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Inevitable Change Spurs Liberal Arts Instruction, Projects to Forefront of Internet
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today." - Isaac Asimov
For some, the Internet represents change.
Good, bad or indifferent, the invisible world of "cyberspace" represents a significant change in how our society and culture functions on a daily basis. It's changed the way we get our news, how we keep in touch with friends and family, how we work, how we shop, what movies we see and how we know what we know when we know it. We can access the Internet through PCs, laptops, smart phones, GPS units, televisions, and, yes, even our refrigerators.
But the Internet is also exchange.
Within the academic perspective - specifically the Liberal Arts view at the University of Texas at Arlington - the Internet represents the exchange of information and ideas between students, faculty, alumni, peers and the world. It's the tool du jour students use to expand their education and feed their constant need for information; it is a communication device for faculty to offer specialized classroom instruction or collaborate with fellow researchers half a world away. Recruiting, marketing, networking, homework, research, design - all made easier and more effective through the Internet.
"The Internet is not really this thing we interact with; it's how we're all connected," said Dr. Brian Horton, Assistant Professor of Communication Technology. "The implication for that is now we're always connected, which affects how we live our lives and how we relate to people."
Connecting with content
Television and radio were information tools that ruled most of the 20th century. Sure, we got our news, gossip and entertainment faster than a neighbor or the newspaper might deliver, but the conversation was usually one-sided and the content was often restricted. With the advent of the Internet and the increasing number of ways in which we can access it, we now have a medium in which we can exchange content in real time.
"There's an increased 'connectiveness' with the Internet for students," said Seiji Ikeda, Assistant Professor of Visual Communications. "We're moving from 'Is it on the Internet?' to 'Where is it on the Internet?' ... They are information-ready-at-hand students."
In Ikeda's web design class, students are learning how to create functional tools of communication and connection. The Art and Art History professor spends much of his time cultivating the artistic approach his students choose when facing a web page or a web-based application. But he's also quick to stress organizational factors and the reasons behind users seeking information or each other.
"The Internet is always changing," Ikeda said. "Increasingly, my job has become less about how and more about why. I can't say I don't want my students to be on the forefront of this technology or field; every teacher wants that. But I want my students to be able to ask insightful questions that will help them on their journey."
In the Department of Art and Art History, the Internet is a vehicle of choice for those in the Digital Media Track. Ikeda's online design courses focus on layout, easy-to-use navigation and motion interactivity as well as platform-compatibility and the rationale behind what makes a "good" website or smart phone app. This fall, the department is launching a new component to the digital track, offering students the chance to explore (and earn a degree in) online and console gaming. For Ikeda, it's imperative today's websites and software applications incorporate style with substance to truly be effective.
"Design has become more important than ever," he said. "Because of what's happening with the information overload, visual design is responsible for the ease of information acquisition. If the web page is designed well, then people are going to get the information they need easier."
Down the hall in the Fine Arts Building, Horton is also teaching his students about design. Arguing functionality over aesthetics - which, for Horton, have equal merit - reproduces the classic chicken-or-egg debate.
"Design is the opposite of chance," Horton said. "At least functionally, every good design needs to have a focal point. As we think about all this information that's out there, it needs to be organized in a way that makes sense. Designers need to take that into consideration. Information architects need to consider design. There needs to be coordination between the two."
Ikeda said the important thing to keep in mind as we manipulate content is to recognize how far we've come in less than two decades.
"Content was once static," Ikeda said. "Now the content flows freely. Because of its fluidity, you see web designers becoming less like construction builders and more like ranchers, rounding up information in a pleasing and accessible way. It becomes a juggling act."
Connecting with each other
Today, more than 1.8 billion people use the Internet. That's nearly six times the number of users at the close of 2000. Advances in technology and software have increased accessibility and use of what was once nothing more than a handful of U.S. military computers cabled together.
Rigid company websites - digital versions of printed brochures - gave way to consumer discussion boards and online customer support. Newspapers began generating web-specific content and walked hand-in-hand with users to tell the story. Isolated profiles about ourselves suddenly turned into social networking and ever-constant, ever-personal updates. We can now catch up on the overnight headlines or what our "friends" are doing right this very second while we tweet how much we're enjoying our second cup of coffee from the corner shop we found on our iPhone.
It's enough to make your head spin. But Horton insists it's part of how we're growing.
"The concept of the tool is an important part of our social development," Horton said. "But they're just mediators of how we access reality. It's something we can manipulate; it's what makes us human."
