Final thoughts on CPSC 106 (*edit)

April 27th, 2010

Above all else, I had a lot of fun in this class. I have already recommended it to others. It’s unlike any class I have taken before, on a variety of levels.

It is the most realistic experience I’ve ever had dealing with technology in a classroom setting, considering I am not a CS major. There was a time early in my college career when I took a lot of tech classes, particularly revolving around web site development, but I was continually frustrated with the lack of relevancy. It felt like a Microsoft-sponsored fear campaign — all I learned were outdated coding methods and why MS platforms were actually superior even though they’re more vulnerable to glitches and viruses. Tech culture was never explored, and even discouraged. The cultural aspect was equated to hacking, and hacking was equated to the people who send you spam and want you to open file attachments. Internet functionality in the classroom revolved around Blackboard, and for some reason still does. File sharing was a mystical taboo that took food off the table of poor studio execs. Granted, my classroom experience was mostly during the simple, olden days of pre-Web 2.0, but some of these college classes were as late as 2006, so there’s really no excuse.

Enter Jim Groom and his whole edupunk manifesto. It’s an unconventional approach that, for once, tries to make this crap fun and usable, whether you’re an IT person or not. This class makes you use tools available to you in the present under the assumption it is preparing you for your future. And not in an “I need to learn Microsoft Office because it is the standard” kind of way. It’s almost like an anthropological approach to technology. You won’t learn specifics in higher level techniques, but you are learning how to integrate basic methods into your everyday life — and the culture behind it. In DS106, you have to buy your own webspace, make it usable, and generate good content. You have to understand the relationship between your computer and the server on which on you put your material. You have to map a domain. You have to see what happens when you break your site. Simple stuff to the techies, but some people have never had any decent exposure to it — and why should this information be reserved for IT majors?

At the beginning of the semester, it felt like we were being put through the gauntlet. Very long readings were assigned, some more interesting than others. Each article had a thematic relevance to the topic of the week, but at times were a bit redundant. This was probably unpredictable, though, from a class-planning perspective. For example, there were two articles dealing Web 2.0. One was about its origins, and the other dealt with digital storytelling specifically. The latter article garnered a lot of negative response, including from me, because we felt we had discussed Web 2.0 into the ground. On the surface, we only had two Web 2.0 readings, but you have to factor in that we had been talking about it for almost a month. The second article was very different from the first, but in the big picture, offered us nothing new. It could probably be nixed in the future, or at least offered as an optional reading. The Doug Engelbart reading was the hardest, but I would recommend keeping it, contingent upon providing more background info on him. It will make it easier for people to associate his essay with something familiar and tangible. It would also be a good idea to link to his video conferencing samples. It’s cool to see how his ideas in 1962 played out in 1968, and how 1968 laid the groundwork for today. Also, give the class a heads up about the length. There’s no real way to discern its equivalence in page numbers, so it’d be nice to let them know it’ll take a while to get through.

The projects were mostly positive overall. I would recommend keeping in mind what we talked about earlier in the semester, though — some of these assignments take a long time, even if they’re simple, and the grade is basically participation credit. It makes you feel a little empty inside when you spent all weekend doing something for practically nothing. Some of the websites we used for assignments weren’t discussed at all in class, but rather linked to afterwards. Instead, use class time to get everyone signed up for an account and get started. Then, link to interesting videos for everyone to watch at home.

The html coding was probably the hardest for the class as a whole. We didn’t need to do anything complex, but I definitely sympathized for the people who had no experience doing it. It’s intimidating. Basic html coding can be simple, but if you don’t understand how the language works, you can’t learn from it. Also, you need to understand the relationship to CSS, which we never really hit on. Since this class isn’t for majors, I don’t think we should have to spend much time learning html (there are other classes for that) — so maybe nix this part? Or at least provide a template for people to use — that way they can see how raw code works, but they don’t have to generate it. Just show them where to edit in their information. The problem with the html assignment overall is that if you’re going to bite into this, it should be done well. Otherwise it’s just creating bad habits like the other classes I rant about. This semester I saw quite a few people using poor practices, and frankly, I’m sure I was one of them. The html aspect was definitely the weak link this semester for me.

Timing of assignments should be better. A full syllabus should be posted first thing next time. Also, let students know beforehand that they need to budget the money for server space and a domain in lieu of buying a textbook. It’s a great alternative, but that kind of expense doesn’t come out of a financial aid voucher at the bookstore. Some of us are dirt poor and the monthly payment is automatic, it doesn’t wait for us to cash our paychecks.

My last suggestion is to start a class FAQ wiki. Since students-helping-students is encouraged, a single go-to place for people to post questions and answers would be good.

As for my own digital story, I think I kept up with it pretty well. I ended up writing less entries than I anticipated, but those entries were in depth about the topic at hand. Some weeks a full review wasn’t possible, so I had stockpiled a few ideas. One week I linked to some favorite movie sites, one week I did haikus. I realized doing full reviews wasn’t really possible each week, which is why I mostly used the Top List format. I was shooting for weekly posts, but ended up being more biweekly on average (some weeks I had a lot of posts, some weeks nothing). I also threw in a few posts about Net Neutrality. In retrospect, I would have blogged about that officially.

Now, all that being said, this is by far one of the best classes I’ve taken. Digital storytelling should absolutely be kept in the Gen. Ed. system here at UMW so other schools can follow the example. This class proves that creativity and pragmatism can go hand in hand. The concepts we learned in DS106 should be common knowledge in the same way students have to take survey courses in the humanities, English, math, and science. If colleges want to pump out graduates who are ready to take on the real world, they need to know about the cultural mark they leave online.

3 Responses to “Final thoughts on CPSC 106 (*edit)”

  1. Reverend on April 29, 2010 10:43 pm

    Thanks for this Victoria.

    Some unbelievably detailed and helpful advice, and I will be integrating much of it into my redesign of the course for Fall. Appreciate you spending the time laying it all out, it will help me tremendously this Summer.

    Have a great break, and keep that net neutrality commentary going, it is so desperately needed!

  2. victoriapacher on May 3, 2010 9:36 pm

    Thanks for a great semester Groom! It was a nice break from the grub of normal classes. If you see me walking around the neighborhood be sure to say hi!

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