Pictures tell more than one story

March 8, 1996

Michael Greenhalgh argues that fine art has a place on the Web but there is no substitute for seeing the real thing.

Less funding for more students has underlined the advantages of international and inter-institutional cooperation if the quality of education is to be maintained.

The Web is an excellent resource for mounting large quantities of data, the more so when it is possible to ensure that there is no unnecessary duplication. The examples reported here are from art history, but the conclusions and techniques may be equally applicable to any discipline which offers large bodies of ordered text and image data to its students.

Data and images are being replicated in institutions across the planet. But assuming every student of art history should be shown the Mona Lisa, is it not silly, in our electronic age, for each institution to hold a slide of this work, when a server somewhere could hold one file to be downloaded when necessary anywhere in the world?

Copyright is the bugbear - admittedly a necessary one, but one which will perhaps disappear when more institutions and individuals, convinced of the benefits of active membership of the Web (prestige, publicity, or even old-fashioned gift-exchange) waive copyright and contribute to a common pool.

In the Australian National University department of art history we are about to begin the third year of making all images used in first-year and several later-year classes available in digital form. We do it over the network using Web browsers, fed from a simple database.

The works are available in two ways. In the first, the records are pre- formatted and organised by artist A-Z, by lecture, or by topic. Thumbnail images are displayed with basic details (including artist, date and title) below. Clicking on a hotspot brings up a larger version of the same image.

In the second method a form-filling interface is used, incorporating scrolling lists of categories. The student highlights the required criteria (artist, subject, date, perhaps), and the hits are then returned with associated thumbnail images.

The system is used by students for private study: as well as being able to print out the images as aides-memoire should they so wish, the ability to annotate their own collections of data can help them augment their lecture notes, and their preparations for making their own class presentations.

Such a study aid is also a time-saving improvement on maintaining free access to the slide collection, and helps cut down unavoidable damage to the slides, and mis-filing.

But what about tutorials, seminars and lectures? Art historians usually lecture with two projectors offering large-scale high-quality images. Tutorials proceed in the same way, with the same technology, perhaps supplemented by an overhead projector.

Having two images side by side enables the lecturer or tutor to offer comparisons, while slides can be changed very quickly. How does this compare with electronic delivery?

Here at the ANU, as elsewhere, smart lecture theatres are being set up, with video projectors which can be computer driven. Offering two images side-by-side would be twice as expensive, because everything would be doubled - two computer Web sessions (if not necessarily two computers), and two video projectors. In tutorials and seminar a video projector offers an adjunct to two slide projectors, but cannot as yet replace them.

Video projectors are expensive and the image quality compares unfavourably with the much higher resolution of 35mm slides. Even assuming the existence of high-resolution images somewhere on the network (and I can generate and display 24-bit 1.6 megapixel images), there is no chance of displaying them via a video projector.

Though expensive three-gun projectors can scan at a sufficiently high rate to transmit a megapixel computer display, networks and machines cannot compete in the time taken to project an image in such a fashion with good, old slide projectors.

So for lecturing purposes with current video resolution, there is something extremely perverse about digitising a 35mm slide and degrading its quality, and then using computer technology to display the image at something like one-fortieth of the resolution easily attainable through the old technology of a slide projector. Expectations of today's technology, thanks to aggressive and misleading industry hype, are much higher than the reality.

Were universities businesses which had to show a financial return and prove financial viability, departments like my own would already have been forced to set in place charging mechanisms to amortise the high costs of the operation: staff time, hardware and consumables, not to mention publicity. Universities may appear to march to a different tune from business, but if education using the Web does become popular, it will have to be treated as a business like any other, with filters in place which will allow us to know exactly who is using our materials, and charge them accordingly.

Some university administrators seem to have been seduced by the hype surrounding multimedia, and have not even begun to calculate the enormous costs involved, associated not just with the constant upgrade costs of the infrastructure, but also the costs of staff and student training to make good use of what is offered.

But costs aside, we should view with alarm the necessary (to vice chancellors) conjunction between computerisation and student throughput, where the kit automates tasks once done by people. It is silly to argue that this can never happen in a university, when there are already North American deans who are commissioning computer software instead of appointing teaching assistants.

The only defence against such encroachment resides in the quality of education offered by human beings - that is, by arguing that education should entail people learning from one another.

A big problem with the (supposedly) interactive Web is that it is in no sense as responsive as a seminar or even a lecture. I curl up in bed with a good book, not with an Alpha AXP. In art history, we do not kid ourselves that viewing slides (or CD-Roms or other electronic images) is anything other than a substitute for the real thing - museums, galleries, cities, sites.

Virtual reality is nonsense: visiting sites, country houses, and churches really is important, because the context is always part of the message of the artwork, and the effort to get there is itself part of the learning. Cut out the pain - cut down the learning. Theme parks are another example of the filtering of experience into a safe, packaged, artificial, unreal and hence dishonest creation. For a biologist, is a computerised "wet" lab the equivalent of a theme park?

Again, we should be sceptical of the grandiose claims which can be made for the 1990s version of "universities of the air" because they are methodologically flawed - not least because their proponents deceive themselves into believing that the technology is the important element, whereas it is the materials the technology dispenses, and the teachers involved (as with libraries, tutorials and lectures) who remain the key.

Nor are the problems restricted to the functionality of the materials to be used. The costs involved in producing such teaching materials in the first place, and then keeping them up to date, are large. Changing fashions in the presentation of electronic media are, in our style-conscious age, likely to be an important element in their acceptability. Books produced in the 15th century do not look much different from those produced today; but computer programs have drastically changed in appearance in the past five years: as the medium changes, will the message get left behind?

Michael Greenhalgh is professor of art history at the Australian National University.

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