The Khan Academy has received extensive and impressive press this past year.  And recently, they’ve joined forces with Smarthistory — signalling an exciting turn in open content and, more importantly, signalling a major shift in how we teach our students.

The “brainchild” of Salman Khan, the Khan Academy is fundamentally a rich repository of effectively designed video lectures anchored in visually compelling annotative descriptions.  It’s really good stuff — and it’s not just for math students/teacher.  With extensive funding from Google and Gates, the Khan Academy has branched out into new disciplines including biology and history.

The compelling element of The Khan Academy is that its popularity is encouraging a rethinking of how educators spend class time with students.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a supporter and practitioner of the flipped classroom model.  But I’m also an art historian — and that’s really what this post is about.

About four years ago, I made a fortuitous connection with Beth Harris who, at the time, was teaching art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY.  Beth shared a blog post about a little known tool named VoiceThread — which knocked me out of my seat.  It was Beth’s willingness to experiment and share that inspired me to try VoiceThread and led to a spiraling of innovation and sharing in my own teaching practices.  I reached out to Beth to say thank you and she responded by setting up a VoiceThread and inviting me to collaborate with her — and then with her college Steven Zucker.  Asynchronously, we conversed in a VoiceThread about Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434.  It was amazing and opened my eyes to so many things — but most compelling was the potential of technology to break open the medieval traditions of the art history lecture, a rethinking of the role of an “instructor.”


Beth and Steven continued to follow this thread of intellectual curiosity and went on to create Smarthistory, a website based upon building a content resource for art history comprised of recording of unscripted conversations about works of art.  It’s different … and it’s great.  Smarthistory describes itself as a “multimedia web-book about art and art history.”  On the one hand, it is explicitly challenging the traditional 40-pound, $100 art history “learning” resource.  But it’s so much more than that.  Listening to a Smarthistory dialogue does not explicitly tell you what you will learn.  Rather, it requires you to think critically about what you’re hearing and synthesize and evaluate the content to form knowledge.  Smarthistory fosters the skills we all need to effectively navigate the mangled web of content we are entrenched in every day.

Here’s a sample:


“Modeling conversations” is what educators need to be doing more of today.  And it’s precisely that that I think is so fabulous about open content and the flipped classroom model.  When we “unlearn” how to lecture, we are forced to learn how to model conversations with and between our students.  This is a quote by David Weinberger shared on the Smarthistory blog:

“Educators therefore face a different set of challenges. Very different. Their authority is in question since we’ve learned that we can learn more from talking with others than by listening to any single expert. But, more important, if knowledge emerges from conversations, then just about all our educational focus ought to be on learning how to be good conversationalists: how to listen, how to kindle a conversation, how to evaluate claims, how to speak in a voice worth hearing… and, most of all, how to share a world in which knowledge is plural, for that’s what conversation and knowledge is about.”

Congratulations to Beth Harris and her “smart” team.  Thank you for being bold, taking risks, and leading the way to new learning paradigms.  Can’t wait to see what the future holds! 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *