Smarthistory applies to Open Ed 2010 in Barcelona

Here’s our proposal for Open Ed 2010: is a proven, sustainable, and inexpensive model for open educational resources in the Humanities. We will discuss lessons learned during the agile development process used to create this broadly adopted tool. is a free and open, creative-commons licensed, multimedia web-book designed as a dynamic enhancement or substitute for the traditional art history textbook. For the past fifty years, introductory art history courses have nearly always been supported with a comprehensive textbook. These have grown unwieldy and prohibitively expensive; the standard art history textbook in the US now contains over 1100 pages and costs more than $150.

Begun in 2005, Smarthistory has grown in response to the needs of students, their professors, and informal learners. It delivers unscripted conversations between content-experts to engage students while using a form that is native to the web—multimedia. Subject-based pages combine image, video, maps, text, and high-quality links. Smarthistory was designed with multiple pathways to allow visitors to browse according to their needs and interests. Visitors can enter the site by artist, style, or time period and the home page contains an intuitive visual navigation that functions as an interactive timeline and is modeled on the chapters of a book.

Smarthistory does not seek replicate the format of the traditional textbook in an online environment. Instead, embedded videos use conversation to deliberately move away from the impersonal, monolithic voice of the typical textbook in-order to reveal disagreement, emotion, and the experience of looking. The listener remains engaged with both the content and the interaction of the speakers. These conversations model close looking and a willingness to encounter and engage the unfamiliar. Image-based disciplines can be difficult to teach in an online environment; but we have found, for example, that audio allows students to simultaneously focus on an image and commentary, in a way not possible with text. Smarthistory takes the inherent dialogic and multimedia nature of the web and uses it as a pedagogical method.

In 2009, Smarthistory won the Webby award for education, it has been cited for the past two years in the Horizon Report (published jointly by the Educause Learning Alliance and the New Media Consortium), and by organizations such as the International Council of Museums. Universities, libraries, and museums around the world direct their learners to the site. Smarthistory is aimed at undergraduate students, museum visitors, and other informal learners and was visited more than 450,000 times from more than 150 countries in 2009.

Smarthistory is an extendable Humanities framework that uses the open-source content management system MODx. It was inexpensive to create, and is easy to manage and update. Its chronological timeline/chapter-based format integrates new contributions into a single historical framework; an organizational structure applicable across the Humanities. This structure also allows many more content experts to be included than in a traditional text, and because the project is web-based, Smarthistory has grown iteratively and has quickly incorporated user comments and corrections. We invite other disciplines in the Humanities to adopt this framework and encourage those interested to contact us.

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