As an art historian, priorities of each class I teach include providing access to visual resources of excellent quality, increasing students’ ability to analyze works of art from a variety of perspectives, and encouraging students to exchange ideas and insights about what they see. While the classroom has always been the primary site of this exchange, which I generally facilitate, I sought opportunities for student-directed experiences where they could share with each other. I determined that this was particularly necessary in the two writing intensive classes I teach, which combine students with extensive art history backgrounds and students with little understanding of how to approach works of art.
During last summer’s Technology Fellows workshops, introduction to VoiceThread, a cloud-based interactive tool focused on creating a true presence among its participants, allowed me to envision accomplishing these objectives: providing high-quality visuals with which students could interact using multiple tools, communicating with each other and sharing ideas virtually, and improving the content and written quality of their papers.
I teach two writing intensive classes, ART 213WX Special Topics: Women and Art and ART 309W: Art + Land: Artists Engage the Environment. For each course a learning objective is increasing visual literacy, or the ability to articulate, in both oral and written form, what distinguishes a work of art. Written assignments in writing intensive courses are to be discipline specific, and analyzing works visually is a fundamental step in evaluating and assimilating the objects of study.
The first paper is a visual analysis of a work of art from the Carnegie Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Students visit the museum on their own and select a work from a list of options I provide. For ART 213, the works are either by woman artists or address women as subjects. For ART 309, the works are typically landscape paintings from the 18th through the 21st centuries. After readings and class time spent reviewing visual analysis as a methodology, students write papers assessing their selected work’s basic visual qualities, such as line, shape, space, and color, and address more complex issues of composition such as symmetry, rhythm, and focal point and emphasis. They also consider whether or not their work of art reflects any of the issues about women and art or artists and the environment that we have addressed in class. Despite efforts to prepare students to successfully complete the assignment, there was always a discrepancy between those who had previous experience with visual analysis and those who had not.
I sought a tool that would enable students to help each other with this assignment outside of class time, allowing the more experienced students to work with those with less experience. I created groups of three to four students; each group had at least one seasoned art history student whom I spoke to in advance about acting as group leader. This is the VoiceThread assignment for the first paper in ART 309:
Obtain an image of your work of art. You can see if the image is available online by doing a Google Images search (some works in the collection are, some are not). Images of most of the works are included on the Search Collections feature of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s website, but I’ve found that these are small, low res images that may not work for this assignment). You can take a picture of it at the museum with as long as you don’t use a flash. In addition to the whole work, you might want to take pictures of particular details that interest you.
Create a VoiceThread with your work of art. Becky Borello will review how to do this in class and I will post tutorials on VoiceThread on Moodle. Your VoiceThread should include an image of the full work of art, and any of the details you want your group members to look at. You should first complete a preliminary formal analysis so you can recognize what aspects of the analysis you still have questions about. Then use the text, video, or audio feature on VoiceThread to ask your group three questions about the work that you’re having difficulty figuring out, and provide some of your own insights. Finish your VoiceThread by Jan. 29 and make sure when it is done to “share” it with the class. I will be viewing the VoiceThreads to make sure you’ve completed the assignment correctly and this will contribute to your paper grade.
Each student will look at the other two to three VoiceThreads created by their group members and respond to the questions posed or share your own observations by Feb. 3. This is intended to help you determine the important points of visual analysis you should address in your paper – instead of having only one set of eyes on the image – your own – you’ll have 3 or 4 sets! I will also review the responses and this will also contribute to each student’s paper grade.
A personal goal of this assignment was building relationships between the students at the beginning of the term that could serve them in future assignments and exams.
The first term I attempted this project, I assumed the students were more tech-savvy than they actually were. Only three students had previous experience with VoiceThread. I provided online tutorials about VoiceThread and instructions about my expectations for the assignment but the results were mixed. Several students had difficulty with the technology, especially sharing their VoiceThreads with the rest of the class. Others misunderstood the expected combination of their own analysis and questions for their group members, either providing only the analysis and asking no questions or asking questions only and providing no analysis. There was a wide range in the quality of the projects and the responses of the group members. I did not comment on the projects or the responses. Because this was a pilot, I did not consider the VoiceThread as part of their paper grades.
The second term I clarified the assignment and invited Becky Borello to the class to introduce VoiceThread. This term I had no issues with the technology or the expectations of the assignment. Each student completed a detailed analysis of their work of art, generally using the written or oral tools on VoiceThread (a handful used the video tool as well) and asked appropriate questions. Many used the colored “pencils” to further clarify their points by drawing on the images. Some students also used more than one slide to emphasize particular parts of the images they had questions about.
Group members not only responded to the questions the creator of the VoiceThreads asked them to consider, but added unsolicited observations to help the creators recognize important points. Here are three samples of what the VoiceThreads looked like. The initials/pictures on the right side indicate who made the comments. In the first example, you can see that the student has “drawn” on the image with the red pencil to identify the painting’s repeated horizontals:
Here is an example of a student using the video/webcam tool:
In addition, I listened to all of the VoiceThreads before the papers were due and commented myself on the students’ preliminary analyses, reconfirmed important points made by their group members, and added any additional points they should consider in writing their papers. The third example shows my picture at the right and the drawing I did to demonstrate linear perspective in the image.
I assessed the VoiceThread assignment informally based on the quality of the papers produced. In comparison with past years, I found that the papers were more comprehensive. Previously, students would often work through the points of analysis in order and simply stop when they reached the page limit, often disregarding important considerations. The feedback from their classmates encouraged them to consider points they were uncertain about or hadn’t thought about, and figure out ways in which to balance the papers’ content to include all information of significance within the page limit. The result was much improved papers (and better grades!). While I didn’t notice a significant improvement in writing skills compared with past terms (as the first paper, we had spent little class time on writing skills), I did see greater clarity in organization. The papers’ organization was often much more organic than simply responding to a list of points in order, grouping related information and using clearer transitions.
I was pleased to see group members sitting together in class, talking with each other more frequently, and forming study groups that led to improved exam grades.
Reflections and Next Steps
I hope to expand the ways in which students in writing intensive courses can use VoiceThread to exchange information about other works of art, perhaps as a tool to prepare for exams and their term-length research projects. New groups would be created so students could get to know other classmates.
I will be on sabbatical during Fall term ’16, but will be teaching ART 213 during Spring term 2017 and plan to further refine and expand the project. I would encourage students to use more of the tools VoiceThread provided, such as leaving comments with a smartphone. I also plan to implement the preliminary assignment mentioned by Bill Biss in his blog, having students do a short VoiceThread on a simple topic to familiarize themselves with the technology and especially the use of the video/webcam tool.
I would also like to perform a more formal pre- and post-assignment assessment. The pre-assignment assessment would analyze the student’s familiarity with VoiceThread, which would help determine what the introduction to the technology needed to accomplish. The post-assignment assessment would ask specific questions to elicit student opinions about the usefulness of the exercise, whether or not it helped with the content and writing of the papers and in what ways, and advice for improving the experience.