The Scully Project
A modest digital project undertaken in 1996 at Yale offers an opportunity to explore productivity matters. The project aimed at improving the quality of library support and of student learning in one of the most heavily enrolled undergraduate courses at Yale. We wished to do the project as cost-effectively as possible, but initially we gave no other thought to productivity matters. To echo Bowen's words, we wanted to take the fruits of digital technology in the form of more output, as "more and better." But the project provided an opportunity to explore possibilities for cost savings, for reduced inputs. The project, in spite of its modest objectives and scale (or perhaps exactly for those reasons!), became an instructive "natural experiment" in scholarly communication very much like those supported by the Mellon Foundation.
For decades, now Emeritus Professor Vincent Scully has been teaching his renowned Introduction to the History of Art, from Prehistory to the Renaissance. The course commonly enrolls 500 students, or about 10% of the entire undergraduate student body at Yale. Working with Professor Mary E. Miller, head of the History of Art department, and with Elizabeth Owen and Brian Allen, head Teaching Fellows with substantial experience in Professor Scully's course, Max Marmor, the head of Yale's Arts Library, and his colleague Christine de Vallet undertook to provide improved library support for this course. Their Scully Project was part of a joint program between the University Library and Information Technology Services at Yale designed to offer targeted support to faculty as they employ digital technologies for teaching, research, and administration. The Scully Project was also our first effort to demonstrate what it could mean to move from film-based to digital-based systems to support teaching in art history.
The digital material created for Professor Scully's students included:
• An extensive and detailed course syllabus, including general information about the course and requirements for completing it.
• A schedule of section meetings and a roster of the 25 Teaching Fellows who help conduct the course, complete with their e-mail addresses.
• A list of the four required texts and the six journal articles provided in a course pack.
• A comprehensive list of the works of art discussed in the course, along with detailed information about the artists, dates of creation, media and size, and references to texts that discuss the works.
Useful as this textual material is, it would not meet the course's key information need for images. The Scully Project therefore includes 1,250 images of sculptures, paintings, buildings, vases, and other objects. These images are presented in a Web image browser that is both handsome and easily used and contains a written guide advising students on study strategies to make the best use of the Web site.
How did the Scully project change student learning? To answer that question, I must first describe how the library used to meet the course's need for study images. The library traditionally selected mounted photographs closely related to, but not necessarily identical to, the images used in Professor Scully's lectures. We hung the photographs in about 480 square feet of study gallery space in the History of Art department. Approximately 200 photographs were available to students for four weeks before the midterm exam and 400 photographs for four weeks before the final exam. In those exams, students are asked to identify images and to comment on them. With 500 students enrolled and with the photos available in a relatively small space for just over half of the semester, the result was extreme crowding of students primarily engaged in visual memorization. To deal with the obvious imperfections of this arrangement, some of Professor Scully's more entrepreneurial students made videotapes of the mounted photos and sold them for study in the residential colleges. Less resourceful students simply stole the photos from the walls.
The Scully Project employed information technology to do more and better.
• Students can study the slide images that Professor Scully actually uses in class rather than frequently different photographs, often in black-and-white and sometimes carrying outdated identifying labels.
• The 1,250 digital images on the Web site include not only those that Professor Scully uses in class, but also other views of the same object and still other images that the Teaching Fellows refer to in discussion sessions. Students now have easy access to three times the number of images they could see in the study gallery space. For instance, where before students viewed one picture of Stonehenge, they now can view eight, including a diagram of the site and drawings showing construction methods and details.
• Digital images are available for study throughout the semester, not just before term exams. They are also available at all hours of day and night, consistent with student study habits.
• The digital images are available as a Web site anywhere there is a networked computer at Yale. This includes the residential colleges, where probably three-fourths of undergraduates have their own computers, as well as computing clusters at various locations on campus.
• The images are usually of much better quality than the photographs mounted on the wall; they read to the screen quickly in three different magnifications; and they are particularly effective on 17" and larger monitors.
• The digital images cannot be stolen or defaced. They are always available in exactly the form intended by Professor Scully and his Teaching Fellows.
Student comments on the Scully Project emphasized the convenience of the Web site. Comments like "convenient, comfortable, detailed all at the push of a button," and "fantastic for studying for exams" were common, as were grateful comments on the 24-hour-a-day availability of the images and the need not to fight for viewing space in the study gallery. One student told us, "it was wonderful. It made my life so much easier." Another student said, "it was very, very convenient to have the images available on-line. That way I could study in my own room in small chunks of time instead of having to go to the photo study. I mainly just used the Web site to memorize the pictures like a photo study in my room."
Visual memory training is a key element in the study of art history, and the Scully Web site was used primarily for memorization. Reports from Teaching Fellows on whether the digital images enhanced student learning varied, and only two of the Fellows had taught the course before and could make comparisons between the photo study space and the Web site. The following statements represent the range of opinion:
• Students "did think it was 'cool' to have a web site but [I] can't say they wrote better or learned more due to it."
• "I don't think they learned more, but I do think it [the Web site] helped them learn more easily."
• The head Teaching Fellow for the course reported that student test performance on visual recognition was "greatly enhanced" over her previous experience in the course. Another Teaching Fellow reported that students grasped the course content much earlier in the semester because of the earlier availability of the Web site images.
• One Teaching Fellow expressed an unqualified view that students learned more, wrote better papers, participated in class more effectively, and enjoyed the course more because of the Scully Project.
• Another Teaching Fellow commented, I "wish we had such a thing in my survey days!"
The Web site apparently contributed significantly to at least one key part of Professor Scully's course-that part concerned with visual memory training. We accomplished this improvement at reasonable cost. The initial creation of digital images cost about $2.25 an image, while the total cash outlay for creating the Web site was $10,500. We did not track computing costs or the time spent on the project by permanent university staff, but including these costs might well drive the total to about $17,200 and the per image cost to around $14. Using this higher cost figure, one might say we invested $34 for every student enrolled in the course, or $11 per student if one assumes that the database remains useful for six years and the course is offered every other year.
This glow of good feeling about reasonable costs, quality products, improved learning, and convenience for readers is often as much as one has to guide decisions on investing in information technology. Last year, however, Yale Professor of Cardiology Carl Jaffe took me up short by describing a criterion by which he judges his noteworthy work in instructional media. For Professor Jaffe, improved products must help solve the cost problem of good education. One must therefore ask whether the Scully Project passes not only the test of educational utility and convenience set by Professor Scully's Teaching Fellows, but also the productivity test set by Professor Jaffe. Does the Scully Project help solve cost problems in higher education? Does it allow us to use university resources more productively?