Practice-Based Research, Digital Art and Problem Based Learning: A Dialogue

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian, and Mark Amerika. “Practice-Based Research, Digital Art and Problem-Based Learning: A Dialogue.” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 10.7 (2002).

Practice-Based Research, Digital Art and Problem Based Learning: A Dialogue

I arranged for Mark Amerika to be a visiting fellow with us during 2002 and we did an interview come dialogue around practice based research. This was published in Leonardo and Mark also republished it in “META/DATA: A Digital Poetics” The MIT Press.

Practice-Based Research, Digital Art, and Problem-Based Learning: A Dialogue Between Mark Amerika and Adrian Miles

Adrian Miles: Can you give us a general introduction to the conceptual framework and preliminary investigations you are conducting at your TECHNE lab at CU-Boulder?

Mark Amerika: By approaching the Internet as a compositional and publication/exhibition medium, artist researchers are positioning themselves to conduct a network of digital art practices. These networks are formed within and between academic institutions in various locations around the world which are in the process of defining new research agendas. One of the main goals of the TECHNE practice-based research initiative at the University of Colorado at Boulder is to evolve an ongoing R&D platform focused on demonstrating the value of supporting the artist-researcher model as it relates to discovering new forms of knowledge embedded in the creation of digital art. It is generally assumed that these new forms of knowledge, packaged as interactive digital art, will alter the way we socially engage with each other as well as educate ourselves to perform in this dynamic, computer-mediated environment. The Internet is first and foremost a globally distributed network that enables various nodal points an opportunity to bring wider visibility to successful research discoveries made at various intervals throughout the creative process. These discoveries can be immediately published/exhibited on the Internet and, under the right conditions, attract a network of external links that will give the research work a more significant place in the larger attention-economy.

To this effect, we are positioning ourselves to take a leadership role as one of the first practice-based research initiatives at the state university level to reinvent arts education. TECHNE utilizes various new media technologies to create a collaborative learning environment for students hoping to transfer their creative and critical skills-set into the new media economy. These students, looking to participate in a highly technologized, social process of self-motivated personal discovery and artistic invention, are now realizing that the creative process involves both online networking and real-time group collaboration.

Adrian Miles: How did you come up with the name TECHNE?

Mark Amerika: The name TECHNE comes from the Greek use of the term techne to mean both art and technology, especially as it relates to practice and application (“to make or do”). TECHNE enables faculty, students and research associates to utilize both highly specialized and easily accessible hardware and software applications to further demonstrate the value of building more interactive, digital art projects while critically analyzing their place in the world. Research projects are varied and investigate many contemporary subjects whose cultural implications bring to light the growing interdependency between the arts and sciences. The current environment of rapidly developing new media technologies enables committed researchers in both the arts and sciences to facilitate the discovery of new forms of knowledge. One of our recurring themes in developing the initiative is to proactively posit a new kind of research subject, that is, “the artist-researcher at play,” one who continuously experiments with the Internet as an R&D platform for discovering new modes of life style practice.

Adrian Miles: What are some of the specfic subjects being researched?

Mark Amerika: We have a very proactive, practice-based approach to web publishing, digital narrative, PDA art, wireless networking, artist ebooks, JAVA applet art, digital animation, telepresence, distributed network performance, dynamic hypertext language, biotechnology art, online games, motion picture graphics, mp3 concept albums, desktop cinema, data visualization, net art and the exhibition context, parapsychological and paranormal uses of telecommunications technology, GUI art, 3-D Multi-User Environments, the history of multi-media art in relation to both computer science and art practice, generative art, programming or code art, database aesthetics, and art research as process-oriented creative discovery.

Many of the digital art projects being researched at TECHNE require a team of student producers whose creative and critical skill-sets vary. By giving the students an opportunity to share their creative and critical strengths in a collaborative work environment while simultaneously enabling them to learn new skills from their peer network, TECHNE breaks away from the “individual artist as genius” model generally associated with art and creative writing programs. It focuses more on practice-based research and development skills that are more easily transferred to the rapidly transforming job market in both the high-tech industry and academia. Whereas TECHNE is not a graphic design factory that spews out scores of entry level computer design workers as a way to meet industry needs, the initiative does recognize that technically-proficient students with exceptional creative talent and critical decision making skills are likely to be more competitive once they graduate from our program. With this in mind, many of the creative research projects initiated at TECHNE are loosely tied to a collaborative, process-based learning (PBL) model that requires rigorous intellectual activity among the participants.

Which is something you have been developing at RMIT in the School of Applied Communication, yes?

Adrian Miles: Yes, although I refer to it as Problem Based Learning (PBL) with a process teaching spin. PBL is a form of teaching that emphasizes group work, self directed learning, real world problems, and is complemented by multiple forms of assessment. In PBL broad and abstract problems are posed at the beginning of a course and students are empowered to develop the appropriate skills and practices to contextualise and respond to these problems. It is quite different to more traditional styles of teaching where content is provided and then questions are asked — a bit like read the text book to get to the sample problems at the end.

The problem, which obviously is rather central in PBL, should not have a straightforward or obvious answer, and the students should not have learnt enough to be able to answer the problem without research, thought, and hopefully collaborative endeavour. Generally students with, or without, their teacher work in groups to find out what they don’t know, research this in appropriate ways, and contribute this to the group. This relies on an ongoing learning and reflecting process between staff and students.

Mark Amerika: How does this PBL model change pedagogy?

Adrian Miles: It is common in PBL for there to be several differences and difficulties experienced in relation to traditional teaching. Problems are introduced at the start of a course or a class, and students then work towards appropriate and productive outcomes. Most teaching and learning is group based, and it requires research with feedback and response so that the problems are able to be redefined and elaborated in response to the knowledges formed. Forms of assessment often need to change to reflect these different processes and outcomes, in particular what is now taught, and so assessed, is not just the demonstration of knowledge or expertise but the ability to identify what remains to be solved and strategies for resolving this.

Students who are adept and good ‘book learners’ regularly struggle or have difficulty in understanding what to do in PBL, and to begin with it is common to feel as if no learning is taking place.

Mark Amerika: But you tend to think the outcomes of PBL are positive?

Adrian Miles: We believe the collaborative and process based aspects of PBL strongly complement what we expect our graduates to be able to do, and the sorts of work and creative environments they will enter. It is a truism of the media in the digital age that collaborative skills form the basis of all activities, at all levels and that such skills are fundamental to working in networked environments. In addition I’m developing specific ways of dealing with this is through a reworking of how we use digital tools. By the use of networked hypermedia students are able to build media rich knowledge objects, and this helps make what they learn and know visible and available.

Mark Amerika: And these networked environments need to be foregrounded in the workshop and classroom?

Adrian Miles: Yes, In digital environments hierarchy tends to slip sideaways, work is often multilinear, arguments open onto new arguments rather than centre on the necessity of conclusions and closure. Writing itself can have a different voice, and the ‘formalism’ of writing tends to soften. This is very much how we are taught to write content for electronic delivery (in any form of electronic delivery), though not how we are taught to assess, let alone how students are encouraged or allowed to write in these environments.

Furthermore, electronic writing allows images, sound, video and text to become parts of the writing space. This is, again, no different to how we often teach where we routinely use video, spoken word, stills, illustration, readings, photographs, and quotes in our teaching. What is now possible, and quite different, is that these things can now all enter the space of student writing, so we can write with and around these things, rather than about them. Writing in this way generates different learning outcomes and different learning ‘objects’ – the things that students make that is the expression of their learning. You can teach students to write with these things to produce ‘monuments’ which is how I think of things like the traditional essay, or you can teach students to write with these things as part of an ongoing and open practice. I think the latter offers better learning, and complements what you’re exploring in the Techne Lab.

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video blogging, et al.