What should an ‘Introduction to Digital Media’ course look like?

This summer (Summer 2021), I’m teaching an Introduction to Digital Media course for the second time. The last time I taught it was Fall 2019. The first time, I was inheriting a course with a strong technical focus and I had little time to adjust its content before needing to immediately teach it. This semester, with much more preparation time before it started, I wanted to revisit what I thought worked — and what didn’t. I also wanted to shift the focus away some from its technical content into dwelling on questions surrounding digital media, historical influences on software, and on critical analysis of mediums in general.

Part of this re-design was also me struggling with trying to articulate implicit and explicit pedagogical forces I felt while working through the content. While I come with a Rhetoric and Composition background (my MA is in English, and I spent two years working some great people examining curriculum, courses, and digital pedagogy concerns on an almost daily basis after getting the MA), I do not always feel the same emphasis on pedagogy within my current working environment. Part of that, I think, is simply a difference in training. I spent almost five years consistently taking courses on or working within curriculum concerns as part of a job. Most of the faculty I work with now do not have the same background, and they have their own strengths I do not have. These differences in training and backgrounds, though, often create some tensions around expectations within courses and of a program that have influences on its larger design. In talking through these tensions, we have come to understand how we each see students moving through courses, and how we can all add to the combined knowledge of our program.

As part of slowly preparing to work on my dissertation (starting Spring 2022!), I have also taken an interest in platform studies as a framework and, like spending too much time with any one lens, now see its application on all kinds of things. What I thought might be interesting for this post is applying the “semantic areas” Gillespie (2010) defines for platforms to pedagogical forces at play I felt in the re-design of the Introduction to Digital Media course.

Politics of Platforms

In a frequently cited paper called The Politics of ‘Platforms’, Gillespie (2010) defines four semantic areas all platforms demonstrate. These are Computational (applications run on platforms), Architectural (its structures are designed and have a shape of some kind), Figurative (exist at both a material and metaphysical level such that people work on and with a platform at the same time), and Political (platforms are composed of, use, and allow certain ideological positions within them). Published in early 2010, Gillespie (2010) writes primarily about YouTube and its use of the term platform in its messaging to its users and business partners. Now, over 11 years later, these semantic areas have been applied to a much larger set of research areas including Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and Unity.

Specific to this post, I’m interested in re-mapping pedagogical forces within the domain of curriculum design against these four semantic forces. Do they line up? How and where?

Computational as Institutional Forces

Courses must run. That is, a course has to exist within the framing of an institution and abide by its rules. In this way, the Computational semantic area of platforms applies to the Institutional Forces behind all courses within its larger application framework. Courses have to follow certain communication rules (include course objectives, schedule, and other required syllabus information) and exist within the scheduling allotted to it. In a very loose sense, courses are the applications within the larger institution. They are scheduled to run at certain times and have their own input (students) and output (final grades or assessments).

What can you fit into a six-week course?

For this second teaching of Introduction to Digital Media, I was given a six-week schedule. The last time I taught it, I had sixteen weeks. This required some major cutting down and refining of its assignments and content. You can’t run sixteen weeks of content in less than half of that time. This required some considerations of what the course was about and its position within the larger curriculum.

Architectural as Curricular Forces

Courses must fit within their larger program or area of study. They have to fit the larger structure. Any one college course is not alone. It connects to others and students navigate both vertical and horizontal alignment. Students might be taking the course you are teaching as part of their program and others courses as electives at the same time within their own navigation of an institution’s curriculum flow

What introductory topics do students need to know?

Course and program objectives can help when trying to figure out student knowledge. Given my extended background in studying curriculum, I examined the prerequisites (what previous courses or requirements a student must have to take the course) for the Introduction course and then what might come next in sequence. This helped in understanding what topics I needed to cover, and some ideas of others things I could include as well.

After Introduction to Digital Media, most students begin to move into different tracks depending on their interests. They might take more courses on programming, study of social platforms, or others things. This puts the course at a complicated nexus. It has to introduce “digital media” in such a way it does not step too much on the toes of other courses that a student might take next while also existing in its own schedule. For the technical studies, those moving into more programming or code-based design areas of studies, the course has to include some basis in an introduction to programming. At the same time, it also has to help those moving into courses focused on creating art or studying social platforms by starting to lay the groundwork for future courses to help students develop mental toolkit for understanding and critically examining the world around them.

