Case Study

Part Four: “Digital Culture” at Bay City College

The issues of community colleges, how vocational, general, and basic skills education come together in practice are exemplified in my short visit to the Bay City College’s (fictional name) Multi-Media department. This program originally attracted my attention because its course offerings went beyond the usual vocational and technical courses offered in community colleges (that is courses to teach production of media content). The B.C.C. Multi-Media department offered six liberal arts courses, dealing with interpretation of media content.* Beyond my normal curiosity about what these courses focused on, I had developed a special interest in what distinguished a transfer-level course from a pre-collegiate course: how did the class balance accessibility with teaching critical thinking skills?  How did it approach the Internet culture in relation to the school population’s culture?  How did the class address personally relevant questions students already have about the Internet while introducing them to broad, general questions all college students are supposed to ask?  How did the teacher use reading and writing to help students conceptualize Internet culture, as opposed to using non-linguistic modes of representation?

I first interviewed Lee Mars, Chair of the Multi-Media Department, and later observed the Digital Culture class taught by Dr. Jones (fictional name).  When I asked the chair to define the B.C.C. Multi-Media student population, I got an answer that was quite similar to the chair of a similar department at City College of San Francisco: it is quite diverse, but two groups predominate: the older group is adults with extended professional experience (outside of Internet industry).  They are often organized, goal oriented, and may already have college degrees, but may be in the middle of a career switch.  They are usually not as sharp with digital technology as the younger people.  The younger students are more tech-savvy, but their academic and life skills may not be as strong as the older students.  The chair said getting these two groups of students to work together was a major emphasis of the in-class group work.  I heard nothing of the usual problems associated with basic skills population:  time management problems, weak reading and listening comprehension, low academic success rates, and most of all, attrition (Marrs).

I asked why English 1A is a requirement within the major to receive an AA degree.  I was told that they want their graduates to be articulate, literate collaborators in the Multimedia industry.  I did not ask about the proportion of their students who achieve an AA degree, or transfer to four year schools, or finish one of a few certificate programs (which do not have English 1A requirements), or those who take a few classes and do not complete any program. I asked what they do if students in their classes do not have the English 1A-level skills.  The chair said this had not been an important problem, and that I might get more information about that from the English Department.  She said a more prominent problem has been non-native speaker students with inadequate English.  It may well be that the limitations of basic skills students do not appear directly; with all the coming and going in an open admissions institution, and especially in a vocational program geared to a rapidly growing local industry, basic skills problems can be invisible to instructors, especially if the students have been affected by the stigma associated with low level literacy, and are avoiding or denying the problems.  Whatever the reason, accommodation and adaptation of the department’s curricula for basic skills students is not seen as part of their intrinsic mission.  Basic skills are seen as the problem of other departments (Marrs).

Given my interest in media literacy as general education, I was most interested in the introductory courses, Media and Communications and Digital Culture, which were both taught by Dr. Jones (pseudonym).  From the titles, it was obvious that the first is comparing media (oral to print to digital for example) and the second focuses on one medium, the Internet, presumably in greater depth.  The Course Outlines define both courses as college level, which is underlined by the specification of English 1A as recommended preparation.  Clearly the Course Outline’s “Entry Skills” are based on criteria developed by English educators. However, even though English 1A is used to define the courses as college level, English 1A is not a prerequisite course for taking any single Multi-Media course (“Peralta District…Course Outline” See  Appendix ___).

This gap between recommendation and prerequisite is important related to the community college’s mission.  When an instructor plans a class in relation to college transfer requirements, the readings, activities and learning goals must refer back to those requirements.  When a course is recommended and entry level skills refer to that other course, the course content should be defined by that level.  But when an instructor has to consider the needs of a specific student population, he or she may need to creatively adapt the level of instruction to that population’s needs.  This adaptation sometimes can lead to a degradation of literacy skills.  For example, a common problem in community colleges is that students do not read their textbooks, or do not comprehend them well.  Teachers who want their students to be successful sometimes structure lectures and reviews based on the assumption of limited reading.  The result is sometimes that teaching and learning is at a basic skills level, even though college credit is given.  On the other hand, there are also situations in which instruction is at college level, with no concession to student needs, leading to greater attrition, as well as other situations, where instructors make heroic efforts to bridge the gap between college requirements and actual abilities and needs of students.  If the community college is to help students prepare for real world college and professional requirements, course outlines must be adjusted to the various levels that actually exist in population.  However  “dumbing down” the curriculum for the sake of outward success undermines the community college’s mission, when students realize later they are under-prepared for their next school or job.  These were my concerns as I arranged to visit the class.

