Industrial Strength Graduates and Commercially Viable Apps
by John Duhring, Education Technology Specialist, Cogswell Polytechnical College
To prepare students to enter today’s ecosystems, academic institutions are challenged to create environments in which students can learn not only what skills they need to acquire but also how to work as part of an ensemble of other talented individuals with the goal of producing something extraordinary. Learning as a group requires practice and the best practice is through the experience of making products together. It is the assertion of the group described here that in addition to embracing what is called “collaborative learning,” colleges can graduate students who are ready to contribute to startup teams the moment they leave college with their experience enabling them to function at a high level. In many cases, the curriculum for educating students for professions within startups and high–tech ventures draws heavily on the practice of publishing and the Cogswell approach we describe provides one approach. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the learning objectives and assessments in place, the course described brings the process of publishing into a classroom experience in which the participating students earn credits towards their WASC accredited bachelor degrees.
For our purpose of examining how publishing processes can be experienced within an academic institution, we first extract the practice of publishing from the myths surrounding the publishing business. The world of traditional publishing is filled with powerful narratives. For instance, a publishing company is often called a “house.” In it, a mythical editor diligently molds an author’s work into a “best–seller” while un–seen production planners and managers bring physical products to market. Early electronic publishing ventures molded themselves on this model, particularly in the realm of gaming and animated films. Hidden from view are the specialists and professionals who bring their talents to bear on each work. It has been well understood: the only way to learn publishing is to work in publishing and that learning takes place over years of apprenticeship and mentoring. Typically, students from colleges with liberal arts backgrounds are encouraged to give publishing a try. They migrate to production or marketing, and they discover the roles of myriad specialties: cover design, publicity copywriting, developmental editing, ancillary rights management and royalty distribution. Here’s a somewhat typical example.
With the current rise of mobile apps as a driving force in electronic publishing, the “house” model is migrating to a “studio” model in which the author team crafts its own works and sells directly to its own audience. Double Fine Studios provides but one example. As small teams of college students embrace publishing, otherwise hidden facets of what makes the traditional publishing world work can be adapted into production pipelines tailored for each project. The craft of turning inspiration into product is being embraced by organizations with no background in traditional publishing. Innovative teams, often operating within larger organizations, look to hire professionals who understand their skillset, their place in production pipelines and the adaptability required to bring products to market.
Skills and Passion
Professor Thomas Applegate of Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, California organized a studio course within a college that is dedicated to bringing engineers and artists together in projects that reflect industry practice. “The students are learning another form of storytelling, from the inside. They see what it takes to bring the story to life using modern tools to engage today’s audiences,” says Applegate. The studio’s first work is about a seven year-old boy named Sebastian, his adventures and his personal transformation. His experiences are delivered as a seven minute animated film bundled with an interactive book as an app for the iPad: “Each of us is a Sebastian. This project celebrates what it means to see the world through the eyes of a kid. It’s for children of all ages and calls forward memories we sometimes salt away without much reflection. The students are putting their skills to work as part of a collaboration, which means they themselves are in the process of transformation into professional roles even as they reflect on the story as it aligns with their own experiences.”
Drawing on his experience designing games for Sega, DreamWorks and others, along with his 16 years teaching at Cogswell, Applegate brought an original story to Cogswell and recruited students to join the team. His example illustrates the academic and professional benefits surfaced through collaborative learning when the goal is to instill professional practices while developing a unique curriculum for students. Participating students earn credit for the course and gain a rich portfolio to take with them into their professional careers. Mirroring industry methods, the outcome of this project will be distributed through Apple’s App Store. Such globally available publication vehicles enable Applegate to acknowledge the contributions of the participating students, much like the practice in publishing where a professor thanks those who helped in the production of his manuscript.
Video 1. Developing an inter–disciplinary project involves rethinking how traditional courses are taught.
The mix of skills students bring to the team are enhanced by the roles they take on during the project. At one stage of production, physical sculpts are produced as reference models, storyboards rendered to document the arc of the narrative and color studies painted to orient the team. At the same time, engineers build frameworks that will animate page turns, light scenes and bring sounds into the user experience. Since a seven minute animated film is rendered at 24 frames per second, literally thousands of versions of the film are produced as each character is rigged and their moves polished. Students I’ve interviewed say the major value working on such an inter–disciplinary project comes from what they experience as part of a team.
Video 2. Students gravitate to the challenge of collaborating with talented peers.
Applegate interviews students who show potential as team members. All Cogswell students are used to critique and presenting their work for class projects, but in order to function as part of his team, the personalities he finds must be complimentary to what is already in the collaboration. He looks for not only a deep–rooted skillset but also the ability to solve problems through critical thinking and to adapt as needs change. He says, “At the front end, students are attracted to working on a project that is as sophisticated as what they aspire to work on in the industry. While that is attractive to them, what holds their commitment to the project is what they bring to each other as a team. Team members shift jobs as the work changes. Team leaders become novice helpers and vice versa. It’s a fiercely collaborative environment.”
Cogswell College has no varsity sports teams but project teams take on many of the characteristics of athletics with regards to teamwork, performance, roles and capacity. Individuals in project teams such as described here are graded much like those within an athletic department at a major college. Participation is not only essential it becomes the quality indicator. People show up when they feel indispensable. They challenge themselves to make the team work effectively and within that structure the creativity contributed by team members exceeds expectations. Something transformational occurs as individual step beyond their own limitations and take on greater responsibility or embrace new challenges. Cogswell’s faculty serves as “coaches” in this paradigm. They establish norms and alignment with project goals and cheer on their team members to consider their opportunity to learn and develop their skills and value to the team.
