Developing a Student Audioguide Assignment, Part 2
Guest author: Virginia Spivey
Last month, I wrote about a student audioguide assignment, and highlighted how I developed the rationale, objectives, and the logistical details. This month, I want to talk more about the realities of the project: the good, the bad, and the getting better.
While many of my comments are subjective, I’ve incorporated qualitative and quantitative feedback from the class as well. In designing the project, I integrated a number of assessment mechanisms, such as personal reflection statements and group process journals, to track the students’ progress. The audio guide assignment was just one of several technological components I used to restructure my modern art survey in fall 2012, so a grant from Georgetown’s Center for New Design in Learning and Scholarship also allowed for a formal evaluation of the course to measure the impact of the technology-enhancements on student learning.
After two semesters, I’ve learned a lot and continue to be impressed by both the audioguides themselves and the students’ comments about their experience. Like any assignment, the student audioguide will continue to be a work in progress, but here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far.
Know your role.
The first semester, my biggest challenge was that I hadn’t worked through all the assignment details, so students were understandably anxious about what I was asking them to do. The second semester, most of the logistical issues had been solved, so students had a clear idea of what the project entailed. More importantly, I had a better idea of my own expectations. I knew how to better support the students in their work, and could be more critical in my feedback and evaluation.
Two major improvements involved additional technology. Whereas students in the fall had been responsible for exchanging working drafts among themselves, I set up shared Google Docs for each group in the spring as a space for peer review of written papers and collaborative script writing. This allowed me some oversight of the group’s working process. Although I never had to intervene, it seemed to ensure that individuals shared their work with the group in a timely manner, and made it easier for me to offer feedback on drafts.
Secondly, all the students in the spring had electronic portfolios, where they collected and tagged class assignments, including all the audioguide materials. This eased grading significantly, and it gave me a space to individualize my comments toward each student’s performance. Their e-portfolios now serve as an archive for materials produced in the class, which will be helpful to on-going evaluation.
Something old and something new
The strategy for students to write a traditional formal analysis as a precursor to the group-produced audioguide has proven essential to the project’s success. It ensures that each student works directly with a primary object, and has the chance to develop analytical and communication skills commensurate to their existing abilities. Having the group conduct peer reviews further provided a common experience that, in most cases, seems to improve the group’s ability to work together on subsequent stages of the project.
Student feedback indicates that the audioguide and written paper work equally well toward the development of communication skills. However, most feel the written paper contributes more toward their abilities to analyze visual images and think critically about the art object. Not surprisingly, they feel the audioguide is more important to their experience working in a group setting and toward improving their technological skills.
In highlighting the technology component of this project, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the written paper. In many ways, a formal analysis is an old fashioned assignment in art historical study, but I find it particularly useful for encouraging students to look closely at an object, to hone their use of art terminology and concepts, and to recognize how artists strategically engage viewers in different ways. Also, I find it a good way for students in a modern art course to understand the practices and limitations of a formalist critical approach.
My concern had been that, in the context of the audioguide project, the formal analysis was not a reiterative assignment. In addition to in-class peer review, I give students extensive feedback on their papers, but they did not have subsequent assignments to demonstrate whether their skills had actually improved. The first semester I allowed students to submit rewrites, which created the burden to grade additional papers in mid-semester. Yuck.
In the spring, I decided instead to give students the option of submitting rewrites at the end of the semester, along with their other audioguide materials. I encouraged them to rewrite a new draft immediately while the material was still fresh, but then wait until after they completed the audioguide project to revise it. My hope was that their group work might reinforce the feedback on the paper and help them communicate their ideas more clearly. The results seem positive among the students who opted to rewrite the paper: 73% of students in the fall improved their grade by more than 5 points, whereas that percentage increased to 86% in the spring.
To script or not to script
Students consistently comment that writing the audioguide script is the most challenging, and meaningful, part of the assignment. The process of developing the script works toward two goals: 1) students realize that a single object can lead to dramatically different readings, and find ways to integrate alternative perspectives into their dialogue about the work; 2) students recognize the need to translate their visual analysis and use of academic concepts into an accessible format for a non-specialized audience:
. . . it was writing a script that was insightful, yet, accessible that was the most difficult. When creating the second draft, my initial changes made the script too formal. Much of my writing up until this point was academic in nature. In the past, complex sentences served as a useful way to construct my ideas and word choice was often generated with my laptop’s thesaurus. However, I’ve realized that using varied combinations of big words can sometimes be an attempt to hide an idea’s lack of concrete support. Using a direct and conversational tone often requires more transparent concepts. The audioguide format also required us to be more selective about the concepts we discussed. Time quickly passes with the alternating comments and remarks of a conversational format. While an idea is interesting and valid, it may not be well suited for the audioguide format.
