MED5008: a manifesto.

The Manifesto

For five weeks my second year students are banned from using the Internet in their new media class. Above is our production manifesto for the first half of the term. What follows is an explanation.

Histories of alternative media* often link the arrival of new technologies with surges of alternative media production. The thinking goes like this: newer technologies reduce economic barriers to entry and afford the opportunity for more democratic access to the tools of media production. So as it gets easier (cheaper) to produce and distribute media texts, media production can be used by more groups. Through this widening of participation new forms can emerge, new stories can be told and we can even, just maybe, start to break down some of that good old fashioned mainstream media hegemony.

The module MED5008 asks second year students to consider the relationship between new media and alternative media production. In the context of the degree programme the students have acquired a number of (web design) skills in year one, and in year two we provide a number of different contexts in which they can apply those skills and learn more about them.

In the past students on this module have focused on platforms and failed to think about messages or communities. We have explained the history of alternative media to them, told them that perhaps their job is to enable people to tell stories rather than to tell stories for people, and that we will not judge their work by mainstream “professional standards” of craft skills. We can do all of those things and yet be presented with conventionally beautiful and technically solid artefacts that do not engage with anything beyond the idea of being a web designer.

Last year as part of Stories & Streams we sought to break this through a different structure. We (Jennifer Jones & I) looked at this as an issue of consumption of education towards the attainment of professional competencies (we have a chapter with Paul Bradshaw on this forthcoming, email me if you want a copy). Stories & Streams was very successful in achieving its aims with journalism students but we still felt there was something missing in the way we delivered this to those on the web & alternative media module.

This year I still hope my students will work with the online journalism class who are being taught through the Stories & Streams methodology but I have separated them from that activity for now – we may drop in later to make some interventions or to work with some of the data they are producing.

What are we doing instead?

To stop students from seeing alternative media as banal and obvious, and producing work with the same qualities, I’ve asked them to produce media to engage a community using unfamiliar tools. Those tools are: a typewriter, a photocopier, scissors and glue.

Through ongoing reflection of this practice – essentially along action research lines – I hope to open their thinking up to allow them to produce much more thoughtful work once they are given back their access to digital tools in Week 7.

Can we build a community and have a discussion through media practice using just paper and glue? What can we make within narrow limits? How had can we push the kit to achieve our goals? How can we hack the tools and hack the system to get where we want to go? And what can we take from that experience and pour back into the familiar world of our known area of practice?

* The definition thing: it’s complicated but basically alternative media might include things like community media, activist media, radical media… it covers a lot.

Cameras are obvious, the web is still scary

It’s Freshers’ Week again. Today we had to ‘pitch’ our first year production modules to the new intake so they can make an informed choice about what they are studying this year.

This afternoon I’ve been meeting students in a drop-in session at my office to answer queries about the classes I run. I’ve only been asked questions about an introductory website design module that I run and there’s been one clear and consistent point: students weren’t sure that the module would be accessible to all regardless of prior experience.

So now I think in future I’ll need to stress this point in my pitch. Interestingly none of the other lecturers stress this point in their talks – the photography lecturer doesn’t point out that his team will take students through the basic operation of an SLR, for example. Also I’ve not been asked to clarify how much experience you need to take my graphic design intro module (none, by the way).

I asked a few students about this, and it seems they have no fears about going in cold to a TV studio or radio studio, they have every confidence they can knock out some press releases and news features. There’s a sense of innate knowledge about these other production areas, but they don’t have this for new media which remains somehow othered for them. I guess really it comes down to fear of code. I did think carefully today about this issue and I wanted to get across that this isn’t about code or programming, instead I tried to get them to relate to the idea that they were learning some new grammar or obtaining a box of Lego bricks that would enable them to start putting things together but that fear of code is so strong the message didn’t get through.

Last week at the CEMP summit I heard Ian Livingstone run through his now familiar, to me anyway, treatise on computing education and I felt that resonate quite strongly with me today. Asking people to learn some HTML is a world away from the computer science that Ian was talking about – he was talking about proper programming, not a bit of markup – but it presents with the same symptoms.

Sometimes leaving the room is the best way to teach

Not going to your own classroom when you have a class is wrong, right? Students kind of expect us to be there, it’s part of the deal. Our bosses probably expect us to be there too. It’s what you do when your timetable says you should.


