The Heartfield Project
UsingComputer Technology to Facilitate Interdisciplinary Collaborations in HigherEducation
Over the last 10 years, educators have explored ways thatcomputer technology can help provide alternative learning experiences. Onepopular example of such an experience is cooperative learning, in which smallgroups of students help each other learn by working together to accomplish ashared task. Cooperative learning actively engages students and helps themdevelop abilities in problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork.Computer-supported cooperative learning makes use of computer technology tostructure and facilitate cooperative learning experiences. Projects such asSAMPO, a program designed for psychology students, and The KnowledgeIntegration Environment, which is designed to facilitate learning in thesciences, offer all the general educational benefits of cooperative learning,while helping students gain the skills and knowledge associated with specificdisciplines.
But the marriage of cooperative learning and computertechnology can also be used to create learning experiences that transcend theboundaries of traditional academic disciplines. Interdisciplinary study haslong been touted as an important feature of liberal arts education. Yet thecreation of truly interdisciplinary experiences among faculty and students indifferent academic departments has often presented administrative andphilosophic challenges. Not only are such projects often difficult tocoordinate, they also raise thorny issues when the goals or working methods ofdifferent disciplines conflict. However, the inventive application of computerresources (together with a healthy spirit of adventure from faculty andstudents alike) can effectively address some of these problems, and help bothfaculty and students to think more creatively about the relationships amongtraditional academic disciplines. The following is a case study of how threeprofessors at Towson University used computer technology to develop a Web-basedproject that allowed students to collaborate across disciplines. The use ofonline discussion groups, multimedia and hypertext helped manage the project,facilitate cooperative learning and encourage interdisciplinary thinking.
The Heartfield Project
The project began when Thom Lieb, a journalism professor,brought together two colleagues, David Wizer, chair of the university’sgraduate program in Educational Technology, and Robyn Quick, a theaterhistorian and assistant professor in the Theater Department. We shared aninterest in the innovative use of new computer technology. In addition, allthree of us were interested in forming partnerships with colleagues outside ourindividual disciplines. We decided upon a project based on Quick’s interest inhow the Web could change scholarship in theater studies. Lieb and Wizer couldeasily see how a Web project centered on a theater production would haveapplications for their own students. Lieb’s journalism students wouldexperience what it would be like to write for an electronic medium by coveringa contemporary arts event. Wizer’s graduate education students could createlesson plans and other educational resources connected to the production. Theteam chose to base the Web site, www.towson.edu/heartfield, uponthe premiere production of Heartfield,a musical about John Heartfield, the German artist who waged a “one-man waragainst Hitler” through his photomontage posters. The production was scheduledto open in late April 2000, so the three groups of students could develop thesite during the spring semester as the theater production progressed fromauditions to rehearsals to performance.
The idea of this collaboration was greeted eagerly byuniversity administrators. But we soon found that the university structure wasnot designed to easily accommodate such joint efforts. We quickly abandoned ourinitial plan of a joint interdisciplinary class, and structured thecollaboration as a major project shared by three different classes offered inthree different departments. Lieb’s “Writing for New Media” offered studentsthe opportunity to explore journalistic writing on the Web. Wizer’s coursefulfilled instructional technology requirements for undergraduate and graduatestudents in the Education Department. Quick’s “Performance Scholarship for theWeb” was designed to help graduate theater students consider the ways thatcomputer technology is shaping the future of their art.
While each class met separately at times to pursueindependent projects related to their course, the students collaborated on theWeb site to satisfy the major project requirements for all three classes. Eachsection of the site was assigned to a team made up of students from the three disciplines.Some students also provided research or technical support to several teams as asecondary project. The class time that was reserved for a joint meeting of theclasses was divided between instruction from the professors, and time for theindividual teams to meet and coordinate their efforts. But while the sharedclass time allowed for some of the communication needed to provide studentswith necessary instruction and the cooperative learning experience, the scaleof the project required much more coordination between students in individualteams, between team leaders, and among all students and faculty. Theparticipants made effective use of an online discussion group to coordinatethis effort and to explore the interdisciplinary implications of theirprojects.
