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  • Amy Burvall

Plus ça change: Why Mobile Learning is the New Impressionism, Part II


Hopefully you have perused the intro to this blog series. Part II is about


(that is, the physical components and technologies that facilitated the Impressionist art movement and how they are analogous to what is going on now)


I. Paint Tubes

Perhaps most importantly was the invention of the portable metal paint tube – something of course we all take for granted now (Sweden even sells caviar in tubes!). Prior to the invention of such a tube by John Goffe Rand (patented in 1841), artists had to mix paints themselves with a number of chemicals and other ingredients and – more significantly – were tied to the space of their studio.

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Paints would simply dry out if they moved from the confines of the studio to the outdoors, for example. Some attempts were made at constructing portable containers- like pig bladders or syringes – but they had their faults (once you poke a hole in a pig bladder there is no going back). Taking their work outside “en plein air” changed the nature of the painting itself (more on that in the next posts). Artists could capture fleeting moments, like subtle changes in light and colour, or movements of ordinary people.

“Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism” – Auguste Renoir



I think it’s uncanny how similar this (seemingly) simple innovation is to handheld mobile smart devices:

1. Learners (including teachers!) are not bound to time or space. In fact we should be rethinking learning spaces all the time. With connected mobile devices learning can happen in the field or in the classroom – anytime, anywhere. This allows for more self-directed learning, critical thinking, relevance – you name it.  Just as the ability to interact with the natural environment changed the way in which artists worked, their technique, and subject matter, students now can collect real-time data (like the Impressionists’ “transient moments”).

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“The tube offered almost indefinite paint storage; there was no need to limit the amount of paint on hand. Now the painter could have all the paint he or she needed to complete a painting at their immediate disposal without fear it would spoil before it could be used. The painter was no longer limited to working on one small similarly colored area of a painting at a time. Now the painter could work anywhere on the painting’s surface at anytime, developing the whole painting at once.

In the words of Camille Pissarro,

‘Don’t paint bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere.’ “


Hmmm..“indefinite storage”? Well, that sounds familiar. Digital technology in general has eased our apprehensions about making mistakes or running out of physical storage space (think how many rooms your LP collection now located in iTunes or Spotify would be).

And what about the notion of truly connected learning...that we don’t learn in silos but need our curriculum to overlap, the subjects to dance together, and as one of my favourite TED talks quips, the ideas to “have sex”?

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disciplines dancing together

The quote above also mentions not being limited to working in one area at a time. This reminds me of how I leveraged student smartphones while in the physical classroom for:

a. media creation (like stop-motion films)

b. Twitter backchannel (while doing a socratic discussion or watching a film or TED talk)

c. archiving process (a bit like “paparazzi” of the classroom)

…in addition to the usually research/ connection to Internet.


2. There is a low barrier to entry to creation – both the Impressionists’ paint tube and any smartphone or tablet (not to mention wearable!) have an ease of access and simple user experience. What tedious paint mixing was to 19th century artists so were the tools necessary to create polished, professional quality work to 20th and early 21st century students. No one needs to be an “expert” anymore to  be a filmmaker, photographer or recording artist. Perhaps those things have lost some of their “specialness”, but I think the very ubiquity and ease allows us to be more free and frequent in our application of them.


low barrier to entry


II. Portable Easel and Palettes

Can we say “accessorize!”?

With portable paint tubes came the necessity for equally portable palettes and a collapsible easel one could easily lug outside. The quintessential painter’s wooden palette did not change much (aside from the types of paints it carried – more on that later). But having a truly handy dandy easel again allowed for “going on location” and studying reality rather than some synthetic experience in a building with consistent light and form.

Word has it Monet got down and dirty in his Waves at Manneporte as he and his easel got swept into the sea at one point…the sand is apparently evident in the paint!

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we are no longer chained to location

With mobile devices and field work our students can get messy and real…it’s experiential learning at its best. I once saw a pair of girls, for example, walking through the school parking lot taking photos and recording data about vehicle colour, make, and even plate digits for their statistics class –  they said it was a refreshing change from their stat book with hypothetical examples.


