Distance Education Course to Explore African
And African American Art
When Dr. Grace Hampton took a sabbatical leave to research university-based art education and traditional art in Nigeria and Ghana, she regarded the opportunity as a means to emotionally and spiritually renew herself after holding academic administrative posts at Penn State University for much of the 1990s.
Not only did Hampton get recharged in West Africa, but she also found the inspiration to develop what may be the first ever distance education course to be taught jointly by Africa-based and America-based scholars.
Beginning in spring 2003, Penn State and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana plan to offer “Branches of the Same Tree,” a Web-based course on African and African American art to students on a worldwide basis.
Hampton says the course is being developed as a multimedia experience that examines both visual and performing arts. The instruction will be geared towards tracing and learning about the distinctly African elements featured in contemporary African American art and traditional West African art.
“Twentieth century African American art has its roots in West African visual traditions. We want our students to understand the social, political and cultural environment that gave rise to African American artistic expression and for Ghanaian students to make the link between their art forms and ours,” says Hampton, professor of art and art education at Penn State.
In developing the course, Hampton’s Ghanaian colleagues will focus on the history and culture of traditional West African art while the Penn State faculty will concentrate on contemporary expressions in the United States. In addition to course sections taught by faculty from both institutions and team projects combining students in both locations, the Web-based program will foster faculty and student exchanges, and faculty and student research.
“Art is the perfect vehicle for communicating the history, culture and values of a people,” says Hampton. “The overall goal of the course is to increase the ability of students in Ghana, at Penn State and at other institutions to understand and appreciate their cultural differences and similarities through an examination of West African and African American arts.”
Hampton, who currently teaches a course entitled “The African American Legacy and Traditions In the Visual Arts,” notes that while the course idea originated in her arts research it was the discovery of distance education facilities and information technology on the KNUST campus that led her to consider the possibility of making it into a Web-based course.
A World Bank-sponsored program known as the African Virtual University, had already equipped KNUST with the resources and information technology necessary for KNUST to develop its own distance education courses and to provide online instruction for students. Since 1997, the African Virtual University has provided online instruction to students and professionals in 15 African nations. More than 12,000 students have completed semester-long courses in engineering and in the sciences.
“I saw these wonderful resources, and I knew the research could be developed into an online academic experience,” Hampton says.
This past January, KNUST vice chancellor John S.K. Ayim and Professor Keshkaw Singh, the campus coordinator of the World Bank’s African Virtual University Project at KNUST, visited Penn State and met with school officials to further negotiate course arrangements. Hampton estimates that overall course development costs will range from $250,000 to $300,000, a sum considered to be expensive for an average public university online course.
“Faculty and administrators here at Penn State have been quite supportive,” Hampton says. “I think there’s a recognition that the (Penn State) students, who are overwhelmingly White, need and can benefit from exposure to modern Africa.”
William Kelly, an associate professor of theater and head of the department of Integrative Arts at Penn State, says he welcomes the opportunity to help Hampton develop “Branches of the Same Tree” because the course material will help students better understand African art and its ongoing impact on world culture.
“We have some understanding of the African influences in American culture, but we’re not so much aware of the impact the African American influence has when it crosses over to Africa and the rest of the world,” Kelly says.
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