Teaching and Learning | Feature

Art Schools Keep IT Departments on Their Toes

Most IT executives in higher education will tell you that they have difficulty keeping up with the pace of technological change. But this can be especially true for those in charge of IT departments at art and design schools. In part, that's because these curricula require an array of technology specializations, including animation, digital video, interactive electronic projects and robotics. Also, the tools and media students need to explore to stay relevant in the marketplace are always changing.

"We try to have someone in academic technology conversant with every technology used in the departments," said Meg Young, director of academic technology services at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston, which has around 2,000 undergraduate students and a few hundred graduate students. "Almost every department has some new technology that they want to explore. I tell people that I have to know 20 programs that are each updated every six months."

Technology is embedded deeply in an art school's curriculum, a fact that was eye-opening for Mara Hancock, CIO of the California College of the Arts (CCA) in Oakland. In 2012, Hancock made the transition to running an art school IT department from her previous position as director of educational technology services, director of online learning and associate CIO for academic engagement at the much larger University of California, Berkeley. Her IT department of approximately 40 people at CCA supports just under 2,000 students.

Changing technologies can quickly redefine what students need to learn in the classroom, and IT infrastructure must change accordingly, Hancock pointed out. "If Adobe is moving to the Creative Cloud, we need to provide it because it is going to be a core competency for our students, so we have to provide the horsepower in our labs," she said.

With the BYOD movement, some liberal arts schools may be thinking about eliminating computer labs, she added, "but here they are so critical for us because students need access to such a rich, wide range of software and architectural platforms to do deep renderings."

Staffing and Funding Issues

The CCA IT organization's largest unit is academic technology. "We have two campuses, one in San Francisco for design and architecture and the other in Oakland for fine arts and photography," Hancock explained. "We have to provide service bureau-like support for them and mentor students. Our system administration group is shallower than on a large campus like Berkeley, but we still have to cover all the bases."

Funding for technology upgrades and staff hires can be a challenge for art schools. "We are unique among art schools in that we are a public college, so we are perpetually underfunded both in terms of equipment and software as well as support staff," said MassArt's Young, who also teaches two classes in the fashion program. It is always challenging to find people with the skill sets needed who want to work for what the art college can pay, she added. "I was hired in 1995 to support multimedia and CD-ROM production, so you can see that what we do evolves with technology trends. We expand our facilities based on what we hear from alumni, faculty and students. Faculty members and chairs query recent alumni about how their skill sets match the requirements of the workplace."

But Young said MassArt's executive leadership fully understands the need to stay current with technology. The school's president, Dawn Barrett, came to MassArt in 2011 after serving as dean of the Architecture and Design Division at the Rhode Island School of Design. "She gets it," Young said. "There is no convincing needed. And our department heads understand that they will cease to be competitive if they don't keep up with technology." For instance the 3D area, which includes jewelry, glass, ceramics, fiber and metals, needs to add exposure to 3D modeling or its students won't be competitive, she noted, and 3D printing is another hot new area.

In the budgeting process, CCA's Hancock has CIO advisory groups on both the administrative and academic sides, which offer input on where to focus IT's efforts. She also hears from technology liaisons, who understand the day-to-day needs of the departments, including those of adjunct professors. Studio shop managers also straddle the two worlds of technology and facilities as they support department chairs.

There is never enough funding to do everything you want, Hancock said, "but we are doing pretty well to meet the broad needs. We have created a refresh cycle for the labs and we are becoming a more mature IT group. We have a great pool of alumni to help meet the challenge of finding people to support diverse academic technology needs."

Hancock also noted that the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design has a CIO group that allows her to compare notes with colleagues. "We have a listserv," she added, "and AICAD has helped us work with peers to capture data for benchmarking."

From DVD to the Cloud

Filmmaking courses at Northeastern University (MA) require students to share their work, critique it and prepare it into a final project. That process once meant sharing DVDs or sending large files across the campus network, recalled Ron Starr, director of media studios and an instructor in documentary film production at the school.

Looking for a way to make it easier for students to share projects with faculty and with each other, Starr starting using the Aframe cloud video-production platform in 2012. Students use Aframe to store full-resolution media in the cloud and move it quickly between partners. They have the option of delivering it as tiny proxy files sent as Web links so people can review video on their mobile devices.

"This allows us to share media without all having to be here at the same time," Starr said. For instance, when students turn in their work at the end of a semester, the instructors don't have to be on campus to watch them. "And in classes where there are group projects, students can much more easily share what they have done," he added. "As we get more instructors using it, it will get more integrated into how we teach. We were able to do this without involving central IT. It is pretty neat that someone who is a non-techy like me can integrate it into the curriculum right away."

Another benefit, Starr noted, is that AFrame allows Northeastern to designate users and accounts. "An issue we have with sharing videos is that students will often want to upload to a YouTube or Vimeo account. Unfortunately, that does not take into account the legal restrictions," he said. Most student projects use copyrighted music (and occasionally video). It is allowable in class under the educational exemption, but not in the world at large. Additionally, students rarely get releases from their actors, and the presumption is that the videos will only be seen in a classroom setting. Using AFrame technology removes the liability for illegal dissemination of video/audio and allows the instructor to designate who can legally and legitimately view the material.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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