Early in the semester, Lieb enrolled all students in ane-mail discussion list through egroups.com. The list was established as a placeto continue conversations that were started in class, to provide assistance forstudents with technical or conceptual problems, and to share valuable onlineresources. The egroups Web site featured an archive of postings so studentscould trace a thread in the conversation or reread previous messages. Thestudents also had access to an e-mail contact list so they could respondprivately to each other’s postings. Each student was required to begin thecourse by posting a personal introduction. This series of introductions notonly helped classmates develop a sense of the skills and interests that eachstudent brought to the project, but it also created a sense of community. Afterthese initial postings, the discussion list continued as an active resource forboth managing the project and exploring issues raised by professors andstudents who used the site.
As a project management tool, the discussion list served avariety of useful functions. Students and professors could correspond aboutassignments related to the project. While the professors appropriately answeredquestions about assignments or course requirements, fellow students answeredmost of the questions posted on the discussion list. In this way, thediscussion list helped build a collaborative learning environment. Thosestudents who were most comfortable with the relevant technology answeredtechnical questions. Members of other teams who had encountered similar issuesin their own work most often answered questions or comments related to the teamprojects. The discussion list also allowed team leaders to correspond aboutdecisions for one part of the site that might impact the organization of otherportions of the site. Since many of the teams’ sites linked to portions oftheir peers’ sites, it was particularly important that all students were awareof these conversations. The discussion list was also particularly useful duringthe final stages of the project when students were reviewing their sites andmaking corrections. The list allowed students to share this task, as they wererequired to post evaluations of each other’s work.
Online discussion also encouraged interdisciplinaryconversations as students and professors exchanged ideas about course readings,and shared examples of effective online resources. Students quickly found thattheir own reactions to such material could be enriched and supplemented bythose in other disciplines. For example, an early discussion about Dan Okrent’slecture, titled The Death of Print?,prompted a range of comments, which suggested the variety of perspectives thatmight apply to a single subject. An education student questioned the author’snotion that nearly everyone will soon use technology. She expressed the concernshared by many in her discipline that such thinking will particularly hamperthose who cannot afford the latest technology. Other students raised historicperspectives. They particularly noted the way that the illuminated manuscripthas transformed from a primary means of communication in the middle ages to anart form in the present, as evidenced by a recent exhibition at the MetropolitanMuseum of Art. Another student responded to the article’s argument in light ofenvironmental issues. Others spoke more personally of the place that thetraditional print media had played in their own development as students,artists and teachers.
While sharing ideas was an important aspect of collaborativelearning for these students, the project also required that they share theresearch and raw material that was eventually incorporated into the HeartfieldWeb site. The effective use of a range of computer resources allowed thestudents to complete this part of their work in an efficient and cooperativemanner.
Few of the students in the three classes had any experiencein creating Web sites, and virtually none had created audio, video or slideshows for the Web. Yet from the beginning, we had envisioned the site asincorporating multimedia to give visitors a sense of immersion in theproduction. In addition, students in Wizer and Lieb’s classes were required toincorporate multimedia into other assignments.
Rather than push all students to learn how to prepareseveral types of multimedia, instead we introduced the basic concepts in aseries of classroom demonstrations, then asked students who were interested inmultimedia to volunteer to work in that area. Those students were then offeredone-on-one training in multimedia production for the Heartfield project, and,in turn, some of them served as mentors for students on their other projects.
We were fortunate to have a graduate student with extensivefilm experience in the class. While at the beginning of the semester he knewnothing about preparing video for the Web, he undertook the task of teachinghimself as the semester progressed. In addition, he taped countless hours ofrehearsals of the musical, orchestrated a three-camera shoot of the finalproduction, and prepared each scene for delivery over the Web.
Another student in the class was responsible for creatingimages of Heartfield’s work, which were projected on a screen during the musical.He scanned about 50 images to use, then made the scans available to othermembers of the class for use on the site. The images were then converted toappropriate formats and resized for use on the Web, with a full-screen and athumbnail version created for each. They were made available to the classmembers by posting them to a public area on www.xdrive.com. This site presented anefficient way of sharing material, thus eliminating the need for students tomeet or e-mail large attachments. Because the images were posted in JPEGformat, it was also possible for students working on different types ofcomputers to share them without worrying about compatibility issues.
