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A new approach to teaching computer-based design skills.

Tamasin Cole

The author

Tamasin Cole is a Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at Middlesex University, with responsibility for developing the Electronic Design area, structuring the use of computers on the undergraduate programme and introducing interactive design. She has her own freelance practice using computer technology in a variety of work.


The author gives an account of an experiment undertaken with others in teaching computer-based design skills to Visual Communication Design vmdergraduates. The experiment is set in the context of current pressures on Higher Education, and the report indicates ways in which simple, low-technology approaches might be used in teaching this high- technology subject. The learning methods differ strongly from those normally used, which tend to be staff-intensive and inefficient. An account is given of student progress and reactions, and a preliminary evaluation is made of the method's effectiveness.

The landscape


Like the rest of Higher Education, Middlesex University has been required to expand over the past few years at a rate few of us would have imagined possible. The expansion has coincided wii a revolution in electronic design technology and increasing demand from students for experience of the new tool.


The BA Hons in Visual Communication Design takes students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Although at the moment few students take advantage of the University's modular system to combine disciplines, a general degree is possible in principle; the first semester programme in the Faculty of Art, Design & the Performing Arts is developing to provide the foundation for movement within the Facultya The acquisition of basic IT skills is a requirement of this first semester programme. This paper concerns the development of a new learning scheme to cater for the IT needs of VCD students in the first semester of their course.

The past

Since the arrival of electronic design technology in the form of the Macintosh, there has been ever increasing demand from students who want to learn about it. VCD has progressed through a number of strategies, ranging from the early free-for-all, exploited by only a few unusually computer-literate students, to a policy of allowing no computing at all in the first year.

At the end of this transitional stage it was recognised that all students now needed basic computer literacy, that almost all would need to use computers for their work at some point and that the VCD course had an obligation to provide access to the electronic medium.

Until recently, much of students' learning was through working on design projects. However, it became apparent that too often their creative thinking was being destroyed by their limited knowledge of computers - not just the workings of the applications they chose to use, but their lack of ability to challenge the machine and find ways of making it do what they wanted it to do. 'Default design' was only too common. Many complained that they lacked the confidence to attempt any work on the Macintoshes at all.

To tackle this problem, a standard, practical introduction to basic computer skills was introduced, with students attending in groups of 10 or 12. These introductions were scheduled to last for 5 working days, and aimed to get all students to a common level at which they had confidence in their ability to use a machine.

The problems

With a student intake of highly disparate prior experience, increased class sizes and decreased contact teaching time, it became increasingly difficult to accommodate those with little or no knowledge alongside those with too much. Problems arose with the range of previous experience: some needed close attention in order to overcome their fear of touching a mouse before they could even think about opening a file; others thought they knew everything already and wanted to use their allocated time to explore advanced applications entirely unsuited to their level of visual understanding. The staffing requirement for resolving these differences is considerable, particularly if 'traditional' teaching and delivery methods are employed. Student time is wasted either covering ground already known, or waiting for help.

In addition, sound basic skills, general knowledge and good 'computer manners' need to be established before students can develop their own creative abilities through computers.

The project

The proposed solution involved the development of "Skills Units", each unit presenting a practical exercise covering one very small aspect of basic Macintosh skills. The units could be used flexibly: in a teaching situation with demonstrations by tutors or technicians for beginners, or independently by students with prior knowledge. The medium for these exercises is not electronic but paper.

Each student would be given a card listing topic units and making clear which were required to be completed by the end of Semester 1; identity cards (a local ID system for the use of the VCD electronic design area) would not be issued without completion of the specified basic units.


The scheme had a number of implications for the timetable and teaching style of the department. For those used to scheduling specific activities for clearly defined groups of students, and expecting attendance at such sessions, introducing a flexible scheme such as the Skills Units required a shift in thinking and organisation.

There were also practical problems in the light of the restricted equipment available in the Electronic Design Studio, and the availability of academic contact time.

