Anna Andrzejewski, an art history professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was looking for a hands-on learning project for her Frank Lloyd Wright art history course.
The class was an upper-division, research course designed for art history majors or grad students, but also open to other disciplines. Andrzejewski had arranged access to seven historic local Frank Lloyd Wright houses for the course.
Known for hands-on learning projects that used student research to get ideas out into the broader community, she had had her students create walking tour booklets and websites documenting architectural landmarks in previous courses, but for this class she wanted to do something different.
Steel Wagstaff, an instructional technology consultant at the university, approached her with the idea of having the students create a book using Pressbooks, an online book formatting software often used for open textbook projects.
Because Frank Lloyd Wright was not her primary area of scholarship, Andrzejewski said, the project became an opportunity for her to learn along with the students.
“Part of the appeal of working on this textbook idea was to create something that the students would participate in and feel invested in but that I could also use later on as a tool in future classes.”
Wagstaff said the project was designed to be a “renewable assignment,” one whose life extended beyond the term of the class.
“What I saw the students really engage with was the idea that they’re writing this for Anna but also for a public audience,” Wagstaff said.
Knowing that the next time Andrzejewski taught the course, her students would read the previous students’ writing and could add to it or could improve it deepened student engagement with the project, Wagstaff said.
In addition, students might not have access to the same private homes featured in the book in future semesters.
“We hope that this book will provide surrogate access to many of these places for future classes, since they likely won’t be able to visit all of them when the course is taught in future semesters” Wagstaff said.
Before embarking on the major assignment, Andrzejewski gave the students a lower-stakes, small-scale assignment that helped them learn how to use Pressbooks. Each student had to write several paragraphs of architectural context for the building they would visit and upload images into the platform for an overview section framing the progression of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career.
From the low-stakes assignment, Andrzejewski said, “They saw what they had to do. It involved them and also scared them such that they were invested for the rest of the time.”
Next, the small class of cross-disciplinary students, which included journalists, artists, historians, geography, urban planning and other majors, made field visits to seven local Frank Lloyd Wright homes that Andrzejewski had arranged access to.
Making a real book, noted Wagstaff, involves knowledge from lots of different disciplines, and the students in Andrzejewski’s class were able to have cross-functional conversations as they built it.
“It was different than ‘everyone’s writing their own research paper and they never talk to each other,’” Wagstaff said.
At each home they visited, students all had the same shared experience, but two or three took ownership to document that home for a chapter of the book. Those students asked the others for feedback during and after the site visit on what they found most interesting and what they should write about. Students got to pick a theme for each chapter.
“There’s nothing wrong with having an assignment that’s based on what you do in class, but it’s how to make it more than just a report and how to take it in a new direction,” Andrzejewski said.
From an instructional design perspective, Wagstaff said that before students do a site visit, they need to have a sense for what the product is going to be so they can develop research questions in preparation.
Andrzejewski gave her students flexibility within constraints for the group textbook assignment.
First and foremost, the assignment specified that each chapter must include a theme appropriate to the home featured. For instance: preservation, a period of Wright’s career, modular design, a style of architecture.
In addition, the assignment specified that each chapter should include three different sections:
- An introduction, a one- to two-paragraph overview of the house and thesis statement of the chapter to follow
- An architectural description of the building, to include three to five paragraphs of description and complementary images
- An interpretive thematic section, which was a minimum-three-paragraph, “abundantly illustrated” narrative that was to demonstrate evidence that they listened to their classmates at the class discussions at the site and that they had done additional research outside of class. (Sources for this research could include anything from oral histories to archival research, book research or interviews.)
Students did all the writing, image collection and uploading, editing, book styling and footnotes as they built the book.
The chapters ended up being very different, rather than uniform as in a typical textbook, which could be considered a strength or a weakness.
“[The chapters] follow a basic research model. They all have footnotes and they all have pictures. But the approaches they take to these buildings are pretty disparate,” Wagstaff said.
As of this writing, Andrzejewski and Wagstaff still have work to do over the summer to clean up the book, which is not yet public, in order to make it ready for public view. It will need editing and they’ll have to remove images that were not openly licensed, which are fair use for educational purposes, but not fair game for publication.
The next time, Andrzejewski said, she’ll make using open images a requirement, and build in a week of collaborative editing in the last week of class.
Wagstaff said they will also build in more interactivity in the editing and on the images themselves.
In terms of the content, Wagstaff said he noticed two differences between this and similar open pedagogy projects:
First, students used lots of footnotes, and many of them cited not just websites or books but personal interviews with experts and working professionals.
“These weren’t just surface-level quotes. These were substantive conversations they had with real people,” Wagstaff said, remarking on “the depth of engagement they had with actual knowledgeable working professionals.”
Andrzejewski attributes this to the interview training she incorporated with an oral historian before students embarked on the project.
Second, they did a lot of high-quality documentation in the form of photographs rather than just using photos they could find online.
Andrzejewski said the students got inspired by the possibilities for including media after doing the preliminary assignment in Pressbooks.
“They really wanted to be creators of evidence not just regurgitating it,” Andrzejewski said.
She said she felt the project was successful and is now thinking about a similar project for a different class.
“I was so pleased with it I want to do something like it again,” Andrzejewski said.
Wagstaff added: “What all instructors want is higher buyin–higher engagement from their learners. A project like this almost by its very nature produces that.”
- Partner with community organizations, so that your project has an impact beyond the classroom.
- Give students small assignments that help them build confidence and acquire the skills needed to complete a larger, final assignment.
- Clearly communicate license requirements for images, videos, or other materials that might be included in the textbook.
- Encourage your students to look beyond literature (on the internet or on paper) when conducting research. Suggest they conduct interviews with working professionals or other experts in the field.
- Build in time within the semester to collaboratively edit and refine the final product.