Art History and Technology
When asked to think about college art history classes, many people recall sitting in the dark, looking at slides. The Ithaca College art history department is changing that experience by employing a variety of digital media and state-of-the-art technology in the classroom. Thanks to grants from the W. M. Keck Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the department has been able to create an advanced visual studies classroom. “This is a leading facility for art history. There aren't many around like this,” boasts Gary Wells, associate professor and department chair. The classroom is equipped with the very latest Macintosh computers for student usage in class, large liquid crystal display screens, and two digital projectors, as well as the familiar slide projector.
The use of newer technology is not meant to replace the department’s extensive collection of conventional slides but to supplement the educational experience by using tools such as digital media and databases to create a more dynamic and interactive approach to learning. “We want to get away from the idea that it’s a passive process. All of the new resources empower students in ways that were not possible when slides were more physical. The computers give the ability to work with images directly and allow us to see the classroom as a collaborative space, not just a lecture hall. It changes the possibilities of what we can do,” says Wells. This technology is being used for student presentations, to promote small group discussion, and to compare and contrast images in class via a split screen. It also allows for a deeper understanding. “It gives us the opportunity to apply something we're learning that day, develop it, investigate it, follow up on it,” Wells explains. Technology such as this puts students in control of one aspect of the content of the course and gives professors more of a dialogue with students, allowing students the opportunity to present images that are complementary or counter to the images viewed in class. Student response to this more active approach has been very positive.
Various faculty members are also taking advantage of the exciting possibilities that technology has to offer the study of art history. Professor Wells has had his students set up a digital gallery for his 19th-Century Art class for three years now. Students take on the role of curators, selecting a theme or a year to explore, documenting appropriate images, writing a catalogue, and explaining their reasons for choosing the images in the collection. Each student’s work is presented digitally, allowing everyone in the class the opportunity to tour and to learn from one another’s gallery. Professor Stephen Clancy’s Virtual Chartres Project has received international attention for the way in which he’s employed technology to study art and architecture from the medieval period. Associate professor Lauren O’Connell has developed a teaching tool, Virtual Voyager, which is used in the study and exploration of urban spaces.
Reflecting on this, Wells says, “We're ahead of the game compared to most art history departments. Change managed properly can be very exciting. It’s not about new replacing old; it’s about opening up new possibilities.”
Originally published in KnowLedges, Volume 7, Number 1, Fall 2006: Art History and Technology.