Class Postmortem: Digital Toolbox, Spring 2013

I spent a good amount of time last semester talking about how things went in Media Literacy last semester, with less attention to my Digital Toolbox class. This semester, my Toolbox class felt so successful that I should talk about how I seemed to arrange that (with the help of a number of excellent students), for my own sake in the future, and hopefully to share one successful model with other teachers running Toolbox at Marist.

Developing My Pedagogy

let me show you my pedagogysmallerI came in with few ideas, in fall semester, on how to teach an Adobe Creative Suite skills class and little support from the department in the way of prior syllabi (unlike Media Literacy, where I had a lot of ideas even though many were a mismatch for my ad-major undergrads).

I did have Laura Linder’s detailed syllabus for Toolbox, but Laura and I have very different approaches to how to teach technology. This is summed up by how we make use of the tech-enabled classroom, which has a teacher console with computer and document camera at the front, a projector and extra screens, etc. Laura’s the one who keeps asking the Media Services team to bring back the feature on the classroom’s teacher console which can kill all of the students’ screens at once if they’re not paying attention. I’m the one who wasn’t ready to trust Media Services’ boasts about their fancy new gadgets until they demonstrated that I could share students’ work from their computers onto the projected screen. Vive la difference…

I’m a “digital native,” more so than many of my students. I decided from day one that I’d be damned if I was going to teach technology with traditional “sage-on-stage” pedagogy. It just doesn’t make sense. A person doesn’t internalize knowledge of procedures by being lectured about them or by reading about them; they learn by putting their hands on and doing them. This is a personal inclination of mine, but it’s also backed up by a lot of educational research. I took the results of the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow study to heart, for one, so I am keen to let students lead themselves in teaching technology. Some of them may have established skills already; I want to accommodate and build on the class’s diversity of skills. I know there will be some amount of chaos in the classroom as students help teach each other, show me things, and try stuff out, and I’m comfortable with this. No squelching student screens for me. If they’re screwing around on Facebook, I am not acting in loco parentis. They are grown-ass people. It’s time we acknowledged that. (I think we should have been acknowledging that in high school.) As grown-ass people they need to learn how to cope when someone hands them enough rope to hang themselves with.

At the beginning of Digital Toolbox class I give students one lecture (which I’m toning down over time ;)), saying to them I’ll never lecture them again. I explain that software evolves so fast that simply learning “click this button here, look in that menu there” won’t really be mastering software in a meaningful way. They need to learn how to teach themselves new software packages, and understand what software is telling them on the fly. They need to learn general commonalities between software packages — “undo is your friend and any program worth its salt has it,” “so are command keys,” “something like templates or style presets exist for everything from PowerPoint slides to HTML to harder code,” etc — and they need to have their attention directed to the outstanding features of each package, rather than being drilled on the commonalities in each package. They need to know how to find more information to teach themselves, and have criteria for evaluating the resources they encounter. So:

The course material: Free tutorials

My way of leading class first semester was to some extent shaped by my pedagogy, but to some extent shaped the lack of information I got from the department on what had been done in class to date. As I said, the most detailed syllabus example I got was from Laura, who seemed to be walking kids through particular procedures in class. And as I said, I wasn’t going to do that. Laura said she’d made the kids get a Lynda account, for their video tutorials, the year before, but barely any of them used it and most said they hated it. Nobody had textbook recommendations.

But who needs ’em? There’s plenty of material on how to use Photoshop online. So I made the decision I’d just turn the kids loose online to find their own, then post links to tutorials they liked to the courseware to share with their peers. Eventually, I insisted they write short reviews of them to help identify which tutorials were good and which were crap, and why — screen wasn’t zoomed in close enough, person running the screencast was talking too fast, student preferred written tutorials with pictures instead of video, etc. My ideal for this would be having our own mini-site where students could rate videos and they’d be ranked in order. By the second semester, students were definitely volunteering to each other tutorials that had helped them with problems their peers identified in class, which I counted as a success.

Classroom management

How I managed class time during the first and second semesters was significantly different. First semester, class was a time for students to troubleshoot problems with software with me, and to work on their projects. This followed on my lecture about how I wasn’t going to teach them (in the traditional sense) and my worry that some students would be less able to handle being turned loose in the wilderness than others.

