September 18, 2007

Media Of Choice

USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy Fuses Image, Sound and Text

By John Zollinger

Students take courses with a hands-on practicum using an expansive media lab in the heart of Taper Hall. 
Though many people were stunned last month when an Associated Press-Ipsos poll reported that over one quarter of the American adults did not read a single book in the past year, Holly Willis wasn’t surprised in the least.

“The primacy of static print is over,” said Willis, the newly installed managing director of the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML). “That’s not to say text is dead. To the contrary, it’s combining with the media of today—sound and image—to create meaning in ways we’ve only begun to understand.”

Perfecting that understanding has been the core mission of the IML for the past decade. Born out of a discussion between Dean Elizabeth M. Daley and filmmaker George Lucas in 1998, the IML has grown from a small research project in the former USC Annenberg Center for Communication to a full-blown Organized Research Unit within the School of Cinematic Arts.

“Our base in the school is natural, given that we’re dealing so extensively with sound and image,” Willis said. “However, the IML goes well beyond film production, borrowing equally from the Interactive Media and Critical Studies divisions so that our students are adept in thinking across multiple media platforms with critical sophistication. Indeed, we want to make sure there are applications for the entire university in everything we do. So, we’re not about teaching how to make film or television. We’re about mastering the core elements of these media and understanding how images and sound serve to build an expanded form of literacy that includes critical reading and writing practices, as well as visual and computational literacy. We think this expanded literacy is absolutely vital for informed participation in the 21st century.”

Since its founding, the IML has worked with over 100 faculty members at USC and beyond, in addition to scores of teachers from K-12, to hone the philosophy and the teaching methods of a literacy based on multiple media—from text to moving- and still-images, to audio files and other databased resources.

“What sets the IML apart from traditional ‘media literacy’ initiatives is that it’s not centered on interpreting how others are using such media,” said Professor Anne Balsamo, who preceded Willis as the IML managing director and who now will be in charge of the organization’s research efforts. “Rather, the IML is focused on enabling our students and scholars to be creators in their own right. To explore themselves, their world and the part they have in it,” added Balsamo, who also serves on the faculty of the Interactive Media Division.

Building on its long history of working directly with students, teachers and scholars, one of the IML’s major concentrations is the
The Taper labs are open approximately 60 hours a week.
collaboration with the USC College to conduct Multimedia in the Core classes. The joint effort unites General Education courses with a hands-on practicum using an expansive media lab in the heart of Taper Hall. Over 200 students have taken courses since the program’s inception in September 2006.

“Last year Provost Nikias gave the IML and the College a mandate to prepare our students to be fully capable of expressing themselves in the modern world, to communicate with an array of tools beyond the written word,” Willis said. “Over the past two semesters,  we’ve seen students with little prior media experience produce work that is nothing less than phenomenal.”

With the Taper labs open approximately 60 hours a week, Arts Laboratory Specialist Doney Joseph says there’s hardly a down moment.

“We have two state-of-the-art multimedia labs with around 22 computers in each one,” he said. “Students can also check out video cameras, still cameras and audio recorders to do multimedia production. Some have even returned after a semester ends to take more of the Core Multimedia Program classes.”

Those classes run the gamut. Students in a Geology class studying earthquakes are making Flash animations to illustrate how earthquakes function, while students in the “Religions of the West” class are creating interactive essays. The IML will also work with Professor Gloria Orenstein’s “Women in Literature and Art” course, where the IML will help students create video portraits of Los Angeles-based feminist artists of a special historical archive.

Beyond the core classes, the IML offers a four-year Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program designed to teach students across the university to craft scholarly multimedia projects in their majors. In addition, the IML staff is currently exploring other innovative areas, including the development of educational spaces within Second Life, a multi-user virtual environment. Their experiments range from creating virtual classes to a special project that Visiting Assistant Professor Peggy Weil is doing to represent the experience of being in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

When it was released, many people interpreted the AP poll as a negative sign. But the flip side is that use of media like online video sites, blogs and other digital outlets has grown exponentially. With the IML having now accrued some 10 years of expertise in this area, Willis believes the institute is well suited to prepare USC students to not only cope with, but master, the dramatic shift that sound and image have in today’s communications environment.
“Students enter USC with such amazing skills, but often they’re not significantly thinking about the devices they have in their possession like cell phones, iPods, and laptops,” Willis noted. “Part of what we do is help take a step back and look at what you do when you present yourself in an online network, for example. How can we use these pervasive tools in smart ways and in academic settings? In short, how can we mobilize images, sounds and interactivity into all areas of our scholarly work here at USC?”