Across campus in Preston Hall, Dr. Carolyn Guertin and her team are working in the eCreate Lab, designing an alternate reality in which students might connect and share with one another. Using narrative and collaborative stories from creative writing students, the Assistant Professor of Digital Media is placing these stories throughout the UT Arlington campus, allowing the tales to come alive - digitally, anyway - as visitors and students walk from building to building.
"Anyone with a smart phone would be able to access the stories," said Guertin. "It utilizes technology that's already being used."
Combining geotracking and digital maps, the English professor and her team are creating "a space for locative media and psychogeographic narratives," allowing for greater interaction between a storyteller and the audience. Popular web applications like Layar or Glympse allow users to learn more about the people and places around their current location; Guertin's concept would enable users to visit various spots around the campus and "see" student stories saved at a number of physical elements (buildings, statues, etc.). It's not unlike what artists and doodlers do now in Virtual Graffiti, a simple application that allows users to use basic drawing functions to interact with static images around them.
Stage 1 of Guertin's "iStoreys" project is to collaborate with students in her undergraduate classes and use existing software (like FlickrMaps) to create a narrative that weaves its way through campus. This fall, her students will work with virtual campus maps and images to code content easily accessible to smart phones or iPad users. Stage 2 would include developing specific software for her project and pushing UT Arlington to the forefront of digital storytelling and user interaction. To do so, Guertin will need additional resources, and she and her team - which includes Political Science professor Susan Heckman - are applying for several grants to complete the project.
"My goal as a writing teacher is to find ways students can do effective writing using the various tools at their disposal," she said, adding that with the Internet and augmented reality "there's tremendous potential ... for storytelling."
Connecting with the future
It's this concept of an "augmented reality" that is drawing more artists, engineers and thinkers to discover what the Internet can do, Ikeda said.
"We have PCs and mobile devices and more and more people are trying to explore different technology to have access to this invisible object," he said. "Augmented reality is becoming a door to that. Your cell phone is a gateway to that reality.
"Because devices keep getting smaller and smaller, it won't be long before you'll be able to access the Internet with your sunglasses. You press a few buttons on your wristwatch as you're walking down a hallway and facial recognition software will look at the person walking toward you and information on that person will show up on a display."
Or, you might walk into the grocery store and your smart phone will help you make better decisions. Is the toilet paper I'm buying the best ecological choice? Are these shoes the cheapest I'll find them in town? Are these products Fair Trade-certified and, if so, who are the workers that made them and how much did they get paid?
A mountain of information at your fingertips.
"There's no greater time than now," Horton said. "I can't think of how much easier things have become. Standards are being set and there are fewer problems. People aren't making the same mistakes. That's helped people find the kind of information they want to find."
But some would argue that simply having greater access to information does not guarantee increased knowledge.
"In theory, there's so much information available online," said Dr. Thomas Adam, Associate Professor of History. "On the other hand, I wonder how many people actually do it.
"People are used to a certain context. Who actually reads English newspapers form China? If you're not introduced that this is normal, I don't think you do it. The Internet gives us a picture of interconnectivity, but I have my doubts that we really are. That may change in time."
At the exponential rate the Internet is growing - or, more specifically, how we access the Internet is growing - you'll need to live in the mountains or some faraway desert plain to avoid it.
"Even if people don't want to be connected, we're on the road to more connectivity," said Ikeda. "That's the reality. The Internet is not going to go away, people are not going to use it less, you're not going to get less functioning phones or PCs."
Horton said while few can pinpoint where the Internet is headed, road signs to increased users and increased exchanges are abundantly clear.
"It's hard to say where it's going," Horton said. "There are a number of promising ways it could go. For example, more multimedia that is easier to be delivered as new technologies come around. ... The technology has become more intuitive, more metaphorical, more socially embodied.
"Also, the price of technology has come down so entrance difficulties have lessened. That's not to say a digital divide doesn't still exist, but they are different than a few years ago."
Ikeda is as uncertain as most about the future of the Internet. He's a firm believer that things will evolve as we do and he wonders what will come next, when the Internet inevitably goes the way of eight-track tapes and the telegraph.
"The Internet will change in ways we can't even conceive and eventually it will be replaced," he said. "All popular mediums have been replaced. I don't know what that's going to be, but eventually the Internet will be minimized and there will be something else."
Which is why Liberal Arts professors like Ikeda and Horton are constantly challenging their students to look beyond the current tools and processes as they make their own futures.
"You can't prepare your students ... by [only] teaching them how," Ikeda said. "You have to teach them why, [and] keep them open and asking questions."
College of Liberal Arts
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