Wrapping up Intro to Digital Communication

May 2, 2008

The final exam for Intro Digital Communication departed from the academic norm. The exam had only four questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • How did you learn it?
  • How can the course be improved?
  • And, what grade did you feel you earned with the investment of yourself into the course?

I’m really pleased with the thoughtful responses, with the accounts of what was learned, and with good suggestions for improvement going forward. In particular order, here are a few highlights of what students reported:

One student appreciated how current we kept our conversations: “The thing I loved most bout the Digital Communication was the fact that we were discussing in the ‘now.’ In so many of our classes, we are learning the exact same thing that was taught as last semester’s class andn the class before that. It is nice to have a class where we are truly learning things as they are discovered.”

I love this next comment about the problems we ran into with software and, in particular, with trying to publish to the Web from the lab. I would hire this person: “The hands-on stuff was where we encountered all of our technical difficulties, which I believe to be the most beneficial part of the whole process. Without mistakes, you can’t learn the problem-solving techniques necessary for the real world. Struggling with the setbacks only made us better with the programs we used and showed us how to get around the kinks.”

The Long Tail, both the book and the blog by Chris Anderson, were favorites for many, folks who appreciated the linkages with what they are seeing in their lives and with what’s being discussed across the way in Green, in business courses. One student wrote, “I have even enjoyed The Long Tail so much, I gave it to my Dad and Mom to read. Now I have discussions about the book at home, as well.” Another called the book “fascinating,” saying she was “finding in the book what I had already observed in real life put into words and explained for me.”

For most, the hands-on work was rewarding. One student said she “now knows how much detailed and tedious work web designers have to do to make a simple Web site look aesthetically pleasing to their visitors.” Most wanted even more time with Dreamweaver, and time was our chief enemy. We had less than 40 contact hours combined in the course, or one work week without lunch hours, if you can believe it. We certainly covered a lot of ground in that time.

Live blogging provided one of the truly memorable moments for me. I’ll carry the picture of us occupying the whole back row of the Science classroom with our laptops open and ready for some time. At least three students wrote of enjoying this exercise. One wrote, “I did learn a great deal about how live blogging works when we all wrote about the David Brooks Q&A. Experiences like that taught me more about what the course objectives than any lecture we could have had.” (I’ve noted that the most rewarding experiences had at least one thing in common: They didn’t include me — class discussion, live blogging with Brooks, guest speakers. Ah, humility comes in wonderful ways.)

I attempted to introduce several metaphors for what we’re seeing in industry and society. Dying whales supporting entire ecosystems to represent the newspaper industry. Ants finding sugar to represent social networking and crowdsourcing. One student wrote of the utility of these metaphors: “I’ve learned that we, just like ants, will by nature follow each other within a community of pheromone-sniffing, signal-sending members who live to make our communities expand and thrive.” Nicely put.

Interestingly, commenting to this blog proved a hit with some, a bomb with others. As I’ve said many times, I love this format and the way it can extend our conversation. Some said they didn’t have anything original to add. Another said posting was like beating a dead horse. I don’t think these comments point to a problem with the blog format, but rather with some students’ imagination. We barely scratched the surface. More than half my questions posed in the initial posts were never answered. So I disagree.

Others really liked it: “I also enjoyed commenting on the WanderingRocks blog every week. It gave us all a chance to reflect on our weekly discussions.” Another wrote, “Having to write on the blog every week forced me to learn how to quickly process a lot of information and then formulate a coherent, intelligent opinion or response. I feel this was one of the most valuable aspects of the course.”

One of the more gratifying comments on posting came from a student who grew into the role: “At first, I hated posting on the blog because I felt Iike I had nothing to say. Reflecting back, I realize how much my mind has grown taking the class. As the class progressed, I became more familiar with the subject matter. The blog posts helped me grow and reflect on what we talked about.”

The vast majority of the class simply loved our discussions on Fridays. I did, as well, and their success is a testimony to this class’s work preparing for them and participating in them. These discussions required leadership, and the students provided it. One wrote, “I think our weekly class-led discussions were the most influential for me,” while another suggested that “more discussion would be helpful, maybe incorporating them on other days in addition to the Friday sessions.”

Finally, a few closing thoughts. One student saw what we were discussing in journalism and wisely pondered the application to her field, public relations. “I thought during the class, if newspapers are going to these multimedia outlets, then shouldn’t public relations practitioners consider using these new technologies? I have already seen a lot of corporate PR efforts utilize blogs, but I think that maps, slideshows and some of th other technologies we explored could work just as well in PR.

Celebrating Ross, Andy and Druck, one student wrote, “Having guest speakers come in and reference the same technologies we were learning in class really makes the information seem real and practical.” Several other students applauded the efforts of this trio of speakers to show us what’s happening in industry.

The emerging roles and norms of bloggers and blogging, of course, was a main theme of the course, and I feel we really learned a lot in this area. I hope we finally grasp what the term, “blog,” means and what potential the media format has. One wrote, “I had no idea how large the blogosphere really is. Most importantly I was able to learn how blogs are playing a role in traditional journalism. . . Blogs allow for immediacy, and seem to have evolved a looser, more open rhetoric than traditional news outlets. This has led to an increased amount of information for consumers, higher competition for news sources, increased transparency, and created a modern, blurry definition of what and who journalists actually are.

Lastly, a comment about the point of the final exam, one that warms my heart. I find warmth in it because I’m most interested in learning and in students who first and last want to learn. I am not interested in playing the academic grading game, nor in students more interested in litigating their grades to a tenth of a point. This comment reflects the higher goal: “If learning matters to someone than the corresponding grades will follow and everyone will be satisfied.” Music to my ears.