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Supporting postgraduate work in digital media: a review of hardware software and organisational requirements

Ian Phillips
Coventry University


In 1987 the authors of a chapter in SInformation Technology in the Humanities" [Dyer, Howard, Richards; Chapter 12, "Art and Design~; ed. S. Rahtz; Ellis Horwood, Chichester, 1987] dated the first use of computers in UK art and design education as 1969. Most of the activities described in that chapter first took place at postgraduate level. This study concentrates on supporting work at that level, in part because we have seen that postgraduate concerns tend to filter into lower level work over time. This has certainly happened in the period from 1969 to the present day. Even if it were not to be true in future, the likely increase in the numbers of courses and students will bring more institutions face to face with the special demands of postgraduate work.

This study attempts to identify the essential requirements for supporting such work, with the aim of stimulating exchanges of views and information between the staff and managers of existing and proposed courses in digital media.

Organisation of the review

The review will first outline the range of activities encompassed by the phrase "postgraduate work in digital media". It will go on to explore and define the support requirements for different types of work in terms of hardware, software, and organisation. There will then be a description of how postgraduate work in digital media at Coventry School of Art and Design has been supported since the course started in 1986. The final part of the review will be a summary and conclusion, incorporating a checklist of support requirements.

Postgraduate work in digital media

Dyer et al [19871 defined the activity of art and design education institutions as teaching students "to produce irnages/models/objects in response to explicit, or implicit, functional requirements, which reflect their growing understanding of cultural, aesthetic and ideological affitudes". This definition has some minor deficiencies: e.g. it appears to leave out the development of craft skills in producing "images/models/objects" and the use of the phrase "functional requiremenb" might seem to exclude the production of expressive work. However, it will serve to establish the context for this review.

The authors went on to point out that the practice of art or design could be broken into four elements:

understanding of both the activity and the object produced

Postgraduate work might be categorised as that which demands and develops a higher level of understanding of these four elements of practice than has been acquired on completion of a first degree or higher diploma.

The authors' analysis of the use of computers in these four elements has stood the test of time: there is still relatively little use of computers in analysis and formulation of tasks; rather more in the visualisation of possible solutions, and uneven use in research. What has developed to a great extent since 1987 is the production of work in digital media. Furthermore, it is now common for undergraduates, as well as postgraduates, to have significant access to production facilities.

Digital media are used in a variety of ways. First, there is the situation where computers are used simply as studio tools to produce familiar artefacts. In this situation, for example the production of printed pages, digital media are used as a supplement to or replacement for "traditional" media, such as photographic paper or ink. Working methods change, perhaps radically, but the final outcome may well be indistinguishable from that produced by other means. A development of this use of digital media is to make explicit the nature of those media: for example, by deliberately producing heavily pixellated irnages or designing typefaces for very low resolution output devices.

The second significant use of digital media is in the production of time based work. This is work with an inherent element of progression, which might derive from the inclusion of anirnation or video, or from progression through a succession of still images at a rate too slow to create the illusion of movement. Such work might be presented as a fixed sequence or it might respond to action by the viewer. Work in the latter category is usually called "interactive" (for the purposes of this study I will ignore the argument that all successful art creates an interaction between viewer and art work). Although much of the langauge of such work might be called cinematic, it is at least arguable that this use of digital media is producing a new class of work which will in time develop its own language.

Whether the work is interactive or not, it will include some or all of the following media components:

The components will have been orchestrated, and in some cases created, on a computer. The finished work might be presented on a computer or it might be presented as video footage. The former will be essential if there is to be interaction with the viewer; the latter if playback speed and synchronisation with sound are crucial to the success of the work.

Incidentally, the terrns "hypermedia" and "multimedia" have been avoided up to now, even though many postgraduate courses in digital media are using "multimedia" somewhere in their title. I believe that these terms have been so heavily used by vendors to promote disappointingly ordinary products that they have become devalued. However, "multimedia" has become accepted shorthand for computer-generated time-based work incorporating several media components and a degree of interaction with the user: it may therefore be used from now on.

The third type of work in digital media employs the prograrnmability of the computer to generate imagery. Such work may be based on anything which can be expressed algorithmically: for example, numerical or geometrical systems, biological growth, or aspects of linguistics. Such work would also qualify as multimedia, provided it incorporated several media components.

Work in any of these categories may be utilitarian or expressive, ie be produced by people acting as designers or as artists. Utilitarian work would include visualisation for all manner of products, as well as prototypes or finished products for irlforrnation retrieval and presentation, education, and entertainrnent. Expressive works might be prirnarily cinernatic; primarily interactive; or electronic equivalents of such things as paintings, prints, or sculpture.