This didn’t work that well. I was frustrated that I ended up answering the same questions over and over from different students. Individualized instruction by a single human teacher, I was reminded, is not particularly efficient (see: Hampshire College steadily moves away from independent project work, towards classwork as a measure of accomplishment). Students also got so used to doing work in class and not having any homework that they were resistant at the times when I then tried to bring the class back together to cover difficult topics.

Constant feedback: Post-Its

post it has a posseFirst semester, as my students remember, was all about Post-Its. A technique I learned from Lalitha Vasudevan, a professor only a little older than me who I always felt walked the walk of innovative pedagogy better than just about any professor I’ve ever met: Lalitha uses index cards or Post-It notes at the end of class to solicit feedback from students. It’s a great way to ensure you’re hearing from everyone, not just the outgoing students whose hands are always in the air. I actually forget how Lalitha used them exactly, but my habit in Digital Toolbox (and, to some extent, in Media Literacy) was to ask them to put “what’s going well” on one Post It and “what are you struggling with” on another one.

This was a lifesaver. Like daily responses on the courseware’s forums, it made it crystal clear to me what students’ pain points were, where there were major misconceptions, what they were enjoying, what they were worried about. Some of the responses were priceless (I loved the anonymous Post-It I got at the beginning of this semester that just said “go faster go go go!”).

I would usually look at my scaly pile of curling Post-Its right after class on the train home, sorting them by category and pulling out ones which urgently needed addressing. These often shaped which tools I would cover briefly in front of the class in the next class session. At times, they even informed how I graded culminating projects for each software package: it was clear that most students were engaging with a particular tool, but not with others, so I wasn’t about to grade harshly on tools they hadn’t practiced with.

First semester postmortem

I came away from first semester frustrated over a few things:

First, the assignments I had students doing, some taken from others’ syllabi and some dreamed up myself, struck me as setting a low bar. They encouraged mimicry of existing work, which students treated with a slavishness to how accuracy would be graded — “if I do this, will it be good enough?” was a constant question, which grated on me. So I wanted to change that.

Second, as I said, class time was pretty inefficient, and students leaned into that when given the opportunity, doing little to no work outside of class if they could avoid it.

Third, the combination of these other factors meant I was grading to a low common denominator. This somehow felt worst with the video project: while I had insisted that students storyboard and revise their video projects, they dodged this demand and ignored things I thought were obvious. There was enough cutting-off-of-heads, walking-around-without-a-tripod, and shooting-vertically-like-a-still-camera that I wanted to give them all Ds, but couldn’t, because it couldn’t really be said that I’d made the expectations clear. It was clear I’d have to force them to rework their videos AND storyboards a handful of times if they were going to produce good work.

It’s odd — though I did just say we were working a low common denominator in my first semester, I would NOT say that any of us, my students or me, failed at the course objectives of learning Photoshop, Illustrator, or Premiere. Students used the tools. They got a pretty good sense of them. They carried knowledge from Photoshop, through Illustrator, into Premiere. They mostly did a good job of finding material they felt educated them well. Whether they’ll remember any of this in a year’s time remains to be seen, but the same can surely be said about a majority of college courses. If they keep practicing, they will master the software.

But even though I think I can say they learned the software first semester, their final projects were often uninspired, half-assed, and of poor quality. We were talking about implementing a portfolio requirement for the department, and I should think most of us, students and faculty both, would have been embarrassed if this stuff ended up in portfolios. Not to denigrate the students who really did polished work, of whom there were a surprising number; it’s just that even then, I was asking them to mimic someone else’s infographics and magazine covers. Second semester, I set out to change this.

Second semester postmortem

By the second semester, I had a better pool of information of what students were and weren’t likely to know coming into class (hey! they know nothing about file formats!), what I was going to need to emphasize repeatedly (check it out! they totally can’t see it when they distort an image while resizing it!), and what it might be reasonable to ask them to do (hmm! it is within my rights to ask them to do homework as well as class work!)

So these were the changes I made:

Christine's photomanipulation project.

Christine’s photomanipulation project.

