I have been teaching with digital media since 1994. Computers, software and, more recently, social media have enhanced my ability to provide hands-on, memorable instruction for studio, seminar and art history lecture classes.
From my perspective, digital media has two major failings: its obvious transience and archival challenges. Next semester, if I teach the same courses, I will need to completely overhaul my syllabus, readings, handouts and how-to guides. The preparatory work for an instructor working with digital media is immense, but there are many rewards to be gained from teaching in this manner. Unfortunately, many of my favorite student works from a decade or so ago are stored on SyQuest drives, Zip disks or even floppies. If I ever have the time, or a willing assistant, I look forward to rescuing my files from antiquated media formats and posting such work on YouTube or Flickr. I hope these public databases are being continuously updated and archived by the corporate behemoths that own them so that I won’t have this same problem again in 2020. Students benefit tremendously from seeing examples of previous peer work.
Because of the changing nature of digital media, my teaching methods change from year to year. This fall, for example, I am able to offer Lynda software tutorials to my students free-of-charge due to an institutional agreement. This is a boon as it enables students to practice self-learning and self-reliance. Previously, I had to organize technical training sessions with a teaching assistant to provide enrichment for students who were having difficulty mastering a particular tool or technique.
Perhaps the greatest windfall that digital media has delivered is the ability to instantly “fly” a guest speaker in to lecture via Skype or iChat. Seminar classes particularly benefit from a five to ten minute appearance by an artist or theorist they know only from museum shows or exhibition catalogues. It is so easy to arrange and environmentally far more responsible than flying them in for a day or less. Given the real challenges of climate change as well as jam-packed schedules, there is little reason to spend diminishing travel budgets on airfare. The learning advantages of online lecture exchange are numerous: this practice increases the variety of voices in the seminar, enables students to ask live questions of well-known figures in the field regardless of geographic location, and expands knowledge of the individual beyond the typical information that is available online or in texts.
In all of my courses, I train my students to become critical practitioners of digital media rather than “users.” Generally, I assign Simon Penny’s 1993 essay “Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative: The Artist in Dataspace” to stimulate discussion about the usage of proprietary software vs. open-source alternatives. I like to present at least two versions of each sort of software when doing any kind of demonstration in a production class. For example, if I were teaching a lesson in digital compositing, I would execute the same actions twice, first in Photoshop and then in Gimp. Likewise, if I were explaining how to create a slideshow for an upcoming Pecha Kucha class, I would demonstrate slide creation techniques in Keynote, PowerPoint and Google Docs. Incidentally, the Pecha Kucha is one of the best assignments for training students to share their work and honing effective and efficient public speaking skills.
My experiences with Processing provide a brief example of a mode of enabling students to become critical, self-sufficient practitioners of digital media. Teaching art students a computer programming language is one of the more challenging aspects of my duties over the past decade. The impending obsolescence of tools like Director forced me to explore Processing as a data visualization and interactive installation software. Now, I am thrilled I was pushed to learn Processing early in 2005. Processing (2001) is a free, open-source alternative to proprietary software tools with expensive licenses, making it accessible to individual students. Its open-source status encourages the community participation and collaboration that is vital to Processing’s growth. Contributors share programs, contribute code, answer questions in the discussion forum and build libraries to extend the possibilities of the software. The Processing community has written over seventy libraries to facilitate computer vision, data visualization, music, networking and electronics. In short, this website is a boon to students and instructors working to facilitate criticality and creative use of software.
The success of Processing stimulated the growth of an enormous global network, Wiki, and an archive of tutorials. This sort of website is essential for showing students that no single individual has all of the answers to coding problems; the forum answers simple and complex queries in less than a day. The online resources are invaluable and provide an example of one of the best things to come forth from the Social Web for people interested in examples of responsive, generative and interactive media. Processing has attracted a diverse community of individuals from research scientists to high school students who are expanding the reach of the software even as I type. This is one tool I will certainly continue to use in future classes.
As I consider my curriculum plan for the next semester, I generally try to commit to using a minimum of one new tool on which to base an assignment. In 2010-2011, this project will be a data visualization collaboration challenge using the online resources at Visualizing. With its beta site, which opened in September of 2010, Visualizing intends to attract a community of creative people working to simplify complex issues through data and design, building on the promise of more and more government agencies, NGOs and companies opening up their data for the public to see and use in experimental and useful modes. Learning on the fly is one of the key components of being a digital media instructor. The launch of sites like Visualizing keeps life interesting for me as I plan future curricula. Since this site provides a free archive for student work, no external storage media will be required.
The word “blog” is a 21st century composite of two words: “web” and “log.” The term means exactly that: a blog is a log (generally of writing) posted publicly on the World Wide Web.
This particular form of immediate and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, permits little or no retroactive editing and removes from the act of writing any lengthy review from editorial types. Blogs tend to celebrate the unstructured expression of instant thought—though artists have pioneered new ways of using blogs to archive public or durational work.
Blogs are accountable in instant and inescapable ways to readers and other bloggers, and a blog post is linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print copy, a blog’s borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently momentary. The long-term effects of this immensely popular act of writing and communicating are still sinking in, especially for anyone with an interest in journalism or the Social Web.
WordPress is an open-source content management system (CMS) that is often used as a blog publishing application. WordPress has a templating system, which includes widgets that can be rearranged without editing PHP or HTML code, as well as themes that can be installed and switched between with a click or two that can change the look and feel of a website instantly. The PHP and HTML code in themes can also be edited for more advanced customizations. Advanced users can create code to write their own themes, many of which are released for public usage. WordPress also features integrated link management; a search-engine-friendly, clean permalink structure; the ability to assign nested, multiple categories to articles; and support for tagging of posts and articles. Used by over 12% of the 1,000,000 biggest websites, WordPress is the most popular CMS in use today (Wikipedia).