I had students employ a Smarthistory conversational style dialogue, which encourages speakers NOT to use a script; but, I thought a script might help them feel better prepared for the recording and encourage greater collaboration among peer groups. The result is that most student audioguides lack the spontaneity of a natural conversation. The scripted dialogue doesn’t detract from the presentation, but it does sound awkward at times. One student reflected:
I can’t help wondering what would have happened if we recorded an organic dialogue about a piece. The problem with having a premade script is that the reactions are not genuine and many of the linguistic cues used in natural conversation such as backchanneling are left out.
Based on my experience, I’m pretty sure the students could produce good audioguides without a formal scripting process; nevertheless, I am reluctant to give up this component that seems so effective for students learning different modes of communication.
As a compromise, I’m considering having groups record a “practice” conversation in front of their object in the museum. This would introduce the technology at an earlier point in the assignment. It might also engage students more in actual dialogue, and encourage them to revisit the object in the museum as a group. My perception is that in most groups, the “script writers” do a lot of the initial work and then the others collaborate in editing the final version. As the following comment suggests, finding ways to increase dialogue would improve the learning experience, and contribute to the final product:
When we were all engaged in discussion together, the conversation was rich and interesting. The problem, however, was getting to the table and working in a way that made everyone comfortable enough to create the best product. Google Docs was very helpful at times when we could not meet. It allowed us to create a script that incorporated almost everyone’s ideas. Nevertheless, when we were able to arrange physical meetings, we realized the importance of having casual conversations together to brainstorm ideas. This is when the script began to become more lively.
Although students note the challenge of scheduling group meetings, they also say that the overall time allotted for the project is manageable. This suggests that, with enough planning, a “practice conversation” component could be added.
While evaluations show the audioguide project helps develop analytical, communication, collaborative, and technological skills, the greater impact has been to increase the student’s sense of empowerment. One art history minor confessed:
. . . the part of the project that I found most difficult was the concept of owning my authority. When studying works of art, instead of forming my own opinion or outlook on a work, I will typically wait instead to be told what I should think, whether by a teacher, a plaque, a brochure, class discussion, or an online source. I feel like I rarely take the time to look at an image and process what is there, forming my own reading of a work. I often feel lost or unsure of my ability to interpret what is there to some universal meaning or “the right answer.” This project forced me to really own my role as someone forming an analysis of a work based on all that I had learned so far, in combination with my own intuitions.
What seems most successful about the assignment is that it combines the written formal analysis—an established teaching practice, geared toward academic understanding of the discipline, with the audioguide—a problem-based learning experience that is familiar to many students. Students clearly recognize the real-world application of the project, which gives them greater ownership of the material. One student who had not previously taken an art history course wrote:
[T]his project felt like something that would be done by those actually in the field of art history. While obviously art historians write papers, this audioguide resembles the recorded guides that are so numerous at museums. The project gave me a sense that this recording was something that had the potential to be used to enlighten casual perusers of art, instead of just ending on the grading table of a professor. That sense, made me feel that this project meant more than just the grade, it represented a work that could be shared with family, friends, and maybe, if it’s good enough, strangers.
Notably, the same student went on to connect his experience directly to course content:
Likewise, it felt great, and quite frankly different, as I am not afforded the opportunity very often in a class setting, to actually create something that was not typed out. This project challenged what the normal educational experiences are. I find that fitting because one of the main themes that was consistent throughout the class was the constant evolution of art, and artists attempting to challenge the concept of what exactly “art” is, or what it could be.
While I’m not satisfied with all elements of the project (I need a better format for final presentations, and I’ve still not figured out how to manage/grade groups where problems develop among the members), such positive student response is the stuff that keeps teachers going. As one woman said as she was leaving the final class, “It was fun—getting to be the teacher. I didn’t think I could do that. But, I did.”
I’m now beginning to think about how this project might be developed to have a broader impact. Many students say they share their audioguides with friends and family. I include the best examples on my website, and all can be heard on Soundcloud. Working on their own, one group this spring created a video to supplement their audioguide, which they uploaded to YouTube. I see lots of potential for museum partnerships and working with community-based programs, and it will be exciting to see how making the audioguides more publically available might enhance students’ experience in the future.