Gordon Belray

A Better Way to Teach Art

It was 1998, and Gordon Belray, working for the Department of Art slide library, was given the incredibly tedious task of digitizing Professor Douglass Richardson’s Canadian architectural slide collection.

Gordon Belray

Technically, he was moving U of T into the next century of teaching art and art history, where a few mouse clicks could replace the age-old system of fragile slides and bulky cartridges. In actuality, it didn’t feel too much like the future.

The slides were being uploaded to a static website, where teachers would still need to sift through the collection in order to find the ones they wanted to use. And the majority of the teaching would be done with the old carousels and light tables anyway.

But Belray had a different vision: a dynamic, searchable database, which teachers and even students could easily access online, in class or out.

His lack of programming expertise was hardly an obstacle. By late 2001, after a regimen of classes through Apple, Belray had learned how to program his vision. With some help from the Resource Centre for Academic Technology at the Library, FADIS (the Federated Academic Digital Imaging System) was up and running.

Today, Belray is the U of T Libraries’ Information Architect—spearheading site design of many of the Library’s web services and humanities projects—thanks in no small part to FADIS.

“An online teaching tool and management system was a pioneering effort back in those days,” Belray says. “It was a huge success.”

It’s not hard to see why. With FADIS, the faculty now had a permanent archive of lecture material. And instead of being limited to the few minutes that the slides were shown in class, the students could now see every single image whenever they wanted to, for as long as they needed. These features made it that much easier to teach and learn.

That was the main appeal in 2001. Now, being able to quickly access information outside of class isn’t such a novel concept. And yet, while U of T is the main user, FADIS remains the primary tool for teaching the visual components of art and art history at 14 universities across Canada, according to Belray.

This sustained success is due to a few factors, but the most important one is the amount of money it costs other universities to become a member institution: none.

Belray was dedicated to keeping FADIS a free and accessible teaching tool from the beginning. The model works by requiring all member institutions to fund their own additions to the database, so that it stays free for everyone else.

This makes it immediately appealing, Belray says, because digitizing slides is not only tedious, but also expensive. The project got off the ground in the first place thanks to rounds of funding over the years from various U of T sources, including an ITCDF grant in 2003.

Thanks to that foundation, a university can join and have access to the existing library of over 200,000 images developed specifically for teaching art and art history, only needing its own resources to digitize images that aren’t already there.

Its model gives FADIS another distinct advantage over other commercial or public image database websites: the fact that faculty can upload images into their own portfolios, and add supplementary material, means it’s more than just a research tool.

“The thing around teaching is you need to update things constantly,” Belray says. “A flexible, dynamic management system is crucial for digital art pedagogy.”

As much as FADIS has done to help students and teachers across Canada, it’s also allowed Belray to carve out a full time job for himself at the Library. That’s noteworthy, because a big part of Belray’s job is developing even more tools to help teachers and students. By 2006, with some help from another ITCDF grant, he was leading another successful project.

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