Perceived advantages

Perceived advantages included the following:

The practice

Unit details

Each unit consists of an A4 sheet, an exercise on the front in the form of a series of instructions, and notes on the exercise on the back. The exercise itself leaves no room for creativity so that the result of each exercise can be checked against a master; the notes cover every new activity, but do not provide details - the emphasis is firmly on self-help, and students are directed to use Help Files, or pointed in the general direction and told to work it out.

Timetable management

The structure of the first semester has been changed slightly to accommodate the flezable approach required by the Skills Unit scheme, in that Friday afternoons (3 hours) have been designated 'Skills catch- up time'. Also available in the same slot are photography, silkscreen and letterpress workshop introductions. Groups of students are allocated three consecutive Friday sessions6 in any of ie areas they need, although Electronic Design is the only area they are all expected to attend.

Student introduction / introduction

The scheme is introduced very briefly during induction week at the start of the semester, but many students clearly suffer information overload and need further explanation later.

The main introduction takes place on the first Friday afternoon of their 3 session slot, where they are shown the record card and the system is explained to iem. A sample are asked to complete an evaluation form, and all are asked to file the exercise sheets for future reference (students are provided with a ring binder during induction week).

At that point, those who feel they have enough prior experience to manage on their own are given some or all of the set of nine essential exercises and may take them away to complete them in ffieir own time.9 They are instructed to bring the results to any of the academic staff for checking, when the unit will be signed off on their card.

Students who are completely new to Macintoshes, or who require some help, can sign up for a demonstration taking about 15 minutes, and can then attempt the exercise with academic support available.

Operation of the scheme

Each exercise is designed to take no longer than 30 minutes, and can be completed by a student with prior experience in far less time. Thus the 9 essential exercises could be completed in as little as an hour and a half by a competent student, and should be completed by all well within the three afternoons allocated.

Production of the material

At the present time, three members of academic staff, none full-time, are involved in writing the units. A list of headings was compiled, and topics allocated by agreement. Once the format and structure of the exercises have been understood, and provided that the writer is familiar with the topic, an exercise takes between 2 and 3 hours to prepare. A template is available so that layout is consistent.


The scheme was first proposed in the spring of 1994, but it was not clear until near the end of the Summer term in June if practical arrangements could accommodate it. General planning started in June, but the majority of the work has taken place since the start of this academic Autumn term in September. The first group of students to use the scheme started in mid-October.

First results


Students accepted the proposition readily, even enthusiastically. Comments to staff indicated that they felt it gave them more control over their learning. It was noticeable that at the start of the first session many students, although they had been carefully briefed, failed to look at the notes when they got stuck, falling back on the age-old technique of asking the tutor to show them how to do it. By the second exercise, however, almost all had got used to the idea of looking at the notes and/or the Help File. We now suggest that students read the notes before starting the exercise so that they have some idea of what is covered.

There were occasional confusions with typographic conventions, and the terminology used in the exercises is not always consistent, although this did not appear to cause problems.

Student feedback

The first two groups of first-year students, 30 in all, were asked to complete evaluations of the units. Co-operation was excellent, and the results encouraging.

The shortest time taken to complete an exercise was 5 minutes, and one student completed all nine exercises in a total of 1 hour 50 minutes. Only one student consistently took 25 minutes or more per exercise, which may say more about the student than the exercises. Students' initial self-assessments seemed accurate; those who thought they knew how to do an exercise usually completed it quickly.

Generally the instructions were pronounced to be "quite easy" to understand, and the few expanded comments that were offered were supportive.

Practical management

This is an area which can probably do with some rationalisation. The necessity for feedback involved extra organisation in handing out, requesting and collecting in the evaluation sheets; even without this there is a lot of distribution and collection required.

