Courtney Miller

Teaching digital media skills to every student

by Courtney Miller
Director of Digital Learning Initiatives, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (ASCJ)

At the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism we've made a fundamental commitment to teaching digital media literacy to all our undergraduates. We know that employers place a high value on digital media skills, and teaching them is a key pillar in our efforts to prepare students for a media-saturated world, regardless of their major.

Our challenge is to build digital media know-how across our curriculum, while complementing and enhancing other core skills we want to foster, including creativity, critical thinking, and storytelling.

Seeding digital media literacy across ASJC

Towards the end of the 2000s, ASCJ's leadership became convinced that digital media skills were essential for all of our students. The result was the 21st Century Literacies Initiative, a comprehensive effort that included the construction of a new, 88,000 square foot building dedicated to digital media creation and a partnership with Adobe that gives every ASCJ student access to Adobe Creative Cloud. I was hired to help embed digital media across the curriculum as part of the "digital literacy" effort.

A key part of what I do is co-teaching a course that was the brainchild of two esteemed colleagues, Judy Muller and Dr. Alison Trope. The course is called “Discover, Deconstruct, and Design: Navigating Media and News in the Digital Age,” and students begin by choosing a newsworthy research topic that they explore throughout the semester, such as police brutality, LGBT issues, or climate change. They research the topic and then create an advocacy project in which they take a stand or make an argument. Professors Muller and Trope lecture on media/news literacy each week, offering perspective through both a Journalism and Communication lens. Then the students take those critical thinking skills into their weekly lab sections, where they get down and dirty with the Creative Cloud and other digital tools. I teach the lab along with a team of adjunct professors that I manage, and designed the lab/multimedia curriculum as an augmentation to the lectures, required readings, and other written assignments. All told, they do three digital media assignments and a final video project:

Jon Snow Puppet Show
Students in the ASCJ 200 course created infographics to highlight important social issues. Learn more about the project here >
  1. Manipulate an image to give it a new meaning using Adobe Photoshop.
  2. Use Adobe Illustrator to build an infographic that tells a coherent story with charts, graphs, and symbols.
  3. Learn how to interview, frame questions, and assemble a story by creating a 1-2 minute audio piece (vox pops) using Adobe Audition.
  4. For the final project, they conceive, shoot, and edit a video in Adobe Premiere Pro in which they advocate for a specific position on the topic they chose.

To support students in the course—or any ASCJ student working on any project—I established the Annenberg Digital Lounge, a makerspace where students can roll up their sleeves and create digital media projects for school or personal use. It hosts workshops, events, and Adobe Certification courses, plus a help desk staffed by students who are experts with digital media tools and techniques.

Learning by doing

I'm a big fan of hands-on learning. In the Digital Lounge, students can visit the help desk for peer-to-peer assistance with their assignments. We've built out a series of bite-sized tutorials focused on what students need to know to create their assignments and posted a curated selection of them on our website, AnnenbergDL.org. We also offer remote help via live chat on our website, and all students have access to Lynda.com if they want to dive deeper into the software.

The USC Annenberg Digital Lounge is a digital play place where students, faculty
and staff have an opportunity to create, experiment and discover.

When we opened Wallis Annenberg Hall in 2014, we also removed all of our traditional computer labs in favor of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. Our students now use their own laptops, tablets, and smartphones because we believe a BYOD policy promotes "backpack journalism" and teaches students to use the tools they already have on hand. I ascribe to the "fail fast" philosophy of learning, so I always encourage students to dive in, experiment, and play. Help is only ten feet away when they're working on their assignments in the Digital Lounge, so they should just get out there and create something.

Enhancing academic work, communication, and citizenship

Regardless of what they're working on or the tools they're using, we want students to bring together the critical thinking skills they're developing with their new ability to explain and express information visually. Take infographics, for example. With so many different information streams coming at people these days, there's a tremendous need for simple, visual ways to explain complex ideas. Students who learn how to make an infographic can create one to enhance a traditional paper in a non-media class, or even replace the paper entirely. In other words, these skills are vital even outside of the digital media course—they're building blocks for effective communication, and they're a marketable skillset.

I also emphasize that students are shaping their digital identities in all the work they do. Every step of creating a piece of media or journalism, from a simple photograph to a documentary video, involves choices. When students understand that those choices define their voices as media creators—and that they must own their voices, consciously and explicitly—they gain a sense of responsibility and empowerment.

As students dive in and learn how digital media is created, they simultaneously gain new insights for evaluating and judging the media they consume. The ability to critically navigate this terrain—to tell the difference between fake news and real news, phony stories from credible ones—is one of the marks of a well-educated person. Our push for digital literacy really has two sides: teaching students to create digital media and giving them the tools to consume it critically.

Preparing students for future careers

Of course, there are practical payoffs. Students will often come back to me and point to an internship or a job they got because they have digital media skills. And many Communications students have told me that they chose ASCJ because of the new digital media component.

But it doesn't really matter what major or field a student is pursuing—these skills are now critical in the 21st century. That's why we've made Discover, Deconstruct, and Design a core requirement for ASCJ undergrads, and we're considering scaling it for an even broader audience because other schools within USC want to offer it as a general education course.

Giving students confidence and finding professional support

One obstacle for many students is that they doubt their own creativity, so my first lab lecture is about how everyone can be creative. We want them to understand that the key to these assignments is the thought process, not necessarily the artistry. To ease them into it, we start with Photoshop because most students have done at least some level of photo editing. We have them take an image that's already complete and make changes to it. This builds their confidence and prepares them to try something more sophisticated with the infographic project.

To spark my own creativity and support our teaching at ASCJ, I rely on several resources. The Adobe Education Exchange is a great tool. I also participate in the New Media Consortium where I can work with peers and learn about what they're doing at their schools. I sharpen my own skills and augment our teaching with Lynda.com, and we also work with credentialed Adobe Experts who teach Adobe certification courses in the Digital Lounge.

Courtney Miller quote

Even so, it's impossible to keep up with every advance in this field. I think teachers have to follow the same advice I give to students: Fail fast, play, and have fun. Start bite-sized and be willing to experiment—there's no other way. I also believe it's important to give students a voice and ask them what they want to learn. If I don't know how to do something, I'm not afraid to say so. It's an opportunity for me to jump in and help them find what they need to learn a new skill or technology.