I’m not going to my classroom today, despite what my timetable says


This time last year I was at a conference in Hamburg and unavailable for teaching. As a result I wrote a lesson plan for my third years around my absence. I don’t mean I simply said “here’s an exercise for you to do, turn to page 10 of the text book and do as much as you can”; my absence was explained in the narrative of the module, and I was able to construct a solid plan of learning for them with clear outcomes. It worked so well that I’ve retained the exercise this year, even though I’m here in the same building as my students.


I’m currently sat 15 feet up and 40 feet across from students, and not talking to them during my timetabled class


The module is designed to deepen the students sense of their own practice and direction, to encourage them to plan for lifelong learning and development, and to foster some ideas around professional practice with a particular focus on operating a business. Learning is broadly problem based or project based, meaning that a lot of emphasis is placed on group and individual research as well as critical reflection. Problem based learning puts this emphasis on student activity with tutor facilitation. Tutor facilitation, within the literature on teaching, is quite open to interpretation but I think we generally understand that as “being in the room to answer questions”. It can also be interpreted as “checking up on the students every five minutes”. For some exercises that’s useful, for my exercise this week it’s not.


If I go into my classroom, I will inhibit learning not facilitate it


Here’s what I need students to do:


1.     Set up a package of work and deliver to a deadline;
2.     Judge personal skills and align these with tasks;
3.     Describe and reflect upon the working processes in a design studio.



And here’s their brief:


B225 Studio has just completed the take over of a small design agency, hipsterdesign. We’ve inherited a bit of a mess. As a result, incubation work has been cancelled for one week only and we need you to help us clear the backlog –  after all we pay your rent and overheads!


Unfortunately our MD,  Jon Hickman, has been called away to lay off staff in Hipster’s office in East London and can’t be with us this week. You’re on your own. We’ve allocated you a pile of work from Hipster’s client roster. Your challenge for the week is as follows:


1.     Read through and understand the project briefs;
2.     Organise yourselves so that you can respond to as many of them as possible;
3.     Complete the projects ahead of next session.


Remember: you have class time today to organise yourselves and begin work, and then eight hours of directed study time. You will need to work efficiently and effectively, and ensure that all the work is divided up in an appropriate manner.


There’s very little that I can do in the classroom that will facilitate this project – in fact by being in the room I undermine the task. I do not want students to defer any of the decision making to me. The learning happens at the end of the activity, when they reflect on their own response to a challenge – if I do too much to mediate that then I am obstructing their learning.


Facilitation has happened through the design of the lesson plan and it’s relationship to the curriculum, it’s not about being in the room.

Why graduate web designers should have an opinion on FTP software

Specialists in all fields have a tendency to fetishise their kit because mastery and selection of tools is a way of demonstrating expertise. 

James Bond choose an off beam choice in his Beretta 418. That tells us something about him – he’s a maverick, a specialist, an expert. I can only find this scene in German, but this is the moment from Dr. No where M reins him in and insists he take a more orthodox sidearm – watch and note Bond’s body language and words:

Bond is a master craftsman. No mistake.

What’s in your backpack?

Web designers and developers like to choose tools and design workflows for themselves. This is pragmatic in one sense (when your workflow is right, you’ll work faster) but it does have a performative aspect to it too – the kit chosen plays a role in explaining who you are as a designer or developer. If you need evidence of that, head over to the rather geeky Bag Check where people detail their set ups and chosen tools for a variety of jobs – look at some of the web development lists and you’ll see what I mean.

We have the tools, we have the talent

If, as a graduate designer / developer, you want to step into this world and be taken seriously, you need to think about your tools. You need to be able to go into a meeting with your new industry peers and answer the question “what’s your favourite FTP software?”. You need to be able to answer that question with conviction and reasoned judgement.

But at Uni we use Dreamweaver!

At BCU we kit out our design studios with Apple iMacs, and we kit those iMacs out with Adobe Creative Suite. That means that by default we can support you in building websites using Dreamweaver and Photoshop (or Fireworks); if you want to design with the stabilisers on, you’re best to stick within the narrow but capable tools of Creative Suite. Why do we do that? Well, any one of the modules that come under my pathway bring together students from across the School of Media, and some of those are web design casuals. But the thing is we don’t do that to limit students’ learning – we do it because we need to provide a base level for students to build upon. So students who are web specialists, who want to learn mastery, should be stepping outside of that, and refining their own workflow.