The spring 2010 version of Digital Culture (Multi-Media 121, or MM 121) had weekly class meetings from 1-3:50.  I observed one class session and interviewed Dr. Jones for some twenty minutes afterward, and observed one hour of her Media and Communications class later that evening. I also studied a copy of her brief course calendar (Appendix ____).  First, I will describe what the class seemed to be doing, and second I will compare this to the MM 121 Course Outline, which both chair and instructor acknowledged were not fully aligned.

My judgments may be too harsh, and admittedly my research is incomplete; I was not able to survey multiple meetings, study class readings, assignment directions, tests, student work, teacher feedback to students, or student evaluation. It is hard to make fair and reasoned judgments with such a narrow sample of class work, but for the sake of developing my ideas about Internet media curriculum I will include them, without assuming they are thorough, sound judgments of a specific class or teacher. I am using this observation to develop my own thoughts. This is why I have changed her name to Dr. Jones.

Observing Digital Culture at a Community College

The class meeting was held in a new, attractive computerized classroom, with both desk space and computer screens for every student, and a large screen that showed the instructor’s projected computer screen.  This was the first time I had witnessed an instructor lecturing and leading activities, accompanied by a frequently changing Internet-linked screen, which makes for a very different presentational style (here I am just a neophyte, impressed like anyone else).  On the other hand, the novelty of this hybrid environment (on-line and in person) meant that I didn’t receive many printed handouts, or readings, and did not think of asking for e-mailed class materials, or access to the class Moodle site (Dr. Jones had Moodle pages for other classes, but I was not sure if she had one for MM 121). Nor did I think to ask if students submitted their assignments on-line, printed, or both.

The beginning of the session was revealing.  When I first entered the classroom there were only ten students scattered across the room.  The teacher had written a simple agenda on a white board:

1: Violent video games/ Supreme Court case

2: Image interpretation

After 15-20 minutes of class, that ten grew to fifteen students, and after an hour, there were about twenty students in the room.  The teacher welcomed some of the late arrivals, and even asked students “What happens when you are late to class?” for my benefit.  One student answered “Nothing.”  Another student replied, as if repeating a commonly-cited truism, “Students are adults and are free to leave.”  As a community college instructor with some seventeen years of teaching experience, it seemed like a normal class in terms of age range, genders, ethnicities, and educational levels.  I assume some of the students were eligible for English 1A and many were not, and that the teacher wanted to make the class accessible to students at both the basic skills and university levels.

An associated policy about in-class behavior that the instructor also mentioned to me in an aside was the students’ freedom to surf the web while the teacher presented and lectured. I am very interested in this issue of classroom practice, and kept track of one student’s multi-tasking during the class: City Car Share, Bunnies, San Francisco locations, Huffington Post, a Moodle page, Ask ______, Facebook, and a computer game*. Two out of six sites seemed to be on topic. The instructor mentioned her policy in a short interview after class, and she said (in a disapproving tone) that many teachers in her department (most of whom teach specific technical digital skills) require that students turn off computers, or rotate screens away from their eyes during certain classroom activities.

Dr. Jones acknowledged her students often, and periodically asked them questions, but the level of student verbal participation was very low, which sometimes (but not always) occurs in community college classes.  One of the most active participants in class discussion, a non-native speaker of English, happened to be seated near me.  When the instructor was talking about a U.S. Supreme Court case about children’s access to violent video games, he found a story about the case on the Huffington Post, an on-line political publication.  The student mentioned it in class discussion, and the instructor immediately searched for the page and put it on the projector for the whole class to see, a great example of encouraging all students to participate, and to do focused searches during a lecture. This could be seen as a positive outcome of the policy of free multi-tasking.  Unfortunately, that was the only case of such student initiative in that class meeting. A last comment on the instructor:  Dr. Jones had some good characteristics for a community college instructor:  her topic knowledge was extensive and current, and she was encouraging, even expressing maternal solicitude toward her students–in speaking of the Supreme Court’s limited knowledge of the Internet, she suggested that her students might have something to teach the Justices on this score.

