Hybrid Survey, Active Learning, and Digital Exhibitions

This semester I am teaching the first part of the western art survey in a hybrid format. Students watch videos about the works of art that are standard for a course of that nature through the Khan Academy/Smarthistory site. I make all the links available in our content management system; after viewing, students then answer discussion board questions and reflect in learning journals.

But we also meet face to face. And when we do I want those experiences to be more active types of engagements with the works of art and the ideas of the class. This summer, I was reading an article about the importance of “apprenticeship” and it got me thinking about art history …

Granted we call our classes “surveys,” but I have started to wonder if that is really the best way to introduce the discipline of art history to students, even at the introductory level. I know that there have been many discussions of reimaging the survey, but in the traditional one-thousand level class they are essentially seeing the “end game.” We do not share with them what went into the understanding of all those works of art or how interpretations were formed. Instead it’s a march through time that focuses on the meanings behind the works with plenty of memorization. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, except that it doesn’t explain the discipline of art history. It doesn’t show students how we know what we know.

As I was musing over that, I also suddenly realized that in our library we have some figurines from some of the very cultures that are covered in this survey class. I have walked by those objects for over fifteen years, but suddenly I thought, “If the librarians would allow it, I could have students in pairs work on those objects, and make them one entry in a digital exhibition.”

I am blessed with great librarians, who understand that all parts of the collection are for teaching and for students. So, with some limitations put in place, we were able to do this.

Here is one image of the students deeply engaged in the process of examining “their” work of art:

The assignment was to choose an image from every culture that we had covered in the class thus far (note we are halfway through the semester). One of those cultures was represented by the object they were assigned. They were not allowed to take pictures of their object, but the archivist made one available to all students. They created digital exhibitions of the object assigned, and then they were asked to research and find images of other works, describing every work chosen, and tying each back to the ideas, styles, and meanings of the works we had studied in class. They did this in a Powerpoint, but in the future I might have them do a WordPress site or a Prezi or some other digital platform. But the image/text intersection was important in this assignment.

I felt that this activity was one way to have students apply the information that they were learning in the class (the assignment) and have a hands-on exercise that allowed for more active engagement in the class (time together in the library). The nice thing about the hybrid format is that class time is freed up to have them investigate, curate, write, analyze, apply – rather than listen to me. They can watch the videos and read the texts that I make available and then do something more active when we are together. When we were in the library and they were examining their object, there was such a hum of excitement; I wished I could have recorded video for this post!

Class time is so precious and I do not want to spend the bulk of that time lecturing at students. With technology and best practices in course design, hybrid classes can offer more time to actively engage students. And with this particular activity, they themselves got to participate in a bit of art history inquiry themselves. For me, that is as important as the march through time and “covering” all the material. Because in the end, my class might be the only art history course these students take.



Dr. Gretchen Kreahling McKay is Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at McDaniel College. She is a speaker and consultant on active learning in the higher education classroom. She was the recipient of the Ira G. Zepp Distinguished Teaching Award at McDaniel College in 2015 and serves as the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror football team

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