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Undergraduate students in Columbia's Core Curriculum are now studying many of the world's great masterpieces on-line, both in the classroom and in their dorm rooms. Columbia's Core, which last year marked its 75th anniversary, started this semester with pioneering technological innovations in the teaching and study of art history and architecture. The Core Curriculum is the country's oldest continuous Western civilization program.
Two cutting-edge multi-media projects have been developed for Art Humanities, one of the courses comprising the Core. Collaboration between the Art History and Archaeology Department, the Columbia University Libraries and Academic Information Systems has resulted in a high quality collection of digital images, available through Columbia's Home Page on the World Wide Web, and the Amiens Project, the name given to a range of multi-media materials developed by Gothic architecture expert Professor Stephen Murray. Amiens, the French Gothic cathedral, is one of the topics studied in Art Humanities.
These projects have broad implications for instructional techniques, out-of-class study and intellectual property law.
A requirement for every Columbia undergraduate, Art Humanities was added to the Core Curriculum in 1947. Not simply an historical survey, its 11 units cover major topics in the history of Western art and focus intensively on a relatively small number of paintings and buildings.
According to Hilary Ballon, director of Art Humanities and Professor of Art History, the select nature of the syllabus makes it an ideal test for the feasibility of replacing traditional slides and prints with digital images. Approximately 50 percent of the course's images--some 500 slides--are already on-line and that number will continue to grow.
Where students of art history traditionally relied on flat, one-dimensional slides in class and trips to the library reserve room to consult a limited number of texts or black-and-white prints, now they can view high quality digital images in electronic classrooms and later study them via the World Wide Web in dorm rooms or computer labs. Web accessibility vastly increases the availability of the materials required each semester by 25 different instructors and approximately 700 undergraduates.
"The immediate value of the digital images is for out-of-class study," said Professor Ballon. "The digital experiment is already a success, judging by the quality of the images, their accessibility and the ability students have to zoom in on details of their choice."
The other benefits are more long-term, says Professor Ballon, who believes that digital technology will eventually lead to more in-class resources. Currently, to teach Art Humanities or any art history class, instructors must decide what slides to show by pre-selecting them and organizing them in a carousel. If spontaneous discussion ranges to comparison with another artwork, there is currently no way to show that image. As more artworks are incorporated into the University's overall digital library system, an enormous number of images will be available at any given time.
Professor Ballon says that these digital images compare favorably with slides in terms of quality, but both will be supplemented by trips to museums--"one of the great advantages of studying in New York City."
The most complicated aspect of the project involves digital property issues, including obtaining copyrights from slide distributors and museums. Current agreements restrict use to people with Columbia Internet addresses. "Because we are on the frontier," said Professor Ballon, "we are hitting some stumbling blocks in obtaining permission to put images on-line." But she is hopeful that these issues will be resolved.
The section on Amiens Cathedral is taught using images on the World Wide Web; two videos, one based on live footage and the other on computer animation; and through a new technique called Quick Time VR, which stitches together a series of digital photographs to create a 360-degree panorama with zoom capacity.
Professor Stephen Murray, a specialist in medieval art and architecture, director of the visual resources for Columbia's Art History Department and a leading authority on Amiens Cathedral, has produced this innovative range of course materials with doctoral candidate Maurice Luker and the graphic expertise of the Digital Design Laboratory of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
According to Professor Murray, state-of-the-art technology in the classroom is not just a fad or mere convenience. "The Amiens video allows students to study and discuss architecture in a new way," he said. "Traditional slides impose limitations when it comes to architecture. Buildings are meant to be moved through and video does a better job of simulating that experience than flat slides. The computer-generated issues can also address issues of design, construction and structure."
The Amiens video has been produced without narration to stimulate classroom discussion and encourage students to ask questions and provide their own explanations, in keeping with the philosophy of Columbia's Core Curriculum, which centers on small, discussion-based classes where students learn to discuss ideas, not merely memorize facts.
Many of the technologies that Professor Murray and Mr. Luker are perfecting for architecture can also be used for the study of sculpture. "What you really want to do is to take a Bernini sculpture and rotate it around to look at the back and the sides," said Professor Ballon. "Quick Time VR will give us that capability."
The production of the Amiens materials was funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; a second grant request to fund the Media Center for the Arts at Columbia is currently pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Center, headed by Professor Murray, is to be the source of more multi-media curriculum materials, including an Amiens CD-ROM currently under production.
Students are equipped to take full advantage of these innovations in instruction and technology due to the recent completion of a three-year Ethernet-wiring project that provides access to the Internet from all rooms in undergraduate residence halls. Columbia has also completed the second year of a 10-year plan to install multi-media equipment in classrooms and build more computer labs. Currently the university has 17 electronic classrooms and 320 computer stations in 10 labs.