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Assessment and Integrity in the Digital Arts

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 detail.

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.
The 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.
The 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 inconsequential assignments.
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 multiple exposures.
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
17-inch monitors (800 pixels by 600 pixels screen resolution) and 56 kilobits/sec modems).
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 technical credit.
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?
If the students are given this list of questions at the beginning of the assignment, they have a guide to refer to as they approach their design.

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.
Developing 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 pixels.

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 digital media.
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 the class.

Accurate Assessment
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 true.

Michael Clayton is an assistant professor and Adam Watkins is director of Computer Graphic Arts and an assistant professor at the University of the Incarnate Word.

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