Art History for Mere Mortals

Accessibility, eLearning, Mobile

Deconstructing the Entire History of Art

Problem to Solve

Turning off the lights in an art history class can be a great excuse to take a nap. The glow of the projected images and drone of the professor’s voice can induce a type of coma, where your eyes feel too heavy and brain can’t quite grasp all the visual info you are expected to remember. That’s what the textbook is for. Yet an alarming number of students aren’t motivated to do the reading and are unprepared to discuss the difference between Pissarro and Picasso.

The massive art history textbook Gardner’s Art Through the Ages 14th edition was to publish later that year, quickly followed by several humanities and art appreciation texts. We needed a strategy to better engage students through visual storytelling that would support online and distance learning as well as blended classrooms. The content needed be accessible to learners of all abilities, with little to no familiarity with art history, and on mobile devices.


Permission to use the images both online and in print for all the texts needed to be negotiated from the start. Millions of dollars were spent on image rights alone, and a good number of images were either denied digital usage or were last minute decisions. Importantly, the content needed to be relevant to all three college level courses: humanities, art history and art appreciation to maximize the publisher’s investment through reuse. It was also mandated for legal reasons that digital content be accessible to students with hearing, vision and mobility challenges.


I studied the contents of each text, and looked for overarching concepts that could be grouped thematically and aligned to historic periods. The Gardner text was sweeping in scope, as it covered the entire history of art within its 1200 pages. I hired an art history professor to partner with me on the script writing, research and topic selections. The authors of the texts were consulted to ensure proper coverage of the material. We narrowed down the list to 50 topical subjects, and hatched a plan to produce a series of 3-5 minute narrated videos.

Here are a couple videos without the summary.

For more a year, we poured over the texts and edited scripts before sending them off to be recorded by professional voice talent. Pronunciations of foreign names and locations were difficult to find and review, but critical to get right. I built the visual storyboards in Keynote, and timed the transitions to the audio before exporting to video with titling and credits. Lastly, I added captions and downloadable transcripts, selectable menus outlining the key points to remember, and quiz questions to help students review.

The 50 video study tools were matched with the curriculum of all three courses, and incorporated into learning management systems, online resource centers and embedded into ebooks.


Transcripts and closed captions are were just start of making the project accessible to all. An outline of key points with thumbnails to help students’ navigate the video and recall the most important details. Visual highlights on elements of the work help students to focus on the specific learning objectives in time with the audio. The best part may be that students can review the videos at their leisure and own pace. Try rewinding your prof next time you don’t understand what they are saying.


Wendy Constantine: writer, producer, media editor

Many thanks to:
— Sharon Poore, developmental editor
— Clark Baxter, publisher
— Kimmy Apfelbaum, editorial assistant
— Walter Meyer, writer and SME