Assignments. The Photoshop project became a photo manipulation of the sort you’d see on Worth1000 or in many ads. Illustrator I dialed back: their first project was to take a circle and turn it into an animal, using only a limited toolset. Then there was a midterm, combining an Illustrator logo and a photomanipulation to create an Adbusters-style subversive ad. This worked well as a midterm to reinforce the skills from the first two assignments.

The InDesign assignment lost its interactive PDF element, which was not working well first semester and isn’t really the strength of the program anyway as far as I can tell. Premiere is Premiere, and its own delightful source of everyone’s joy… I’ll intersperse some of the students’ best video projects throughout subsequent paragraphs.

Identify key tools and teach to them. The magazine cover project for Photoshop, like I said, was a bad mismatch for the program’s strengths. (Another syllabus I’d looked at had students using Illustrator for this project, which I felt was even worse.) My initial first-semester Illustrator project, having students make infographics, bored the hell out of most of them and contained way too much detail, which had them casting all over the program for tools to use.

Kelly's Circle to Animal project. Like many students she explored tools beyond the required ones, to good effect.

Kelly’s Circle to Animal project. Like many students she explored tools beyond the required ones, to good effect.

So planning the second semester, I thought to myself, which are the tools I think are most important to teach in Photoshop and Illustrator? In Photoshop, it was quick select, refine edge, clone stamp, and a handful of other tools oriented towards combining photos seamlessly. In Illustrator, it was the shape tools, pen tools, and Pathfinder. I devised the circle-to-animal project to keep them focused on what those tools could do, then let them go a little more nuts with Illustrator if they wanted on the midterm.

Class time. Almost no in-class work on projects this time. Instead, I focused on basics like file format-related stuff (raster vs vector graphics; layer metaphors in Adobe software), critical skills like file management, and pre-identifying pain points many students had.  And then…

Andrea and other students fruitfully used photos to think visually and storyboard their video project shots.

Andrea and other students fruitfully used photos to think visually and storyboard their video project shots.

CRITIQUE. Critique, critique, critique. And VISUAL LANGUAGE. This took up a much larger and more productive part of our class time this semester, with impressive results.

The first critique sessions we did weren’t of their work. I took them to Photoshop Disasters to give them a sense of what other people out in the world thought of as “bad” Photoshop work. We identified as a class what it was that people were doing wrong — cutting out too much or not enough, leaving pixellated borders, rotating wrong for reflections. And then we turned those questions on our own work. Similarly for Illustrator: we looked at a range of vector-art cartoon animals online, and developed a working vocabulary for which ones looked good and why. And for the video assignment, we did my usual intro for the Yell and Sell lessons, where we develop a list of criteria common to “branded” and “yell and sell” ads.

The Media Show episode that poses the Yell and Sell assignment.

Critique of their own work ran more or less like we did at AfterEd TV: What was working in the video? What was not working? What could be added or taken away? Any questions about how the artist did something? Being sure students covered both positives and negatives, so it wouldn’t turn into a throwing-shade session.

In my first class, critique was absolute magic. I don’t know what it was: every class has different alchemy, and it’s impossible to re-create why one class has lively discussions while the next is dead, one is wracked with hostility while the other one comes out exchanging phone numbers by the end of the semester. But the first session had a lot of kids who were very kind to each other and a small handful with very high artistic standards, and that seemed to help.

And then there was Maria. Maria Gironas said one thing, one day, which I am going to credit with being the catalyst for the best parts of that class. One day the students were faced in critique with a circle-into-animal assignment that was, by the artist’s own admission, kind of uneven-looking. There was a moment of hesitation, as if students were deciding whether to laugh, or lay into it, or remain politely silent. Then Maria said something like:

“It looks like you’re going for something a little crazy. I like that! If that’s what you’re doing, you should think about changing this line here on the legs and that line there to clean it up. But if you’re trying for a different look, you should think about changing the eyes and…” etc.

Maria and Zach's Yell and Sell ad was pitch(man) perfect.

