwork - students create their own visual displays. The framing of the work, the layout and design are further forms of self-expression intended to communicate. They create illustrations of the stories. Drama historian, Ronald Harwood observes that "cave paintings of early man were not just a form of narrative art but in themselves part of a magic ritual" (Harwood, 1984) Students put their stories on the modern equivalent of the cave wall.

Artist and educator, Robert Marchessault , in his discussion on commitment to art education tells us, "The kind of thinking required to discover artistic solutions is often extremely useful in all cognitive processes." (Marchessault, 1997) The criteria used for evaluation of projects takes this idea into consideration - for example - extra points may be gained for finding creative solutions beyond the basic requirements.


This discussion highlights arts-based themes that emerge from the creation and delivery of computer related courses (with or without online components) This holistic, arts-based approach will hopefully inspire educators to experiment with such an approach - to use projects that employ storytelling, drama and art, to invite learners to take part in their own learning in a constructivist learning environment.

By using computer applications and the World Wide Web learners can collaborate in order to acquire needed skills through which to express their stories. The professor becomes the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". Course projects may graduate from simple storytelling activities then translate into increasingly more complex presentations and elaborate web page portfolios. These computer-generated forms of communication demonstrate a level of performance and exhibition of skills and expertise to be evaluated by learners and their peers. Evaluation guidelines can be generated in discussions about criteria for the projects.

I have come to believe that possibly the most beneficial aspect of an arts-based approach to the teaching and learning of technology-related courses is in the self-affirming aspects of this approach. It is extremely gratifying to observe learners (this includes marketing students and teachers who take the online course) demonstrating a definitive gain in self-confidence by the end of the courses.

In a survey of success stories regarding digital projects in education, Kahn and Coburn write that "telling personal stories with help from multimedia is a powerful and deeply satisfying way for teachers and students to communicate, learn and grow." (Kahn, 1998)  Richard Selzer, trying to make sense of the proliferation of personal web pages declared that this medium could serve as a hall of fame for the individuality and creativity of all students, heralding the special efforts and accomplishments of students and teachers. (Seltzer, 1995) There may be many benefits to this integration of arts-based activities with computer applications and the World Wide  Web. I anticipate further research will indicate that using holistic and arts-based approaches while integrating computer applications is beneficial across the curriculum to all concerned.  (Karsten 1999) "Play" integrating story, drama and art shows that students can have fun learning; the risks pay off in honest reflection and gains in individual and collective knowledge.

The following are URLs leading to the three courses (winter 2001 versions) on which these ideas are based. At these sites you will find learning materials, resources and student projects. There is also a draft welcome site for the course being built for OISE/UT winter 2002. I look forward to your comments. Please note that students who have graduated no longer have active accounts on the college server (learn.senecac.on.ca) so not all projects will have working links.

e-mail Dr. Selia Karsten - also - please visit my domain: astralsite.com

http://people.senecac.on.ca/selia.karsten/MRK/333w2001.html (Computer Applications)

http://people.senecac.on.ca/selia.karsten/EC/610w2001.html (Essentials of eCommerce)

http://people.senecac.on.ca/selia.karsten/CTC/203w2001.html (Web-Based Learning)

Enhancing Holistic Learning with Computer Technology - draft welcome available


October 2001