This Week in Digital Pedagogy Readings: website reviews, part 2

Last week, I reviewed two RRCHNM projects for an independent readings course with Mills Kelly. This week the assignment is to choose an outside project, and I’ve selected Smarthistory for several reasons. I first learned about it a few weeks ago at THATCamp CAA when I was able to hear founders Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker talk about the origins of the project (a desire for a free open access art history survey resource) and its mission to provide art historical knowledge to an interested public. This is an award winning education site that receives a lot of traffic, and so it’s definitely worth examining its approach to teaching art history and art historical thinking.

The site is primarily organized by historical period and correlating style(s). A navigation bar across the top allows viewers to access material by time period, style, artist, or themes (a curious label that covers instruction on terminology, historiography, image analysis, and media). A visual timeline with selected images takes up the majority of the home screen, a way to see the association between periodization and style. Within each area are videos of scholars discussing works and/or short essays.

The videos are structured around Smarthistory‘s emphasis on unscripted conversation rather than the lecture. Videos feature scholars discussing the works and their context, rather than just replicating the standard lecture in a new format. Their reasoning is that “the process of conversation can model learning because it is learning. Students can watch new ideas take shape rather than receive them fully formed.” This reinforces much of what we’ve read on the weakness of the lecture as a teaching method, and suggests an interesting approach for class discussion and projects centered on students working through the process of historical thinking. The “Create” section of the site includes tips for pursuing/recording these kinds of conversations and a technology workflow that emphasizes free or inexpensive tools for re-creating the kinds of videos the site specializes in. While the intent is to show Smarthistory‘s process, it’s also a clear and accessible template for teachers to adopt for their classes (technology permitting). Another feature to facilitate interaction with the site is the Flickr group, which crowdsources photos of artworks from museums that could be included into content pages.

The strength of the site is its considerable, and expanding, content. There’s considerable room, however, for development of support materials for formal classroom education, however, in addition to the art history student and interested informal learner that are the main audience for the site. There are two tutorials that lay a foundation for using the site and teaching images: one on how to watch and listen to multimedia critically and one on the tension between the image and the text as “the authority” of visual imagery. Two Western Culture survey syllabi are also included, built around the site’s content, and that’s it for suggested applications for the site as an educational tool in addition to an extensive collection of content. There’s also room to expand on the pedagogy of conversation model—something that is particularly interesting now in the midst of numerous conversations on flipping classrooms, authentic learning, and displacing the lecture as the primary method of instruction at the college level. It’ll be interesting to see how this site develops, as the blog and comments from Harris and Zucker at THATCamp suggest strong interest in developing Smarthistory the pedagogical aspects as well as continuing to expand the content featured.

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