Matt Mullenweg released the very first version of WordPress on May 27, 2003. His overall goal in making WordPress free and open-source was to enhance the look and feel of everyday writing. As of August 2010, version 3.0 had been downloaded over 12.5 million times. WordPress has grown to be the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world, used on millions of sites and seen by tens of millions of people every day.
Teaching the craft of blogging with WordPress to fledgling writers has many ups and downs. To start with the positives, blogging within even a small classroom environment enables young people to interact with an audience—their peers—and receive immediate feedback. WordPress is the tool that enables students to share their creative projects in a clean, well organized, visually attractive website that requires very little knowledge of HTML, PHP or MySQL: the underlying code of content management systems. Believe me, I am jealous as I watch them. My first website had a pink background with a very distracting purple Times font. Fortunately, nobody read my first online journaling attempts back in 1996. Those slick WordPress themes, along with the networked system of trackbacks and pings, were not available to me as a graduate student.
Atlantic Magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan was exultant when he discovered the blog form. Like my most enthusiastic students, he likened the experience to a drug high: “The simple experience of being able to directly broadcast my own words to readers was an exhilarating literary liberation. Unlike the current generation of writers, who have only ever blogged, I knew firsthand what the alternative meant. I’d edited a weekly print magazine, The New Republic, for five years, and written countless columns and essays for a variety of traditional outlets. And in all this, I’d often chafed, as most writers do, at the endless delays, revisions, office politics, editorial fights and last-minute cuts for space that dead-tree publishing entails. Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free in comparison. Like taking a narcotic.”
I think Sullivan’s comments capture the most exciting aspects of blogging for first time users. In sum, the pros of WordPress are manifold. The tool promotes journalistic or creative writing while the built-in comment system works as an informal mode of positive reinforcement for student writers who are dying for anyone to critique their work. WordPress’ easy-to-use interface, rooted in the “Dashboard,” requires no knowledge of complex computer programming techniques. The various plug-ins enable web-savvy students to import their pictures to their blog (Flickrpress), tweet their new blog posts (TweetSuite), and profile the most active commenters (Nick Momrik’s Most Commented).
At this point, the picture looks rather rosy. However, there are a few drawbacks to using this blog production tool as a pedagogical method. First of all, some students are reticent to share their work with anyone, much less the entire WWW. Also, because it is so easy to publish a post, students tend to favor rapid-fire writing regimes, often late at night when they are less clear-headed than usual. For the most talented and verbose students, this method can work as long as they took a decent keyboarding class in high school or college. Another pet peeve of mine is that the small text window in WordPress’ Dashboard resembles the screen of the iPhone and encourages students to abandon standard capitalization and punctuation rules in favor of an abbreviated personal syntax. Recently, a student turned me on to a plug-in called “After the Deadline” which promises a comprehensive spelling and grammar check for sleep-deprived bloggers.
I teach a graduate seminar called Wired Writing: Culture and Community on the WWW at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This course attracts an interesting blend of students from the New Arts Journalism program and also lures a few MFA students in studio or creative writing. The class has a discussion component in which we debate various aspects of the Social Web as well as a production element where we make blogs and examine the tools that are profiled in our critical readings.
My semester assignment is not groundbreaking, but it is effective: every student must create a self-hosted WordPress blog focused on a specific dilemma, neighborhood beat, or creative problem. Weekly, students post twice to their blogs in addition to composing a minimum of one cogent comment on a peer’s blog. Although I encourage students to invite guest writers to post, each of the individual blogs are primarily authored by one person—and here lies a major challenge: finding a single, consistent voice. Because students suddenly have to keep up with twelve blogs, they are forced into adopting a news aggregator like Google Reader and become interested in WordPress plug-ins that reward active commenters. The social media tools start to make sense to them as they decipher the landscape of blogging from a hands-on perspective.
The main problem with this assignment is that students want to completely redesign standard themes. Most feel comfortable editing an existing style sheet for basic items like font type, size and color. However, layout preferences and nested <div> tags tend to perplex and frustrate young people who are very new to HTML and PHP. Each year, a few bloggers concentrate too much on the appearance of their website when they should be focused on content preparation. Perhaps future iterations of this assignment might restrict students to altering only standard typographic tags to enable them to focus entirely on content.
Many of my students have successfully utilized various social media tools to garner a substantial readership for their blogs. For example, Olivia Liendo created a web presence for El Sistema, a publicly financed voluntary sector music education program in Venezuela, originally called Social Action for Music. Quintin Roper’s blog, Nobody Dances Here has a more expanded focus of art, fashion, and progressive culture and impressed his new employers at MTV.
Overall, I believe this assignment’s best feature is to immerse students in the weekly problem of creating original, accurate, newsworthy content for their blogs. Many experts have debated the issues facing the print media industries today (Paul Starr; Clay Shirky; Andrew Sullivan). In class, students read and discuss the predicaments faced by the newspaper business and simultaneously experience them firsthand when they consume stories produced by bigger agencies that they then retool, re-tweet, or otherwise reference in a WordPress post. Students see that their individual blogs are linked and therefore codependent on the existence of a whole host of public resources, many of which would not survive without corporate funding of some kind. The debates that this assignment engenders are exactly the ones we will face as the world of social media continues to refine itself. WordPress is a simple tool that enables my students to create unique blogs that have lives beyond the classroom.
Penny, Simon. “Consumer Culture and the Technological Imperative: The Artist in Dataspace.” 1993. Web. 14 February 2010. <http://ace.uci.edu/penny/texts/consumerculture.html/>.
 See <http://www.lynda.com/>.
 See <http://processing.org/>.
 See <http://www.visualizing.org/>.
 Syllabus and more available at <http://wiredwriting.org>.