We might expect that students embarking on postgraduate work in digital media would display a high level of craft and technical skill in manipulating those media. As stated above, we would expect the distinguishing characteristic of postgraduate work to be "a higher level of understanding of [the] four elements of practice than has been acquired on completion of a first degree...". This would certainly be the case with postgraduate work in fine art or design: we would not expect to be confronted by first attempts at using new techniques.

However, digital media are not yet used extensively on undergraduate courses. Consequently, we still see a high proportion of students starting postgraduate courses with very limited understanding of digital tools and techniques. Courses have a tendency to become defacto conversion courses, though validated and exarnined as equivalent to courses in established media and traditions. This tension between expectation and reality makes postgraduate work in digital media different from that in other areas of art and design. The difference will persist until undergraduate use of digital media is widespread.

Exploring the support requirements

The Summerson report on art and design education led to the now established practice of introducing students to industrial and commercial processes. Facilities for these processes have been installed, often at great capital cost, and specialist technical support staff hired. Supporting process-based activities has always been expensive but although the recurring cost of staff salaries has become an acute problem in recent years, skills requirements have tended to remain stable and equipment has usually had a long life, so capital costs have been absorbed over considerable time.

Supporting work in digital media is even more difficult and expensive than supporting established processes. Dyer et al [19871 pointed out that resources often have to be taken from other activities to introduce new ways of working. They also noted that curricula must change and that staff support for change is by no means universal.

These problems would be serious enough, especially in an era of ever- reducing funding, without the additional burden of rapidly changing technology. This leads to equally rapid obsolescence. Although initial costs are as high as or higher than those for workshops, printing machinery, photographic and video equipment etc., there is no correspondingly long life. Most digital equipment is out of date long before it is wom out and is irnpossible to repair in-house. All staff involved in supporting work in digital media also face an endless process of re-training as one technological development succeeds another.

The notion of keeping students up to date with commercial practice in relation to digital media has all but been abandoned in many institutions, simply because the resources required are not available. There is virtually no prospect of developments in model-making, colour reproduction for print, or digital video editing, for example, being incorporated into art and design education without wholesale redirection of resources. This is true for all levels of work. Undergraduate work poses particular problems because of the ever-decreasing per capita funding and the very large numbers of students: postgraduate work poses particular problems because students, staff and examiners expect "advanced" work to be produced and this cannot be done with low-level (and inexpensive) equipment.

We can see that postgraduate work in digital media encompasses quite disparate activities. There is, for example, almost nothing in common between the making of images or pages for print and the production of a computer-generated animation, other than the fact that computers are used. Support requirements are therefore equally diverse: they are defined in more detail in the next section.

There is, however, one factor in common and that is the nature of a postgraduate student population. Postgraduate students are older and more familiar with institutional life than undergraduates. They are often self-funding and may well have farnily responsibilities. If part-tirne, they may have to juggle employment and study demands. They therefore tend to be quick to spot inadequacies in provision; intolerant of inadequate support and able to express their dissatisfaction forcefully.

Defining the support requirements

Differences between the types of work

Three different types of activity were identified earlier:

The main difference between these types of activity is that in the first the student is acting in a familiar capacity and simply using new tools and techniques, whereas in the other two the student is acting in an unfamiliar capacity.

In the second type of activity, the student is typically attempting to move from producing static work to producing dynamic work while also adapting to new tools and techniques. Thinking about continuity, transition, movement, and interaction requires a "paradigm shift" for most students. Programming any interaction may also require the development of algorithmic thinking. Furthermore, the second type of activity often requires teamwork and this is unfamiliar to many art and design students.

In the third type of activity, the student is also attempting to think algorithmically but this time such thinking is at the heart of the work. This way of thinking is completely different from the intuitive and holistic approach typical of many art and design students. Specialist teaching may be required and it may take ttme for work to exhibit sufficient maturity and development to qualify as postgraduate.

These differences translate into different support requirements. The first type of activity requires industry-standard equipment and staff with up to date knowledge of industrial practice. As pointed out above, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide these. There are also organisational requirements: working digitally typically brings several stages of a process together and it is therefore necessary to determine what this means in terms of curriculum change, staffing, and location of equipment, as well as the provision of hardware and software. In the case of time-based work there is virtually no history of providing industry-standard facilities because of the enormous expense involved, so there is little demand to provide it now. The rnain requirement in ecluipment terrns is that the convergence of computing and video technologies be reflected in video facilities. Again, organisational requirements are at least as important as those for equipment because of the changes to working practice. Media production facilities should be grouped together, for example. This is especially important in relation to computing and video: the two areas are separate in some institutions and this can cause many problems.

