Pre-Sessional English and The New Normal: GSA Archives and Collections transition into online Learning and Teaching

The following blog has been written by Cat Doyle from The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) Archives and Collections. Cat uses a variety of haptic object-based learning approaches to engage art and design students and help them to see how archive collections may benefit their creative practice. Her blog post outlines how some of these activities are delivered in collaboration with GSA’s Pre-Sessional English programme each year, as well as how they have been adapted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you would like to get in touch with Cat, please email her at

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. A key part of this is developing the students critical written and verbal communication skills.

Through a collaboration which began in 2017, myself and the Pre-Sessional English tutors have found that object-based learning is a very effective way of supporting these students in their development of English language skills, crucial for a fulfilling student career at GSA.

The Past: “Live” Object Based Learning 

In previous years, Pre-Sessional English students were welcomed to the Archives and Collections for a two-hour session. This would begin with an icebreaker exercise to get students thinking about their own experiences of archives and museum objects. We would then discuss definitions of archives and museum objects, the types of material that we hold at GSA Archives and Collections and the different resources that we offer for students to engage with.  

In the second hour, students would be shown a diverse selection of different objects from our collection. They would be split into groups and tasked with selecting and analysing an object in English using notes, sketches, photographs, verbal communication and physical touch. The intention behind this is for the students to collaboratively construct meaning around their object and practise their English in an authentic context. Myself and the student’s tutors normally move around the pairs at this point, framing questions for the students and assisting with English grammar and spelling. Later returning to their studio practice, the students use the knowledge they have contracted in class to develop a creative outcome.

The New Normal: Digital Object Based Learning 

Like many Higher Education courses in 2020, this course suddenly found itself having to adapt to the digital realm. Instead of having a live lecture, a series of presentation videos were made 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.   

Possibly the most challenging aspect was how to do an Object Based Learning exercise without access to physical objects. Luckily, a great deal of our collection is currently being digitised, so we had a wealth of good quality images to facilitate this. The students watched a video in which I gave them a demonstration of how to approach a digital object analysis. They were then asked to pair up online, select photographs of an object and work together to analyse these using the same object-based learning prompt questions that they would in a “live” session. They then had to collaborate on a digital presentation which they delivered for myself and their tutors on Zoom the following day.

So…did it work? 

Despite apprehension about delivering this class online for the first time, it resulted in many unforeseen benefits. In previous years, learning was crammed into a two-hour session, while the new asynchronous digital model allowed students to work through each section at their own pace. This appeared to make them noticeably more focused. Capturing learning using the Padlet activities has also demonstrated student understanding more clearly and given us the opportunity for more effective evaluation. Using high quality digital images had the advantage of uncovering details that it may not be possible to see with the naked eye. For example, one student was given an animal skin and was able to identify marks from the creature’s skeleton!

However, one downside of the digital approach was that some students expressed frustration at not being able to physically engage with the objects. The session also fostered a feeling of curiosity about the “real archives” with many students asking if they could visit in person.

Next Steps

Despite the benefits outlined above, I am not suggesting that digital object-based learning should replace the traditional approach. 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 such sources for inspiration for their creative projects (Cook, 2010). Furthermore, it has been proven that individuals retain more information through haptic, multisensory learning than through observation alone (Willcocks, 2015, Gallace & Spence, 2008). 

Instead, I would argue that this experience has shown us that there is value in a hybrid model of online and traditional learning and teaching methods at GSA Archives and Collections. This would allow students to build an understanding of the theory in their own time and give them the space to engage fully with the physical objects in a live session.  


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. 

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). 


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