Bringing New Technologies to Ancient Disciplines

Faculty Focus: Matthew Ballou, Art Department

Is it possible to teach – and truly model the skills of – physical, analog disciplines in an online environment? This was my task when I began the process of developing the first fully online Beginning Drawing course for the University of Missouri in 2014. The idea of building an online foundations drawing course had been a perennial topic in the Department of Art for several years prior to my attempt. I, for one, was dubious of its potential for success. The challenges seemed huge, and questions abounded.

How could I translate the intangible aspects of communicating concepts to unique groups of students while simultaneously demonstrating the techniques necessary to drive those concepts from abstractions to concrete actions? How could I guarantee the precise application of advice and meaningful discourse without physically observing my students in real time? How could I be certain that students would gain an understanding of drawing equal to their peers in face-to-face classes? These were just a few of the overarching concerns I had about embarking on my many months of course development.

I decided to address these issues head on by taking advantage of the excellent video recording technologies available through Educational Technologies at Missouri (ET@MO). After a few sessions guided by the wonderful staff in the Heinkel Building, I was able to take over and handle all aspects of my course development. This involved adapting my lesson plans into forms appropriate for video, recording the sessions from multiple camera angles, and using simple video editing software (in my case, Camtasia) to craft watchable, informative, and properly paced videos.

Though I would eventually record over 30 videos for the online course, I was only a few sessions in when I realized that this process would revolutionize my teaching. Through adapting the scope and sequence of my course for an online environment, I was able to more objectively analyze what worked and what did not work. I was also encouraged to refine how I delivered the content, focusing on clearer language and smaller chunks of information. After nearly a decade of teaching this class face-to-face, I was finally able to sit back and really see what I had been doing and how I might revamp my approach across the board. I focused my attention on crafting short, re-watchable demonstration videos that enhanced the main lectures and made them more applicable.

Beginning Drawing, Lecture 6, by Matthew Ballou.

In constructing the videos I ended up expanding my repertoire of demonstration methods. I was able to incorporate multiple points of view through doubling and tripling camera coverage of a single demo, something not really possible in a face-to-face class. I used Google Glass to capture my “eye” view and show students exactly where I was looking and how I was applying course concepts to what I was seeing. I also used iPads with digital drawing and painting software to create videos of artworks from first marks to final flourish. In all of these videos I incorporated annotations – arrows, text, etc. – right into the presentation.

Still Life Demo created with Adonit Jot Touch 4 and Sketchbook Pro on an iPad Air., by Matthew Ballou.

I ended up building a library of instructional lectures and hands-on demos that I can use across all of my Beginning Drawing classes. I have found them especially helpful with ESL students as well as with students who are sick or have missed classes for other reasons. Having that database of content ready to share with my students has made a huge difference in my teaching. In art, where most studio classes are heavily oriented toward individual practice, these videos are a fine-tuned resource for students who might be struggling or who need a new perspective. Overall, in spite of my original misgivings, producing an online course for a traditionally analog discipline has been tremendously positive.

Portrait of Erika – Beginning Drawing Portrait, By Matthew Ballou.

There have been drawbacks, however. The online learning environment allows for particular problems, many of which come out of the reality that, to be successful, online students must be much more self-motivated and excellent at time management than their physical classroom counterparts. In my brick-and-mortar classrooms I can dictate our time management and model passionate engagement with the ideas; I cannot make the same impact on a student sitting at her computer at 2 a.m. While my face-to-face Beginning Drawing classes tend to have a unified outcome (between 2010 and 2015 my students averaged around a B+), my online Beginning Drawing students have had much broader spectrum of grades. I almost never have Ds or Fs in my brick and mortar classes, but a significant portion of my online students have earned lower grades. After running my online course a few times and observing closely, it seems to me that the cumulative, iterative activities and positive use of time that come with being in a real classroom make an effective difference.

As of right now, the face-to-face classroom model does seem to yield the best results for my Beginning Drawing course. Yet I am encouraged by the potential of the technologies that surround online courses to enhance the quality of instruction regardless of how art courses are delivered. Ultimately, drawing is an ancient art form and the technologies surrounding it are, in many ways, of the Stone Age. Any time a student touches charcoal to paper they are engaging in an activity that connects them to other humans across one hundred thousand years. Bringing digital tools and online learning to that reality doesn’t change what our central concerns must be: growing awareness, building perspective, and sensing relationships. Having come to see these things as the point of all of my teaching, I can approach online courses with openness to what the newest technology offers while maintaining a clear view of what my course media and techniques are meant to do: foster thoughtful attention and transformative expression.