The third type of activity also has special requirements. It does not matter what computing systems are in use, provided program development environrnents and support for programming activities are available. There will also have to be some output device(s) for the finished work. Output may be to screen, paper, or film, so any of the devices normally installed in art and design institutions will do. Whatever the type of activity undertaken, students need to learn something of the underlying mechanics of digital systems in order to be "future-proofed" against the changes in teinology yet to come.

Hardware and software requirements
The requirements for hardware and software are impossible to define in detail, since every case will be different In general terms, the type of work that is to be undertaken should first be decided. Software capable of supporting that work should then be selected, followed by hardware capable of running that software. The activities to be supported will be some or all of the following:

In most cases, off the shelf hardware and software will be available to support these activities. It is unlikely that postgraduate work in digital media in any one institution will involve large numbers of students. This is fortunate, as hardware specifications will be quite high and it will not therefore be feasible to buy enough workstations to accommodate large numbers. Once the base level specification to support the chosen software is identified, careful thought should be given to productivity issues. Large displays, second displays, specialised input devices, accelerator cards, and so on can all increase iroughput and thus minirnise the time students need to spend working with machines. Working and long-term storage requirements need special attention: this area is often overlooked since it is unglamourous and does not apparently contribute to "front-line" capability. Shortage of storage space is a major cause of inefficient working methods, lost or mislaid work, and student dissatisfaction. Software specification and purchase poses additional problems. Compliance with the law relating to software licensing is difficult and expensive and the law itself is unclear. Microcomputer products are tending to be made "network aware". The widespread practice of buying one copy and then sharing it, on the grounds that it is only in use on one machine at any one time, is therefore becoming inconvenient as well as of doubtful legality. Multiple copies may soon be essential. Some products are available in "lab packs" at a reduced price per copy but others are not. Interpreting software piracy laws strictly could prove very expensive.

The input and output peripherals required will range from A4 monochrome page printers up to large-format multi-colour printers through slide recorders, scanners, and digital cameras. There will also be a requirement for video recording and editing equipment. This is increasingly ILkely to be digital and therefore to require powerful host computers with large storage capacity.

Most of the points made in this section refer to microcomputers since there is little or no use made of UNIX-based minicomputer workstations and centralised computers in art and design. There may be specialised requirements which can only be met by minicomputer workstations. Be aware that every aspect of purchasing and operating these is more expensive. Basic hardware, extra memory, additional storage devices, output peripherals, and software sometimes cost ten times their microcomputer equivalents. Specialist support staff will also be required in most situations and maintenance agreements will be almost essential.

Central computer facilities will be required for such activities as use of wide-area networks. If centralised facilities are used, the costs may be met from central "top-sliced" funds. Otherwise, the operating unit will bear all the costs. It is therefore a pity that it is not at all common for centralised services to supply or support the specialised facilities required by art and design students.

Organisational requirements
Some of the staffing requirements have been mentioned above. No one institution will have all the academic staff required to cover the full range of possible types of postgraduate work. Successful organisation therefore implies matching staff expertise to the range of work actually undertaken or envisaged. Technical instruction is also fundamental to work in digital media and there is sometimes a need to develop new approaches to staffing, in which technical support and "academic" teaching can be provided by the same person.

Once staffing issues have been resolved, attention can be devoted to those matters of detail which can be the cause of great dissatisfaction if badly handled. Access time, technical support, and the availability of documentation are all potential flashpoints.

There are no easy answers. For example, if only one copy of a piece of software has been purchased, there will only be one set of documentation. Copying this is illegal. Placing it in the library means it is never on hand in the studio when required. Somehow, a solution which secures the documentation but keeps it dose at hand must be found. Access arrangements must be workable and be seen as fair, while maintaining the security of equipment. Technical support must be properly managed, with well-trained staff on hand when needed and adequate budgets for consumables and equipment servicing.

A decision will have to be made about the ratio of workstations to students. Offering each full-time student their own workstation may be an advantage when recruiting. However, we are moving out of the era of the general-purpose workstation. Different activities require very different configurations and a functional division of workstations may be preferable. Students will then move from machine to machine, according to the work being undertaken at the time.

Pooling resources with other prograrnmes, including undergraduate courses, is sometimes advocated. This may make it possible to spread the cost of such things as colour printers or digital video editing suites. However, there are risks in this approach. Access requirements may conflict and complex timetables for access to facilities rarely work. Finding staff time to police them is difficult. Once timetables and schedules are seen to be abused, the stage is set for misuse of facilities and consequent student dissatisfaction.

