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2. The lecture series
"Digital Futures": A Case Study in a Faculty of Art & Design
2 The DIGITAL FUTURES Lecture Series
2.1 The Module: Date and Times
Module AVP202, the Level 2 Department of Visual & Performing Arts Elective "Digital Futures: from tools to robots and aliens", commenced on Monday 27th September, 1997 and was programmed to be a sequence of 10 formal lectures plus 20 hours workshop time ("directed learning time") over the 15 weeks of Semester 1; the course was to be concluded by Monday 2nd February 1998. The standard 'Module Specification' which was given to students participating in Level 2 Departmental Electives (and from which students selected their option) is shown in Appendix 2.1. The formal lecture slot, plus seminars and any necessary administrative/assessment meetings, were timetabled weekly into the Bonington Lecture Theatre Mondays 3.00-4.00 p.m. This time-slot was marginally different to other Departmental Elective slots in order to ensure regular availability of a Lecture Theatre with adequate multi-media/I.T. facilities. Workshop times were to be arranged in conjunction with the students attending the module.
2.2.1 A fuller, funnier version of the pre-lecture preparation is related in Appendix 2.2 "A True Story": the shorter version is that at the outset of the course 'adequate multi-media/I.T. facilities' fell somewhat short of the mark, there neither being a computer in-situ because of protracted delays in the planned installation thereof, nor a CD player. On the positive side there was a VHS player controllable from the lecturer's dais, an overhead video projector with excellent picture size, resolution and sound and standard items such as an OHP and chalkboard. The lecture theatre was networked but the lecturer would be totally dependent upon imported hardware to use facilities such as PowerPoint or accessing e-Mail or the Internet. At that time no system was in place for the easy importing of hardware, it being left to the individual lecturer to find and 'bring' appropriate equipment. Once imported, helpful technical assistance was always available to set up and test the equipment. Setting up and testing had to be undertaken within the booked time except on those occasions when the preceding class did not use the Lecture Theatre or vacated it before 3.00 p.m. which happened approximately 50% of the time.
2.2.2 Aficionados of the formal lecture will easily read into section 2.2.1 above the potential for chaos which this situation promised to deliver. Much of the 'pre-Lecture Series preparation' consisted of locating appropriate hardware that could be easily and quickly installed, tested and utilised, ensuring that it was available on a weekly basis, could run the software required and would be available for preparatory time during each week. Frustration at this stage was paramount to the point where a colleague, seeing the lecturer wander for the fifth time between distant office and the lecture theatre clutching varying assortments of laptops, cables and fittings, asked if he was trying to imitate a robot or was looking for somewhere to hang himself? The latter seemed the easier option at the time.
2.2.3 These preparations - which had commenced in early September - eventually resulted in a reasonably satisfactory set of I.T. equipment arrangements being fully employable by Week 2 of the Lecture Series (October 6th). Week 1 was necessarily largely administrative in function but was concluded with a short video presentation about "the digital future"; the lack of a computer at this first session was not felt to be disadvantageous to the series.
2.2.4 Meantime the chosen and available computer which had been located, tested and some additional software (Netscape) added was a recently purchased Viglen laptop borrowed from the Dean's Office. A laptop was clearly the most practical option given the prevailing circumstances and tests had proved this one more practical at the 'fit-up' stage than other solutions offered and the most effective of the laptops available in use (not for any specifically technical reason other than by dint of being newer/faster/higher spec and perhaps by being the one prepared for "the Dean" to use for presentations!) Apart from the need to undergo a fairly rapid familiarisation process of layout, available software, manipulation of an unfamiliar 'pressure pad' mouse and locating key sequences to send a signal to the video projector, the Viglen laptop proved very adequate to the task and this arrangement worked satisfactorily throughout the series.
2.2.5 The debate on the advantages and disadvantages between the choice of IT equipment permanently installed in the lecture theatre and/or imported by the lecturer is doubtless set to continue awhile. The former inevitably tends to demand standardisation - which may be problematic for some applications or demonstrations - whilst the latter tends to raise problems of compatibility and time. Both demand familiarity and a proper allocation of preparatory /rehearsal time to ensure that the final delivery at least stands a chance of being impeccable. Whilst one can be sympathetic to prevailing conditions which give rise to 'hotbedding' lecture theatre timetabling in order to maximise utilisation at peak times, the advent of IT tends to exacerbate technical hitches which are antithetical to quick change-overs whichever type of installation is preferred. It goes without saying but perhaps needs to be re-stated that the specification of equipment and services - of what is and is not available - needs to be clear at the earliest opportunity together with indications of how any shortfall might be met.
