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Information in Formation: Repositioning Artists on the Crest of the Third Wave

by Jeff Gates


I teach a web design course for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design entirely via the Net from my office in Washington, DC. Distance learning classes fall somewhere between regular courses and independent studies. In order to be successful, students must be self-motivated and willing to tackle the technological and social challenges inherent in this type of course work.

We use a combination of mailing lists and online chats to communicate with each other. Everything, from questions to critiques must be typed and read. This is a very different and arduous environment for my students. Some are shocked by this situation and some, sad to say, are oblivious to it. Not only must I focus on the content of the course, but I often must teach developmental skills and even the ethics necessary to insure successful communication between us! New forms of communication are not just cold tools. Their use has social consequences which we can't ignore.

Yet, there are many students up to the challenge. For them it presents an opportunity to learn a way of working which will be valuable to employers and valuable to those students who will position themselves as information providers and interpreters--those defining and creating their own jobs. If the information age is signaling the beginnings of the post-literate era (where reading, writing and thinking take a back seat to pointing, clicking and surfing), artists who understand this process will move from the periphery to the center of society--dare I say-- to positions of power.

Just as these courses require a certain type of student, they require a certain type of teacher: one with lots of patience and the ability to understand the unique nature of these courses. My distance learning class is one of the hardest I've ever taught, not only in time (as my office hours are whenever I go online) but in challenging my whole sense of the educational process.

Distance Learning classes also present a challenge to the institutions which host them. If these new forms of education require new and responsive teaching practices, are we adequately prepared to accommodate the flow of information required to support these courses?

While these classes present exciting prospects from enlarging and diversifying our student bodies to developing new courses, this is not as simple as instituting a new academic program. It's a new way of working and will require a reconsideration of our methods of communicating with each other and of the very institutional structures we have taken for granted for so long.

This "infostructure" needs to be in place and common place for these courses to be successful. (Perhaps we should all consider doing an Information Flow Analysis!) Everyone from deans and teachers to support staff need to understand and feel comfortable with this way of working.

I have been fortunate that MCAD has a staff who's hard work has allowed me to concentrate on what goes on in my classroom, rather than worrying about networks and down time. Since I truly teaching from a distance, I can't walk over to my mailbox or to the bookstore to see if the textbook has arrived. And faculty meetings will take on new meanings when they're online.


© 1996 Jeff Gates. No reproduction in whole or in part may be used without prior consent of the author.

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