‘An Enriching Experience’ – The adoption of OER websites to introductory Art History classes
The Teaching Centre (TC) in a conversation with the Chair of the Department of Art, Dr. Kenneth Allan and the Board of Government Teaching Chair, Dr. Anne Dymond on their decision to adopt Open Educational Resources as assigned materials in introductory Art History courses. December 2018
TC: Thank you for taking the time to meet with the Teaching Centre today to talk about your approach to Open Education. As part of a campus-wide initiative, which started about two years ago and intends to raise awareness for the benefits of sharing pedagogical practices and openly licensed materials, we’ve identified educators who’ve championed open work on our campus. The interview today will fit in with the series of promotion of OER efforts because it’ll allow people to learn what changes you’ve brought to the Department of Art.
Ken: Before we start off to talk about OER in our Department of Arts, I would like to catch up with the campus-wide OER developments in the last two years.
TC: A direct result of the Open Education Working group efforts is the Open Access Learning Resource Fund, which became available to U of L educators at the end of 2017. 20 project applications went in so far and some of the projects results have already been put to good use in introductory courses across several departments. While the majority of those projects intend to replace for-purchase online homework question banks, some proposals also describe the motivation to create open websites and textbooks. Textbooks have generally been a concern to the open educators on our campus, who chose to adapt or create high-quality alternatives for their own courses as a response to ever increasing textbook prices and inconsistent matches of the materials with course outcomes. The impact of open textbooks on our campus is significant considering that students in multiple departments now use materials that are free to them and that have high overlap with what is being taught in their courses. We are currently running a survey to further measure that impact.
Anne: I am also curious to know how students in those departments access the open textbooks they use.
TC: The open textbooks are digital resources that can be accessed both online and in print, depending on student preference. Our bookstore offers assistance in the printing process if students wish to work with paper copies instead.
TC: What motivated you to adopt OER for your courses?
Ken: A while back, we ran into a problem with our Art History 1000 class, for which we had previously been using a textbook that had met most of our demands. This book, however, suddenly got discontinued a month or so before classes started, which forced us to look for an alternative. Trying to figure out what to use for a substitute wasn’t an easy matter, because there was no book that covered the specific time period we wanted look at. Then one day, I saw people talk about a site called Smarthistory on a listserv that I belong to. When I saw that this Art History website deals with World Culture as well as the standard Western tradition, I looked at it a little more closely and soon realized I had found a good replacement. My search also brought me to another great resource by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that covered things from our timeline as well. Finally, I decided to go with these two instead of a regular textbook. Albeit not in completely ideal formats, the resources are great for the students in terms of the range of information that’s available in that virtual space.
Anne: The Art History 1000 course was the first place we adopted the resources and soon after we took it to the Art History 2225 course as well, which is a broader course but designed for a similar level. The reason for me to switch to openly accessible resources was two-fold. Knowing that students would have needed to pay $180 for one introductory course alone, I become concerned about the number of students who would have responded by not buying the textbook at all. If you’re thinking about accessibility and providing all students with equal access to success in a course, a $180 textbook is a valid concern to have.
Ken: If the textbooks would stay current for longer that would be great, but of course we all know the reality. Whenever you get a textbook that’s “newly” published, you can be certain that within 3 years or so the publishers will come up with a “new” edition which isn’t new at all and will only have a few minor changes here and there to justify the increase in price.
TC: Did you make the decision to adopt the resources as a team?
Ken: Yes we’ve consulted each other on that and we both found that it made perfect sense to switch to OER at that point. We also continued chatting about the adoption as we moved along in our courses.
Anne: Ken was even so kind to share his PowerPoint slides with me. When we have terms and sessionals, we also share all those materials with them.
TC: How long have you been using the art history websites as course resources?
Ken: We’ve been using them for two years now. Anne and I alternated teaching the courses then. While I taught with the new resources the last two Fall terms, Anne’s been using them in the last two Spring terms prior to this year when we have a term professor teaching the course. We all find it’s worked out okay, although we now also see some of the gaps that make teaching somewhat problematic at times. Smarthistory, for instance, is still being added to as we speak by artists and art historians who volunteer their time to enrich the resource.
Anne: In some ways we’ve been using OER materials for a lot longer, but we didn’t really consider them Open Educational Resources until now. Years ago, I replaced required books on writing with my own handouts. That’s another kind of self-created resource that I now consider an OER. I think we’ve all moved in that direction in our department.
TC: Are the additions that you mention all created by professors or is there student- created content on the website as well?
Ken: Content is created by professors exclusively who are experts in their fields. Many of them are retired professors, which allows them the time to make their contributions.
Anne: The two main people who run it are in paid positions, but all the others who contribute are professional volunteers. That means that all the content that gets onto the side is vetted and truly scholarly.
TC: Has adopting those art history resources affected your teaching somehow?
Anne: I don’t think it has changed my teaching, but it has made me wonder how our students use the “new” resources. Knowing that in the past some students hadn’t bought the textbooks, I was curious to see whether student use has changed since we’ve been working with freely accessible materials. I checked the student logs on Moodle and learned that some students were still not accessing the websites at all. That realisation, in turn, led me to wonder what value students see in the free digital resources we use. In courses with a textbook, we know it can be the go-to-place for students who miss a class, but I’m not sure that students conceive a website as an equally helpful alternative.
Ken: I think that your questions touch on the matter of student ownership over material. When students have their own textbooks, they might feel like they possess the material a little more than when they go to a website and that could actually be a drawback to digital resources.
