Photo of Higher Ed Aztec Art by Janice Robertson

Higher Ed Aztec Art by Janice Robertson

By Janice Robertson



This VoiceThread shows what can happen when VoiceThreads are woven into a 500-level graduate/undergraduate seminar on Aztec Art, and everyone has the ability to see what everyone else is doing–a surprise ending turns out to be a game-changer.

Feedback on the last day of seminar and in the final written essays was especially striking. One student reported that, when we switched from VoiceThreads to the written essays for the final assignment, she all of a sudden “felt isolated”–heads nodded throughout the class, and a rousing discussion ensued. Another student grappled with VoiceThread experiences in the final essay, concluding that:“After reverting to paper writing…I realized the benefits inherent in VoiceThreads and understood the barriers formalized papers have in analyzing visual objects. I really would like to see VoiceThread being used in other art history classes to bring out ideas that might be hidden by traditional classroom conventions.”


The VoiceThreads within this seminar project are not supposed to function in standalone terms as presentations, they hold conversations–open within the framework of the seminar.

Students created their own VoiceThreads. They were open to “viewing” and “commenting” by everyone in the seminar from start to finish. Owners could extend “editing” privileges at their discretion.

Two in-class computer labs were conducted in conjunction with this assignment. The labs created opportunities for students to collaborate with each other, with me, and with Art Reference Librarian, Cheryl Costello, on research questions that occurred to them as they were working on their VoiceThreads. Cheryl also followed the VoiceThreads online–and added another dimension to the labs by bringing print books from the library that students might want to consult–this was a big hit!


Each student was asked to: visit one of three local museums with collections of Aztec art, find one or more objects of Aztec art that interested them, photograph the object(s), create their own VoiceThread, upload their photographs–and develop an online conversation around those objects. Students were also required to contribute substantive comments to three VoiceThreads other than their own.

One objective of this assignment was to promote multimedia investigations and conversations around pre-Columbian art objects, in sympathy with the primarily oral cultures that produced these objects, also in sympathy with the secondary orality of present-day digital natives.

Another objective was to promote insights into print media and written texts (staples within the discipline of art history), based on experiences gained from working outside of print media. This is an old idea: see Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964). What is new is that VoiceThread technology takes it out of the realm of theory and makes it do-able in the classroom, this is anticipated in: George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992).

The seminar concluded with a written essay: to be constructed out of the “most significant material and/or ideas” gained from the course. Students subsequently reported that they hadn’t realized what VoiceThread was doing for them until it was “taken away”–this writing assignment clinched it.


Another cloud application: MediaThread, solves a problem raised by students in conjunction with this project: They want VoiceThread’s collaborative, conversational and brainstorming environment. They want VoiceThread’s tools for enaging directly with visual material. Without giving any of these things up, they also want to be able to connect the dots and “write” linear text in order to hone their ideas.

MediaThread is an open-source platform launched in Fall 2010, and under development at Columbia University. It establishes links with: (a) institution specific media sources, such as ARTstor (according to the holdings, affiliations and subscriptions of a given institution), and (b) public media sources, such as YouTube and Flicker. Within this linked network, MediaThread enables users to annotate, tag, organize–and “write” about the linked media–that’s the “thread.” Embedded in the electronic “thread” of text are “links” that open multimedia sources in adjacent windows–so the thread produces “hypertext.” MediaThread also offers an complete range of options for sharing and collaborating along the way.


If you think you might want to share your students’ work: with other educators at your institution, with the VoiceThread Digital Library, or in conference presentations, be sure to ask for written permission for each of these venues. I take advantage of the student evaluations procedure to accomplish this. I explain what I am asking for, then leave the room. My own “Request For Permissions” form is passed out, students complete it, it is collected in a separate envelope–and delivered to an administrator who will wait until I have submitted grades before releasing it to me.

When I create VoiceThreads for class projects, my name appears in the “by” line at the top of the VoiceThread. I use the “description” field to create a “by” line with student names, but this listing remains subsidiary. I asked students to create their own VoiceThreads for this project, so they would be identified as owners of their own work, but I needed editing privileges for management purposes. The hardest part was getting students to give me editing privileges in their VoiceThreads. This required additional effort on my part.

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.