Photo of Higher Ed Pre-Columbian Art History by Janice Robertson

Higher Ed Pre-Columbian Art History by Janice Robertson

By Janice Robertson



This VoiceThread shows what can happen when students have the opportunity to expand on class teachings and assigned readings, incorporating material of their choice into an art history class: in this case, a 200-level undergraduate course on Pre-Columbian Art and Civilization.

The beauty of the assignment is that it is simple and open to interpretation; it is also solidly integrated and fueled by multiple aspects of the course.

Student accomplishments exceeded my expectations; this lead me to rethink my teaching objectives and standards for learning assessment, a process that is ongoing.


Immediately after the mid-term, I present the class with a list of “topics,” identical to the ones listed in the syllabus, offering a chance to choose amongst them for the purposes of this assignment. Up to three students can register for each topic. The order of registration is determined by lottery: numbers are drawn from a “sorting” hat. Teams of two or three are accordingly formed by means of chance and choice, and with great fanfare!


Students working in teams of two or three are asked to: visit a museum, select one or more objects of interest to team members and representative of a given course topic, photograph those objects, upload their photographs to a VoiceThread–and develop an online conversation around those objects. Team conversations are later opened up to the entire class and each student is required to contribute substantive comments to three VoiceThreads other than their own.

I create one VoiceThread for each “topic,” list the names of the team members in the “description” field of the VoiceThread, give those students “editing” privileges,” and initially invite only those students to that VoiceThread.

Teams have six weeks to work on their VoiceThreads. Two in-class computer labs are conducted within this period of time. The labs ensure that teams will have a certain amount of synchronous working time, with opportunities for “in the moment” technical support. The labs also create opportunities for students to collaborate with me and/or an Art Reference Librarian, who joins us in the computer lab, on research questions that occur to them as they are working on their VoiceThreads.

After six weeks, I extend “viewing” and “commenting” privileges to the entire class (team members retain exclusive “editing” privileges) and issue email invitations to all VoiceThreads. Students have one week to review and comment on three VoiceThreads other than their own.

Last but not least, teams present material from their VoiceThreads in class, summarizing key findings and fielding questions from classmates. The class then has an opportunity to choose one or two objects from each VoiceThread project that they would like to see on the final exam.


Students working on their own VoiceThreads, may require instruction in IT skills and functions external to VoiceThread, e.g. how to make screenshots, how to download YouTube videos, how to control Audio Input Volume on the computer. So, I developed a “VoiceThread Toolkit” with downloadable instructions for these and a few other VoiceThread specific skills. I share it with every class. It resides side-by-side with other class VoiceThreads. And each page of instructions is open to user comments or questions–can’t do that with a wiki!


I watched this assignment play out over the course of four semesters in a total of eight Pre-Columbian Art classes. Students took me places that I never would have gone–and I learned how important it is to them to tap into the kind of material that does not come with answer keys, and to engage in genuine, unscripted explorations of that material. It’s not unique to this VoiceThread, but it comes across loud and clear when you hear Alan state that he chose a decorated terracotta tripod bowl–because this type of object wasn’t discussed in class. It wasn’t covered in the textbook either, and I wouldn’t have suggested this piece, because I wouldn’t think they’d find that much to say about it; I’ve seen graduate students silenced by this type of object. But a variety of students did find things to say: and their comments are illuminating (compare Esther Pasztory’s chapter on “Ceramics” in her book on Aztec Art [1983; 2000], not an assigned reading, and you’ll see that they’re on target); the collaborative effort was equally impressive.

My advice to other educators who might want to replicate this project is to wait patiently before you jump in, and listen carefully to your students before you speak.