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DECEMBER 4, 2007  

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Trains, teaching & technology

As mentioned a month or so ago, I'm working on a proposal for a sabbatical next year that would involve buying a 30-day Amtrak pass and traveling around the country to talk with students and faculty at other colleges and universities.

Since I teach Interactive Media at Cuyahoga Community College I'm acutely aware of how intertwined the thinking we do is with the technology we use. Yet I'm sometimes dismayed to hear faculty at other institutions say "We teach design, not software." This is often followed by "If students want to learn software they can go to a community college."

I'll admit that I get honked off by the implication that we at the community college don't teach design. We're just the software folks. But beyond my own ruffled feathers there's an important question about how we teach skills that are totally dependent on the computer—like web design and interactive media—without focusing on the technology.

So as I prepare to go into a long meeting today to revise our curriculum, I thought I'd put my ideas out there for your comments. Below is an article I wrote for Designer, a publication of the University and College Designers Association. I'd appreciate your feedback—click on the "Comments" link at the bottom of the page, or if you prefer, the "Email" link.


Teaching design vs. teaching software: the future of design education

After teaching Interactive Media for ten years I'm still trying to figure out how much should we teach technology (computer + software) and how much design theory/principles,

I've spent seven years at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, and I'll admit it gets my hackles up every time I hear a colleague from a university say "We don't teach software, we teach design!"  This declaration is often followed by "If they want to learn software they can go to a community college."

My personal sensitivities aside, does this make sense?

It’s not just an electronic T-square

More powerful and sophisticated computers + software have created a new reality in which the computer/software is not simply a "tool" but rather an expressive medium. Or maybe we should think of it as an instrument played by the designer.

Teaching “design, not software” made perfect sense when designers used tools like Rapidograph pens and T-squares. Tools are extensions of our hands. They do only what we make them do: a pen makes a line when and where you move it. Used to be that a class or two in “studio skills” more than satisfied the need to learn about tools.

Today’s tools are hugely different, to the point that the term “tools” itself is misleading. The computer + software offers a wider range of possibilities than any previous tool. Photoshop provides a staggering choice of brush sizes and effects, far more than any illustrator could fit in their jar of brushes. Flash and FinalCut offer even a beginner a range of options and effects that would be difficult to even imagine using traditional film technology. It’s time we rethink our view of the relationship between computer + software and designer.

Is it an instrument? A medium?

One possibility is that the relationship as similar to performer + instrument. Without the instrument there is no music. Learning to play is an integral part of learning music. Musicians learn music theory, but they spend much of their time learning how to play their instrument. Perhaps design educators should look to music education as a source of inspiration for adapting to teaching digital media.

A second possibility is that computer + software has created a relationship even more intertwined than performer + instrument. When designing interactive media intended for on-screen use rather than print, the computer + software is the medium we work in, the space we play in. By its very nature it is a collaborative medium in which the designer does not have the final say.

Interactive media operates in an area sometimes called “experience design” where the goal is to create an environment for people to work/play with information. Evidence of this is much more extensive use of scripting and programming—Actionscript, Javascript, PHP, Ajax, etc.—to create dynamic websites that allow/encourage much richer user involvement than previously possible. The goal is no longer to simply present information as one does in print, but to create information spaces for people to explore. A designer who learns about “If-Then” statements in Actionscript or Javascript has a whole world of possibilities opened to them.

Where to next?

If what I’ve described above is in fact is the new reality, to talk about teaching “design, not software” is not only outdated but impossible. We do students a great disservice by trying to separate the two. We should be exploring ways to integrate learning technology with exploring the design possibilities it presents, not denying the need for such integration. But how? Learning to adapt design education goals and methods to this reality is a a topic I find tremendously interesting. In fact I plan to focus on this as my sabbatical project, hopefully in 2008-09. Step one is the survey below. Please take a couple of minutes to give your input. It will help inform the rest of the conversation.

-> Teaching Design, Teaching Technology survey

I plan to spend part of the year traveling to colleges and universities around the country talking with as many teachers and students as I can to get a better understanding of how design educator are tackling the challenge of evolving the curriculum to fit the technology. In the second half of the year I’ll put what I've learned in the form of an article “best practices” of teaching design and technology.


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