The demonstrations appear to have catered for those who wanted them, being scheduled as demand arises through the Friday afternoon tutored sessions. Most students have only felt the need for demonstrations of the first few units, feeling confident enough after completing those exercises to continue on their own thereafter. A check has been kept on the progress of each student, and letters sent to those who are lagging behind; this is laborious. Successtul completion Because this study is being written before the end of the semester (the official Xclosing date' for completion of the required units) it is not possible to report on the number of students failing to complete all the necessary work. At the time of writing (November) most students had not finished all the units; however, as they know that they have until February to finish them, they may be aiming to finish the remaining exercises in their own time. Talking to some of them, this appears to be the case, and they do not seem to feel anxious about being able to complete the necessary work in time.

For the future

Possible solutions to some problems encountered Clearly a revision of the existing material needs to be made once the first semester has finished. Points to be addressed will include:

On the administration of the system, consideration will be given to:

The possibility of handing out all the exercises in packs at the first session and requesting all the results back together when they are completed. Example of correctly finished exercises could be available for self-checking in the interim.

Instead of tutors recording students' progress, this information could be displayed publicly, thus making it the student's responsibility to inform him/herself of what he/she has yet to complete. Other areas to be looked at include any possible copyright problems with texts used.

Extension of the project within Vxsual Communication Design

It is intended that the basic training scheme should be expanded.

There are already introductory units for HyperCard to address the basic skills required by students before they can tackle Design for Interactive Media. In future, completion of these units may be named as a prerequisite for entering the option.

Students wishing to use a particular application for a specific project will be asked to start by completing 3 or 4 introductory units before attempting a design job.

Activities that regularly cause problems, such as preparing scanned images for print, or colour specification for separation, will be covered in individual units. Some of these are already in use.

Extension of the project within Art, Design & Performing Arts

Several other Schools within the Faculty have expressed interest in the scheme, and the academic staff responsible for delivery of IT skills in those schools have been involved in very fruitful discussions, both about the specifics of the scheme, and about the different ways in which we teach the subject.

During these discussions, various different patterns of delivery emerged, which include:

All the schools whose representatives have been involved in these discussions have expressed interest in adopting part or all of the scheme. The modular structure seems to be adaptable to most styles of teaching, being suitable for use as practical back-up, core exercises to be expanded upon, or as an independent learning pack.

The units are also to be adopted by the Faculty's ILRS (Information and Learning Resource Service) as the core of their own training scheme which is available to any member of the University using the facilities. There are plans to extend the system to include PC skills training, and to add exercises in logging-on to the network.

In an increasingly flexible University structure there will be huge advantages in knowing that students moving between disciplines have a common set of computer 'manners' and have been educated to help themselves through using similar basic exercises. Students moving from Middlesex Foundation, or transferring between disciplines can have their experience accredited and will thus not need to take part in the VCD sessions.

Investigation into practical ways of reproducing and/or distributing the scheme will be necessary if it is taken up University-wide. The possibility of producing a version to be supplied electronically on the University network is attractive, but will probably require changes in the design of the material.

Several constructive suggestions were made by tutors from other schools, induding the idea of a laminated set of exercises beside each computer for anyone to use, and the proposal of basing staff development around the material.


The general consensus from staff and students seems to be that the project is worth continuing. There are clearly areas which need further work and revision, but the general principle of flexible work units that can be used by staff and students to fit in with their work pattern seems to be sound.

It will not be possible to assess the project fully until the current first semester students have moved on to their second and third semesters, when they will need to put their computer skills into use. However, if they have, as requested, saved the exercise sheets for future reference, any revision they may need should be a relatively simple matter.

If the final results bear out the first evidence, perhaps one of the most important achievements of the Skills Unit scheme will be to have given students confidence and introduced them to the idea of self-sufficiency in an area which still alarms many. As a model for coping with some of the new problems posed by the expansion in Higher Education, it may well be useful in other areas which demand the learning of skills by student with very varied backgrounds.

However, such a system must never be seen as a substitute for contact teaching where skills are to be applied in a creative context. It can only be of use to provide a stable foundation of practical experience.

Tamasin Cole, 1994

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