Whatever policies are adopted, organisation is the key to successful support of postgraduate work in digital media. This is true whatever work is undertaken and whatever the level of funding available. Lavish provision of hardware and software will not ensure success. Conversely, good organisation will make efflcient use of scarce resources and thus help to ensure that work is of a good standard and student satisfaction at a high level.

Supporting postgraduate work at Coventry School of Art and Design

The postgraduate course at CSAD, a linked Postgraduate Diploma/MA Degree in Electronic Graphics, started in 1986. It was the first of its kind in Europe. The course was re-validated in 1991 for a further five years.

The focus initially was on videotex, typesetting, and solid modelling for animations. Although the course was based in a graphic design departrnent, students were drawn from all branches of art and design. Dissatisfaction with centralised facilities was established by 1986 and the equipment base was IBM-compatible personal computer workstations with graphics tableb and framestores. Output was to screen. pen plotter, or analogue video. There were ten workstations, one for every full-time postgraduate student. The equiprnent was also accessible to undergraduates in the School. Apart from the computer workstations, there were photographic and video production facilities available.

During the late 1980s the focus began to move to the production of interactive multimedia work. This was based on Apple Macintosh computers and there was dose collaboration with Apple on the "Renaissance" project, which investigated and promoted multimedia technology. There was substantial investment, assisted by Apple, in Macintosh hardware and software.

Staffing was initially organised on a matrix, with many specialists supposedly contributing small arnounts of time. Ihis arrangement never really worked. No proper budgetary arrangements had been made for the use of photographic and video facilities and this was also unsatisfactory. Dissatisfaction was widespread. Eventually a full-time course tutor was appointed and access to photographic and video facilities put on a proper footing. There was a period of upheaval, marked by further student dissatisfaction and critical reports from external examiners, between 1990 and 1991. This followed ie departure of the course tutor and was exacerbated by the re-organisation of technical support in the School, which led to a long period of uncertainty.

A new course tutor and assistant were appointed in the Spring of 1991. The course was re-designed and shortened from a year and a term to thirteen months. A modular framework was adopted but not fully implemented. Multimedia production gradually became established as the rnain area of interest. There has been liffle interest in still image-rnaking, typography, or page composition since 1990 and no interest at all in algorithmic work.

The course team have concentrated on encouraging individual, self- initiated work, partly because they do not have the resources to manage team projects and partly because of the demand from students to be involved in all aspects of the production process. Recruitrnent targets have remained at ten full-time and ten part-time students. In the three years since 1991, course management has been overhauled and the curriculum developed. New technical support arrangements are in place and there are now production facilities dedicated to postgraduate work. Results continue to be good, with a high proportion of students obtaining relevant employment within six months of graduation. It seems likely that new courses will go through a sirnilar process of refinement of initial aims, objectives and orgarlisation as they mature.

Summary checklist of requirements

Experience suggests that supporting postgraduate work in digital media requires the following:


There is likely to be continued expansion of provision for postgraduate work in digital media in the future, partly because interest in these media is growing and partly because more people are seeking postgraduate qualifications as first degrees become more common. The range of activities encompassed by postgraduate work in digital media is quite wide and support requirements differ considerably. Digital media present more problems in some areas of postgraduate work than in others. Capital and staffing dernands are disproportionately high but must be met if work is to be of an appropriate standard. Staff and equipment will need updating frequently as there is still no sign of slowdown in the rate of technical change.

Digital tools and techniques frequently collapse a number of separate processes into one and new working practices have to be adopted. Tools rnay make it possible for one person to execute work which would formerly have required a tearn of specialists, but this is not necessarily desirable. If the specialists go, so does their expertise and judgement: without benefft of their advice and experience, work can look arnateurish.

The vast majority of activity in art and design education still takes the form of individual effort but activities such as multimedia design and production require teamwork. Expressive work might continue to be produced by individuals but utilitarian work will have to be a team effort in future. The forrnation and management of production teams is still problematic. Postgraduate recruitment, course organisation, curricula, and stafffng will all have to move away from the typical art school practice in order to accommodate this development. Film, television, and perforrning arts courses will probably provide appropriate models.

Organisational aspects of supporting postgraduate work in digital media are at least as important as the hardware and software aspects and the problems of working with digital media must be overcome. Interest in these media has been fuelled by falling equipment and software prices, which are now within department, subject area, or even individual budgets. It is likely that interest will continue to grow and educational establishments will be expected to respond.

There is a need for the exchange of ideas and information about the support of postgraduate work. Organisations like AGOCG and conferences like CADE 95 should be used to establish good practice and help ensure the quality of existing and future postgraduate programmes in digital media.

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