Leave the Beretta behind, Bond

This isn’t just about being pretentious, this is about separating your skills from your software knowledge. For all that choosing and refining your kit bag is a useful professional activity, once in industry you may have to standardise your workflow with a group of colleagues. You may have to abandon your own principals and ideas and quickly adopt to a new set of tools. And a flexible master like Bond is lethal whether using a Walther or a Beretta.

FAQ: a simple accountancy system using office software

“Where can I get some basic cheap accountancy software?”

A common question I see on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. My standard response is “if you need something basic, just use your office software”. I’ve found that most basic bookkeeping tasks can be done using Word & Excel (or your own preferred word processor and spreadsheet).

Due to the nature of my job I take on a small amount of private work outside of life at the university (writing, reviewing, speaking and consulting). I invoice for this work, do my own bookkeeping and then send everything off to my accountant who works out all the tax stuff for me.

I write up invoices in Word and log them in Excel alongside details of any business expenses; I use a few basic formulae to tot up what I earn, what I spend and what my tax liability might be; the system I have allows me to plan for my tax bill and keep track of a few dozen freelance gigs pretty easily.

When Karen Strunks recently asked this FAQ, I put together a version of my bookkeeping system for her. She offered some kind feedback and suggested I share it a little more widely. 

You can download the files (Word and Excel) from this Zip file.
Download this file

Alternatively I’ve made them available on googledocs for you to create your own copies: books spreadsheet | invoice template. If you’re an open office user and can convert them, please feel free to share a link below.

How to use:
Anything in yellow is for you to fill out, blue is a note to you to explain the documents. Simple.

A final word…

The system is simple but it works. You can of course sort your own tax and Companies House filing but for me simple means using an accountant. I’m with Pointon Young – I’ve known Steve from Pointon Young for about eight years. He’s reliable, decent, and saves me money, as such I’ve referred him to a lot of friends.

Thanks to Karen for encouraging me to share this, and Stuart Harrison for checking my googledocs for me (he wanted a bottle of scotch for his trouble, but I can only stretch to whuffie today).

Thoughts on ‘The UX Design Education Scam’ by @andyrutledge: my first rebuttal

In my capacity as a course leader in a higher education programme that features the words “web and new media” in the title, here are the first of two rebuttals of Andy Rutledge’s article “The UX Design Education Scam“.

Former BCU colleague Matt Machell asked for my thoughts on this. It actually relates to a post I wrote earlier today or more specifically to a promised secondary post concerning how my third year students are approaching building projects in my new-look module. That post is going to take me a bit of time to put together, but it answers Rutledge’s claim:

a primary reason university and college programs cannot change to remain relevant is because the technologies, standards, and practices one must understand in order to remain employably-relevant are changing on an annual or even monthly basis

Stay tuned for that one then, but rest assured Andy, I’ve got that covered, and I’m saddened to hear the courses you’ve been advising on haven’t (you share the blame for that, I’m afraid Mr Rutledge).

So enough of what’s to come. What can I answer now?

Sadly, the institutional definition of a web design course is one where some tool—usually Dreamweaver or Flash—is taught. 

Not on my watch.

Conquering the fear of failure: innovating my teaching to improve students’ learning

This week my third year students have been confronting their fear of failure.

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “fail fast, fail often” because it hides a bigger set of issues rather too neatly. Failure, as part of a process of experimentation, is a by-product, not a target. Frequent failure may well be a sign of healthy innovation, but it’s not something to actually aim for. More importantly, an innovation process or culture needs some resources to soak up failure. Pedalling the ideology that noble failure is a positive outcome for start up businesses is unhelpful if they lack the resource to sustain themselves through that failure. Incubators like our the bseen programme at BCU provide a structure that could help sustain startups through useful failures, as do larger corporate structures (consider the classic case study of the Post It note).

A university course is also a safe structure in which ideas can fail, and through which students can learn. By this I don’t mean failing the course, but I mean trying ideas, and learning from the experience of trying, while protected from the economic impact of failure. To paraphrase something I’ve said and I’ve heard colleagues say “you’ll never get this much time, space and resource to do new and interesting things (and get them wrong)”.

Some limitations in the Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy model

I keep seeing this retweeted and it’s doing my head in a bit.

