Thursday, February 26, 2009

CAA 2009 Session, Web 2.0 and Art History

The panel promised to be for those interested in Pedagogy and Technology, and upon reflection, I guess that is at face value what was delivered. I can't hide my disappointment that I was ready to hear fresh ideas, not reports of the trial and error variety. I confess that my expectations may have been set rather high knowing that smARThistory founders, Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, were on the docket. I am an unabashed fan of their site. I am inspired by their approach sharing conversations around works of art with the widest possible audience. It is a model that stood out clearly from the others.

Their presentation, unfortunately constrained by an overstuffed six-paper-panel, was limited to a quick overview of the development of the project. It was surely useful for those unfamiliar with the site, and I saw admiring heads nodding around the room of around 75 arts educators. But I was a bit frustrated not to pursue some of the particular pedagogical challenges that they face, like exactly why is the survey textbook not being read, and why is smARThistory a better road to travel. Sadly, the question and answer session featured misdirected queries like: "how do you stop plagiarism" and "what is a blog anyway?"

All in all, the presentation by the folks at smARThistory seemed to be the only one that really offered fresh thinking. Their focus on object-based analysis might just be what other members of the panel could introduce as a model in their own courses to better engage students with objects beyond wikis and the like.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Age Of The Ginormous Survey Textbook Is Finally Over?


Could it be that age of the ginormous survey textbook is finally over? Surely the signs have been mounting. Only the most tired-tenured-tethered-to-the-lectern bunch could have failed to notice how expensive textbooks have become. (More on this in part II of my posts on the survey text.) Across the board prices have skyrocketed often for hurried, uninspiring new editions, from Janson, Gardner, and Stokstad et al. More astonishing is the lack of foresight on the part of big book publishers when it comes to integrating technology and education. For many of us, the internet has been an indispensable part of academic life for years now and we have been left wanting new tools to marry our mastery of the Web 2.0 world, useful in countless ways in our personal lives, with our professional lives.

Once upon a CAA meeting, I was unlucky fortunate to be part of a focus group on web technology in the headquarters of big publisher. I was really looking forward to the event in the hopes of sneaking a peek at the next great thing, only to be underwhelmed with yet one more online database of images. The saddest note of the afternoon was struck at the end of the meeting when they paraded in one of their techies, obviously the youngest employee they could locate, who proudly displayed art images from their new database saved as (proprietary) flashcards on his iPod. This highlighted for me the true lack of understanding as to what students need, and more pointedly the lack of fresh ideas to see beyond the printed book. The publishers treat technology like add-ons, shiny gadgets designed to dazzle.

We all remember our first love, mine an 8th edition Gardners - yikes. The story of the great survey text is a long one and while it may seem difficult to imagine art history without one, the time is now. We at Dithering About applaud the great work of the good folks at to usher in the age of the online textbook. True to the spirit of collaborative learning, the text promises to be a game changer. More than just links to images, it features thoughtful analysis through use of video, screencasts, podcasts, et al. In other words it plays to the strengths of the web. It reaches out to students of different learning styles and welcomes other scholars into the conversation. We are grateful for this bold step and have feel the shift happening.

I see this as a heroic first step, yet there is much more work to be done. I must admit my intital reaction is to wonder if a web-text can ever fully replace the survey textbook or might it act as a complement to some new incarnation of the survey? (Then again, I do read novels on my iPhone.) My concern stems from how I use the textbook in my survey courses. For me it acts not simply as a repository of images and facts, but as the authoritative voice in the room that I use to line up new theoretical information, e.g. "Stokstad writes this..." or "Janson claims..." Perhaps the smarthistory text, or something like it, might eventually be expanded to incorporate other established theoretical voices in an attempt to broaden the conversation.

So it goes with all great innovations come fresh challenges. We stand in awe, ponder, and get back to work.

(In part two I will deal with what is pushing the high price of textbooks.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

how can computers help us?

A student asked me in class today why historians can't simply feed the symbols of an undeciphered language into a computer and have it translated into English for them. I'm sure that scholars of Linear A wish this were possible!

Computers are helping decipher aspects of Minoan culture in another way, though. The article below describes an exciting collaboration between a computer scientist and historians attempting to piece together fresco fragments at Akrotiri.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Scholar2Scholar Conference

I attended the Scholar2Scholar conference at Drexel University yesterday: "How Web 2.0 is changing scholarly communication." Open source and open access were the words of the day. The keynote address, by Drexel chemistry professor Jean-Claude Bradley, had to do with "open notebook science," in which he makes his laboratory data immediately available for anyone to examine and critique or reproduce via a number of free and public online tools -- blogs, wikis, GoogleDocs, etc. A vocal attendee encouraged all faculty to get out from behind the barriers of course management software to make their knowledge and information freely available.