As a WASC–accredited institution, Cogswell measures Learning Outcomes at a course, program and institutional level. Proficiency in written and oral communications is required as part of every graduate’s performance. Rubrics are structured to indicate whether a given student meets, exceeds, or goes above and beyond expectations in a variety of measures. The rich communications fabric that develops between team members within projects provides ample opportunity to observe and measure proficiency and progress.
In the project we are examining here, which awards 3 credit units per term, Applegate requires a self–assessment from each student at the beginning and end of each semester. The start point serves as a base–line and the end–point provides critical self–reflection on what has been accomplished in the period. For each student to articulate their role and how it interacts with others forms one level of awareness. To go beyond this to include how the pipeline or a production process adjusted based on participation moves the needle in a way that reflects professional practice and helps identify which students have the potential to take on greater mentoring or team leadership responsibilities.
As part of the project course, each student is required to write a paper that describes something they learned during the term. This can be simply a description of some component of their skillset that they enhanced during the period or an observation about working with the team. When evaluating his students, Applegate also asks them to be teachers and to describe how they have helped their teammates to learn from their example or guidance. He believes in shifting roles from student to teacher, and vice versa. He says, “If the students have the opportunity to try teaching they get a completely different perspective.”
Observing the course in action often takes the casual observer by surprise. “This is what education should look like,” said one recent visitor, a corporate lawyer. The production goal is to evoke a single emotion around each scene in the animated film while at the same time to faithfully simulate that telling through the form of an interactive book. For both the film and book sub–projects the work is broken out into animations and assets. The storytelling takes on unseen sophistication by using the iPad to view the film and to interact with the book. For instance, the sound track for the film is linear but for the book, sounds respond to user behaviors. Likewise, animations throughout the book invite interaction. For instance, users can pause in their reading of a nighttime scene in Sebastian’s back yard and trace stars in the sky to make up their own constellations.
Roughly speaking, the film animations focus on what is known as “character development.” Each character in the work is examined at a level of detail that goes far beyond what is revealed in the story itself. For instance, the only hint that Sebastian’s mother plays a major role in his life is revealed when a user discovers his sketchpad in the interactive app and flips through pages to see what he has written about her there. Technically, the images of the characters are sketched in a variety of situations and story–boarded before being constructed digitally. This construction involves a complex structural design, or “rigging,” that creates a personality to the movements of the character. The expressions, skin, hair and clothing are stretched and textured onto these structures and fine–tuned to the artistic demands of the project.
Alongside the characters, the props and objects that populate both the book and film require a team dedicated to their production. Natsumi Nishi is a texture artist on the assets team. She describes her job as not only designing everyday objects, like a clock that sits on a mantle, but as guiding and mentoring other students who like her have never been challenged to take on such a role that they might choose to pursue in their professional career.
Video 3. Roles in a digital production pipeline involve mentoring and learning new techniques.
From a management perspective, there is a weekly “all hands” meeting, in which the four major sub–teams come together to update their progress and describe their challenges. These group meetings provide a level of problem solving that rarely happens in traditional academic settings. The interplay between the sub–groups enables parallel production pipelines to result in orchestrated results and at the same time serves to keep everyone focused and on track. The discussions lead to what ultimately appears on the upcoming schedule of jobs to be done. They also serve to establish a common language about the project, for the entire team to gain a new perspective and appreciation for what they are accomplishing.
In addition, the sub–groups formally review their progress on a daily basis. These “tracking meetings” provide a forum for timely suggestions and advice. “There really is no place to hide,” says Applegate. “It’s easy for students to micro vision the problem without seeing the big picture.” Since the story is about childhood, stories from the students’ own narratives inevitably find their way into the work. In order for the work to be a good story, well told, the students are challenged to reset their perspectives regularly.
Present throughout the process is Applegate, who works with team leaders one–on–one to mentor and model the dynamics of team leadership. He says, “Students will do what you say in many cases, but they will always do what you model. That’s what they pick up.” He has created a laboratory that illustrates how teamwork, mentoring and ventures work together.
A Look Forward
As of this writing, the commercial possibilities for the story of Sebastian mirror the dynamics within this self-publishing venture. No longer do the means to an audience reside exclusively in the promotional machinery of major publishing partners. In very real terms, participation in a creative endeavor as described here involves communities that come together around what is produced. The work will be made available through Apple’s ecosystem, but how the creators are able to engage with users directly is still to be seen. As an academic exercise, the learning stands by itself, yet the meaningfulness of the work expands as audiences respond to the artifacts that are published and that story is yet to be told.
The learning outcomes of the approach described here might provide the strongest measure of their effect. While we have described skill–building and team–oriented learning that comes into play, the profession–readiness aspects also deserve mention. In the past year, two hires evolved from similar projects at Cogswell, one to Google and one to Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm). These Cogswell recent alumni now sit alongside the best and brightest in the world, working on projects with the potential to change lives. Last year, another recent alum, Chris Evart, received an Academy Award in recognition for his contributions to the Disney film, Frozen.
Whether students matriculate into a studio, an enterprise, or a startup, preparing them to serve vital roles, contributing to the success of any venture, point to the skills and behaviors that they develop as a consequence of their involvement with their peers in producing commercial–grade media. Typically, students graduating with a bachelor’s degree even from top–rated institutions rarely have the experience of managing multiple groups of people over extended periods of time, or over multiple projects. Their ability to commit fully to a project or opportunity has been cited as a key reason for their hiring after all other factors have been taken into consideration. Further studies into the educational value of “head–to–hand” and project–based learning would be well–served to adopt publishing frameworks for their model.
John Duhring (@duhring) is an Education Technology Specialist at Cogswell Polytechnical College.