Figurative as Course Experiences

A course is not its materials. A course is the materials and what the instructor and students do with it. The same set of materials used in the hands of different instructors produce different experiences. This is also true of students. Everyone brings their own experiences and knowledge to a course. Depending on the engagement, previous knowledge, or even outside forces — like a pandemic! — one course experience and another can be very different. What Introduction to Digital Media was in Fall 2019 and what it might be in Summer 2021 will be different, not only because of my own experiences over the last nearly two years, but because it will be a new set of students with no awareness of the previous iteration of the course.

What does an Introduction to Digital Media course look like in 2021?

We do a disservice to our students by not engaging with their lived experiences. In 2021, in years of Black Lives Matter peaceful protests met with police and state violence, a world-wide pandemic killing exponentially more people without access to health services, and asymmetric warfare on minority groups, no course can escape the horrors of what a student might be experiencing in their lives or simply see from even causal social media usage. However, this does not always means the course should be about those topics, either. We should give our students the best tools to understand their world, not force them to see the world we do.

I struggled with the redesign of Introduction of Digital Media in this regard. The course could not simply be on technical details such as what a bit rate is or mention Alan Turing without speaking to the ways in which he was medically abused by the British government. I decided, instead of topics, each week would be a question:

  • What is digital media?
  • What is a computer, and where did it come from?
  • Who do we forget when we talk about the history of computers?
  • Can technology be harmful?
  • Does technology affect how we communicate?
  • What is HTML?

Each week, there would be a selection of readings related to the topic. Students could pick from among these readings (usually three, but sometimes four) and then engage with them as part of a weekly discussion post. By giving students choices for what they wanted to read, this also allowed, I hoped anyway, some freedom in picking what they wanted to engage with while also being related back to the question for the week. My hope, and I do not have any evidence on this yet, is that the questions, rather than statements, for each week prompted students to answer on their own rather than me telling them the answer.

Political as Instructor Ideology

I have ideological biases, some of which I am aware of and others I may never become aware of in my lifetime. My background of computer science, creative writing, gender studies, and composition pedagogy creates a weird collection of knowledge of different domains and interests in specific cultural problems. My privilege to be prolific in writing and programming at times places me in an even smaller intersectionality of fields and sets of people.

Programs also have ideological leanings. Sometimes these are very subtle, and in others glaringly obvious. Without going into the perceptions of my own, part of a growing concern is in delivering programming knowledge effectively. Unity and Unreal, as just two examples for game design courses, are constantly moving targets with their changes to API and workflows happening every few months. For web development courses, a framework can exist one year and disappear two years later. A new social platform or aspect of an existing one — news of new tags being added to Twitch happened less than 12 hours ago as I type this — change almost weekly at times. If anything is true of digital media, it is that it constantly changes.

Every single Learning Management Systems (LMS) has its own biases. They all support certain kinds of expressions and make it harder to do others. This is a function of many different — platform — forces acting on, with, and from them, but they all have an influence on how students can act in them and how they can perform.

What mediums should students use or learn?

The previous version of Introduction to Digital Media had several core projects. For each of these, students would do things like create an image collage, podcast episode, and introduce themselves via video. As someone who has and sometimes continues to struggle with body and self-image issues, I do not like asking students to post pictures of themselves or asking them to record their voice. Not only can this be triggering for many students with my same issues, it also has the potential to enforce certain gender performances I want to avoid.

In revisiting these assignments, I now included options for students to post images representing themselves and allowing students to use text in video instead of asking to record themselves or speak on video. These are all changes complicated by the LMS we use (it has gotten better with images but not with video) and means I have to navigate both my own ideological leanings and that of the software I use to teach the course.

I have to teach code in Introduction. While I would probably teach some programming concepts regardless of the pressure within the program to help students navigate a changing software landscape, there is the ideological pressures on me to make sure students learn the basics of HTML as a process highlighting the fundamental programming concepts such as working on source files and then seeing them interpreted or run by another program.

What’s next?

I started the second week of the six-week course this morning. The first week is generally lost to students adding and dropping, so this week is the beginning of the real test. Will this re-design work better? Will the shift away from an emphasis on statements of technical knowledge to questions about technology and its role in society help? I don’t know. I’m hopeful in another few weeks, as the course comes to a close, I’ll have a better idea. If nothing else, I really hope I can spark interest in the historical and culture influences on technology.

References

Gillespie, T. (2010). The politics of ‘platforms.’ New Media & Society, 12(3), 347–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738

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