Preparing Tomorrow's Designers

by Elizabeth Haydel

Did you know that this morning's edition of the New York Times contained more information than an average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to encounter in an entire lifetime? Richard Saul Wurman, in his book Information Anxiety, asks us to reflect on what this indicates about the vast changes in our lives over the last three hundred years. Today, we are barraged by a steady stream of new information and new technologies. Our world has changed dramatically over the last three hundred years and, with the arrival of the electronic age, will probably change more dramatically still over the next thirty years. "I see what is happening now as equivalent to the advent of the printing press," states Steve Carr, an assistant professor of communications at Indiana University--Purdue University Fort Wayne who teaches a course on educational and instructional interactive multimedia. For educators, this poses a unique challenge. Traditional teaching and learning models work with a known body of information. What happens when that body of information is rapidly shifting? How can educators prepare students to aim for an intellectual and professional target that is constantly moving?

Carr and other faculty members from a variety of departments, including Indiana University Bloomington faculty members Ron Osgood, facilities supervisor and a lecturer in the department of telecommunications; Thom Gillespie, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science; and Elizabeth Boling, an assistant professor in the School of Education, are preparing students for futures in multimedia design and production. There is a common misconception that basic technical skills are the most important areas of instruction for students preparing to work in the high-tech fields. Listening to these instructors, however, it quickly becomes apparent that those technical skills are really secondary--something people can just pick up on the job. Each of these faculty members is concerned with providing students with much more than a baseline set of skills.

Unlike vocational colleges, which seek to train students for an occupation today, Indiana University's mission is to prepare students for tomorrow, initiating a process of lifelong learning and problem solving. Technical skills learned today will be outdated tomorrow, and such skills alone will not be enough to allow multimedia designers to respond to a clients' needs, work in teams, create products that are easy to use and visually coherent, and work in environments that will constantly move in new directions. These are the challenges facing the designers of the future. The traditional pedagogical model of large public universities--professors lecturing to large classes--is not the best way to provide students with the skills they need in the field of multimedia design. According to Gillespie, students learn by doing. "I don't want paper," Gillespie says. "I want something that runs." For students in Gillespie's course on interface design, that means talking through their ideas and then turning on their computers and becoming authors. Similarly, the entire first year core for students in the < ahref=http://education.indiana.edu/isthome.html>Instructional Systems Technology (IST) program consists of hands-on activity. According to IST instructor Boling, students are presented with real-world problems from the beginning. "They bring everything they have to solving the problem, and we provide the resources to help them," Boling says. "They make their way through the first problem, and when they're finished with that, we give them the next one."

Teamwork is also at the core of instruction in multimedia design and production. Students need to get their hands dirty, and they need to do so in an environment that mirrors the world of work. "It's a multidisciplinary world out there," Boling explains. "Teams are composed of psychologists, graphic designers, instructional designers, technical writers, and software specialists, all aiming their efforts at one product." Accordingly, group work plays a role in any multimedia design course. Carr describes his course as a collaboration in which students with different backgrounds each bring their strengths to the class and learn from each other as a result. Because there is no separate multimedia program at IU, students from a variety of disciplines--including library and information science, telecommunications, education, fine art, music, and folklore--enroll in these courses. This combination of talents is vital, according to Gillespie, who says his course would not be a success without the creativity of students from the arts.

Ultimately, these instructors are preparing their students to work in a world that is in perpetual flux. "You start with just the word 'change,' " Osgood explains. "Students have to be aware that change will be the one constant in their future." Boling, Carr, Gillespie, and Osgood each help their students prepare for this by exposing them to technology in many forms and by allowing them to decide which technology will work best for each different situation. "They are going to change, and they are going to see change. If they want to stay in this industry, they are going to have to jump on and charge forward," Osgood states.

Technical skills are a necessity, but the creative, problem-solving, and communication skills students acquire through taking highly collaborative, participatory classes will enable them to survive in a rapidly evolving world. "The bottom line is that we are storytellers," Osgood says. "The end result is an audience of either a couple of people sitting in a living room, or people in a theater in a large audience, or a person at a computer interacting with images and sound. They are all involved with the story; it doesn't matter what the technology was that got you there."

Back to the Table of Contents