2.2.6 One of the two "Great Ironies" of the IT provision available for this Case Study was that the 'Digital Futures' lecture series concluded on February 2nd 1998 and on February 25th the Principal Technician sent an e-mail to all staff in the Art and Design Faculty confirming that "The Bonington Lecture Theatre computer is now operational..." (see e-mail  in Appendix 2.7 and Head of Department's and Principal Technician's Reports in section 3.2 below). There is no suggestion of a fix-up, perhaps even rather the opposite: the constant highlighting of the genuine need for an in-house facility demonstrated by 'Digital Futures' (and other courses increasingly aware of the potential offered by I.T. presentations) certainly highlighted the urgency and perhaps hastened the enhanced provision. This improved arrangement is, however, still a 'temporary measure' pending approval, manufacture and installation of a suitable and secure dais/console.
2.2.7 There is an inevitable tendency for 'supply' of IT facilities in lecture theatres to follow perceived 'need' (rather than a policy or ability to provide an 'ideal state' in all lecture theatres). Given prevailing economic restraints and the rapid development of IT hardware and software which causes costly equipment to rapidly depreciate, this seems a generally acceptable and sensible policy. The continuing breadth of demand upon available resources (both IT and non-digital, as appropriately outlined in the Lewis/Hughes Report, see section 3.2.1 below) inevitably places restrictions on 'ideal state' plans except in particular 'showpiece' installations which can also prove problematic (see section 2.5.2 below). Both situations place on the individual lecturer a new burden of responsibility, knowledge and need for familiarity (and thus Staff Development) and upon the 'department' (or administrative unit responsible) provision of appropriate maintenance, instruction and technical assistance. The current rate of response to these demands across the sector (as distinct from specialist sections within it) tends not to be keeping pace with the technological changes. On increased responsibilities for individual lecturers see also 'Legal issues', section 2.6 below.
2.3.1 In Week 1 students were asked to complete a fairly extensive questionnaire (on paper!) part of which was designed to yield information on their range of previous I.T. skills and experience (copy Appendix 2.3.1, see especially page 3). The results were duly analysed and did not remotely demonstrate what had been anticipated as likely skill/familiarity levels! The general level of familiarity with IT was significantly, even 'massively', lower than had been assumed: of the 46 students who attended the preliminary introduction 28 (60%) had no experience whatsoever of e-mail or the Internet and only about 8% (4 individuals) declared themselves as "advanced users" in any facility, word-processing and games. With one exception no-one had heard of html. Even taking into account "the natural reserve of Week 1" this suggested from the outset that a Lecture Series somewhat grandly subtitled 'from tools to robots and aliens', was about to be grounded at the 'tools' level!
2.3.2 The IT skill levels of the average student (c. 18-20 years) is perhaps all too often assumed to be greater than it is. The assumption that "they'll cover the basics in school" or "they'll meet up with IT at home" may eventually be the case - and there are some signs that this is now true of some students in some schools/homes. Some students may have 'a natural affinity' for the subject and may appear highly advanced in their use of I.T. applications; equally, in others, a 'coolness' factor may apply which may disguise a lack of familiarity. To assume familiarity for all or even most students is to make the same mistake which leads to pockets of specialist I.T. application across organisational units of generally limited I.T. application. Any suggestion of 'remedies' to this situation would stray into areas well beyond the scope of this Report but it may be relevant to note that if some 'remedial' action isn't undertaken there is likely to be a few more 'lost generations' before the average I.T. skill level markedly improves.
2.4.1 As well as undertaking the survey of skill levels, Week 1 was an introductory session which provided an opportunity to describe the whole course, it's objectives, direction and requirements. It was not and was never intended to be part of 'The 10 Lecture Series' per se but to establish student priorities in joining the option and to afford them some choice in the sequencing of 'digital future' topics plus making preliminary arrangements for practical workshop sessions. Preferences expressed on the topics to be addressed were not quite as anticipated and the structure of the series was amended accordingly.
2.4.2 Week 2 (Lecture 1) presented the key results of the survey questionnaire as a PowerPoint presentation (extract copy Appendix 2.4.2). including 'the popularity vote' on most interesting topic offered with which I was determined to commence the lecture series. Anticipating young art students already familiar with many concerns of the Internet I had largely assumed that issues of the freedom of the Net including censorship, cyborgs and wacky developments would all feature highly but was wrong on nearly every count:
they were young art students but, as noted in 2.3.1 above, baring a few noticeable exceptions, were surprisingly unfamiliar with the Net in particular and I.T. in general;
being in a large departmental group for the first time ever since coming to University they felt surprisingly nervous about the whole exercise (and, it later transpired, one another);
as Photography students formed the largest single group the one area of safe ground for them seemed to be "PhotoShop" which they'd heard about, seen examples of, knew they would access limited specialist suite facilities in time and were keen to become professionally experienced;
the most common factor seemed to be electronic music or games.