Maria’s critique was full of diplomatic nuance: first, clarify what the artist was TRYING to do, then talk to him or her in terms of what would support that attempt or take away from it. (I’ve been in creative workshops since I was seventeen, and somehow I’d never been able to articulate this approach. I was humbled, and I hope I’ve learned from her!) I noted what she’d done to the class, and encouraged them to try to think about what the artist was trying and give their critique in those terms. And it felt to me like they did, for the rest of class. In video critiques, we came up with a dogsled metaphor: which of the dogs on your team/shots in your video are not pulling their weight?

While critique in the first class went beautifully, the second class didn’t develop quite as lovely a creative community. It was in many ways more diverse (had my first non-traditional, older-than-me student in this class, which was a relief — grown ups! they actually know why they’re going to school!) and harbored a knot of students who seemed to really take a dislike to me. The class also suffered from what I want to call “second-class syndrome” — the second section I teach on a given day often seems dead and unresponsive for unknown reasons (classroom too hot? too soused in CO2 by that time? mass blood-sugar crash? teacher derping out because she’s pretty sure she’s already said this once today? juju priest hiding in the professor’s console? who knows).

Marissa and James's schmancy French Slap Chop ad benefited from revision time, though the students nailed the absurdity of 'branded' ads from the start.

REVISION. I am a firm believer in it, and the video project was in dire need of room for students to do some. This semester, I built in much more time to revise, constantly emphasized the need to revise, and graded quite firmly on revisions of early footage and storyboards. I made it clear to students that they would be expected to go back and re-shoot. This was hugely important — logistically, getting a half dozen sections of Toolbox, 25 students each, through Media Services to check out cameras, tripods, and audio recorders, is nightmarish for everyone involved. Students first semester left their filming til the last minute, even though they were assigned to turn in drafts weeks beforehand. That problem was significantly cut down second semester.

And students did re-shoot their videos. Those who did, and put their work through critique early, did really good work by the end. Revision on storyboards also helped; students were telling more complex stories this semester, with more nuanced camera angles. One student noted that while he was skeptical, he felt like the storyboards and revisions helped him plan his project better. So: success!

Shannon and Austin's Snuggie ad made good use of thoughtful framing.

Hands-on with cameras. This was also a great thing. I built in much more time for the video project, so for my first few periods of that assignment, instead of having someone lecture about how to use the cameras and audio recorders like I did last semester (what a rotten idea! why did I do that?) students went out and shot stuff. And then we critiqued it. Can you see the subject’s face, or is it too dark? Why is everything bouncing around? Why does it sound like there’s a hailstorm when you shoot in that hallway? They learned quickly that what you see with your eyes is not what the camera sees, likewise the audio recorder and your ears. This was no doubt also hugely important to raising the overall quality of the class’s work. Their framing, lighting, audio, and other technical issues were minimal.

Metaphors. Well and duly too late in the semester, I also came up with visual/physical metaphors for explaining the structure of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Premiere files. This came about as I prepared to drive home once again the point that students MUST NOT shuffle all their video files around once they’ve set up a Premiere project. It struck me it might make more sense to them if they could see it. So I rigged up an ungainly system of ribbons, Post-Its (natch), DVD and CD cases, and binders to show what would happen if files were moved. I need to actually film myself demonstrating these as a mini online lesson — obviously describing it doesn’t work or I’d just describe it to them. Will do that eventually…

The good news is that the demonstration DID seem to work — only one student came to me with “media missing” red-screen woes in Premiere this semester (and this is a student who seemed to have severe attention problems).

How’d it go?

So basically, this time, instead of spending a lot of time on troubleshooting in class, I tried to generalize critical pain points from feedback and the previous semester to front-load instruction on things like file management that would slow down less-tech-savvy students (and put them out of sync with the rest of their classmates, who would be having more advanced tool problems). I then spent time developing students’ critical “eyes,” and encouraging excellence by building a culture of critique.

Margie's Yell and Sell ad just about killed me. She gets the award for Best Pitch (Wo)man. So happy to be working with funny young women!

The difference was remarkable. Students were actually producing work for which I could recommend to a potential employer. They got the hang of the key tools, and I could grade them on that. And I was lucky, or maybe just encouraged their cheek early on — they took to the humor of the video ads with gusto, and seemed to enjoy paralyzing me with laughter. Even the quiet ones. We had a great time, and they did excellent work. And I made sure I told them that over and over.

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