Word and Wand

November 25, 2015

Electronic Media professor Justin West listens to a student talk about a video project. English professor Jim Dutcher reads a passage from The French Lieutenant's Woman to his English composition class.

HCC's Learning Community courses are known for their elevated level of student engagement. Discussion dominates the classroom. The dual instructors, one from two different academic areas, typically moderate and guide the conversations, rather than simply lecture.

"One of the things that's wonderful about Learning Communities," says HCC Electronic Media professor Justin West, "is that you take, for example, a biologist and an English teacher and suddenly these ideas they are both presenting separately in their individual fields spark off new ideas that both the students and the professors had never thought of before. And that happens in a room, in real time."  

Translating the LC experience into a fully online environment has never been attempted before at HCC.  

But it will be.  

Next spring, West will be co-teaching HCC's first online Learning Community with English professor Jim Dutcher.  

"Word & Wand: Storytelling from Cave to Computer" -- LC 203 in the course catalog -- combines College Composition II (English 102) and Topics in Electronic Media (EMS 112).  

"We're interested in how the nature of storytelling has changed through history," says Dutcher. "The big steps of storytelling in history are pretty clear to everyone. People used to sit around the campfire and tell stories. We had an oral tradition that lasted a long time. The printing press changed things and certain elements of storytelling became possible. When you move to the silver screen and you have multiple camera angles and the ability to edit those shots, new things become possible."  

"Now with digital," adds West, "not only can the viewer or reader take part in the story, but the story can be created by the reader. In one sense, it takes some of the storytelling process away from the author and also gives the reader a much more active role."  

Dutcher and West have explored these ideas before, three times over the past decade or so, in an on campus version of "Word & Wand." They said the subject matter seemed to lend itself well to an online version.      

"Our biggest challenge is community building," says Dutcher. "We want to see if we can do that online, create some cohesion among the students in the class."  

"Can we reproduce something like that where it's asynchronous, since it's unlikely we can get everybody on line at the same time? That is going to be a big challenge."  

To adapt to the online environment, they are making some adjustments to the on campus course. For example, rather than examining literature and stories chronologically (from medieval to postmodern), they will break the curriculum  down into topic-based components, such as plot, character, setting, dialogue.  

"Instead of introducing the digital stuff halfway through, we're going to start from the beginning," says West.  

They might be reading, say, a Dickens novel and studying character development while also learning technology to create an online project using audio and animation.  

"By mid-semester, they'll all have their chops down in terms of dealing with how to use the software," says West.  

Dutcher and West said they plan to schedule combined office hours to make themselves available, together, to take phone calls from their online students. They also plan a number of collaborative projects to get students working together.  

"We'll be creating an interactive story together, the whole class," says Dutcher   And while mastering the technology and online applications will be part of the class, the only technical background students need to have is "imagination," says West.  

"I wish we could put that as a prerequisite," says Dutcher, "cause really that's all they need. Imagination -- and some courage."

PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Electronic Media professor Justin West listens to a student talk about a video project. (Right) English professor Jim Dutcher reads a passage from ele to his English composition class. 


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