III. Brushes

Have you ever heard of a “ferrule”? Well, that is apparently the name of the flat metal bit familiar on most brushes attaching the hairs to the wooden shaft. But that wasn’t always the case – before its invention in the mid 1800s bristles were attached in a circular “clump” by thread bindings. Although one could trim and shape bristles to some extent, the paint application was still constrained by this circular shape. The ferrule allowed artists to flatten in in varying degrees and really customize the brush and what it could do. The brushes even led to the creation of different types of strokes (for “different folks”?).


This of course got me thinking about “personalized learning pathways”, differentiated and self-directed experiences and the like. Instead of a one-size-one-pace-fits-all curriculum students can use mobile devices to tailor their learning. I remember sending students all over campus to capture film footage with their phones for a certain digital storytelling project, for example…everyone had different themes and went to different locations, still keeping within a designated time constraint.

personalized palette

The “Personalized” Learning Palette

Moreover, there’s the whole McLuhan-esque notion (mentioned in the last post) about technology – and this particularly applies to personal mobile devices- as “extensions of ourselves”. We really do have to admit that we are all essentially cyborgs 1.0. That’s why banning cell phones in class or collecting them at the door is so detrimental to the relationships we have with students. For them- and indeed for most of us- our mobile phone is our external brain, our companion, our vade mecum, as mentioned in the preceding post.

(for more about Makeout Poetry in this video read this post)

Belittling a student’s bond to their phone is not going to help in the trust department. Yes there will be students who who try to abuse the privilege of using a smartphone in an academic setting, but they are better off being offered a myriad of productive ways to use it and challenging, compelling work to create and participate in.

My students, for example, took to creating a hashtag for their (frequent) oral presentations. Their peers would backchannel in class and some students incorporated that real-time feedback into their schtick.

* nota bene: This is precisely why I encourage BYOD rather than a class set of devices if possible, You can read more in this post. 



IV. Paint and Colour

Since we are talking about Impressionist painting, I suppose one of the most obvious pieces of “hardware” is …paint!

Surprisingly, colour pigments had remained unchanged since the Renaissance (only 2-3 pigments had been discovered/invented during the previous 300 years). Hmm…it sounds like when people talk about how classrooms and education seem almost identical to the industrial era (though I need to bring up Audrey Watters’ piece about this) …

Apparently only 15 of the 30 main pigments were used on a consistent basis because others were too pricey or toxic. This left a relatively pale, dull, muted palette. However, advances in chemistry during the Enlightenment led to the discovery of new elements (like chrome and cobalt) and the invention of more brightly hued, intense pigments. There were so many new colours added to the artist’s potential palette it was a true revolution. Synthetic ultramarine blue was astronomically cheaper, for example, than its naturally-occuring counterpart. Great news for the “poor artist” type.

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Since the appearance of impressionism, the official salons [exhibitions], which used to be brown, have become blue, green, and red.”

—Claude Monet, 1915

These new pigments were the catalyst of a new technique of painting, which we’ll explore in the next post. But in a nutshell, the opaque, vibrant nature of the new paints allowed for speed – and thus, capturing those beloved fleeting moments. Artists could focus on the bustling goings-on of the present rather than stagnant past. In Part III of this series we will examine the effect of these paints on colour theory and perception.

The connection to be made with education is that technology and science radically transformed a discipline (insert “art” or “education”). Like Plato’s Cave, once people saw the light (in this case, chrome yellow!) it was impossible to return to the dim. New pigments and materials, much like our adoption of the Internet, social media and mobile devices, resulted in an equally uncomfortable and exciting shift in thinking and behavior. What had worked for centuries simply would not do. And the people immersed in this new technology – the young Impressionists artists- were willing to go up against all odds, facing ridicule and disrespect by the established Academie – to acknowledge and celebrate this new reality. There were many growing pains, as we’ll confront in subsequent posts in this series, but in the end something “revolutionary” became ubiquitous and quite the status quo.

nota bene: Some of you versed in the history of this era will wonder why I have not included the influence of photography in this post. Rest assured, photography will have a special place in Part IV: Connection.

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