Jan Holmevik

Where creativity meets academics: Using digital media to enhance core curricula

by Dr. Jan Rune Holmevik
Associate Professor of English and Co-Director for the Center of Excellence in Next-generation Computing and Creativity at Clemson University

Traditionally, creativity through digital media has been the domain of fields such as graphics communication, journalism, and the arts. But at Clemson University's Center of Excellence in Next-Generation Computing and Creativity, we see digital creativity as a powerful force for learning and innovation across the entire curriculum.

By bringing digital creativity into non-traditional creativity areas—English and Rhetoric for instance—we're augmenting our students' critical-thinking skills with the kind of creative invention that drives the most successful high-tech industries today.

Using digital media to explore complex concepts

Since 2014, Clemson University has provided every student, faculty, and staff with Adobe Creative Cloud, and in all of my classes I have students use this software to explore and understand theoretical concepts through practical development of response artifacts. Traditionally such response artifacts would be written papers. My students still produce a significant amount of writing, but they now also create graphics, videos, and even video games that respond to, and reflect upon, what they are learning. I teach software skills only in the context of the problems I am asking my students to solve. The skills training is fully embedded into the learning process and carefully scaffolded to fit the thematic progression of the course.

Here are a few examples of how I use digital media in assignments across various courses:

  • In my upper division Transmedia course, we explore storytelling across discrete media. Using shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones as inspiration, my students write original short stories. Then they turn them into comics using Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Lightroom. After that, they turn the stories into short films using Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects. You can see some of their efforts here.
  • PhD students in my Digital Rhetoric course do extensive reading of theoretical texts. Instead of writing papers to analyze the works, they use Creative Cloud tools to create digital artifacts that demonstrate their understanding. To get them started, I provide a heuristic as a spark to inspire their creativity. For example, after they read Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, they use "Spin" as a heuristic to ignite the process of thinking about the text and creating a digital artifact in response.
  • In my online Technical Communication course, students use Adobe Spark tools to explore the rhetorical concepts of pathos, logos, and ethos. They create a Spark Post web graphic that appeals to pathos to persuade viewers to take an interest, a Spark Page web story that presents more detailed information through appeals to logos, and finally a Spark Video movie that aims to convince viewers to take the desired action based on the author's credibility, that is, ethos.

Allowing students to fail fast so they can learn fast

When it comes to assessing student work, I feel strongly that students should be able to find their unique creative voices without fear of onerous evaluation.

To encourage their efforts, I scaffold the technology so they start with smaller projects and build to more complex ones, and I use a "fail fast" pedagogy. At the outset of a course I'm not as concerned about rubrics and grading, because I don't want to stifle their creativity. Instead, I set them up for success by allowing them to experiment, fail, learn, and move on. It is an iterative process that emphasizes learning by doing. It can be a challenge to embrace this approach in academia, but it really allows the creative process to unfold.

So how do I provide quality assessments of student work? Here are some examples:

  • In my Transmedia course, I look for improvement from start to finish. Does the work show that the student's knowledge has evolved? I can compare the Timeline in an initial Premiere Pro video project to a final one to look for increased sophistication. But I mainly review to see if the student is capable of transmediating a story from text to comic to video. Did the student simply retell the story in the same way across all media, or did he or she use the power of cinematics to add new elements to the video version compared to the text version?
  • With my PhD students, I'll look at how well they're able to articulate the essence of a theoretical work in their response pieces. Do they do a good job of communicating their understanding multi-modally through their digital artifacts? For example, is their visual storytelling so strong that they can get the message across with only video and no sound? Further, at this level I also look for evidence of invention and innovation. These students are studying to be scholars and their future jobs will often be to produce new knowledge through research. I have found digital creativity to be a great way to generate new insights, not only new and nicer presentations of existing knowledge.
  • For my online Technical Communication course, I'm designing assignments where each student will go out and find a client—like a nonprofit organization—that has a communication problem. The student will then develop a marketing campaign based on the principles of pathos, logos, and ethos (as I explained above) to solve that problem. The assessment will come in the form of outside feedback—does the client think the communication problem was successfully solved?

Positive impacts for students

Digital literacies involve much more than just learning how to use digital technologies. In all my courses, I want students to become more proficient digital communicators and creators so they're better equipped to succeed in many aspects of their lives, not just professionally.

By organically integrating digital media-making into their coursework, I'm giving students an opportunity to put into practice the theories they're learning, and to develop a love of crafting a story and seeing it come alive in different forms. My students discover that creativity is a skill they can learn—even if they're not artists. They take pride in the work they do, and they begin to see new possibilities for their own futures.

In one example, an undergraduate student from my Transmedia course created an amazing video project with Premiere Pro. She'd never used this tool before, and she told me afterward that she realized she had the potential to become a professional video producer—a career option she hadn't previously considered. So by giving her the opportunity to learn and practice creative skills, the course opened up new horizons for her.

Incorporating digital media into any curriculum

When it comes to bringing digital media creation into your coursework, I think it's helpful to remember that technology should have a larger purpose than itself. Within higher education, especially in the humanities and the arts, we're not as focused on the technology itself because the tools always change and evolve.

Still, it's valuable to give students training on the technologies that are used throughout the workforce. And by working with these tools, students can learn to adapt and gain the confidence that they can pick up any technology that's presented to them in the future.

When you make professional tools like Creative Cloud software available to your students, you can plan more advanced coursework—you're not struggling with the limits of consumer-grade software. You don't have to ask students to buy $500 worth of software every year or so, and you don't have students working on a range of different platforms that all have different capabilities. For the professor this is a huge benefit. For the students it can sometimes mean not having to choose between buying the textbooks or the software because they cannot afford both.

Finally, Creative Cloud offers some invaluable services for showcasing work. Since 2014 I have used Adobe's Behance platform exclusively to post my course videos and samples of my work, and my students use it to share and showcase their projects. Behance allows students to get more exposure for their work and get feedback from a worldwide creative community. This raises the stakes a bit, because it means they're posting their projects to show future employers and the world what they can do with digital media.

Bringing digital media-making into your core academic classes takes some thought and effort, but the benefits can be enormous. Not only will your students learn digital literacy skills that will serve them well in their careers, but they'll also develop the creative mindset needed to make meaningful change in their lives, their communities, and the world at large.

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