Greg Alexander

A Whole New Digital World

Baltimore Sun, July 8, 2007

Inevitably, in most students’ collegiate experience, they will take a class where the same syllabus, textbook and coursework has been used for years and the subject matter is based on well-tested theories. However, with the advent of an ever-changing digital world, some innovative programs at area schools present the opportunity to take courses where the subject matter changes daily and coursework is decided in “real time,” many times in a collaborative manner between faculty and students. Programs focused on interactive media, digital media arts and digital entertainment allow students – and faculty – to be pioneers in these areas of education, while discovering new career paths.

Communication, a two-way street

Electronic gadgets are a part of everyone’s life – from cell phones to the Internet to PDAs, and a program at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) examines – among other things – how these technologies can work together. “We look at ways to integrate different technologies; for example, how a cell phone can communicate with a Web site. All of these communication devices are quite similar, and if you can recognize these similarities, it’s easier to keep up with evolving technology,” says James Rouvelle, professor in the bachelor of fine arts in interactive media program at MICA. “I encourage students to look at interactive media as a relationship of mutual influence. In the ‘Interactive Scripting’ course, we learn first how to become good listeners and examine what makes a good conversation. We can then take this conversation model and apply it to interactivity in a variety of media.”

Rouvelle says that what makes MICA’s program unique is the combination of technical expertise and practical knowledge gained that can be applied to any workplace setting. “Students will learn many different skills such as Web design, server side scripting and ‘experience’ design, but in this field, it’s also important to be able to listen and communicate with different types of people, not just other artists or designers, and work together in a team setting to solve problems. I urge students to become learners. It’s risky to focus your knowledge on one software, which will be obsolete one day,” says Rouvelle, who also teaches “Interactive Media III,” a junior-level studio course; “Physical Interface Design,” which studies how different technologies can share information with each other; a junior-level seminar course; and “Interactive Media II: Art,” where students work in tandem with students from other institutions around the world. Rouvelle notes that this year, students in his class worked on pieces that communicated directly with those from Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

“We also worked with the Maryland Science Center to develop prototypes for interactive displays for a future exhibit, which was a great opportunity for the students,” says Rouvelle. One of these lucky students was Jacob Mauer, who recently graduated from MICA. “I interned there last summer and was able to work on the prototypes for the exhibit. It was a great opportunity to ‘sink my teeth into’ a project and learn skills for software that I had not used before. I was able to work independently and it was very self-motivating,” says Mauer, who says he was drawn to MICA’s program due to the different skills he could learn.

“I did not want to be limited to one are such as photography. The faculty at MICA is amazing; we were able to bring our own interests to the table and figure out our own path, while also working with our peers to bounce ideas off each other,” says Mauer. “The freedom and the flexibility of the program was the best. It’s so new and undefined, making it even more exciting.” Mauer, who was recently accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme where he will be a teacher’s aide in Japan, says that he plans on coming back to Baltimore to work, earn his master’s degree and teach at the collegiate level.

More than just games

While the concentration of game development companies in Hunt Valley led to the development of a program at the University of Baltimore to educate and train the workforce to support these companies, much has changed in the past few years, says Kathleen Harmeyer, director of the bachelor of science program in simulation and digital entertainment at the University of Baltimore. “We used to only be a transfer program where students would attend Community College of Baltimore County, Essex for two years and then transfer here. Since University of Baltimore will be a four-year school starting this fall, we now offer a four-year degree in simulation and digital entertainment,” says Harmeyer, who notes that articulation agreements remain in place with several community colleges and that students can now take classes at a sister school, Universities at Shady Grove in Montgomery County. “This summer, we are also offering an eight-week course for teachers that will teach them how to use game technology for learning experiences in the classroom.”

Harmeyer says that there are approximately 30 computer game development companies in Maryland, as well as countless more that focus on interactive development, creating a bevy of job opportunities for graduates. Students in UB’s program learn computer programming, 3-D graphics, 3-D modeling and animation, interactive design, among others. Harmeyer adds that one of the more exciting developments is a program called “Second Life,” a 3-D virtual world built and owned by its ‘residents’ – over 5 million worldwide. “Members buy land in Second Life and construct things, such as houses and businesses. Game developers can land full-time jobs constructing exteriors and interiors in Second Life, and companies now can meet in a virtual conference room and have dialogue with employees all over the world,” Harmeyer says.

Harmeyer adds that the ever-changing technology makes the program even more exciting. “I teach three classes, and – unlike when I taught math years ago – there is no textbook to use because the moment one was printed, it would be out of date. It takes me more than a day to prepare for one class session. With technology always changing, I urge students to ‘learn how to learn a tool.’ If you learn how to teach yourself a program, figure out how to effectively problem solve and utilize ‘help’ features of a software, you can keep up with technology. That’s the task of a liberal arts education – how to think independently.”

An inter-disciplinary approach

A new program launching this fall will allow students to enroll in a high-tech program in a liberal arts setting. A new digital media arts program at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland will be an inter-disciplinary one combining art, computer studies and communication arts, says Joseph Schaub, coordinator of digital media arts program at the school. “Many high-tech program are solely for programmers and people who work with code, while ours will be a creative one. We will try to bridge the gap between the creative language of the arts and technical language of computer science to turn out graduates who are comfortable speaking the language of both areas,” says Schaub, who says that the school’s “Learn for Life” mantra will be incorporated into the new program.

“The digital world changes so rapidly, that we’ll urge our students, for example, not to learn a software, but how to use it to complete your task. Software like Dreamweaver may not be around forever, so it’s more important to learn problem solving. Quark is now being replaced by InDesign, but if you’re taught how to use a program, you can apply lessons learned from Quark to InDesign.”

Schaub says that in addition to taking a broad range of classes, students in their senior year will be placed in entry-level positions in area businesses to put their skills to work and help prepare them for a professional career.

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