May 13th, 2011
It’s odd to think about literally writing a final examination these days—that is, with pen and paper. For that matter it’s odd to think about anyone writing anything. But I was off to my locker the other day for a work out and passed the gym filled with hundreds of undergrads writing their finals, not a mobile phone or iPad in sight. It struck me as an already dated image, the way an image of a professor with chalk in his hand before a green blackboard now looks very ‘fifties, the scapegoat decade, before technology invaded everything.
We are in a technological transition, still, though, trying to figure out the role of technology in the classroom. Most tellingly, multimedia is starting to creep into the final examination process. Lots of universities are permitting, even encouraging, students to submit videos instead of major papers for final assignments. I am assuming this practice is more common in the US than it is yet in Canada, just a hunch.
For example, an administrator at the University of Southern California –home to the film school that produced a George Lucas and a Judd Apatow, among many many others—is hot on this shift, encouraging a campus-wide engagement with new technologies. Susan E. Metros admits she doesn’t really know how this is going to shake out yet, but she is actively pushing new ways for students to be creating meaning in their work. I suspect she is on the cutting edge of a future of alternative assignment and examination submission formats.
There are some really challenging element of all this. First, those of us who teach will have to acquire a whole new framework for grading. Over a century or so we have evolved a pretty widespread set of criteria for determining what distinguishes an A from a B etc. on written assignments. But we have a long way to go to developing the same for visual media. We know crappy work when we see it, and all we have to do is randomly browse YouTube to confirm this, but we do not necessarily have the vocabulary or the grounded criteria for assessing video quality. I say this as a film studies scholar, too.
It’s one thing to recognize a fine piece of filmmaking, costing millions of dollars and having demanded an army of creators to get it to the screen; it’s another to know how to judge an earnestly made homegrown “argument” in any form of new media as a well researched presentation. Bad work is easy to define. Mediocre and excellent are harder to measure. I have some unintentionally hilarious footage on my BlackBerry of my husband eating pasta, but it’s no substitute for a paper on Italian food ways.
The second challenge is how to train students so they all possess a degree of expertise in the actual application of new media. We offer language courses in many universities as a foundational requirement for everything students are expected to be doing thereafter. I can imagine a time when visual literacy courses might be equally important. If we expect students to be producing at high levels of intellectual engagement through new media then we’d better be educating them about how to best use the gear. Such a demand could radically change the direction of curricula.
I can imagine more traditional instructors getting hives at the suggestion of any of this. We obviously require a faculty trained in the application and appreciation of media who can honestly assess submitted work, not just fake it based on personal experiments with their cell phones. That will take time, but increasingly the people we hire to teach and do research will be more comfortable with final assignments form undergrads and grads that harness media other than paper. Until then, it’s a bit of the wild west out there.
Some years ago I co-supervised a Master of Women Studies student who submitted a film for her final research project. She was absolutely determined to break some new ground and why would one want to stop her anyway? The final product was an uneven but largely competent film which she aired to the class and eventually to the community. It took on the subject of sexual stereotyping and body image, and drew on both the established literature and her own experience—always a tricky line to cross. Much to my delight, I received a note from her the other day, excitedly updating me on her success with new media. Indeed, she had been working on a Smartphone App that has made it to the first round in some serious competitive international market. She closed the note like this: “I am really excited because it connected directly with my Master’s thesis Project I did 5 years ago. Fingers crossed…”. I know she meant the connection was to the subject matter but one could obviously draw a direct line of experience to her early use of media to tell her story. She had guts and she challenged me to take her ambition seriously.
One day all of this will be the norm, especially as students find new ways to disseminate their research beyond the classroom. Work accomplished in a grad seminar in Physics or Anthropology could be coming to a screen near you.