Defining Digital Media Across Disciplines

After my last post on designing a course into digital media, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection and work trying to figure out best practices and approaches for defining digital media across disciplines. This project is the primary function of my new position as the associate director for Digital Learning Projects at LaGuardia Community College’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Recently, a digital competency was added as a requirement for all students. I am very excited that this is happening, and that I get to be a part of it, but it leaves a big question: What does “digital competency” mean, and what type of projects can best demonstrate a level of competency in digital media creation and communication?

I’ve had conversations with people from across disciplines and functional roles to try to determine how people are thinking about digital media. The biggest observation is, and this is something I suspected, digital media is hard to define. How it can be used in disciplines in a meaningful way, both in terms of learning outcomes, and competency verification is still up for debate. And, people are debating it. So, my goal right now is to come up with a framework that allows for the definition to  cross disciplines but in a way that makes sense. At the same time, there needs to be some commonly defined parameters. This is still in the exploratory phase, but I want to share the basic table I am using to start a conversation that helps define digital media across disciplines.

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Explaining the Table

The purpose of this document is to provide a framework that allows me to sit with people across disciplines and have them explain what professional and expressive digital media use might look like for students enrolled in their courses. I also need to discuss what an appropriate level of personal media engagement within their specific disciplines and learning environments.

Rather than saying “this is what digital media are” I’ve attempted to provide some helpful contours so disciplines can define what digital media and digital communication make the most sense given the professional needs their students will have in the future.

It is important to note that many digital media and digital communications will exist in more than one type. For this reason it is important to make sure that whatever is being created or communicated is comprehensible to all the intended audiences. The messiness of boundaries is one of the attributes of digital media and digital communication.  For the purpose of guiding a discussion, the separation is a practical consideration so people would be able to organically point out the places where overlap may occur and what that looks like for their specific discipline. My training and research looks at the structure and connections that arise from digital media and technology more than the content they produce. While that does not allow me to deeply understand other disciplines, it means that I am in a position to help others figure out what content they will fill their disciplinary specific structures and content with.

The Components

There are three types of digital media objects or digital communication: professional, personal, and expressive. The professional category is the one where I am hoping faculty will see their work reflected, even if they don’t consider themselves techy or adept in digital media. Showing the spaces where most of us are already working, and allowing people to shape what digital engagement looks like for their discipline is central.

Personal should be defined by students. However, in my experience, faculty tend to have a preconceived notion of how students are doing the digital. While we can make guesses about how students might be using digital media, we cannot be sure. One of the things I hope to encourage people to do is learn how their students are using digital in their day- to- day and professional lives so they can start thinking of ways these skills might naturally be incorporated into their digital competency projects.

Expressive media is inherently meaningful to the creator of said object or interaction regardless of the desired learning outcomes. Additionally, expressive media might have meaning that is more abstract or interpretive on the part of the audience. Because in a learning environment these things need to be assessed, it is important for students to be able to coherently convey the importance or meaning for them, how it relates or responds to a learning objective. It is also important that a student is prepared and able to take constructive criticism to make the expressive object or interaction more meaningful.

The next big thing that is important to understand isare how these things are done, or the method. I’ve separated it into two options, direct andor creative. A direct digital media object or digital communication gets straight to the point. It is like replying to an email in a single sentence versus engaging in creative conversation via email, or creating a digital video that is just someone speaking versus an edited video with a score, transitions, and other creative visualizations to create a creative enhanced experience, etc. Creative expression tends to pull the expressive type of dDigital into the other forms.

The final, and most important thing from the table is comprehensibility. One of the biggest differences with digital media, especially when it becomes an institutional goal, is that it will need to be understood by multiple audiences, both intentional and unintentional. As a result, the biggest thing that needs to be done is creating some type of comprehensible framing language or style that allows for people to understand the intention of the digital object or communication. For many things, we already have that literacy (I’m looking at your email). For many disciplines, though, we are still figuring out what digital literacy might mean for them.

Empowering Students

As I’ve been sitting with people and talking them through what I hope to accomplish with this, the thing outside the table is empowering students to creatively engage through digital media. While I can sit with department chairs and faculty members and get them to define how they imagine digital media for their disciplines, the way students might take that expectation and remix it is, for me, part of digital mastery. There are inherent risks in asking students to engage in digital work, but, with the right assignment design, and adequate time for engagement, even if a course isn’t designed around the digital competency, it can still use the digital to push the students to express their understanding of material in a way that is meaningful to them and comprehensible to the outside world.

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