How Eric Williams is Evolving His Class Into a 90 Minute Creativity Concert of Active Learning

Want to know one of the secrets to turning an “okay” class into a “great” one?

The secret is understanding the “snowball effect.” The snowball effect is a process which begins with one small change that builds upon itself, becoming larger and more significant along the way, like a ball of snow rolling down a hillside. If properly guided, this evolutionary process can have a majorly positive impact on a situation just by taking small steps along the way.

If anyone knows the merits of this process, it’s Eric Williams, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts & Studies at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication. Eric teaches a course called MDIA 1020: Media and the Creative Process, which he has been evolving over time into an incredible active learning experience for his students.

MDIA 1020 Student Showcase

Developing MDIA 1020

MDIA 1020 THEN

The class was originally a theory-based lecture in a traditional format. Students were not as enthused as Eric had hoped they would be because while they read about the creative process, they didn’t experience it for themselves in the context of the course. Traditional lecture formats have often been criticized for lacking active learning, and failing to connect student learning to real world activities. This seems especially true in large lecture classes.

MDIA 1020 has evolved over the last six years, as different methods and strategies were tried, evaluated, and exchanged. Eric tried developing a lab component to accompany the lecture, as a dedicated space for active learning, but there were a lot of logistical issues to figure out: space, timing, available teaching staff, and the struggles of letting students learn and play with multiple new tools in a time-efficient way. He also tried letting students curate material for the lecture themselves, but found the outcome unsatisfying; it just turned the class into a session of Show & Tell.

“I realized that students are now picking up these skills coming into college,” Eric said.  “They know how (or can easily pick up an app that allows them) to edit, mix audio, etc. This is when I realized that (for this class), the education isn’t about the tools or the software… it is about the process.  I had a great example last week. They were on break and could do their own projects for extra credit… and a handful emailed me this weekend and had tales of woe as they “failed” in their projects (‘I didn’t shoot on the right format’, ‘I recorded the audio but it’s terrible’, etc.).  I just laughed and said, ‘Perfect!’  That’s what this class is all about… screw up, make mistakes, learn what NOT to do.”

MDIA 1020 NOW

Now the class revolves around active learning. The content is split into six two-week units, each featuring one week of content delivery (video lectures, reading assignments, podcasts, TED talks), as well as online quizzes and a written report, and one week of active creativity, where students can produce any one of 15 different projects, which are all posted to Seelio and incorporate the ‘inspiration’ component from their earlier written report. The assignments are graded according to whether they were completed, not according to their technical success, so the students can feel comfortable trying new things and using new tools.

Students also experience the process of peer and self critiques; they critique their own work for two projects, their peers’ work for two projects, and receive instructor critiques for two projects. This helps develop the students’ skills in delivering and receiving constructive feedback.  Students have also reported that they enjoy perusing the course’s Seelio gallery to get inspired by and collaborate with classmates.

MDIA 1020 IN THE FUTURE & BENEFITS OF THE SNOWBALL EFFECT

The class is still evolving; Eric tries to remain flexible and make tweaks throughout the semester as needed. He acknowledges that “you don’t know how many problems you’re going to have until you have 200 students doing it” and has himself experienced a few occasions where “the idea” didn’t end up being the same as “in practice.”

Still, the outcome is worth the work and occasional extra headache. The students love the changes that have been made thus far; they love the ability to be creative, the challenges that come with trying new things, and of course, the excitement that Eric brings to the class. And he loves that the class creates collaborations amongst students who otherwise might not have opportunities to do so, and that there isn’t as much pressure for students to “succeed” in projects like in a traditional class where each assignment is graded.

“I believe that in this industry, you need to be self motivated and self-critical. Media isn’t about “the boss” or “the prof”… It is about the audience.  They shouldn’t be writing songs “for me”. They should be writing songs for their crush, or animation for their nieces and nephews, or documentaries for their friends,” said Eric.

Eric’s experimentation days aren’t over. The course’s evolution is an ongoing process and next he intends to try the “flipped classroom” approach and have his lecture material, quizzes, and exams taken outside of the classroom. Course time will then be dedicated to collaboration, problem solving, sharing inspirations, and exploring other artists.

“For instance, after a video lecture about Color and Light, I can imagine a class focusing on exploring Vermeer paintings, then small group discussions on how to “capture the Vermeer vibe” via music or words or animation… then sending them off for the next few days to DO something in that vein.  Two days later, we’ll throw their projects up [from Seelio] on the monitors around the room and compare and contrast their different projects… I want each class to be like a 90 minute creativity concert,” said Eric.

If you’re interested in seeing the great work that’s come out of Eric Williams’ efforts to develop a 90 minute creativity concert of active learning, check out the MDIA 1020 gallery.


Did you enjoy this post? Check out our follow-up post with tips on how to evolve your own class!