Drones, not droning on

Overseas Education | Kelis Wong 27 Sep 2016

At first glance, communication studies and drones seem like an unlikely pairing. If the study of how human produces, processes and exchanges information is a subject in the social sciences, then learning how to operate a flying robot will be a matter of engineering.

But think about the purpose of a drone. Apart from the sheer pleasure of controlling an aerial vehicle, a commercial drone performs the function of gathering visual information in the form of pictures and videos for other people to consume.

That's why Teodor Mitew, senior lecturer in digital media and communication at the University of Wollongong in Australia, kickstarted last year in his classes a technology exploration project called PlayMake Sessions.

"Any technology which allows digitalization, which allows the translation of materials into digital is an object of study for us," said Mitew.

Every week, Mitew presents to a group of media and communication majors a trolley filled with quadcopters, mini cube action cameras, virtual reality headsets, gesture control devices, computer circuit boards and 3D printers.

One goal of the sessions is to encourage undergraduate students to play with the gadgets, and come up with a novel use for them in their digital lives.

A project, which originated from these sessions, created a digital archive of the university library, translating still images into virtual reality.

In another student project, some first year students started an open page on Facebook, called UOW Admirers, which posts love notes sent in anonymously. One year on, the page is still active, and has become a well-known matchmaking site on campus.

"The process of random experimentation without a goal is very important," said Mitew. "That's how students discover the affordance of a medium. So it's not about me telling them do this and that, it's about me telling them take the drone and see what happens."

In the new school year, the University of Wollongong has introduced Mitew's exploration project to a group of students enrolled in a top-up degree program taught at the community college of the City University of Hong Kong.

The students who take Mitew's class are asked to engage in classroom activities which some people might find unconventional. A part of the course requires the students to get active on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and Wordpress.

The students also have to write short essays in an exercise which Mitew calls digital artefact. Here are things that the students have to hand in every week: one blog post, three tweets and three online comments.

"You can also make podcasts and memes. I love memes," said Mitew in his first lecture.

Under the guise of juvenile fun, Mitew explained that his students are acquiring the cognitive skill sets which prepare them for a paradigm shift toward an information economy in which everyone can produce their own digital content from anywhere.

The paradigm shift will affect aspiring media professionals as they will face great career challenges in the proliferation stage of digitization.

"If you are in the legacy media industry, be it news, book publishing, or music and film, this is a terrible challenge because digitization entirely destroys your business model. You cannot charge for your content like you used to do," said Mitew.

"Look at the content produced today in newspapers, then look at the online content produced by so-called amateurs. A lot of that stuff online are more professionally done, aesthetically more pleasing, and of much better quality."

"This dichotomy will only increase in size as the pressure on legacy media increases, and as more and more people join the internet to the realization of everyone being a content producer."

But producing interesting content is a big challenge. Some students will struggle with the task as they are confined by the reality, their educational experiences and the environment, said Mitew.

So, creating materials that others will find amusing is the ultimate goal. Writing on a deadline, writing different copies, making do on the go, and self- directed learning are also the abilities that Mitew expects his students to master.

And by making, aggregating and curating content in the online public sphere, students demonstrate their competencies in these aspects.

"I don't teach technology. It's more important to teach students how not to be afraid of technology," said Mitew.

"We try to prepare our students for a radically different reality, giving them the opportunity to work on a self chosen project in public."



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