Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Teaching Software

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about software — specifically, about how much software we are currently teaching our students.

At the end of last semester, I sent around an e-mail asking about software in our curriculum to the other faculty members in the Visual Communications sequence here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. And just last week, the issue of teaching software came up at a meeting of the entire journalism and mass communications faculty, which had been called to discuss revamping our curriculum.

Before I share with you the list of software we use, I’d like to discuss the role software plays in a modern journalism and mass communications curriculum. In other words — just as with any other course content — what do students need to know, and why do they need to know it?

At the end of this column, I’ll discuss some alternative learning models — different ways students can get the information they need to succeed, not just in school but in the business and professional worlds.

My Daring Leap Into Technology

Clearly, being a citizen of our highly technological society demands a knowledge of software — at least a basic skill level and a knowledge of what the software can and cannot do.

When I first started writing for Photo District News in the 1980s, I would write my stories on a typewriter, cut and paste paragraphs (literally) if the material needed rearranging, and then mail or fax the finished article to the magazine’s New York office.

I remember visiting another writer who had invested in a word processor — not quite a computer, but an electronic typewriter with a screen on which you could see your work and make changes and corrections. I thought this was terrific — just what I needed — and I was actually on my way to a store in San Francisco to buy one when I got a page (how high-tech!) from a fellow photographer wanting some information.

I dashed into the nearest phone booth to answer the page and told my photographer friend where I was headed and what I was about to buy.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “Buy a computer instead.”

Hmmm, I thought. He’s a smart, tech-savvy guy — maybe I should take his advice. A day or so later, I was the proud owner of an IBM-XT clone, purchased from Whole Earth Access in Berkeley.

There it was on my office desk, screen aglow, dot-matrix printer switched on and ready, 20 MB hard drive whirring contentedly.

One problem, though. No one at the store had told me anything about software, and I was too dumb to ask.

So there the machine sat for two or three days, until I learned how to install my first program, called PC-Write. Then it was off to the races.

Photo District News soon put all its writers on an e-mail system, so we could send our stories electronically. Eventually, I automated my writing and photography business, adding FileMaker and Quicken, and also waded into digital imaging with Photoshop. Today, the Applications folder on my MacBook Pro contains about 100 items and weighs in at just under 17 gigabytes. Progress, I guess.

Learning Outcomes and Software

Our journalism and mass communications faculty recently agreed on a set of learning outcomes for our students that reflect the changes taking place in the professional world of journalism and mass communications, while still remaining faithful to the ideals of a research university. Two of these learning outcomes directly intersect with technology and therefore need to be considered in any discussion of teaching software.

Here are the key features of these two learning outcomes: information gathering and information presentation, including production and editing of all forms of mass media content.

Given these learning outcomes, we can establish two criteria for teaching software: 1) the software we teach should meet at least one of the learning outcomes, and 2) not incorporating a particular piece of software into our curriculum would negatively impact a student’s ability to achieve one or more of the learning outcomes.

Obviously, as computer programs proliferate and also become more powerful, teachers face a challenge: with a fixed number of classroom hours in which to present course content, software is increasingly eating up more and more hours. By necessity, this means that other essential course content must be compressed, rearranged, or modified to fit in the semester.

Of course, in many cases our students learn software hand in hand with mastering other aspects of the course — software and other course content are presented as a unified whole. But in some cases, the software must be mastered before students can immerse themselves in the rest of the course or succeed in a higher-level course.

The Software List

Here, then, is a list of the software currently being taught in our Visual Communications sequence, in alphabetical order:

  • Audacity (free audio editing and recording program)
  • Bridge
  • Celtx (free preproduction system for film, video, and multimedia)
  • Dreamweaver
  • DVD Studio Pro
  • Final Cut Pro
  • Flash
  • GarageBand
  • iDVD
  • Illustrator
  • iMovie
  • InDesign
  • Motion
  • Photoshop
  • QuarkXPress
  • SoundSlides
  • Soundtrack Pro
  • WordPress

As you can see, most of these 18 programs are related to information gathering and information presentation — in a visual context. In our sequence, we offer the following regular courses:

  • Introduction to Visual Communications (survey course required of all journalism and mass communications students)
  • Photovisual Communications (beginning point-and-shoot photography course)
  • Graphics for Visual Communications (design and production for print and onscreen media)
  • Informational Graphics for the Mass Media
  • Advanced Photovisual Communications (digital photography course with SLR cameras)
  • Advanced Visual Communications (capstone course featuring both print and online portfolio development)

In addition to these regular courses, we are currently also offering special-topics courses on entrepreneurship for freelancers and videography for mass communications.

Some of these courses are more intensively software-dependent than others. For example, the capstone portfolio course, as you would expect, requires students to master about half a dozen different programs.

But even in the Introduction to Visual Communications, we give our students a series of design assignments requiring proficiency in InDesign; they also work in small groups to create a short video using iMovie. Not only are we expecting more software learning from our students — as instructors, we are spending more and more of our time keeping up with an ever-expanding set of features, as manufacturers bring updates of their software to market at a seemingly accelerated pace.

Software Solutions

Although we didn’t come up with any answers at our faculty meeting, we did begin asking what I believe are the right questions. First, should we be in the business of teaching software at all? Are there other ways students can become proficient in required programs, such as through online learning provided by our faculty or by a commercial vendor such as

Could we reasonably expect students in visual communications to own — and know how to use — basic visual programs such as those in the Adobe Creative Suite, just as we expect our writing students to own and know how to use Microsoft Word? How would we test for proficiency?

With more and more software being taught, how can we provide enough computers and lab time for our students? Would software requirements make our program less flexible (and therefore less attractive) at a time when our school’s educational philosophy seems to be moving toward more flexibility and choice?

Finally, which software programs do our students absolutely need to master in order to get jobs in the mass media?

These are just some of the issues surrounding the teaching of software in a university setting today. If you have experience wrestling with these issues —or some ideas about how to pin them to the mat — I’d love to hear from you!

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Teaching Software”

  1. Interesting read. You reminded me of my first computer which had an amazing 40Mb hard drive and 640Kb of RAM!!
    Anyway, I'd suggest one more thing to add to the list; Aperture. I've been using it for around three years now and can't imagine a workflow without it. Also now that it supports video and audio files, it's changed my workflow and become my multimedia hub. Very handy!

  2. David,

    I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's J-School in Multimedia, and looking back, the real skills I find myself remembering as most helpful were not the details of software that have since changed, but the fundamental concepts and principles behind story telling and covering events from all points of view.

    If you are familiar with programming, it's about learning what a loop or array is versus the syntax of how to code them in a particular language.

    Now, I know you will have to overcome the hurdle of teaching software in order for students to complete projects, but with the fundamentals firmly grasped, they should easily sit down at any audio/video editing suite, photo management/manipulation suite, or design/layout suite, and within a short amount of time find the buttons or actions needed to accomplish the task.

    The reality of what happens after graduation is that companies like Adobe buy the Macromedia's of the world, change and move a lot of the menus, and leave graduates with a dilemma. Do they know what a good photo looks like, why it works with the copy and story, and that it needs color correction? Or are they stuck trying to remember step one of clicking this menu then that menu two versions back on a software program that is no longer the industry standard? Let's hope it's the former.

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