Arts and Architecture

A beautiful escape: Heather McCune Bruhn’s online art history course

A photo of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, taken during Heather McCune Bruhn's most recent visit. She teaches the site in her course. Credit: Heather McCune Bruhn All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Whether a student takes an introductory art history course in a classroom or at a computer in an active battle zone, Heather McCune Bruhn, Penn State instructor in art history, wants the experience to be transformative.

“I have had students who are active military members in Afghanistan write to me and say, ‘This is the only thing that is beautiful in my day. This is my escape.’ That alone is a reason to do this,” explained Bruhn.

An early supporter of online education, Bruhn has been teaching courses in the College of Arts and Architecture e-learning Institute since 2009. Her courses, Art History 111 and Art History 112, both covering Western art, are general education offerings that feature slideshows of works of art with Bruhn lecturing over them. While her voice may seem disembodied, Bruhn ensures that her students understand that there is a person on the other end of the learning experience by introducing herself on video at the beginning of the course and sharing personal experiences about traveling and looking at art. 

“I want students to get to know me over the course of the semester, whether it is by sharing stories about my son or a trip to one of the places in the lecture,” she explained. “Although I have teaching assistants, I also grade a share of the assignments myself to engage with the students’ work.”

Bruhn understands students in her online courses may be juggling their coursework with full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Her grading system allows students to drop their two lowest quiz grades and gives opportunities for bonus points. Weekly quizzes serve as check-in points, giving students an idea of how they are doing throughout the course.

“Unfortunately, when you’re in an online course, it can be very easy to lose track and get behind,” she said. “Weekly quizzes keep students up-to-date with the material, ensuring that they don’t end up with a lot of cramming to do before an exam.”

Bruhn strives to replicate the classroom experience as closely as possible in her online format, which at times she teaches concurrently (by semester) with her in-person class. Using similar slideshow presentations and replacing in-course participation sections with discussion questions and exercises for the online students helps both groups engage with the material in similar ways.

“I teach many students from University Park and Commonwealth campuses who may take one course online and then take the other half of the survey in the classroom. I want that transition to be seamless for them,” said Bruhn.

Not only has Bruhn developed her own style of teaching, but she also has managed to work beyond the standard type of textbook learning. In fact, she forgoes an overarching textbook in her online courses because students around the world are not able to obtain the textbooks in a timely or cost-effective manner. Instead, Bruhn has created her own course materials with study image lists on the ArtSTOR website through the Penn State University Libraries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and primary source readings via Canvas, the new course organization software that Penn State adopted this year. 

“I really like Canvas. It is easy to use for grading and distributing timed assignments like quizzes and exams. They came up with a design that allows elements to be added and truly integrated into the course design,” Bruhn said.

Despite the challenges that accompany teaching about 150 online students and up to 240 classroom students each semester, and an additional 100 online students each summer, Bruhn enjoys introducing students to art history and mentoring her graduate student teaching assistants. As a graduate of the Penn State Department of Art History — she earned her master of arts in 1997 and doctorate in 2006 — and a former teaching assistant herself, Bruhn imparts the wisdom and knowledge that other faculty members gave her as a student.

“I have two main roles — providing students with a working vocabulary and set of tools to process and understand what they are seeing when they visit museums or monuments, and helping students gain visual literacy training. Medical schools now recommend students take art history courses because visual training leads to better diagnostics,” said Bruhn, a proponent of STEAM education. “However, this course, in its essence, is a way for people to become more culturally aware of the art of the past and of their surroundings.”

For more information, visit the e-learning website at

Heather McCune Bruhn gives a presentation about her online course at a conference in Spain. Credit: Heather McCune Bruhn All Rights Reserved.

Last Updated December 02, 2016