Friday, January 21, 2011

An Interesting Interdisciplinary Computing Program With a Solid Track Record

When I take a look at the list of items that our interdisciplinary computing group brainstormed for an ideal environment I immediately think of a really interesting academic program at Northwest Missouri State University called Interactive Digital Media. This 10 year old program is truly interdisciplinary and one of the original developers was at our meeting: Carol Spradling. So I had to ask Carol (who I have known for many years) if she would sacrifice one of our snack breaks to tell me more so that I could share it here.

The final and perhaps most agreed upon criteria for success listed in the previous post was the following:

"Intellectual content from all represented fields are equally present. ...

Having intellectual content from each discipline is critical if we want to avoid the perception that interdisciplinary computer science is the application of computing to another field and nothing more."

The Interactive Digital Media (IDM) major brings together 6 faculty, 2 each from the Computer Science / Information Systems department, the Art department and the Mass Communications department. This unique major has three concentrations to choose from: Computer Science, New Media, Visual Imaging. Local industry has been involved from the inception of the program as a multimedia minor within Computer Science.

The development of the IDM program was a lot of hard work, but the trust that is so important was built by dedication and constant communication that continues today. Faculty meet regularly to adapt what each teaches based upon what the others are teaching. Only the capstone course is team taught. As a result, the faculty have to be committed to working as equal contributors and to developing creative ways of achieving synthesis. The necessary communication is a non trivial time investment, one of the challenges to interdisciplinary work. When new faculty come on board, there can be a need to go back and revisit issues to bring that person up to speed. Finally, as we all know, technology advances wait for no one. Courses have to be continually updated and new technology always has to be learned, considered and bounced off their industry partners - and tried out. Ideas have not always gone as planned, but they have adjusted and moved forward. Team work makes this possible.

The incremental and inclusive development of this program is a great example of how many of the hurdles facing interdisciplinary computing can be overcome. In the  late 1990s, Carol told me, they realized just how much there was a need for people with cross disciplinary skills. Specifically, they saw the need for design, technology, social and communication skills. They had done their homework, interviewing industry and gathering statistics on jobs available to graduates. They decided to partner with Mass Communication. Soon they realized that bringing the Art department into the team was important. Together the 3 departments (without an influx of funding and no ability at the time to create an independent major) developed course ideas and asked local industry for feedback and suggestions about those courses and their syllabi.

Over the last ten years Carol has watched the program develop from a minor to a major program of study. She related how she now sees students go out and get exciting jobs; jobs they are passionate about. Carol is particularly pleased to report that there is a high percentage of women in the program. In fact she said the influx of women "thrills" her. She is thrilled to see young women feeling that they can get into a technical field. "There are so many fields that have technical components. Social media [for example]...[These fields] require the technical knowledge".

Where do students go and what kinds of jobs do they take after graduation? In answering my question I believe that Carol might have used the phrase "all over the place". Large companies, small companies, broad work, niche work. Programming, database work, combined database and programming, technical project management, graphic design that requires fluent programming - to list just a few examples. There have been some truly unexpected employment stories such as the student who became an instructional designer for a dairy association. The student trains corporate personnel how to integrate technology into their jobs.

Another student is employed in a school of nursing, working with a course management system, addressing curriculum issues and in depth multimedia use in general. This student has tapped into the national need for nurses and the trend that more nursing programs are going on-line, thus needing assistance delivering instructional materials. Coincidentally, I had been talking the week before to the wife of a friend who is nearing completion of an online nursing program here in the San Diego area. The availability of this program has been the only way that she, as a non traditional student ("older" meaning in her 30s, and an immigrant), can make the career change she desires. So when Carol spoke about the excitement many students (and faculty) feel about the opportunities opened up by the Interactive Digital Media program, I understood the importance of her program from several perspectives.

The vision and dedication of the faculty Carol works with has brought the type of success in enrollments, job placement and other factors that allowed the program to be elevated from a the minor to a major program of study. The successes of the program sounded to me like they have been quantifiable; not only has Carol published on the program (there is a paper written in 2008 in the ACM Digital Library) but they have used a university wide Total Quality Management process to ensure continual improvement. TQM is itself an interdisciplinary process, thus complementing the goals of the IDM program.

Establishing and maintaining trust. Overcoming vocabulary and perspective differences. Ensuring depth of content and equality of content across disciplines. These were the major issues listed in the "challenges" discussion and the Interactive Digital Media program has tackled them well.

The program has achieved gains for Computer Science and the partner disciplines, including increased student diversity and overall numbers, new and broader job placements and excellent relationships with local and regional industry. As Carol put it, the program has opened up a new world for students. She was also pleased to tell me students in all three concentrations (not just the Computer Science concentration) are embracing technology and moving on to use it in other ways after completing their technical coursework. Something for any computing faculty to be proud of.

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