Christine D’Onofrio in Visual Art uses EdX and Connect to revitalize course content and change student learning


christine d'onofrio

I developed my curriculum from a futuristic standpoint, rather than how I’ve always done the course, and this really renewed my excitement for the curriculum.

–Christine D’Onofrio, Instructor, Art History, Visual Art and Theory

Back Story

VISA 110 is a first year digital foundation course. It now runs three times a year, and it’s a fairly large course with about 100 to 260 students enrolled per term. It includes a one-hour lecture in which I cover topics about contemporary art after the development of machinery and technology. Besides the lecture, we have separate labs of about 20 students each that are run by TAs who are MFA students.

Tell us a little bit about your project and where the idea came from?

A lot of the undergrads come into the course with various levels of experience and expertise, and so do the TAs that teach the lab components in terms of their backgrounds, so I looked for methods to streamline the course. What I thought would be a great way to do this is by creating an online technical library that students can continually visit if they need certain lessons repeated. If they’re at an advanced level, they can just review the materials and get the questions right. I wanted to create this online resource in a way that provides students with some independence and freedom in their learning and also streamline the information given from the TAs. Also, since it’s a digital-focused class, I wanted to introduce the digital realm into it and have the students actually be generative and productive with it. I also eventually plan to create an online peer-reviewing space in this course because unlike in the painting studio where everybody gets together in person, students normally go home and use their own computers to complete digital work. So I wanted to start cultivating communication among artists doing digital art. With the labs in this course, however, I really feel that they help focus what little time we have with each student in this type of large-scale first year course. As for the online video materials, which are not only technical explanations but also demonstrations of skills, they act as an almost pedantic way to teach the students and spark more valuable conversations about the material in class and within labs.

What changes were implemented in your course?

I think it was our resources that changed the most, because the class time used to be much more about talking about what it means to make representation and a lot of lecturing about the more abstract concepts. After putting some of this material online along with the technical tutorials, I started developing activities in class that could allow the students to exercise what they had learned. The online materials were for the most part software usage, as in technical demonstrations as well as skill-building and formal arrangements. In a way, the material posted online is almost like the spelling and grammar lessons of a writing course. So in a writing class, we might talk about an essay and its content, but the students may learn about spelling, grammar and sentence structure at home. In the same way for this course, the students learned about the skills and software they need to use to make the projects at home, but built on project content and ideas in class.

I also implemented reading discussions during class time so that they would have a chance to get through the ideas of the assigned readings. One of the bigger changes as a result of the new format was that I was able to use the extra class time I had to organize a class trip, where they actually went to go see art. So flipping the course structure made it so that the students learn and read about technical skills and skill-building at home, which is much easier to do, and then tackle the abstract and theoretical concepts in more fruitful ways in class.

What were the results?

Introducing the online course materials really changed the overall direction of the course and the students’ experience of it. Prior to the change, we only had a limited amount of hours to teach particular skills to the class. Thus everybody had to learn the same software, and everybody had to develop their project using that software. What ended up happening was that everyone developed a similar set of skills and we ended up seeing similarities between the final results of their project. But in art, it is so important to be able to see the identity of the artist coming through their work. So when we finally decided to build this detailed online library of technical demonstrations and lessons for different software, the students got exposure to a much wider range of possibilities and ideas; for instance, they could do an audio project, make an animation or gif, a still project, a moving image project, or a video. Basically they had a lot more control over the project they were making and the types of skills that they gained, and they really got to take their projects in ways that allowed them to explore their interests. I think that they definitely got more fulfillment in what they were doing, and they also gained important skills as independent learners. Through the online material, they learned how to learn, they learned how to get the information they need rather than being taught a very specific, closed lesson in class. The classes with the modules became much more expansive, and we were able to bring in everybody’s individual experiences as they worked on their project. They were actually willing to share and talk about it, because they all had different experiences!

What have you observed in terms of student learning?

That’s a tough one because you can’t always anticipate student reception, but I will say that it was a good year. I saw that the students who did well from the start of the term produced some really exceptional work by the end, while students who struggled throughout ended up not making much progress at all. I think what this means is that the students really had to realize independent initiative – they had to stop procrastinating, because they weren’t going to be guided in a very specific way in the demos or even in the labs. But for the most part, the students who knew how to best utilize the online material were just stellar – they were incredibly ambitious, and produced some really creative work that pushed all the boundaries. I would say I received some of the best work I’ve ever gotten out of this course from this past term. I think it’s because of the huge shift compared to the previous format of the course, where we would be more controlling over their project direction and decisions in the labs.

