Assessment and Integrity in the Digital Arts
- By Adam Watkins, Michael Clayton
In a section on beginning Adobe Illustrator, students
were given a tutorial assignment that included a piece of clip art to trace,
color, and turn in. When the assignment was due, three of the files that were
turned in were identical. While they all seemed to be excellently executed
re-creations, a miscalculation in the dimensions of the document’s page size
revealed that something was wrong. All three illustrations were identical in
every other way. After careful consideration and discussion with the students
involved, who confessed to the digital plagiarism, the University of the
Incarnate Word’s guidelines for academic dishonesty were followed.
This experience was the impetus causing faculty to
rethink the assignments given in digital arts classes. How can this scenario be
avoided? What kind of assignments should be given? Above all, what sorts of
assessments are fair and accurate measurements of digital art development?
Assignment 1: The Drawing Factory
Objective: Use basic shapes to draw a series of three simple
objects. Color the objects appropriately. Pay attention to
The introduction of too many tools in vector drawing programs such as
Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia Freehand can be overwhelming to students.
Introducing tools in small sets provides more palatable bites of
information. By beginning with the shape tools, students are introduced to
drawing simple rectangles and ellipses. Later, modifier keys can be added
to change them into prefect squares and circles.
Unfortunately, most students in the
digital arts classroom don't have the background in drawing and fine arts
that we would like them to have, so we need to backtrack and teach them
how to look at objects and break them down into simple components. A
pencil is simply a long rectangle with a triangle at the end. A car is a
series of rectangles and circles. A computer keyboard is a long rectangle
with rows of squares for keys. This simplified "pictograph" approach helps
students understand the tools that they will use to create wordmarks,
buttons, interfaces, and illustrations.
Drawing Factory is a grid with a library of shapes that the students can
use to compose various everyday objects. The students are given shapes
like a circle, square, and triangle, and are then required to build a
number of different objects. A handout lists the objectives and
requirements of the assignment. A student selects three objects and then
uses the shapes to re-create them.
objective is simple, but broad, so students seldom choose identical
objects. Assessment is clear, and a student usually knows if the work
accurately represents the chosen object. Besides the easy formal
assessment given to the student as a grade, the student's skill level and
proficiency can quickly be informally assessed.
The Trouble with Tutorials
It is easy to view the
teaching of software specifics in the digital arts to be an unwelcome chore.
Somewhat understandably, instructors tend to pass rather quickly through the
basics in order to get on to bigger and better things such as design,
aesthetics, and portfolio work. And all too often, digital arts instructors
simply assign out-of-the-book tutorials to take care of these seemingly
While tutorials can be
a great way to self-teach software, it is rarely appropriate in the classroom
environment. Everyone follows the same step-by-step instructions, and then turns
in identical results. Not only is this work useless to the student's portfolio,
but it is so easily shared, copied, and transferred that these types of
assignments can very easily lend themselves to academic dishonesty and a loss of
integrity in the classroom. If students are struggling, they can easily ask
their neighbors for a copy, and within seconds, they can have their name on it
and turn it in to the drop box.
But the most powerful reason why tutorials are
a poor assignment choice is that they don't allow for assessment of concept
mastery; instead, they focus on simple mimicry. When the instructor's real goal
is not to find out how well the student can follow written instructions but to
assess comprehension of core concepts, tutorials miss the mark entirely.
Assignment 2: Thumbnail Gallery
Objective: Design and create a thumbnail gallery of 10 images.
Link the thumbnails to a page containing the original image. Create a link
back to the index page.
This is the second Dreamweaver assignment of a Basic Web Design course.
Through a series of in-class demonstrations, the students see examples of
pages that house four thumbnail images that lead to four different pages.
We discuss options for design, layout, and navigation. Site management
tools, image maps, and templates may be introduced as concepts as well.
