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Mark Deuze | T101

Teaching To The Digital Generation: T101 Media Life
By Mark Deuze, Associate Professor in Telecommunications, Indiana University
August 2009; word count: 2,015


One of the foundational classes the Department of Telecommunications offers to students across campus is its T101 course – originally called “Living In The Information Age”, which title changed to “Media Life” in fall of 2008. The majority of about 360 students that take this course every semester are University Division freshmen and sophomores. The University Division concept, while established in 1942, came into effect in 1970 as a two-year program for those students who have not selected their major area. As such, the T101 course offers a primer on the role of (electronic, new) media in everyday life."In this essay, I first offer a brief overview of the changing context for teaching the so-called “digital generation” of student born after 1990, and then move on to describe the corresponding way we offer T101 to students across the IU campus.

The Digital Generation

Since the Department of Telecommunications has offered the T101 review course on living in the information age for quite some time, the need to retool it for the current digital generation of young men and women entering college has become increasingly paramount. The key to understanding this need is the realization, that today’s first-year college students are all born after 1990. These are young men and women that have grown up in a world without a Cold War, without a Berlin Wall, without Apartheid in South Africa – but with international and domestic terrorism (ranging from nerve gas attacks in the Tokyo subway to the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh, and of course 9/11), with O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana, Tiger Woods, Hilary Clinton (and women breaking through around the world as political leaders of their country, as in for example Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Poland, Turkey, Burundi, Canada, Mozambique, Chile, and India), and Barack Obama. What these and other major cultural and political developments have in common, is that they make the world both a larger place – where anything seems possible and nothing follows established or traditional patterns – as well as a tiny place – a distinctly individual place, where who you are and what you (may) become is entirely up to you.

In the context of this fundamentally different period of world history within which these students grew up, developments in (new) media technology amplified and accelerated the world growing and shrinking at the same time. Most notably among these trends were, of course, the introduction and widespread adoption of the mobile phone and the World Wide Web: the first Web client-server communication over Internet was released in December 1990, and while hand-held cellular radio devices have been available since the early 1970s, until the early 1990s most mobile phones were too large to be carried around conveniently. When this changed in tandem with the introduction of data services and modern network technology the mobile phone took off, starting in Finland in 1991. Again, both these technologies share the characteristics of making our experience of the world both larger – being globally connected - and smaller – using individualized devices - at the same time.

The changing times we live in have had a profound impact on the teaching environment. Over the last ten years or so, faculty in Arts and Sciences (and often elsewhere on campuses around the world) have experienced a gradual, yet meaningful change in the way incoming students perform. This digital generation is not smarter, nor dumber (as often suggested) than generations before them. What is different, however, is the way they learn. Their talent generally does not seem to be knowing information – crucial dates in history, names of Supreme Court justices, state capitals – but rather finding information. As Alison King wrote in a famous 1993 essay in College Teaching, information increasingly does not come to them from a sage on a stage such as a professor, "the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam." Professors are not the only sages or experts faced with the daunting prospect of an audience that actively questions, appropriates, compares and contrasts their wisdom or authority – parents, priests, and even Presidents today share the same experience. In our individualized and globalized society – or “runaway world” as British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes it – it really seems up to each and every one to make up their own version of knowledge, wisdom, and truth.

Obviously, this poses challenges to teaching at a world-class institute of higher learning such as Indiana University; especially in a course that has as its aim to raise awareness among young people about the formidable role media technologies play in their everyday life. In the second part of this story, we will detail the changes we have made to prepare T101 for a 21st century college population, based on the general outlook as sketched above.

Learning Goals

Several departments and school across the IU Bloomington campus teach more or less similar introductory classes to media and society, such as C190 Introduction to Media in the Department of Communication and Culture, S101 Social Problems: Media and Society in the Department of Sociology, J110 Foundations of Journalism and Mass Communication at the School of Journalism, and theI202 Introduction to Social Informatics course at the School of Informatics and Computing.

The T101 Media Life course brings to these excellent offerings the unique perspective of the media user as producer, focusing much more on the process of making and distributing (life, careers, identities, and creative works in) media, than on our skills and competences as consumers of media. We also aim to look beyond the technologies and effects of media, instead articulating the complex and recombined relationship between people's personal wants and needs and the structure of our current media landscape. In T101 students learn how media are made, and how they in turn make media (often without realizing it). Our goal is to offer students a significant amount of agency when faced with the challenge not just to make sense of all the information coming at us - but to actively, ethically, and effectively participate in the creation and editing of quality information themselves.