Overall, I think this changed course format has definitely broadened my horizons and made me more excited to see what kinds of things we can achieve through class activities, and how that makes a difference in student learning and their experience of the course.

What were some of the challenges you faced? Is there anything about your approach you would improve or change, and if so, why?

Structure-wise, I had some issues with working out due dates for certain portions of the course work. I learned a lot by working out this new kind of online format and seeing firsthand how it impacts the way students learn and how I teach the course. So now that I know where some of the trouble areas were in terms of pace and student receptiveness, I might set more deadlines next time for the online technical skill practice. This is so that I can keep things streamlined and give the students checkpoints to meet through the course, while still allowing them freedom in which sorts of technical skills they decide to pick up or focus on. I’ve really been able to observe that different people learn in different ways, so I might need to add a little more guidance for those who just don’t do as well in environments where their learning is more self-directed or self-initiated.

What are the next steps for the project, and what are you planning for year 2?

One of the major next steps for this project is to evaluate the technical concerns of how the videos cover certain topics, as well as the feedback we’ve received about how students learn to use new software. We’ve come up with a list of info we need to add or clarify, so we will be remaking at least some of the videos. I’m also considering transcribing the videos, since some people felt that subtitles or a transcription file would help them better learn and absorb the material. I think our primary goal with the videos is to target the topics and skills that the students are most concerned about.

By the end of this summer, I also hope to create an online peer review system so that before their projects are due, students can upload a rough draft or a near-complete draft of their work anonymously and receive some preliminary feedback on them from two other students. In the end, each student might get about three project drafts from their peers to critique. I think this will definitely be helpful for the students as they start working on their final drafts. The nice thing about an online review system is that they won’t have to critique each other for the first time in person, which can make some students feel very vulnerable when they show their work. The initial written critique for their rough drafts will allow them to practice how to give constructive and helpful feedback before any final in-class presentations, with the help of some points or questions I’ll provide them with to focus on as they’re writing. By learning how to assess other people’s work, they’ll be able to critically examine how their own work is functioning, and hopefully make changes that lead to better work overall.

And finally, I’m hoping that the online system will help the quieter students get their voices heard, and also so that when they do the in-person feedback in lab with the TAs, they might feel more prepared to talk openly about their peers’ works. So I hope to have this system up in place next January, and also have the improved technical videos set up and ready by September this year. By really encouraging dialogue, I’m hoping it’ll eventually lead to voluntary discussion between the students and get them accustomed to the zone of talking about each other’s work and about art in general.

Do you have any advice for instructors that are hoping to implement similar changes in their courses?

The biggest lesson I learned was the timeline and workload. I would say to give yourself double the length of time you think you’re going to need to implement your changes. In my case, I wanted to beta test the online technical library idea in September last year after getting the grant in April. It was 69 videos I had to make within those 4-5 months, and I should have realized it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t fully realize how much time I needed to put aside for editing the videos after recording them – so really, I hadn’t taken into account the most time-consuming part of the whole process.

Another advice I’d have is to explore different platforms for your course. EdX was perfect for me because it was linked to the grade book in Connect. This was really essential, because I needed to have just one space where everyone – as in myself and the seven or so TAs in the course – could see the grades at once and add new grades without someone having to continually keep track and add up all the scores in a separate platform. Knowing that I could customize my course in the way I wanted through EdX while still retaining the security and accessibility of Connect was huge to me, so I think it’s very important to research and understand all the software and platforms available to you before you start building. You definitely want to start off at the right place.

Otherwise, I would say to just try it out, and then make sure to listen to your students and get feedback from them about your course. Different classes need different things, and I think it was great that I did a survey about my students’ experience because I was able to identify some technical issues and some trouble areas in student learning that I hadn’t anticipated. If I hadn’t asked, I may not have found out about it, so it was really quite enlightening. I would also suggest contacting people who are experts in the field and can help you achieve what you want through the construction of your course. I’ve also found that it’s very important to make your changes and developments with a fresh perspective. I developed my curriculum from a futuristic standpoint, rather than how I’ve always done the course, and I thought that this really renewed my excitement for the curriculum that might otherwise have felt a little mundane as time went by.