A Postmortem: Textbook-Free Survey, The One-Year Anniversary

Driven by concerns about the rising cost of art-history textbooks, I developed and launched a year-long textbook-free teaching experiment for a global art-history survey course covering the art from the Renaissance up to today at the University of Mississippi from Fall 2014-Fall 2015. [I wrote a post about my early process here.]

I taught using a syllabus that featured links to a portal of links to readings, videos, podcasts, and animations that I carefully curated from various online sources, such as Smarthistory at Khan Academy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, TICE (a series of videos sponsored by the Utah System of Higher Education), Dr. Jeanne Willette from the Otis College of Art and Design, and the George Eastman House, among others. Students were instructed to download the syllabus from the course’s Blackboard site and follow them to the required readings, screenings and interactive exercises.

Now that I have been textbook-free for one-year, I feel I have collected enough feedback and observations to assess the effectiveness of this syllabus. I lean toward calling the experiment a (measured) success.

To begin, my “launch” in the fall of 2014 was rocky. As many of you also discovered, quite a few of SmartHistory’s pages relocated to the Khan Academy site just before the start of the semester. Imagine my surprise when all of my syllabus links no longer led to the related material. Now, imagine my even larger surprise to see that only two students noticed! This begged the question: Are students following along? (Later, I’d learn that only a third of my students claimed to be regularly viewing the assigned materials. But stay tuned for more on that.) Given that my course’s syllabus was dependent upon links to materials that I did not produce or control, I expected some items might migrate and need to be updated. They did. Which brings me to lesson #1: Expect to constantly check your links.

Which brings me to lesson #2: Change is good. Smarthistory at Khan Academy evolved substantially during the past year. SmartHistory’s materials – along with others – no longer exist as a series of separate links, but are part of an interactive experience, involving pullout information and quizzes that are immediately graded and reported to the instructor. This potentially rivals some of the e-textbook-based interactives offered by groups such as REVEL (which offers such a supplement for Prebles’ Artforms text, for instance). Only Khan Academy’s information is free. So that would make it better than REVEL, in the eyes of my (perhaps-too-consumer-minded) students. What makes these interactives appealing to me is that they reward steady student engagement with the material, rather than a cram session just before an exam.

However, my use of non-SmartHistory, non-Khan Academy materials (especially to address architecture, photography, and non-Western art) then introduced a problem. I did not use Khan Academy’s interactive exercises because I also relied on other sites for additional materials beyond its purview. This is perhaps where textbook-publishers’ interactive modules would have an advantage. But such materials are not free. As Smarthistory at Khan Academy continues to develop its materials, perhaps they will provide the advantages of both products. SmartHistory continues to expand in these areas, and I look forward to seeing them fill in these gaps. Which brings me to lesson #3: Patience is a virtue. At the moment, if frequent, dependable interactive materials that test student engagement with readings (while providing a series of automatically graded, low-stakes assignments) are desired, textbook publishers are the best place to find them. For now.

Each semester of my experiment, I gave two unofficial, anonymous surveys to my students to learn more about how the textbook-free course was working from their perspective. About 20% of my millennial students were loyal to the on-paper, traditional textbook, because they simply preferred to read and highlight in a book on paper. Some noted that they wanted to access material in a native language other than English. This taught me Lesson #4: Give students an escape option. If a student claimed to learn best visually, on-paper, or if English was not their first language, I encouraged them to buy a textbook early in the term. (Oh, Khan Academy, won’t you please offer your materials with subtitles/translations?)[Ed. note: Smarthistory materials ARE available with subtitles–see the comment from SH Deans below!]

In the surveys, about a third of the class admitted to being oral learners. They enjoyed the format of videos, brief texts, and interactives, and were even more thrilled that they did not have to pay for this material. This was my ideal target audience. These students’ experience with art history was transformed by accessing it through more dynamic media. I gained some new art-history majors and minors because of this experiment, which made my department happy, too. Let’s face it: If you are reading this post, you’re already convinced that art history is fascinating. Driving this message home to a new audience is gratifying.

However, about half of my students fessed up (surely, because the survey was anonymous) to never buying the required art-history survey textbooks and/or doing the assigned screenings/readings – even for the textbook-free class. In other words, it did not matter whether a book was required or not, because they weren’t going to buy it or follow links to other material anyway. For students like these, the interactive exercises (which are beginning to be offered by Khan Academy and are offered by other textbook-affiliated entities) may be the way to entice that engagement with the course content.