This method of recording, editing and distributing audio,video and sound files served as an efficient means of organizing the projectand making use of various levels of technical expertise among students in acollaborative environment. The availability of these files also encouragedstudents to think creatively about how the resources might apply to a number ofdifferent subject areas within the site. The scanned images of Heartfield’sartwork appear not only in the section of the site devoted to his life andwork, but also in the section which explores the script of the musical. In thisway, students hoped that visitors to the site would see how the artwork relatesboth to the career of Heartfield and to the way that career was brought to lifein the theatrical production. Video excerpts from rehearsals and performanceswere also used by several teams. This notion of exploring material from avariety of disciplinary perspectives was given even fuller expression in thestudents’ work with hypertext.
Early in the semester, we introduced students in all threeclasses to the basic principles of Web research and Web design. Our earlylectures and demonstrations covered simple search techniques, criteria forevaluating sites, design principles and basic HTML. Individual assignments gavestudents the chance to exercise these new skills. Each student was required toevaluate a specific Web site in his or her discipline and present this critiqueto others in the class. Every student also constructed a basic home page inHTML. This assignment was important to familiarize students with the basicstructure of the language used to create Web sites. Such activities equippedstudents with a common vocabulary about the Web, and gave them an earlyexposure to each other’s interests.
Students’ familiarity with hypertext became particularlyimportant once they began working on the Heartfield site. We hired AnneMartens, a professional Web developer, to create a basic design. Martens gavethe entire site a unified appearance, yet she also clearly differentiated thevarious subject areas within the site. Each student team was given an HTMLtemplate of Martens’ design for their part of the site. The students then addedtheir own material using HTML code. The teams found ways of furtherdistinguishing each section of the site as they selected organizing principlesand visual metaphors appropriate to their subject matter. For example, the teamthat researched the important world events surrounding Heartfield’s careercreated a timeline for the main page of their section. The team assigned toHeartfield’s artwork structured their section as a series of exhibits within anart gallery. Thus, the design of the site provided each team with enoughfreedom to explore individual ways of presenting a particular subject area, butenough structure to ensure a coherent final project.
The capacity of hypertext to explore multiple aspects of asubject in a non-linear structure provided a particularly richinterdisciplinary learning experience for the students. Although the productionof the musical served as the point of departure for this project, theHeartfield site is divided between studies of the musical, its historic sourcematerial, and educational resources related to the project. This range oftopics suggests the ways that a single subject, such as a theater production,can produce various kinds of academic inquiry. Each section of the site alsocontains internal hyperlinks to other sections of the site, as well as links toother relevant Web sites. In designing sites with these links in mind, studentswere compelled to consider the connections between disciplines. As they workedin interdisciplinary teams and in collaboration with other teams, they alsofound ways that their knowledge and academic training could be applied to otherfields. For instance, the library science student provided analysis of thescript, the budding director conducted historic research on the author’s life,and the future journalist resolved the last-minute conflict between AssociatedPress and MLA formatting style with diplomacy and wisdom.
Computer resources, such as online discussions, multimediaand hypertext, can help solve the administrative challenges ofinterdepartmental projects while creating collaborative, interdisciplinarylearning experiences. Students not only learned how a variety of academicperspectives might be applied to a single subject, but they began to see howtheir own perspectives might shift when they were engaged in aninterdisciplinary project.
Robyn Quick is an assistant professorof theater at Towson University, where she teaches theater history anddramaturgy. She holds a Ph.D. in theater from the University of Michigan.
Thom Lieb is an associate professorand unit coordinator in the Department of Mass Communication and CommunicationStudies at Towson University. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from theUniversity of Maryland. Dr. Lieb is the author of Editing for the Web and Editing for Clear Communication. He alsowrites a regular column in the Journal of Electronic Publishing.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.