The Further Adventures, er, Advantages of OER


I have long been an advocate for Open Access (OA) and Open Educational Resources (OER), and a few years ago when I was hired as full-time faculty at El Centro College and found myself the only faculty member teaching the Art History Survey courses during the full semesters, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and convert my survey courses to an OER format. I spent a year doing this, relying heavily on Smarthistory (for whom I have submitted several entries), the Met Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and the BBC’s archived podcast series The History of the World in 100 Objects.  I supplemented these with select episodes of BBC 4’s In Our Time podcast, scanned PDFs of essays from journals and books, and various online resources from museums, libraries, and Google Arts & Culture.

Bibliothèque municipale de Boulogne-sur-Mer_MS 0131
Not just an opportunity to toot my own horn. [Image from Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, France, 1297.] SOURCE: This amazing history of farting in early music and literature.

This is not just self-promotion: I was inspired to write this after reading, earlier this summer, Michelle Millar Fisher’s excellent post on Art History Teaching Resources about ditching the traditional survey textbook in favor of open educational resources.  As Fisher notes, one of the great benefits using a plethora of open educational resources offers over of the traditional survey text is a multitude of different “voices,” be it interpretative, methodological, or even combative (not to mention the wider array of backgrounds from these voices: gender, age, race, etc.).  Another benefit to using OER, as Fisher suggests, is that videos and audio can better impart scholars’ enthusiasm for their subjects, a far cry from the rather dry, authoritative, homogeneous tone of survey textbooks.

“…[I]t’s far easier to enthuse students with this type of resource than a survey textbook.” (Michelle Millar Fisher)

I want to build off of Fisher’s post, though, with a few more advantages that OER offers to art history courses, particularly survey classes taught both online and face-to-face.

Multiple Learning Styles: by consciously using text, audio, and video as assigned “readings,” and supplementing these – when possible – with more exploratory online interactive websites, OER can far more respond to students’ different learning styles.  Moreover, I select resources that overlap information, to maximize the ability to reach students with different learning styles. This becomes especially important with the advantages online museum sites and Google Arts & Culture offer with viewing images: zooming in and linking images thematically or formally can lead students down a rabbit hole that can be prove fruitful to class discussions and, to be frank, their enjoyment.  Such capabilities far exceed the static images in a textbook, and even those digital assets textbook publishers provide that are locked behind a paywall.

Quickly Update Course Content with New Research and Discoveries: not being beholden to a printed survey text means that when new discoveries are made, or new research becomes available, I can rapidly implement these into the assigned readings in class. The advantage here is twofold: first, it more seamlessly builds such research into class discussions; second, this subtly indicates to students that art history (and all related fields like archaeology, sociology, anthropology, among others) are not “dead” fields, but alive with practitioners.  Additionally, this also shows that the propensity for survey courses to reduce works of art to specific “meanings” or “purposes” can be made more nuanced by including recent theories or research.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback: throughout the semester I consistently ask students for feedback on the assigned OER.  Some of this is to be expected: they prefer video and audio and shorter-form website readings, and often begrudge the longer, traditional PDF readings from journal essays and book chapters.  Yet, students are often very forthright with what they appreciate and do not care for with OER.  And because I can easily modify the selection of links and resources, I can more easily make changes based on their responses from semester-to-semester than would be possible with a textbook.

Perhaps the most important feedback I have received from students are those students who actually prefer a textbook: they often need the bullet points, the synopses, even the packaging, to help learn the material.  This has forced me to be up-front with students about the need for them to critically think about what they are reading, and to put more effort into taking notes and looking for broad ideas as they prepare for class (I reinforce this during class discussions, too.)

Implicit in all of this, though, are aspects to OER that we must keep in mind.  As an instructor, I revel in the ability to tweak, modify, and therefore maintain upkeep on the OER I use in my classes.  When links break or entire websites move to new subdomains, though, it can prove onerous to update everything.  Moreover, OER means we expect students to readily have access to online technology to take advantage of these resources; this financial offset can be as burdensome as buying the textbook itself.

These considerations aside, though, I wholeheartedly agree with Fisher when she concludes her post by calling for the “end of the compulsory survey textbook.”  And I was excited today to see that Karen Shelby at ATHR announced they have partnered with CUNY to further develop and promote art historical OER repositories, particularly with pedagogical teaching practices.  The future is bright for OER in art history classes, and I could not be more pleased.

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