The art of revamping AA100: 'Introduction to International Arts'

Graduate students, instructional designers, and original course author collaborate to develop an online course

Karly Etz explains the significance of objects in the Palmer Museum of Art. Credit: Stephanie Swindle Thomas / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Randy Ploog, the recently retired coordinator of international programs for the College of Arts and Architecture, developed AA100: Introduction to International Arts as the foundation course for the international arts minor, he did not anticipate that it would become a popular general education course. Then again, he also did not think that he would be shepherding it into a new online format as his last project before he retired.

“Initially, I was allowed a year and a half to develop the course, which incorporated all of the disciplines in the college,” noted Ploog. “I had to call upon colleagues and spend time researching how to make it work, after which I taught it for 15 years — two or three times each year, fall, spring, summer, and even a few years for Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP). Teaching it so many times helped because it was evolving so quickly that I was able to refine it throughout those years,” noted Ploog.

AA100 is a course that combines art history, music, theatre and architecture in a way that is accessible for non-majors. Not only does it satisfy a general education requirement, but it also provides students with a chance to engage with cultures around the world through art and design.

This semester's students are currently in the process of completing their final projects, in which they curate a tour based on a theme or region that intrigues them. Every other week during the semester, students submitted an artifact for their tour to help develop the skills they are learning in the course and helping them understand and appreciate another culture. Student progress and enthusiasm has made the first session of the revamped course a success. 

A screenshot from an AA100 Case Study on Aida and Italy Credit: Office of Digital Learning / Penn StateCreative Commons

“We had to offer the course this spring for the minor, so we had to accelerate our typical two-semester course-development process with one instructional designer and one faculty member, to a six-week process over the summer,” explained Kate Miffitt, associate director of the Office of Digital Learning. “I had the idea to take a collaborative approach and work with a team of graduate students and two instructional designers to smoothly translate the course into a new online format.”

Miffitt and Jessica Briskin, graduate assistant for the Office of Digital Learning, served as the instructional designers for the project and worked with three graduate students from three different disciplines: Karly Etz (art history), Valerie Flamini (music education), and Mahyar Hadighi (architecture), who served as the course authors. 

“This course was my first experience with online education,” said Karly Etz, whose dissertation research is on body art. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn something new, and it has been. Having taught in the classroom, it’s a whole new world when you are trying to connect with students you cannot see.”

Etz, Flamini and Hadighi worked together to structure the course around thematic elements, using Ploog’s teaching materials and recorded lectures as a starting point, to transform it by including multimedia elements and weekly online discussion boards. Etz and Flamini are currently co-teaching the course online, and it is going exceptionally well.  

"The AA100 course is an important one for a couple of reasons,” said Gary Chinn, assistant dean for digital learning. “From the perspective of our college, it's a great introduction to multiple disciplines at the general education level. The hope is that students discover an interest in and passion for art, music and architecture from around the world.

"In terms of how the course came about, it's also an important example of team-based online content development," Chinn added. "Including voices from all three disciplines is a challenge, and I think the team-based model worked well for representing the necessary diversity of knowledge."

A screenshot from an AA100 Case Study on Paris Credit: Office of Digital Learning / Penn StateCreative Commons

A recent extra-credit opportunity also engaged the students in making music. They recorded themselves on video or audio improvising on a real or virtual keyboard app playing the pentatonic scale with a Chinese Bianzhong Bell Orchestra, and had the option to share their recording with their classmates. Valerie Flamini, whose music education experience helped her encourage students to "speak music," realized that students who had never participated in music-making were initially hesitant and unsure if they could be successful.

“Music majors are ready to jump in and learn about music by doing music,” explained Flamini. “I have approached music learning for this course in the form of experiencing it as a listener and then giving the students the tools to learn how to speak the language of music. This gives them the ability to participate in experiencing music in different cultural settings and have meaningful discussions about the experience.”

She recognized that the students were taking initiative and using the terms and cultural themes to communicate about music and compare the different cases in the lessons. She finds music-making to be a useful tool when trying to make connections with others, particularly in the spirit of collaboration through cultural understanding. Similarly, the collaborative nature of the course development with the Office of Digital Learning has been a positive experience.  

Etz agreed. “Everyone wanted to make the course as accessible as possible so that whoever teaches it in the future can make it malleable. I’ve always wanted to integrate non-western art into my teaching, and this course has shown me that it is possible," said Etz. "It has given me the confidence to go forward and do this in the future.”

AA100 will be offered online during the summer sessions. To learn more about it and other Office of Digital Learning summer course offerings, visit:

Last Updated April 16, 2018