Digital Bloom's Taxonomy

It’s a derivation from Bloom’s Taxonomy, which I guess every teacher (certainly every HE teacher) has come across if they’ve done a teaching qualification. The diagram maps Web 2.0 tools onto types of learning outcomes, to show which tools you can link to what objectives.

Basically my problem with it is that it suggests restrictions on uses of things, that are a bit detrimental. Consider Wikipedia first of all. Here it’s stuck in understanding, but it’s also a great tool for evaluating (getting students to consider sources, think through complex issues about authority to publish, etc.). Seen as a platform to publish not read, it could also be creative; it could be used in an exercise to synthesise (a level that is placed on some of the Bloom models) a great deal of information and produce an authoritative encyclopaedia article.

Evernote seems most suited to remembering, and delicious could just as easily move up the pyramid as a site of analysis around the way we organise personal data through tags, or to demonstrate a student’s understanding through the way in which they annotate their links.

So it’s interesting as a marker, to show how some of these tools can be used in the classroom, but it’s very limited and possibly a bit misguiding to teacher’s who might follow it too strictly.

Image is copyright © 2010 University of Southern Indiana – original here:

My new favourite web app: Tom’s Planner – Gantt Charts


This is one for my students mainly, but also anyone who needs to visualise a project quickly.

I haven’t needed to make a Gantt chart for a long time, but I’ve been on a bloody training course on Microsoft Project, and even bought an epic book on that package. Today for the first time in years, I needed to make a Gantt chart. Quickly.

I no longer have MS Project, and I don’t have a PC to put it on. I figured in the years since I last touched it t some sort of web app would have appeared which could do the job just as well. Sure enough a tweet later, @ganttchart sent me a link to Tom’s Planner. It’s a smooth interface, and for a basic project timeline you’ve got everything you need. I don’t think it can manage some of the advanced resource management stuff that Project can do (in fact, I think it’s been deliberately designed to avoid that sort of thing).

The service is in public Beta, giving out free accounts. There’s going to be some sort of pay model down the line, but the website suggests that a freemium model will be included allowing one project at a time, gratis. There’s also a commitment to give Beta members a year’s free service:

Once Tom’s Planner is released out of beta, it is our intention to extend all actively used beta accounts for a minimum of one additional year without any obligations. This will enable all Tom’s Planner beta users to continue to work with and use Tom’s Planner for free for at least one more year.

Enabling digital participation in Higher Education

OK so being as Ana and Jen (part 1 & part 2) blogged about posters, I guess that means it’s what we do now. So here’s my regulation blog post about a poster.

A few summer’s ago Dave Kane, Anita Reardon and I were given a small grant for a pilot project in the uses of technology in teacher training. This paper presents our findings, grounded in education and cultural studies theory, to help understand some of the determinants that affect the uptake of technology in classrooms.

This was my first academic poster, and I enjoyed the process. The premium on space means really cutting the research down to the core, while trying to retain enough to give some sense of the project’s narrative. That’s pretty tough – even the forced brevity of using Twitter doesn’t prepare you for it fully.

We presented the poster at RESCON ’10 (BCU’s internal research conference) as a dry run ahead of our attendance at next month’s Research Informed Teaching Conference in Staffordshire. The poster went down pretty well (we came second in the judging for the poster tour – I’ll take that) so we won’t need to make many changes before we head to Staff’s in July. Looking around the posters, I have to say (discarding all sense of modesty for a second) that ours looked the best. Many of the posters were wordy, and hard to read, and as many members of staff had made them on PowerPoint they suffered from some of the afflictions that can only come with an off the shelf Microsoft template (ill conceived drop shadows, poor contrast, garish colours) as well as from pixelation caused through blowing A4 slides up to A1 and even A0.

Lessons learned?

Brevity works, for sure, and it’s worth speaking to someone who knows a little bit about print production when you undertake this sort of task. In that regard I wonder if there’s a place for academics to team up with design students when they produce their posters? Valuable experience for the student, and some practical training in effective communication for the academic. That’s got to be worth some thought if you’re based in a University that has a design school.

Do something different

One thing before I sign off – it seems to pay to do something different. RESCON gave a special award to a poster that had its own frame made of astro-turf, and I added a little something extra to my poster that got a few nice comments. I won’t tell you what it is, you have to find it. Seven people did at RESCON yesterday, and they hadn’t been given a clue so you have a head start.

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