I seemed to have recruited a group of 62 aspiring rock musician gamesters with 'Image and Sound' a clear 'First Choice'. The anticipated launch-pad of either 'Cyborgs' or 'Netsex' had tied in the relatively lowly 5/6th place though, as the formality relaxed over the forthcoming weeks, both topics seemed to gain credibility (and were eventually demanded as 'Christmas Specials', 'Netsex' attracting the largest audience of the Series so my original prediction was in one aspect correct). StarTrek seemed to be a very common point of reference for predicting 'the future' whereas "Cyberwars: real, flame and virtual' attracted no votes whatsoever in the initial survey and was omitted from the sequence. The pre-prepared course was slightly amended for 62 Rock Peaceniks with an interest in Photoshop and the Lecture Series commenced with "Image and Sound: Design, Composition and Manipulation". Over two weeks a selection of appropriate web-sites and illustrations were introduced including William Latham demonstration pieces, Silicon Graphics animations, synthesizers from Moog to Roni Size and Raprezent using both the Internet and video extracts (see lecture notes Appendix 2.4.2).
2.4.3 As the PowerPoint presentation of the structure of the proposed (amended) course tried to point out in Week 4 after all this razzmatazz... "HOWEVER! to control more advanced applications such as Image and Sound you need to feel comfortable with the computer" (extract Appendix 2.4.3) - and in this the majority of the group were unfamiliar. It was therefore now imperative to commence the series of hands-on workshops (introducing e-mail and Internet - see memo Appendix 2.4.3) which, whilst inevitably going to disappoint (on both fronts of available equipment and some wilder notions of likely ease/rate of progress to 'art' applications) would at least start the process of familiarity. The difficulties which implementation of this part of the course encountered - of differing levels, aims, ambitions - was largely overcome by the extensive use of e-mail which became a vital adjunct to the Lecture Series (see section 2.7 below where this unforeseen development is fully explicated).
2.4.4 After the anxiety, consternation, disquiet and trepidation of getting the necessary hardware/software in place, the performance of the equipment throughout the entirety of the lecture series was mercifully as good as the operator: at no stage did the computer crash or the projector fail. Week 3 however did yield one final attempt to throw the presenter: in this week, for the first time in the series, it was necessary to move between e-mail, video, PowerPoint and Internet, all utilising the same projector which would need re-setting. This was to be achieved by a system which with hindsight appears fairly ridiculous: the video remote needed to be pointed towards a small reception pad at the rear of the lecture theatre and the channel changed to the appropriate function which was registered by the appearance of a small number (too small to be clearly discernible from the front). To make it slightly more difficult there was a time delay before the new function would operate but if the operator panicked and re-pressed the channel number it would move (in time!) on to the next setting which would confuse the projector (let alone the unsighted operator....). As well as recalling the right channel number and getting the timing right, at least one of the remaining two functions (lights and video/computer) were in different locations so that the whole process resembled trying to change gear in a car where the clutch was in the boot, the gearstick in the back seat, the accelerator in the conventional place and the traffic lights indiscernible. With practice future switchovers became 'accomplished' if not exactly smooth.
2.4.5 Where IT and non-digital provision is accomplished in stages (which tends to be the most common form of provision enhancement) it is essential that advance design planning attempts to take into consideration future developments to ensure that all facilities are independently and separately easily available both to the speaker as well as external control (e.g. by a technician in a lighting bay). Not to provide this facility, or to provide it piecemeal, significantly undermines the multi-media capability of the provision which it is the intention of staged provision to enhance. This conclusion is also independently reached in the Lewis/Hughes Report (section 3.2.1 below, final paragraph).
2.4.6 The Lecture Series thereafter continued according to the amended plan and kept fairly successfully to its programme of weekly topics. It was noticeable early on that whilst the computer's ability to seek out interesting websites was a unique experience for many, in terms of impact of multimedia presentations the video extract (with it's planned, directed and reliable movement, sound and special effects and its focus and commentary on a particular topic) remained supreme. Where the computer won most concentrated interest was in demonstrations of the computer itself rather than any resulting image. In particular demonstrations of searching for information (e.g. 'Women and Computing", "Gender Issues", "Sex and Censorship" and (later) mIRC and IRC) - opened up a whole new facility for many as they progressed in the workshops from hesitant e-mail to surfing the Net. There being no printer for screen-dumps in-situ, these had to be prepared in advance (see Appendix 2.4.6).
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents