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[New] Media Savvy

eMerging of technology and critical thinking creates a rich learning experience for UMaine students

Trying to define the term “new media” is like:

(a) Herding cats.

(b) Catching raindrops in a net.

(c) Stopping time.

(d) All of the above.

The answer, of course, is d. Part of the conundrum lies in the very essence of the term: what is new is always changing. And in the fickle world of media, new becomes old very quickly.

Is it film? Game design? Vector graphics? Art? Documentary? Does it involve websites and social networks? Animation and art? Is it a new way of looking at traditional media?

In a word, yes. But at the University of Maine, new media is so much more than that.

“The way I look at new media is as a frame of mind, as opposed to a field of technology,” says Eryk Salvaggio of Ogunquit, Maine, who is working toward a double-degree in new media and journalism. “The program is really focused on innovation and creativity, and you really can apply that to everything.”

Salvaggio hopes to use the lessons he’s learned in innovation and creativity to help traditional journalism thrive through the use of technology.

“Traditional storytelling is at the heart of journalism,” says Salvaggio, who, when he’s not in classes, works for the Bangor Daily News and the University of Maine’s student newspaper, The Maine Campus. “New media gives a new set of tools to tell that story and engage people.”

Those tools always are in flux. Software updates happen every six months, on average, and while new media has some of the most cutting-edge technology on campus, the ways students use technology are ever-changing. But the message behind the media has remained constant since the program’s inception.

The seeds of UMaine’s New Media Department were planted in the early 1990s, when a group of faculty members collaborated to introduce cross-disciplinary studies in computer science, the arts and humanities. It started as a minor and blossomed into a major in 2000.

“It really was unique, not only in the state of Maine, but in many ways, the country,” says Owen Smith, chair of UMaine’s New Media Department and a professor of art. “It truly was interdisciplinary.”

It still is, although the course of study is more formalized now than it was in its “Wild West” phase, as Smith calls it. Today, students choose two of five sequences: digital reporting and documentary production; information and interaction design; digital narrative and hypertext; time art and design; and networks and distributed creativity. The project-based curriculum allows students to tailor their studies to their own interests.

In new media, learning takes a variety of forms. Last fall, students in Sheridan Kelley’s motion graphics class filmed footage for a 3-D animation in front of a green screen. Over the course of the semester, they used that as a starting point for short films. Students in Mike Scott’s interactive Web development class created programmable patches that can be sewn into clothing. When the wearer walks by someone who has programmed in similar interests, both patches light up. The technology can be used for everything from matchmaking to conference planning. Last summer, when professor Raphael DiLuzio was traveling through Europe, he used iTunes U to teach an online course in which students could interact with European artists in real time.

“New media is not a website,” says Mike Scott, a lecturer in the department who directs ASAP Media Services, the new media and Internet technologies laboratory. “It’s a moment in time and its implication on a moment.”

This spring’s more popular offerings include a class in which students build iPhone applications and a game-design course. Though the coursework spans the gamut from sound documentary to designing a video game, the core message remains the same.

“We can’t predict the future, but what I can predict is that the technology will be different,” Smith says. “Important concepts and ideas form the core of innovative, creative and critical thinking. We bring these things together in a way that helps students envision and create the future. That’s why our students have been so successful.”

The success stories are impressive. Take Jeff Ma, who worked at ASAP long before new media was a formal major. He created the interface for TiVo and is one of the inventors of Apple TV. And then there are the class projects that were so right-on that someone else commercialized them and made a ton of money in the process. Tyler McPhee, a recent graduate, developed an online social networking site called Le Picture Book for his senior capstone project. It was a dead ringer for Facebook, which was developed a year later. For her capstone, Erin LeBlanc developed “Pedometer Wars,” which allowed users to track how much they walked and compare it with their friends. Nike and Apple launched a similar system not long afterward. And Joe Raymond called his project Podshare, in which you could wirelessly share music with your friends. That’s the concept behind the Zune’s success, as well. These companies didn’t steal UMaine new media students’ ideas; rather, UMaine new media students were developing similar networks, products and programs simultaneously — or ahead of the curve.

“It gives you a sense of how good their ideas are,” says Joline Blais, a new media associate professor and cofounder of Still Water, a research lab devoted to studying and nourishing network culture. “We can’t build an iPod until we imagine it. New media allows us to imagine and play at the world we want to live in. It creates the world in an image we want it to be, and that activity is so amazing.”

For Blais, new media’s biggest strength is its capacity for self-empowerment. She says the world is in transition. The traditional structures of power in government and mass communication are collapsing, and technology provides the opportunity for new, community-based structures to rise up in their place.

“The real power of new media comes when you can take the lessons of playing in this virtual space and bring them into the real world,” Blais says.

Freeware, open-source software and the borderless Internet have broken down hierarchies in the media and beyond. Digital cameras, the Internet and cheap, easy-to-use audio/visual equipment have all influenced the ways in which people communicate.

In some ways, these advances in technology have brought us back in time. Blais and new media associate professor Jon Ippolito argue that the networks of today are organized in a similar fashion to the tribal structures of indigenous peoples. On the media side, Bill Kuykendall, a former journalist who heads up the department’s digital reporting and documentary production sequence, says the tenets of good journalism are more important than ever — even if the medium is in flux.

Though many of his students are drawn to new media more for “its artistic and engineering appeal” than any journalistic interest, Kuykendall tries to instill a sense of responsibility in his students. As traditional media decline, it is his hope that a new generation will preserve “the essential role that the communications media have provided to free societies.”

“What I teach within the frame of new media is that the traditional skills, values and ethics deserve to be preserved,” Kuykendall says. “They work just as well with the tools we have today as they did with the tools we had in the early 20th century. Then I try to look at what’s different. What our new horizons are. Are they broader and more exciting or are they shrouded in mist?”

For Zev Eisenberg, a sophomore new media major from Peaks Island, Maine, who had considered studying engineering at MIT, those horizons are broad, exciting and ultimately practical. When he started taking new media classes at UMaine, he thought they would focus on the “tools,” but he was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s a lot about thinking about the things we create, why we create them and what we can do,” Eisenberg says. “With new technology, we have new ways of thinking about things that seem commonplace, new ways of interacting with information, and we try to figure out practical, inventive uses for new technology.”

Those uses may be clever and fun, like the light-up wearable patch, but UMaine’s new media students have learned to go deeper, to not just use technology for technology’s sake. For his senior capstone project last year, Maxwell Terry created an alternative to money called AUX. It works as “a kind of universal receipt” for Web-based exchange of goods and services. Though Salvaggio’s career aspirations involve journalism, his current focus in new media is a Facebook-style social networking site that connects nonprofits with potential funders. Jolene Belanger used her Web skills to create an online “hacktivism” project that questions why a college education can’t be free for everyone.

Belanger’s interest in graphic design drew her to new media. Growing up in Glenburn, Maine, her mom had a home-based scrapbooking business where Belanger taught classes. Increasingly, her students were turning to digital media — an area she wanted to explore. But Belanger, who is now a sophomore, has discovered new media is so much more than that.

“When I think of new media, I think of a small microphone capable of reaching many ears in the digital realm of the Internet — the greatest concert ever invented,” Belanger says. “New media is the language of my generation. It is the voice of the individual in a society serving the masses. It is the modifier of old media and developer of the new.

“It is the process of development and the intent that feeds an idea. It can be framed in a gallery or engineered for practical use. Redefining is the function of new media; that’s why we find it most challenging to define.”

Indeed, depending on whom you ask, the answer to the question, “What is new media?” varies. But that’s part of the appeal. It’s new. It’s constantly inconstant. And students and faculty define and redefine the term every day.

“In other disciplines, students learn the canon and become masters of the canon,” Blais says. “Our (new media) students create the canon.”


Contact Information

The Arts
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System