Media Life

We are living a media life. Each of us is the star of his or her own Truman Show as in the 1998 movie of that title chronicling the life of a man who discovers he is living in a reality soap opera, televised 24/7 to billions across the globe. We digitally record, store, edit, and forward almost every aspect of our lives - whether we want to or not, whether we are aware of it, or not. We produce as much as consume information. The media become increasingly immersive, portable, networked. How to make sense of a life like that, living in a completely mediated world like this? That is what T101 Media Life is all about.

T101 traces the development, examines the content, and explores the impact of new technologies on industry and society, reviewing both conceptual and practical aspects of our changing information society. The course is divided into different thematic sections, each focusing on the relationships between new communication technology, media industries, and the issues we are all facing in everyday life: understanding and managing careers (particularly in the media: journalism, advertising, film and TV production, computer and video game development), relationships, and identities.

The readings for T101 are taken from cutting edge academic and trade publications – from the top scholarly journal The Information Society (which is edited by IU Telecommunications professor Harmeet Sawhney) to magazines such as Wired – and are available (for free download) online. This is a course intended to paint in broad strokes, and many students hear, see, and think about issues regarding new media and society for the first time. Course lectures include PowerPoint presentations, videos, and brief classroom exercises. The students are additionally asked to follow the T101 MediaLife channel on Twitter, which is used to provide real-time backchannel discussion during (and outside of) the lectures.

All the slides of the main lectures are available at the free online service Slideshare. An example of a typical T101 presentation reviewing the entire course at the end of a semester is embedded below.

Besides class meetings T101 is divided into discussion sections. Graduate students lead these discussion groups. The purpose of the weekly group meetings is to discuss the class readings, lectures and examples, and the students are expected to work in groups on a presentation of some aspect of the literature and lectures, as well as to work – individually and in teams – on numerous creative projects, such as modifying a video game, creating video shorts, and so on (see for example the T101 dedicated channel on YouTube).

Two examples of student video work special to T101 are embedded below. The first is a short film made by Ben Gibson based on one of the key concepts for understanding a media life: the Panopticon (as in the idea that we live our lives differently under the assumption that we are always monitored and in turn watch everyone else).

A second example is a music video by Dylan Rewoldt, Wes Robbins, and Scott Hutcheson on yet another T101 concept: the Pirate's Dilemma (as in the suggestion that digital piracy is a problem as it is illegal, yet it is also one of the key drivers for innovation in media technologies that people have come to rely on).

Warning: The video below contains explicit lyrics.

The assignments of T101 are optional, that is: the students get a menu of possible assignments, from which they can choose the ones that they like best. Assignments include creative projects, papers detailing one or more significant online trends (social networking, virtual worlds, digital divide issues), and interviewing a media professional about what it is like to manage a creative career in today’s marketplace. One example of a typical T101 essay – and one that made headlines in local news media (WTIU, The Herald-Times) when first introduced, is the Google essay, which has become the most popular and fun assignment in T101. Its aim is to make students aware of the “digital shadow” they leave behind when they make use of the Internet. The assignment reads:

"Assume you do not know anything about yourself – you just woke up with a case of acute amnesia. You only remember your name and nationality. However, this assignment demands that you write an essay on yourself. The first thing you can think of: Google. Of course, there are other ways to use Internet to find out about someone: Facebook, MySpace, meta-search engines (such as: IxQuick), and so on. Remember: the essay is intended to inform as deeply as possible, including any and all details (even the uncomfortable ones). Get creative – get critical. Include in your essay a concluding paragraph (or more) reflecting on what you found, how easy or difficult it was to find it, and how this has influenced your perspective on issues such as your digital shadow, privacy, and the way people represent (versions of) themselves online."

Finally, the course includes two exams to assess students’ working knowledge of the concepts used in T101. These exams are built around questions that do not ask students to reproduce specific information, but rather demand they apply T101 concepts to real-world problems. Every exam consists of 20 questions that are picked from a list of about 200 that is made available to the students online at the start of the semester. The students are advised to discuss these sample exam questions online, and collaborate on generating a list of possible answers. These student-generated answers are consequently used as the grading tool when reviewing the exams. This way, the students participate in their own assessment and grading.

The combination of teamwork, creative projects, collaborative exams, and individual research assignments serves the purposes of the course and the particular wants and needs of this digital generation. T101 Media Life is under constant construction, and we always welcome input from students, faculty, and alumni to improve the way we teach.