Anne: You are right, that’s something we should certainly explore a little further because currently I am not entirely convinced that a website on its own, without any guidance or clear tasks is actually any better than a textbook. As someone interested in pedagogy, I want students to learn in my courses and so I wonder what it takes to ensure learning with digital resources. My intention is to engage students with the content, but at this point I am not exactly sure how to best go about that. The Flipped Classroom Model might be a possible approach. Our Art History classes are big though with up to 80 students, so I can’t really imagine how to implement a flipped approach in that setting. My sense is that it would mean a major shift to get the students on board with that.
Looking back to when we switched to using the websites, I wish we had started in a more controlled way. A SOTL type of research incorporating a grades comparison of before and after adoption would have helped to better understand the impact of OER in our courses.
TC: Are you in conversation with other OER/ OA adopters on and off campus, with whom you could discuss such access issues with?
Anne: I have had conversations with a number of my colleagues. For the last four years, I’ve been co-chairing a session with Andrea Korda (UofA) at the Universities Art Association of Canada Annual conference on pedagogy. So we work with colleagues across the country on pedagogical issues, and have chaired sessions that included talks on, for example, the Ontario College of Art and Design’s efforts to create their own textbooks because of the limitations of the current resources. They worked to create resources for a global culture course, building it from the ground up and it sounded perfect for us. Then, at the last minute the publisher didn’t get the image rights, which meant that they could only publish the text, with no images. For art history, that is almost useless. They had to provide the images on their institutional LMS, so that the resource was no longer truly accessible to us. Unfortunately, copyright is often an issue for images in modern art generally and with Canadian art especially.
TC: How do you help your students navigate the digital resources you suggest for your art history courses?
Ken: I introduce the resources in my syllabus and expect that my students take on the responsibility to keep track of the places that we are moving to every week of the term.The way I teach I will tend to follow a text in a very rough manner. I add a lot of my own materials like slide images and a lot of those are not on the website, so I put the additional materials on Moodle.
Anne: I post the links to the OER on Moodle, so students can easily find the specific virtual places that I want to direct them to. I combine them with my powerpoint slides, which have all the specific things that I talk about in class. When we still used a textbook, I went by the order of the textbook a bit more. With the website, we have more freedom to order the material in a way that works best for our students, so we can use moodle to re-order the links so they fit our particular needs.
TC: How have your students reacted to the use of the OER/ OA materials in your courses?
Ken: The comments that I’ve gotten in my student evaluations are all positive. I don’t think we’ve gotten any negative comments on the websites, but I certainly remember certainly remember getting the negative comments on the prices of textbooks before.
Anne: I did survey my student in one of the Art History 2225 course with feedback forms in class last year, in which I asked specifically about the resources. Most students said they liked the resources but there was also a comment on the issue of lack of access on a reserve with spotty wifi.
TC: Can you explain what was involved in the adoption of the openly licensed materials you are using for your courses?
Ken: It was very easy because we didn’t have to modify anything. It was just a matter of going through the websites myself to pick things out that replicate the material we were teaching with before. That didn’t take me very long and I found that process very doable. I’m probably due to go back to see whether I can find other relevant open materials that can complement my teaching as well.
Anne: I must say, I do find the browsing process time-consuming, not least because of the video material, which is extensive. I find reading faster than watching video, but since I want my students to have a media-rich experience, I include videos in my preparation as well. Overall, I am happy that I don’t need to make any modifications to the existing websites, but can use them as they are, albeit in a flexible order. It also allows us to go to several different websites and select the best materials.
TC: What do you consider benefits of using OER?
Anne: We talked about the negatives of the OER, but for me there are also some real positives like the fact that in contrast to an Art History book, where in addition to text you mostly have art pictures, a website allows for the seamless integration of ‘richer’ media like audio files or videos. If you are teaching about the early 19th century, the website we currently use might show a painting first and then lead over to a video, which can make the learning a more immersive experience by giving the context of the culture. I like the fact that you can get the students attention by zooming in into a piece of art that way. It’s also much stronger for understanding an 3-D environment, so architecture can really come alive using these resources.
Ken: It’s true, you can have a richer experience. I remember some of the videos in Smarthistory take you to the museums where the works are shown, which is a real plus considering that we are in an area where people don’t have easy access to the big museums. If students see a picture of an art piece in the textbook, it’s difficult to truly understand its dimensions owing to discrepancies in size or scale makes. It makes a huge difference if you see a video of somebody talking in front of a painting, because then you get a sense of the scale.
Anne: I also like how authentic all-encompassing and uncensored the curation of open resources makes our teaching. When I was still using the textbook in the 2225 Art History course two years ago, there were things that really offended me in that book. Talking about ancient Greece, for example, the American-based publisher had not included Greek sexuality and Greek sexual practices, which is ridiculous knowing that you cannot understand why a culture has 10,000 sculptures of male nudes without talking about the sexual practices. In my opinion that is poor scholarship. If you’re assigning this textbook and then you are teaching this other thing but the textbook is not backing you up, it can be confusing for the students, especially when the material is challenging.
The resources we are currently using don’t allow any adapting, but what we can do is use the links to specific sections and guide students that way. It’s easy to to pull out the sections and I am happy to post the links on Moodle for the students.
Ken: There’s a ton of material data that we don’t deal with but hope that curious students might enjoy if they choose to browse further.