Bureaucracy and legal wrangling that this would necessitate aside, all this made me wonder how these things can be applied to art history instruction -- it's not as though we're working in a lab with these slides! But I've already created a GoogleGroup for my students for open discussion, and am hoping to get their input in using more publicly available sites, and social networks for learning about art history.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New Ideas of Interaction

One of the major goals in preparing for my Spring semester was to reconsider my syllabi, testing and quizzing activities, and homework in my courses. I was involved in an online faculty workshop in the Fall that was focused on one of the hot topics of recent Professional Development... "Classroom Assessment." Though the course lacked a bit of stylistic sophistication, the material and discussion with colleagues was highly beneficial in reconsidering my approach in the classroom.

I continue to use our in-house digital image system for the majority of class meetings - I find that this helps me to avoid the rut of simply reusing Powerpoint presentations made from last year (and the static quality of PPT as mentioned in an earlier post by my colleague Brian). However, I have also made a conscious effort to include "specialty" lectures that focus on one particular moment, idea, event. And, in these lectures, I try to make sure to use other forms of media - the internet, videos on demand, or highly specialized and more dynamic Powerpoint presentations.

Though Powerpoint may not be ideal as a teaching tool (for me) in the classroom, I find it a very good medium for exams. When I think of my undergraduate exams - the purr of the projector at the back of the room, the nerves that would begin to pulse when you saw the professor head to the machine to advance the slides, and the knowledge that if you missed the exam, the make-up was likely to be a brain-wracking set of essay questions (after all, you can't expect that busy professor to sit with you for an hour and go through all of those slides again!), I realize how much Powerpoint has changed this process. With it's self-timing mode, we no longer have to "watch the clock," we no longer have to worry about burnt out projector bulbs or slide jams, and the rouble of make-up exams is made simple.

For a make-up, we can place a student in front of an office computer and Powerpoint can "administer" for us. There's no concern about the availability of a room with a projector or the dreaded essay make-up. Maybe they're too easy to give?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

next best thing to being there?

As art history instructors we've long been struggling with the shortcomings of using the two-dimensional reproduction to stand in for "the real thing." This was true of optical slides, and remains true of digital slides as well. And it's especially true of photographs of architecture, where it's nearly impossible to get a sense of the space and the scale of the work.

But new technologies, especially those online, can change all this, and offer us and our students new and better views of these places.

Check out this fantastic interactive tour of Sant' Andrea, which offers 360-degree views of the facade, and numerous interior spaces. If this isn't the future of art history, it should be!

How about virtually entering a reproduction of a space, built to scale? The Sistine Chapel on Vassar Island in Second Life does just this. If you're in SL, click on the link to teleport. More on art history in Second Life soon......

Sunday, January 20, 2008

PowerPoint: Is This Really The Answer?

Certainly I have used PowerPoint for conferences and special talks (and I continue to do so, grumbling all the while), but for day to day teaching I find PowerPoint to be more trouble than it is worth, especially when you consider that teachers must not only acquire images (or relevant content), but then also edit it all to work within PowerPoint. It would be ideal were teachers allowed to spend prep-time actually preparing lesson plans and shaping the intellectual content of their coursework, rather than negotiating PowerPoint.

Still another drawback with PowerPoint is that as a classroom presentation tool, it becomes little more than a digital slide projector. It's serial format allows teachers to only access images in the order in which they have been saved in the slide deck - which is impractical in a dynamic learning environment.

Let's be honest, teachers continue to use PowerPoint simply because it is available. I don't know anyone who claims to enjoy using it. It certainly appears clumsy compared to many of the latest more nimble Web 2.0 technology solutions that people have become accustomed to using online. Having said that there are still those who continue to find fresh inspiration with PowerPoint. In Japan they even hold PowerPoint competitions.

I get around PowerPoint by teaching with an in-house database of art images, which essentially interfaces like a website. From the beginning I chose not to use PowerPoint and I believe now more than ever that this was a wise choice as I see my colleagues wrestle the beast. Many confess to hard drives cluttered with folders of slide shows and images that were created for specific courses, but are often impractical to migrate from course to course. Then there are the most stubborn colleagues who use the same slide deck for every course and somehow make it work.

So while the trend toward larger online shared databases of images, like ARTstor, which is quickly becoming the standard, might solve the problem of a ready supply of quality images, the problem of presentation software remains. ARTstor's lackluster Offline Image Viewer - OIV - is unfortunately a PowerPoint-like interface that is not a significant move forward. So we wait.