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Building a Student’s Technology Palate

Jim Groom had a great idea to have a pre-conference conversation with Domains 17 keynote speaker Martha Burtis, which you can listen to here:

Much of the conversation was around (what I’m assuming) is a central point of Martha’s upcoming talk is/was that the web has been infiltrated by monetized centralized apps which run counter to the both the openness and decentralization that the web was built on and higher ed could have done something to stop it if it wanted to do so (and maybe we still can).

This is supposed to be what we do: educate the the next group of citizens about how knowledge is shared and created and what values are enacted in knowledge. Instead of engaging that and building that and informing our communities about that using the voices, platforms, and institutions that we have; instead of doing any of that we bought LMSs. – Martha Burtis

Tim Owens brought up a point (18:20) about people wanting a “fast food” approach to creating a domain that streamlined the process of getting up and running, which I think is arguably one of the most unfortunate products of this new web we live on. Companies are so focused on converting a person to a user as fast as possible that they strip all work out of the equation and instead provide people with a menu of options. “Do you want the light theme or the dark theme?” “Here. We’ve suggested you follow these people based off ‘your interests.'”

I’ve thought recently about how I can expose to my students how this is now happening. I’ve seen graphic design software also move towards a templated approach to design rather than building from the ground up, and I’ve come to conclusion that there are use cases for both approaches, but you don’t know that unless you’ve lived in both worlds. It is through these exposures that I think students have the ability to build a critical palate for the technology they use.

I’ve always taught Adobe products, not necessarily because I think they are the best value, but because they are the industry standard (and are supported by the College). If I say the term “Photoshop,” the majority of the public can at least recognize it. I feel that a large part of my job is to prepare students to work within the advertising and public relations industry, so I try to teach the tools they use such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and Premiere. It also doesn’t hurt that these are all packaged together and can be purchased together which brings an added benefit to learning the suite.

I also feel it’s my job to teach far beyond the tools. I teach a lot of communication strategy, copywriting, and criticism. Beyond being critics of their own work, I also want my students to have enough experience with a tool to know its affordances. This means that after every tool I have them compare and contrast it with a previous tool we’ve used.

I’ve started introducing Canva as a graphic design tool. Canva is a very user-friendly web-based design platform. Unlike Photoshop/InDesign/Illustrator which are a massive tools with nearly unlimited possibilities and can take years to master, Canva is inituitive enough to learn through a small set of tutorials. You can upload your own graphics, place text, and draw shapes. The biggest advantage of Canva is that it has several preset sizes (brochures, posters, social media assets such as posts and cover photos, etc.) as well as templated designs for each of these sizes and assets. It’s monetization model is that they sell stock photography and graphics inside the platform. In a lot of ways, Adobe tools are even LMS-like in the sense that they have built and iterated on over a long time and can feel bloated. Canva feels very light weight. It’s also worth mentioning that Adobe has rolled out, as Adobe tends to do, it’s own Canva-like tool Adobe Spark.

So how do students anecdotally react to a week in Canva? Anecdotally, I’d say that the 2/3 of the students, first and foremost, like the break from Adobe products, but they also love the simplicity of it.

Wow, I love Canva. I don’t know if I have ever found anything so user-friendly and professional. Using it, I was able to create several different types of social media graphics for my internship at Trifecta Communications. (source)

In my opinion, this gives the best argument for how to use Canva: emphemeral social media graphics that can be completed by anybody at any level of knowledge.

But students who have become used to the flexibility of Adobe platforms also note the downsides. 1.) You’re relying on platform uptime and 2.) limited options can limit your output and templates can stifle your creative process:

Oh Canva – so easy yet so fidgety. I was crossing my fingers the whole time hoping it wasn’t going to crash on me. Canva was sooooo slow on my laptop and on most of the Gaylord desktops. It is NOT a reliable source. InDesign and Photoshop won’t crash on you. This will. BUT Canva is easy. If you are looking for something fast and effective Canva is for you. Canva is limited though. There are ENDLESS possibilities with InDesign and Photoshop but Canva has its own layouts, texts, frames etc. and thats it. So you can only be as creative as Canva allows but for a PR practitioner who doesn’t know how to work InDesign and Photoshop this tool can be really helpful. I think, for me, I would like to use Canva in the future maybe for inspiration but then create my own thing in Photoshop or InDesign. (source)

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Dan Blickensderfer and Laura Gibbs via Twitter about Seth Prince‘s Feature Writing course and WordPress versus Medium.

As I mentioned in the tweet, Medium does allow the student to (sort of) “own” their space (“owning” here meaning it wasn’t provisioned by the institution) and it does allow for, albiet limited approach, syndication. And, as Laura mentioned, it can help tap into an already existing community which might be very beneficial for Seth’s course which is doing feature writing as opposed to personal blogging.

Am I saying use Medium instead of a Domain of One’s Own approach full stop? Of course not. But all of us are able to have this informed conversation about the platforms because we all have enough experience to recognize the affordances of the platform.

So what’s the point that I’m trying to make with my students? Once you’ve spent enough time in platform, you have the platform literacy to be critical of other platforms that exist in the world. Students can’t gain that knowledge if the instructor prescribes one platform.

One thing I’ve come to learn intimately through OU Create is that students will likely have a difficult time seeing the value of the domain if they aren’t contrasting it against another tool. I loved the recent way in which Erika Bullock framed domains NOT as the place for her to develop her digital identity but as a way for her to develop her understanding of the web:

Now, I am in my Senior spring. I have 7 sub-domains, all of them incomplete, all of them spaces for me to try out new WordPress themes, widgets, fonts, and layouts. I use sub-domains to model web projects for work, to try out new layouts for my personal website, or just to see if I can create a project that I’m envisioning in my head. I have benefited from thinking of Domains as my digital sandbox.

Through prescribing multiple graphic design platforms throughout the semester, I am hopeful that my students are building a palette towards which tools work in various scenarios. I also hope that we’ll continue to see ways to diversify experimentation in web spaces with the increasing interest in light weight, non-database CMSs and static site generators. And, last, hopefully we’ll stop searching for the perfect tool but rather search for an increase in web literacy across all platforms.

Jim also wrote a blog post about this conversation too, as he mentioned, we’re going to attempt to continue to have these pre-conference conversations. We’ve got Jon Udell talking hypothes.is and web interopability. If you have an idea for a pre-conference conference or if you want to join one of our conversation, comment or reach out.

To continue the palate analogy, I feel like I’m getting just a taste of what Domains 17 will be like and I’m liking it. Be sure to register as soon as possible.