This column by Ann Johns, distinguished senior lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History, originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the college’s Arts Next magazine.
In 2015, Dean Dempster asked if I’d be interested in teaching a new type of online course created at UT and known as a SMOC (Simultaneous Massive Online Course). My first impulse was to run for the hills, because I cherish the spontaneity of direct instruction and those invaluable “teaching moments” that arise while instructing students. As director of the department’s Learning Tuscany program, I have the great privilege of teaching 25 students on site in Italy each year in front of Bernini, Fra Angelico and Duccio. How could an online experience be anything but a pale shadow of these other rich teaching experiences?
And then I visited UT’s LAITS (College of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services) filming studio, where I saw how engaged and well-instructed students could be in this new format.
Fast forward to 2017: I am now in the planning stages of another round of ARH 303 as a SMOC, and I’m pleased to report the following: teaching this class last spring was one of the highlights of my career. I am excitedly looking forward to improving on our first effort, and I am immensely gratified by the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from our students.
Here are some of the surprising takeaways from our first round of teaching online:
- Classes are live, so students can ask questions in real time. This is a huge boon for the shy or uncertain student, who might be discouraged from asking questions in a large lecture hall format.
- The online format is the great equalizer, as everyone has a “front-row” view of the speaker. This is, again, an immense advantage to the vast majority of students who do not sit in the front two rows of a large lecture hall. The images are clearer, and the sound is adjustable, and our millennial students seem quite comfortable.
- We easily interspersed music, movie clips, YouTube videos and our own videos into the classes. Our videos include those created to illustrate painting and printmaking techniques and also the pre-class videos that incorporated references from pop culture into the curriculum for the day (Mad Men on Rothko, The Simpsons on Warhol, etc.).
- The lectures are captured on video, so students can watch them again for studying and review purposes.
- Students still have direct contact hours, through studio visits, TA sections and live office hours. An unexpected consequence was that I had about 25 percent more students visit me in office hours!
- Students still had the opportunity to visit the Blanton Museum and interact with art throughout the semester, and the Blanton staff could not have been more helpful.
We certainly still have challenges, but I feel confident that this format can deliver a course that allows a large number of students to fulfill their Visual and Performing Arts requirement and to understand our world through the prism of art. Enhancing all of our students’ critical thinking and visual literacy skills seems a worthy goal for the uncertain 21st century.