Review: “MyArtsLab” (for Stokstad and Cothren’s “Art History”)
[Ed. note: We at AHTR–and this week’s author–are deeply invested in free, open access resources for students and teachers wherever possible. Please add to this conversation thread by making us and others aware of what else exists out there, as well as further experiences you’ve had with MyArtsLab.]
One of my students sits across from me in my office, packing up her things to leave. We’ve just resolved an issue she had with a homework assignment, and she turns to me,
“I was wondering… my friend is taking this class with a different teacher. But they’re not using the online stuff. Why are we using it but they’re not?”
“Well, different instructors get to choose to teach in different ways,” I respond, “and I think this online homework system works really well for how I teach. But what do you think? Would you rather be in a class that didn’t use it?”
“Well, we actually learn the stuff!” she replies enthusiastically. “So, no. And she doesn’t really even read the textbook …”
The online homework system she was referring to is MyArtsLab, and because of it, I am confident that all of my students do, in fact, use their textbook (Stokstad and Cothren’s Art History survey textbook) in my classes. With the beginning of this school year, I am using MyArtsLab for the third semester in a row for my two sections of an Art History survey course, from Renaissance to Modern art. It provides students with interactive assignments deriving from and expanding beyond the textbook itself, along with tests and quizzes, writing assignments, flashcards, and an (optional) e-text with an audio option. It can be connected to Blackboard and other learning management systems, and it provides a digital platform that instructors can tailor to their teaching and their students’ needs and abilities.
I teach at a small, open-enrollment, liberal-arts branch of a research university. Some of my students really love MyArtsLab (one of them even commented on my Student Evaluations last semester, “I learned better with using MyArtsLab.”). So far, none of them have told me that they hate it! It also works well for me as an instructor, most of the time. It’s not without its faults, but I find that the benefits in terms of student learning and engagement outweigh the frustrations that we sometimes experience with it.
I assign homework on MyArtsLab for every class. With these assignments, students are prepared to discuss something about the material in every class. Maybe not all of it, but we’ve at least got somewhere to start. A lot of the assignments use the “Closer Look” features, which are annotated, narrated, in-depth analyses of specific works of art that are featured in the textbook. Much of the material, although not all, replicates what is stated in the book about the work. Because it is narrated with audio, and the animations show the students exactly where to look in the work for the concept or meaning, the content is easier for the students to grapple with, and they enjoy the “reading” process more.
Another type of assignment which I use regularly introduces the students to short excerpts from primary texts related to the art objects. This allows me to incorporate more of such sources into the survey experience than I, as a specialist in a very tiny subfield of the expansive scope of a survey course, could manage otherwise without many more years of teaching experience under my belt. I particularly appreciate how easy it is to use these and all the other ready-made assignments, so that I can focus each semester on refining my own teaching and the parts of the course that I want to customize. With the assignment calendar feature, I can easily drag and drop assignments onto the appropriate days, which is much faster than assigning content with due dates in a system like Blackboard, at least with my limited expertise in both systems. This makes it easy for students to do their homework and easy for professors to assign and grade homework. One of the nicest aspects of MyArtsLab is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have full abilities to tweak the wheel as much as you want or have time for.
However, with that being said, it is far from a perfect wheel. For example, when I went in to create the new course for this fall semester and place all the homework assignments on the calendar, I discovered that I could no longer see in my Spring 2014 course which assignments had been assigned for which days. This is the result of some sort of overhaul of the system over the summer, and I later found where I could see the information from the previous course, but it definitely resulted in some consternation. This is a system that is definitely still in development. In some ways that is a benefit, because it gives the opportunity to make suggestions and help in the formation of the system, and the editors have been overwhelmingly welcoming to feedback when I’ve given it. But it can be frustrating for the students when they find typos and errors in the homework. And every now and then an inconsistency pops up; for example, the default “out of” grading value is 1 for most assignments, but for one particular chapter it was “out of 100” for all the instructor-graded assignments. The first time we discovered that was also a bit frustrating to the students who had given excellent answers and found themselves with a grade of 1% rather than 100%, until I fixed it!
Additionally, the fact that some of the features in MyArtsLab do not always work on tablets can be frustrating to students. This is almost exclusively a problem with the “Architectural Panorama” features that provide links to external websites which are not developed by the publisher. Overall, MyArtsLab has a bit of a clunky interface, which is not always intuitive for users. With students who are familiar with websites, aps, and video games which provide a much more streamlined and elegant user experience, MyArtsLab can feel a bit behind the times in its look and feel. I can imagine how it will eventually be developed to have a smoother, more up-to-date interface, but at this point I’m personally glad that most of the development of the tool seems to have focused upon the content rather than the appearance.
When choosing to use MyArtsLab, I am asking my students to make a significant financial commitment to their course (beyond tuition, of course). New Art History textbooks come with access codes for the system, but used textbooks do not. Alternatively, students can purchase access to the online system only for $55, or for the system plus the e-text for $75, at least for this semester. I do not take that investment lightly, but I also believe that it is worth the value for the product they purchase. And because they invest money in it, they have a greater personal investment in making use of it – particularly if I guide them as to how to make good use of it through assignments and suggestions for studying. One of the nicest features about the system is that students can register for 14-day free temporary access which allows them to try out the system and my course before committing to the purchase. Honestly, if the free temporary access were not available, I probably would not use it.
Ultimately, it’s not a perfect system, although nothing ever is. If I had twenty, or even ten, more years of experience teaching survey courses, I might not choose to use it, because I might have developed comparable materials to my satisfaction. But my students need good content and engaging means of learning it in their homework tonight. MyArtsLab gives a very good option for providing that for them. This lukewarm response may not be the enthusiastic review that Pearson, the publisher, would like to hear about their product (and to be clear, I did not inform Pearson that I was writing this review, nor did they contact me in any way to ask me to write it), but for now, I am of the opinion that MyArtsLab is good enough. And I am hopeful that with time, it will continue to improve. I certainly reserve the right to change my mind on this, particularly if it doesn’t continue to improve. And perhaps, in a year or two, I will decide that it no longer is good enough. There is certainly room in the online market for a better product, but for now, this is the best tool I have found for consistently keeping students engaged outside of class. With MyArtsLab at home, when we are in the classroom, we can all be more engaged as well.