They learn that a thumbnail image is a smaller version (or part) of an
image that, when clicked, takes the user to a page that contains the
larger image. This helps decrease the download time of larger images. It
also creates a design problem for the student: "How do I design a page
that contains 10 of these thumbnail images?"
Rather than give them the
images and a layout to copy, students are asked to pick the subject,
create a metaphor for the design, and implement the design. Requiring 10
images for the assignment means that the technical processes receive
Key elements of the theory
are covered in a handout at the beginning of the assignment. The site
structure, naming, and audience are key elements for a jumping off point.
At a minimum, the site should have 20 images (10 thumbnails and 10
full-size images) and 11 HTML pages (an index page and 10 image pages).
Images should be placed in a folder called "images," and the HTML pages
should be at the root level. Naming schemes are introduced so that the
students begin to think in terms of site management and organization
(i.e., no spaces in the name, no special characters, proper use of
extensions, etc.). The rules of audience are set so that there are limits
on download times, image quality, and page size (e.g., the audience for
this project includes basic computer users who have
(800 pixels by 600 pixels screen resolution) and 56 kilobits/sec
Assessment then becomes an analysis
of the technical and the visual. Each assignment is unique, each shows the
students problem solving skills, and each should be usable in the
student's portfolio. Technically assessing the project is objective, with
points awarded for compliance with the preset rules. There are no hidden
surprises; if they include all that is required, they receive full
Quantifying the success of the design is the
subjective part of the assessment process. D'es the design and style the
student has chosen fit the subject of the site? Did the student apply
principles of good design learned from the reading and in-class
discussions? D'es the site lend itself to easy navigation?
students are given this list of questions at the beginning of the
assignment, they have a guide to refer to as they approach their
Changing the Assignment
The best strategy to thwart
academic dishonesty and ensure effective assessment is to structure the
assignments from the beginning to facilitate these goals. Throw away those
tutorials and customize the assignment to the class. Personalize it; let
students choose the subject and style, and allow
them to inject a piece of
themselves into the project.
these sorts of assignments is certainly more labor intensive than simply handing
out a tutorial. More instruction as well as assignment preparation is necessary.
Concepts must be introduced first, allowing the assignment to help develop these
ideas within the students. The results, however, are portfolio-worthy projects
that have creative energy as well as clear assessment characteristics.
Accompanying this article are three examples of the new assignments developed at
the University of the Incarnate Word.
Assignment 3: Desktop Pictures
Objective: An overview project where students create an image
to be placed in the background on a computer. Students design, scan in
their own images, and create an image that is 800 pixels by 600
The student begins by creating a drawing of the desired desktop
background, picking whatever subject they want and using the basic visual
design skills for the layout of the project. Once the drawing is approved,
they may begin to gather resources through searches, digital photography,
or scanning images. They must combine these images using techniques taught
in class and as outlined in the requirements given to them in a handout.
They must use (at a minimum) a required number of masks, selections, text,
and scans to achieve their goal. The final product is a portfolio piece
and, in fact, a nice piece just to show off on a personal computer. This
is a great assignment to fan the fire of desire to learn more about
In the end, assessment is
accomplished by analyzing all of the resources used for the project, as
well as the resulting image. Students must turn in their entire set of
resources, the original files, the final Photoshop file, and the
compressed file. By reviewing not only the final Photoshop file, but all
the intermediate stages, establishing the validity of the finished project
becomes easier. Not only d'es this prevent any academic dishonesty, it
also provides an insight into how students are approaching the problems,
what they understand, and what they still need help with. Projects can be
specifically designed to uncover what has been taught and understood by
While the students focus on
creative problem solving, the technical skills of mastering the software
are still achieved. Along the way, students are able to create and stretch
their design muscles. This project design assesses real skills—not just
superficial skills such as following instructions—and the work is very
difficult to counterfeit. Assessment becomes clear and
Michael Clayton is an assistant professor and Adam Watkins is director of
Computer Graphic Arts and an assistant professor at the University of the