Digital Toolkit, Part I: Podcasting and Video Production

In a previous post, I outlined some of the reasons why more art historians should be presenting our research through podcasts and videos. They’re engaging, they have a wide reach, they help keep us honest about our arguments and materials. These are also the reasons why we should be teaching our students to present their work using narrative media.

In a later post, I’ll delve into the problem of how to evaluate digital materials made by students and other scholars. Here, I want to describe a course I designed around this goal at Portland State University. It’s called Digital Toolkit, a name dreamed up by Prof. Anne McClanan, who originated the class in a slightly different form.

The assignments and handouts I designed for the Digital Toolkit course are available in this Google drive folder. I’d love it if others adopted and adapted this material, and if you do, it would be great to hear from you.

General course design and learning outcomes

I designed the Digital Toolkit course around a research project about an artist or artwork of students’ choice. Their research would be presented in the form of a well-crafted 4-6 minute audio narration, with images laid over it either in video or slideshow format. The four main goals were to introduce students to:

  • the various media and methods that are grouped under the umbrella term “Digital Art History”
  • how to do art historical research using open-access resources online
  • how to find high-quality images and other primary sources online, and use them legally
  • how to record and edit audio, and assemble a basic visual presentation to accompany it

Evaluating Digital Art History tools and approaches

As an introductory exercise, I had each student choose an existing Digital Art History tool or approach and write a one-page evaluation of it. As I noted in my previous post, narrative media tend to be conspicuously absent from such lists, and I left them out of this one intentionally so that students could get a feel for the other interesting possibilities that exist at the intersection of art history and technology before we spent the rest of the term exploring audio and video.

If I taught this course again, I would consider shifting this assignment toward an evaluation of narrative media instead. This would give students both inspiration and critical tools that would  help them on their own projects.

Researching information online

For the research portion of their projects, I explicitly encouraged my students to rely mostly on free, open-access online resources—that is, ones that do not require a special library login. As an independent scholar with often limited access to library resources myself, I have had to finely hone my online research skills, and I thought this would be a good exercise for students too.

We know that our students are relying heavily on these types of resources anyway, and so I thought it would be great to have them take a critical look at their sources through a simple annotated bibliography assignment. The open-access requirement was not an imperative aspect of the course, and wouldn’t necessarily need to be included. (I should note that a handful of my students did choose to visit the library anyway…)

Image search

The image search assignment was one area where this course really added value for students. This task had two parts: learning how to find high-resolution images online, and learning about image copyright and fair use. (Both are outlined in detail in the handouts.) These were skills that I was never explicitly taught in school, but I think we all agree that every art history instructor and student should master them!

The length and difficulty of the image-search process shocked many students. It can be really difficult to find a good reproduction of a work, or to track down a reliable source for an image. But with the speed and pixel resolution of today’s Web, it’s imperative that we find and use quality photos.


Audio production

I allowed students to choose whether to create a script or simply talk extemporaneously on their audio recordings (which they could record on a phone or computer), as long as it was tightly edited and sounded polished. Most ended up creating scripts for themselves, and almost everyone ended up creating more versions than required.

One of the most surprising things about the audio creation process was how critical the students were of themselves. Many began by writing a script that mimicked a typical research paper, but once they recorded and listened to it, they noticed something really important—it was boring! (Art historians are noticing that about our own work, too, and thankfully the way we do conferences is slowly changing.)

Many students rewrote their scripts and changed their delivery so that they sounded more conversational. In the process, something miraculous happened: they found things to say about art that were truly interesting, engaging, and often very moving. This backs up my point that presenting our research in narrative formats like podcasts can force us to be more rigorous and honest about what really matters in our work.

The technical side of audio recording and editing was a challenge for some, but even my most technically-challenged students did a great job of overcoming those barriers. I gave them detailed instructions and one-on-one help when needed, but I also think it’s important for students to figure things out on their own, so I didn’t jump in unless they asked. Those who did  solve problems had a sense of real pride in doing so.


Adding images

I decided that the 10-week term at Portland State was too short to allow for learning the nuances of video editing. An additional hurdle was that not all of my students had video editing software, especially if they lived far from campus. Ideally, a second course would provide more scaffolding for making videos, and the software would be provided by the college.

Some students in my course already had video editing skills and software, and were able to make good use of them; others learned on their own; and some simply decided to rely on PowerPoint or Google Slides to present their images as the audio played. All of these options  produced decent results, and it was striking how much images added to the audio.


Others should try

The students in my class were all extremely enthusiastic about the course. If you have thought about trying something like this, I encourage you to take the plunge. Even if you aren’t a seasoned audio/video producer yourself, learning side-by-side with students is a wonderful way to facilitate with tech.

I’ll go into more detail on how I evaluate narrative media in my post on Part II.

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