26 Jan 2012

All posts from 26 Jan 2012


The Anatomy of an MCDM Foundation Course

This Fall, I had the privilege of serving as a peer facilitator for a course at the University of Washington’s MCDM program. I am continually impressed by the diversity of the program, and not just by diversity in its typical measure of gender or ethnicity (though that sort of diversity is certainly present).

I’m talking about intellectual diversity: the ways in which MCDM students and faculty approach and solve problems, skills and abilities applied in novel and meaningful ways, and outcomes that far exceed my admittedly high expectations. The student work from Fall 2011’s COM 546 Foundations course – Narratives & Networks in Digital Media – exemplifies both the challenges and the opportunities that true diversity can provide.

Course Background

As a foundational course to the MCDM program, Narratives & Networks in Digital Media had the unique position of orienting Cohort 11 students both to the theory and also the application of many elements they will encounter in the program. Taking a bit of their own advice, this course was newly revamped for 2011, and co-taught by MCDM Director Hanson Hosein and Dr. Malcolm Parks. The result for this first incarnation? Engaging discussions, relevant lectures and guest-speakers, and tangible takeaways for professionals and creatives, alike.

Students in this course witnessed the rise of the Occupy movement, the start of the upcoming nomination and election season, and the death of Steve Jobs. Meanwhile, they engaged with new tools and platforms, tried valiantly to “publish then filter,” and were brought together in new and sometimes challenging ways. Students were exposed to basic principles of digital media, and become comfortable with the central tenet of the MCDM: to effect trusted and persuasive communication, professionals need to develop a compelling narrative tied to strategic network engagement.

With this post, we would like to share some of their work, some of the process, and some of the core philosophies of the MCDM program.


Human beings are wired for a binary world – but not the digital binary of 0s and 1s. Rather, as humans move through their world, they inherently seek out and identify similarities and differences with the people, places, and ideas they encounter. This identification process helps us to navigate the tricky waters of modern existence by leveraging our past experiences. While this process has become an evolutionary necessity, it can also keep us from broadening our horizons and hinder our development.

In the wild – or the wilds of the workplace – being able to quickly identify something, reference it against our experience, and decide a course of action is a matter of survival. In the classroom, however, facing these tensions head-on can mean the difference between going through the motions or finding a breakthrough moment. This course was designed to leverage this human tendency to both expose students to new views on topics they were familiar with while simultaneously including topics and tools they hadn’t seen before.

As with much of the MCDM, students were given a chance to apply these new experiences in both individual and group settings.

Go Team!

In this course, students were allowed to choose a topic that resonated with them for the individual assignments. This resulted in people pursuing topics they were passionate about – but left the instructional team with a significant challenge when it came to group work: How to go about creating groups that will have enough tension to thoroughly explore an issue, but retain enough cohesion to complete the assignment?

Group work is rarely easy – yet it has become a fixture of our modern lives. This “team” mentality abounds at the workplace and at home, but despite its prevalence, the challenges remain. Learning to work together – especially when there are significant differences amongst group members – is essential. These classroom experiences offer students a chance to take risks in the name of education, where the consequences are minimized and the feedback and engagement is maximized. They are actively encouraged to try things outside of their comfort zone, both individually and in groups.

The only caveat: if you fail, fail forward.

Applied Examination

For the group assignment, students were tasked with creating:

[a] ten-minute class group presentation that gets to the heart of your story strategy, and how you engaged networked community to spread the word. This presentation should ideally incorporate a short, sharable piece of multimedia content (visual or audible) that can serve as a demonstrable artifact for your overall project. You’ll also include examples from your blogs, strategy papers, and class content. You’ll be subject to a 10-20 minute class Q&A and discussion.

Not only would students need to address their own individual applications of the principles of digital media, but they would have to create a set of packaged, compelling, cross-project narratives exploring these issues more deeply. This is truly a difficult challenge, requiring students bring to bear not only the tools and techniques they had been exposed to over the course of the quarter, but also their own experiences, talents, and skills to approach this multi-faceted problem.

Group Selection

The formation of class groups is always a challenge for the instructor. On the one hand, do you simply let the students choose their own group, and let them live with their own choices? Or, should group selection be seen as a chance to encourage students to engage with new viewpoints, individuals, and challenges that they may not choose for themselves?

In this case, I was tasked with forming the groups. Each student had submitted a one paragraph description of their Action Idea – the central narrative thread the compels both their strategy and their content. I had a good sense of who each of the 48 students were, how they interacted, and had seen some of their work product.

The real challenge was creating consistent group sizes while knowing that student’s individual topics were set. On top of that, I wanted to create opportunities for students to work with some new ideas and new peers – i.e. not the people they sat next to every week in class. Diversity amongst group members – again, talking about intellectual diversity as well – was key. Instead of creating a group that would essentially say the same thing four different ways, I worked to form groups whose overarching themes may not be so readily apparent. While I knew that the students were capable, I was pleasantly surprised with the final products.


The “Family” group featured one student sharing her grandmother’s photos, memories, and thoughts on a blog called Upload Your Grandma. Another student was exploring life as a 20-something who had moved back home after college.  Yet others found themselves facing challenges as a modern-day father, a mother to her children and caretaker to her parents, and one living in “the real modern family.” These individual narratives combined to paint a very compelling picture of what it means to be a part of a family today.

Featuring one blog about eating gluten-free in Seattleone about learning to cookone featuring the MilkBread Monster, and one about bees, the “Conscientious Consumption” team put together a great take on what, how, and why we eat – or don’t – in America today:

Another group of students combined natureboxingrobots, and collaboration to help expose kids to leadership opportunities:

Yet another group leveraged their diverse backgrounds and topics to tackle Taboo Conversations:

Moving Forward

Through a combination of theory and practice, familiar and new, individual and collective, MCDM students find new and exciting ways to see their world, tell the stories they find compelling, and build and grow the communities that will make a difference for us all. Just as our students continue to grow and evolve, so does the program. If you have any questions about the MCDM program, please don’t hesitate to reach out  by emailon Twitteron Facebook, or by phone at (206)-543-6745.


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The Anatomy of an MCDM Foundation Course