I asked Stephanie Boydell, curator at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections, what she thought the usefulness of object-based learning was, and here is what she said:
Object-based learning can engage students that may find formal teaching situations difficult. It offers a different way of teaching, and of learning, and uses different kinds of intelligence. Students can draw their own conclusions, can ‘discover’ answers, rather than just receive ideas from academics.
It can enrich course/lecture content, which is particularly useful if you are trying to attract new students!
The physicality of an object, seeing something in the flesh, so to speak, can be the only way to appreciate or understand form, texture and difference: for instance, how do you know the difference between a woodblock print and an etching if you haven’t seen these up close? This is particularly true for contextual and historical studies in Art & Design.
In our setting at MMU, it allows access to other professions, ie curators and archivists and different knowledge systems, and can offer students an insight and experience of how we work with artefacts. It is also outside the “classroom”, so can be more relaxed, and even privileged, as students can actually handle museum objects.
Students can develop key skills and learn new ones: such as how to observe, record, assess and analyse and question an object; it encourages critical thinking, and allows students to use prior knowledge and build confidence. When working in groups it builds on team working skills, communication, presenting, listening, learning from peers and confidence building, particularly as students can implement and pass on prior knowledge and be in a situation where all ideas are acceptable.
OBL can encourage discussion and debate: would a Chinese artefact be documented or interpreted differently in China? Why have a light fitting from Habitat in the collections when it is so readily available on the high street and has little monetary worth?
It can also inspire creativity: writing, new artworks, etc. This is hugely important for practical arts students, as the stages between encountering an object and developing your interaction and response into a design/application and how you justify and record them that are extremely important for makers, (and for assessors!).