Dr. Jones did present college level concepts in this class meeting: correlation/ causation, image interpretation, and “immersive culture.”  Correlation/causation, of course, is a fundamental mode of analytical logic valued in many disciplines.  My working assumption is that community college students cannot be expected to understand the relation of correlation to causation.  They need to hear it, discuss it and work with it several times to get a working knowledge of the distinction.  Dr. Jones introduced it in a lecture about the U.S. Supreme Court case related to violent video games, and did not accompany her mention with explanations and examples.  Nor did she suggest that students would be required to define or use the terms in any assignment or test.  The students received a verbal “exposure” to the concepts rather than a careful introduction or practice with the concept.  This might be fine if we assume that students are conversant with the distinction already, but if some of them are not, then they are locked outside the discourse.

It was also in this early portion of the class that the instructor introduced the digitally-specific concept of “immersive culture,” to describe the intense physical-mental involvement occasioned by interactive computer/ video games. This might be considered a “Central concept” in course content, receiving the most weight (25%) in the Course Outline (see p. 2 Appendix __ “Peralta Community…”).  She mentioned that game companies do 95% of their marketing of these games to the 12-18 year old age group. Later in the class, the concept was reinforced as students watched a seven minute YouTube video presenting a pro/con discussion about the effects of violent video games. But the instructor did not signal that they would work on this concept in homework, use it in later assignments, or be tested on it.  It was mentioned as an interesting concept, which could be picked up easily by those prepared to appropriate it.

The work on image interpretation began with a 30 minute video of a lecture slide show “Taryn Simon Photographs Secret Sites” from the TED TALKS of the Oxford Internet Institute.  The lecturer showed images of sites associated with both power and secrecy, commenting on the relation between the two, while she reduced the power itself by exposing images of the previously shrouded sites.  Her lecture was followed by a discussion, but there was little response afterward.  “Sadness” and “brilliant” were offered as responses by students.  I had a sense that the Taryn Simon art-world style slide show/lecture was over the students’ heads.  It was certainly college-level material, but the students did not comprehend it.  Later the instructor argued for the importance of imagery interpretation, explaining that digital photography is considered by courts to an important form of trial evidence that affects the fate of the accused. This is a powerful example, but has an uncertain relation to the Taryn Simon lecture, and was not supported with cases and specific altered images. Dr. Jones passed out three self portraits by some anonymous prison inmates, and asked students to analyze how the drawings might reflect on the self-image of the inmates. The interpretive exercise done with the self-portraits (which I took part in) was very interesting, but suggested no lessons on what criteria students might formulate to interpret imagery. Dr. Jones also used this point to reinforce some guidelines on an upcoming Power Point assignment on linking Internet generated images (avatars)  to present personal identities. To summarize, students were exposed to some important concepts, but it was not clear how much students were supposed to understand or practice these concepts, and how they tied in with the avatar assignment.

There were no printed readings for the class; the instructor said they were accessible on line, but she offered me no list or links when I asked.  I won’t speculate on what the readings might be, but in the class meeting I observed, the instructor referred to web sites, and YouTube, not books.  She did encourage students to listen to a podcast of a radio dialogue about the Supreme Court case**, but there were no references to theories or readings about “immersive” video games.  Again, some concepts of the critical thinking/ transfer level type were introduced, but references to readings and theories were not woven into the discussion.  Nor were there structured exercises that might give students help with grasping the specificity and deeper meaning of these concepts beyond the initial definition offered.

