This semester, I’m teaching a class called Principles of New Media. It’s part of a cluster of three courses prescribed to all incoming freshmen who wish to pursue a major within the school of visual arts. One of the goals of PONM is to establish a baseline proficiency in several computer programs that are used extensively in upper level art and design courses.
As technologies are apt to do, these programs are in a constant state of mutability. From year to year, changes are implemented to update their functionality and interface in pursuit of optimization. This creates a learning environment analogous to the description provided by Thomas and Seely Brown in Chapter 3 of A New Culture of Learning. As an educator, it’s challenging to introduce students to these tools knowing that their imminent restructuring is liable to render the specifics of my lessons obsolete. To best prepare my students to use this software in the future, I must be mindful in how I teach them in the present. It requires an approach that acknowledges the fluid nature of digital tools. Teaching with this in mind de-emphasizes the need to master a specific tool and places more importance on cultivating students’ ability to determine what it is they want to do. For example, rather than motivating an assignment through mastery of the specific functionality of a program, instead prioritize the students’ ability to think through the goals of their project, identify the skills and tools they will need to realize those goals, and use my lessons help them feel comfortable working with technology. Importantly, that comfortability must transcend the specifics of any particular tool or method that I demonstrate in the classroom. The reading by Langer showed how something as simple as the language I use to describe and explain these tools can have this effect. Using mindful language can open the door to finding creative solutions and facilitate students’ ability to adapt to changing technologies. Going forward, their ability to do that is much more important to their success than any particular mastery they could gain from my class.
Another challenge centers around expectation – specifically my expectations as a teacher. There is implicit bias in the programs that we use on computers and other devices, built in to their functionality and interface by the people that created them (despite whatever efforts may have been made otherwise). Similarly, as a person who is (in theory) familiar with the capabilities these tools, when I assign a project that requires the use of a particular software, I inherently hold an expectation for what the result of that assignment will be. Undoubtedly, this informs the way I teach, regardless of whether I consciously acknowledge this preconception or not. So, how do we as teachers disengage from our expectations in a way that is still dutiful to our obligation to share our knowledge without impinging on our students’ creativity? Once more, I think the article by Langer is useful in addressing this question. Being mindful of how I teach digital tools directly affects how creative students are when they use them. Teaching students how to use tools in a mindless manner will lead to work that meets expectations but will never generate work that is unexpected.
In some fields, expected results may be a good thing, but in art, the opposite is generally true. Art that shows us something we don’t expect tends to hold our attention longer. It changes our perspective by subverting something familiar and providing it with new context. I believe that this is more important than mastery of any particular skill or technique and imparting this idea to my students likely begins with how I approach my lessons.