As I reflect on the past year of teaching the survey without a textbook – with a book order due shortly for the spring term – I have decided to use the same syllabus of links (only updated, of course) for my Spring 2015 section of the survey course. I am patient enough to wait until the Khan Academy’s interactive quizzes and features offer broader coverage of non-Western art, in particular. Until then, I will be offering a textbook recommendation for the 20% who prefer an on-paper book, and will keep offering videos/interactives/brief text links for the other third of my students. Once Khan Academy’s free interactive material is ready for the global art-history survey, though, that other half of my students who professed to be non-readers of any required course materials better watch out.

6 responses to “A Postmortem: Textbook-Free Survey, The One-Year Anniversary”

  1. parme giuntini says:

    I applaud your efforts for a textbook free course. At my institution (Otis College of Art and Design), we have been teaching the first year Art History courses with only free material (databases/pdfs) for the past four years. There is so much information out there that expensive textbooks seem unnecessary.

    One advantage that I have found is that students are getting more practice at evaluating online sources–they even apologize when they use Wikipedia sometimes–and they are getting better at finding information online. Any homework assignment that requires research also requires an annotation of the source (author, title, kind of source) which is helping with their information literacy. It’s constant practice that makes them more critical…plus, they would rather find it online than read it in a book.

  2. Beth Harris says:

    Hi Kris,
    Thanks for this interesting post! Just a few things…

    Khan Academy does indeed offer subtitles, translations and transcripts! I’m so so sorry you (and your students) didn’t see them. There is an options button that looks like a gear below each video where you can click a button for an interactive transcript.

    Also, for translations, once you hit “play” there is another gear icon below the YouTube logo in the lower right, where you can get transcripts in many, many languages.

    *A note to the editors* — can this article be amended to reflect that Smarthistory does in fact offer transcripts and translations, since it’s critical that folks know this is available (or perhaps some fact-checking with us would have been helpful!).

    And we’re so sorry about the broken links! We actually worked very, very hard to make sure every link from Smarthistory.org was redirected to the same page on Khan Academy, so we are surprised to hear about the problems.

    In any case, you should always feel free to drop us an email or tweet to us when you have problems – we’re happy to help!

    We’re also working hard, as you know, on global content (adding more all the time). If there are particular objects/monuments you need please do let us know. And of course, Smarthistory is always looking for contributors…

    Beth & Steven

    • shelbyarthistory says:

      Thanks Beth and Steven! We have added an Editor’s Note regarding the translations. I also want to underscore Beth and Steven’s point that Smarthistory is working to continually expand the content making for a breadth and depth of material for the survey. Please do contact them if you would like to contribute (any of you readers of the AHTR Weekly!). It is super experience contributing to the site with valuable feedback from Beth and Steven.

  3. I have been asked to consider an online art history course and I feel I can’t get 1/2 the students to do the assignments in person let alone online. I am not sure how I would get them to read/hand-in any readings or work. How do you handle this?

    • shelbyarthistory says:

      I do not teach on-line and there are plenty of folks on here who would be better at answering this specific question.
      But what about rigging it so that the students cannot continue in the class unless material is submitted. You may be able to set the on-line system so that subsequent material is available only if submissions occur. Or if they participate in an on-line blog or discussion. This also may be a great question for the Chronicle Forum.

  4. Kris Belden-Adams says:

    Hi, everyone –

    Sorry for the delay in joining the conversation. I wanted to check in with several of my former students students who reported issues with finding translated Khan Academy videos, so that I could report more information about their feedback.

    My students were using portable devices (iPhones/Android platforms) most often. Those platforms do not include a translation link in YouTube. (I tried to access it with my iPhone5, and can confirm their observations.) I anticipate that this will not always be the case as YouTube evolves.

    The students who had issues with translations are native speakers of Chinese (various dialects) and French. When they used their laptops to access the videos, they discovered that their native languages are not supported by YouTube’s translations feature. One of our fastest-growing ESL student populations is from China. So I have my fingers crossed that YouTube soon will add these languages. This is not a fault of Smarthistory’s/Khan Academy’s content, certainly.

    As for how to entice students to complete assignments – well, that is the constant challenge, isn’t it?

    In the past 15-ish years of teaching, I have noticed that students expect that professors will offer alternative “extra credit” opportunities (often in multiples) to redeem/raise bad scores. I have very often wondered if offering extra credit enables a mindset that bad preparation/a lack of academic diligence carry no consequences. Although this may be a subject for a different forum, I’m curious about others’ thoughts on this.

    Kris Belden-Adams

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