Was the class working at a college level, as the Course Outline claims? The class does introduce students to some computer and networking skills and to elements of Internet culture, connecting these elements to students’ educational and professional goals, which is appropriate for a community college class.  The course calendar/syllabus listed major assignments, related to the students’ educational and professional goals.  Major assignments were positioned at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester (the last one was labeled “FINAL”), and were credited 10% each.  These major assignments were labeled as “Self Assessments,” but it was not clear whether they were essays, questionnaires, individual interview, student-created hybrids, or something else.  There was no mention in the class I observed, or the interview, or the calendar/syllabus, of essay writing or written tests about course content.  Neither was it totally clear what the self-assessments focused on.  The early one was said to focus on “Your Learning Goals,” while the second focused on “Your Learning Progress.”  I assume the “Final” one deals with comparing one’s learning goals to one’s accomplishments in the class (see Appendix _____).  As an English teacher who has participated in developing a portfolio evaluation process for English 91 at CCSF, I respect any effort to teach students meta-cognitive skills.  But in such self evaluation work, the objective is always to describe how one learned, more than what one learned.  That serious focus on learning process is what makes it self evaluation.  However that meta-cognitive work in English 91 does not substitute for cognitive accomplishments, for example organizing argumentative essays considering evidence and examples related to the two sides.  That more cognitive level of MM 121 related to course content was not visible in the class calendar/ syllabus.

Another  dimension of learning in the class was more cognitive: MM 121 assignments include surveying a collection of on-line avatar templates, assessing their qualities (realism vs. fantasy, how they might be employed to represent the user’s “self”). They also learn about “netiquette,” (rules and norms of on-line behavior), and interview friends and acquaintances about on-line behavior.  They learn about creating a professional identity on-line through selection and presentation of personal information in a resume, and selecting digital images to represent the self.  Clearly, even in these tasks, where the focus is on understanding, collecting, selecting, organizing, and evaluating information, there is an emphasis on the presentation of the self in a digital environment. They are not studying digital culture in some broad sense.  It is not surprising that Dr. Jones’ field of academic training is psychology, a field that has much insight to bring to the study of digital culture, and much valuable knowledge to bring to students.

Students also learned and practiced technical skills working with software and in on-line environments.  They designed documents, moved through numerous web sites to download and perhaps alter and adapt content, used e-mail (some began the class without an e-mail address), and especially learned how to use the Mac version of Power Point.  I heard few details about the major assignments, which were not on the single calendar/ syllabus sheet I received, but were embedded in the homework of each succeeding week.   Given that the class welcomed students who were inexperienced in cyber-space, I assume that just a normal week’s routine of accessing the class Moodle page (if they had one), receiving class notes and assignments by e-mail, corresponding with the teacher, and searching on-line for various sites are by themselves a valuable practice for many students.  Are these tasks preparing students to “Design a multi-media project that advances a critical understanding and use of digital technology” as the Course Outline (p. 2 Appendix __ “Peralta Community…”).   suggests they do?  I saw no sign that they do.

The calendar/ syllabus sheet (Appendix ___) shows how assignments are translated into points to result in a course grade.  The majority of credit bearing assignments have a focus on personal identity and meta-cognitive reflection: “Your Learning Goals,” “Online Identities, Your Avatar & Personality,” “Professional Online Identity,” “Self Assessment 2: Your Learning Progress,”  “Powerpoint Skills 102 project” presenting identity through images, and “Self Assessment 3: Your FINAL.”  They contribute the majority of 100 points that result in a grade for the class.  The assignments that had a non-personal focus were “Media Interview Questions,” and “Powerpoint Skills 101” which were small group projects that touch on non-personal topics such as privacy and security, and the late semester topic “Going Global: Digital Culture.” Either a basic skills or a transfer level class can be taught with a psychological focus.  But a course that ties most topics to the student’s self is different than presenting general psychological issues like the role of anonymity in cyber-space.

The Course Outline is a good reminder of what transfer level coursework is like.  For example, the student performance objectives listed include:  “Students will be able to 1) Describe key events in the history of computer technology….4) Discuss basic philosophical, psychological, political issues raised by the emergence of a digital culture….5) Discuss intelligently the distinctions and relationships between digital technology and art or aesthetics….6) Design a multi-media project that advances a critical understanding and use of digital technology.”  But there was no evidence in the observation or calendar/ syllabus that the students were expected to work at this level. Likewise, the Course Content description did not match with my observation of the class: “Central concepts: e.g. random access, virtuality, intertextuality, interactivity, hypertextuality, interface, scalability, digital reproducibility, digital correctibility” did not seem to be woven into the class calendar or the assignments.  Under the Course Outline’s “Impacts of computer technology,” the instructor could be said to be covering “Computer as psychological experience, e.g., perceptual and somatic implications.”  But there was little evidence that the class was covering “Computers as social experience: e.g. human interaction and virtual communities” (“Peralta Community…” see Appendix ___ ).

