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Reflections: On Case Studies

The case studies in this report represent a variety of assignment types across many disciplines. Nevertheless, there are some common threads, and even some generalizations that can be made about the group as a whole.

The case studies show media-rich assignments functioning in a variety of ways within their respective courses; nevertheless, the relationships of the assignments to the courses can be broadly categorized:

Central/Inseparable: the media-rich assignment or assignments is/are in and of themselves a central component of the course content. This is common in courses that are explicitly focused on new media, or on the relationship between new media and the particular discipline in which the course resides (see Case Studies "Jazz, Jezebels, Gigolos," "The Narrative in New Media," "Collaboration Across the Arts").

Theory to Praxis: the media-rich assignment is one of the chief means by which the students put theory into practice, and/or connect abstract ideas considered in the course to their own concrete experience. This can be an effective use of such assignments in a wide variety of discplines, from studio art to political science (see Case Studies "Women in Film," "Comparative Politics," "Exploring Contemporary France").

Reflexive: the media-rich assignment serves primarily as an ongoing means for students to reflect on course content and to draw connections across disparate course materials. A number of genres of media-rich assignments, including blogging and multimedia narrative, can be an effective means of reflection and connection across disciplines. Assignments in this category tend to place great emphasis on process ("Digital Media and Culture," "Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies").

Culminating: the media-rich assignment is a capstone experience that allows students to communicate what they have learned. This differs from the Reflexive category in that the Culminating category has a greater emphasis on the product as an artifact. We must note here, however, that a digital media assignment is never simply about telling others about something the student has already learned; the learning experiences inherent in completing such a project should not be trivialized (see Case Studies "China in Transition," "Introduction to Anthropology").

There will obviously be overlap among these categories, and there are likely many other ways in which such projects function; these are what we can observe from the perspective of this project.

Comparing the case studies to one another, it is clear that there is significant variance in the need for support from one faculty member to another. This can be attributed, in part, to the nature of the assignment. However, it also has a great deal to do with a faculty member's own comfort level with the technology, and this comfort level naturally rises after several iterations of the course. By the same token, our case studies suggest a decreasing sense of time investment for the faculty member after several iterations of a course. We should take care to note that the same is not necessarily true for staff members who support the course.

In comparing assignment designs, we note that some faculty included highly structured components for skills development, while others expected students to make use of available training resources on their own. Similarly, some faculty created stepwise, scaffolded assignments that built complexity over time, while others preferred a more "flat" structure. We do not assume that one approach is superior to the other in all cases; however, providing multiple opportunities for feedback and revision over the semester is reported to be highly effective. This may be accomplished through feedback from the instructor, fellow students, or both. In our discussions, faculty in several disciplines described a process very much like the formal critique traditional in the visual arts. Such feedback, in whatever form it may take, it particularly useful in helping students work through rhetorical issues and better consider the concept of audience.

As project participants thought about the learning goals of the media-rich assignments they used, it became increasingly obvious that we needed to remind ourselves about the distinctions between some of "literacies" that were sought. We found that the umbrella of "critical literacies" is only useful if it is not allowed to become a reduction of the literacies it entails. For example, media-rich projects tend to have an information literacy component that is quite similar to that of a traditional research paper: the ability to find sources of information and assess their credibility certainly remains essential. On the other hand, media-rich projects often provide a unique opportunity for students to engage in making meaning with non-text media - namely, in developing visual and aural literacies.

In assessing the work of their students, faculty tend to move toward a balance between process and product, and this strikes us as appropriate in most cases. On one hand, we cannot expect students to produce professional-quality products at the same time that they are stumbling over technological barriers and struggling with communicating meaning in non-text forms. On the other hand, we must hold students responsible for finished work that comes out of such assignments. In our discussions, the need for students to understand the responsibility they bear to their audience was often mentioned as a critical component of the work. Student perspectives were included in discussions and presentations throughout this project but we did not obtain uniform quantitative data of the student experiences. We hope this oversight will be addressed in future studies.

In discussion, faculty also tended to note an increased time commitment for assessing media projects as compared to written work, but the same distinction did not appear in their answers to survey questions. While faculty note an uneasiness about grading media-rich assignments, most seem to have developed solid frameworks for doing so. We believe there may simply be a lack of confidence about sharing these frameworks with others. For many, these kinds of assignments represent a departure from their own training and comfort zone as an expert. It is our hope that projects such as this one, which serve to share such information as broadly as possible, will aid in alleviating this reluctance.

Finally, we note that none of our project participants is advocating the use of new technologies simply because they are available. Assignment design must always begin with the learning goals, and then consider what kinds of media-rich assignments might result in an effective realization of those goals. Effective collaboration is essential in this regard.