Course outlines are not supposed to be followed by instructors chapter and verse, but they should offer a general idea in terms of entry and exit skills, course content, means of evaluation, and course materials, so any competent instructor could plan and teach a class at an appropriate level. There are many parts of the MM 121 course that I have incomplete information on.  But is clear that the Midterm and Final assignments focus on self-evaluation, rather showing understanding of course content related to history, central concepts, analytical strategies, or aesthetics. The introductory, meta-cognitive, personal/ psychological focus may have real advantages for a community college class, but it is not enough to give the basic skills students the grounding they need in concepts and skills (such as correlation vs. causation) or to introduce the transfer level students to major theoretical issues of digital culture.  Community college students at both levels need to study and practice digital culture.

Reflections on Larger Issues

First, the large screen oriented classroom, while it seems intuitively appropriate (due to my exposure to movies, and Al Gore’s lecture/ slide show on An Inconvenient Truth?), it is a major transition away from the “chalk and talk” tradition.  We tend to be dazzled by the professor with a movie screen, sound system, and Google at his or her finger-tips, but it will take quite a bit of practice to understand the difference between substance and flash and to understand the full effects of displacing speech from its dominant place in the classroom.

The addition of individual computer screens to the future student’s books may be an even bigger change than the large screen-oriented classroom.  For the moment, Dr. Jones’ rule of absolute freedom to web surf during class goes against everything I know about the capacity of young people, especially in basic skills students, to practice a distracted kind of attention in class.  The research on multi-tasking that I’ve heard backs me up, and I’m sure a great deal of research on that topic will continue to pour in, as the hand-held devices slowly begin to resemble prostheses attached to our arms.

The rush of multi-media information coming at educators is very stimulating, maybe over-stimulating.  We will need to practice slowly and responsibly for the rest of our lives to learn the best way of using the Internet to teach skills and concepts.  Not merely readings and images, but a series of associated lessons, games, activities, lectures, and assessments are necessary to move from exposure, to practice, to mastery.  The pleasure we get (students and many teachers) from web surfing and social networking should not be confused with competence in a skill, or solid understanding of a key concept.

Videos, photos, podcasts, graphic displays need to be not just developmentally, cognitively and emotionally appropriate for a certain student population—they also have to be at a certain technical level to work as class content, which is partly dependent on the infrastructure funding in our schools.  This reminds me that community colleges will continue to lag far behind the businesses and four year universities with more funds. I think that the harder task is to retrain ourselves, the teachers, to use the digital technology expertly, rather than to pay for all the new upgrades.


* Their titles are: Media and Communications, “Cyber Culture,” History of Video Art, From Movies to Multi-Media, The Documentary Tradition and Media Interpretation and Criticism.  The department’s AA Degree in Animation course sequence also includes a Humanities class in Film: Art and Communication.  All of these courses are listed as “transfer level” courses (accepted for BA credit by the California State University—CSU—system). One of them, The Documentary Tradition is also transferable with IGETC credit.

* Given the ubiquity of open lap top computers in many university classrooms today , I imagine that many, if not most university professors now tolerate, if not approve of multi-tasking during class sessions.  I have not read discussions about the range of teacher practices.

** The instructor did not play any of the podcast, just showed the KQED podcast screen (presumably sending this link to students later). But I noticed in an evening class I observed briefly (the Media and Communications class, which she described as higher level), that the instructor replayed some 23 minutes worth of the podcast for those students. Why didn’t she play it in the Digital Culture class? Knowing the radio show, with a rather high level of discussion (educated but not expert), I think the instructor may have guessed that she would put her class to sleep by playing the podcast.  She may have guessed that the students might not listen carefully and think deeply in the more social and visual space of the screen-oriented classroom. In the night class, I also noticed the podcast voices did not register sharply and clearly on the sound system.  If you combine inferior sound with academic/ lawyer talk, you may have a recipe for losing your community college listeners.

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