Justice-Oriented Exploratory Co-Creation (JOEC): A Proposed Method for Teaching Online Media Production Courses
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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many inequalities in access to digital technologies and quality education. When the crisis hit and the schools closed down, educators began to explore different ways to continue education with minimum disruption in online spaces. There was an eruption of lists and guides for best tools to emulate in-person classes. However, this move to online spaces brought a myriad of concealed inequalities to surface. Statistics show that disenfranchised communities, including racialized people and the working class, have experienced a much lower quality education than their peers. Considering such inequalities, courses more dependent on in-person settings, such as STEM labs and media production courses, demanded an entirely different level of creativity from educators. In this paper, I explore the problems media production instructors have faced and propose solutions under an umbrella method I call “Justice-Oriented Exploratory Co-Creation” (JOEC). I will discuss students’ and educators’ roles in this method and suggest a few digital tools for implementing it.
Media production educators face three main challenges in an online course. First, what can students use when they lose their access to the tools and equipment their school provided? Second, considering the collaborative nature of media production, how would students create projects when they are apart? Finally, how can an educator respond properly to the existing inequalities in technology access and education, and more broadly, to the systemic inequalities in the society and media industries? Using theories and empirical studies on justice-oriented education and design, co-creation, and online pedagogy, I will argue for a system that gives more agency to students, values democratic co-construction of knowledge, encourages mutual aid, values process as much as or even more than the final outcome, lets educators and students embrace exploration and failure, and lets students reflect on the real-world challenges and inequalities and how to overcome them. Instead of trying to emulate in-person classes, one should approach online education as its own medium and embrace its advantages and disadvantages.
During the pandemic, when institutions failed to respond accordingly, community-based mutual aid saved many lives by creating a network of people who mapped the needs of their communities and provided necessities such as food and medicine to each other. JOEC is inspired by that successful response. People within the community knew their limitations and needs better, understood the channels of communication and aid within the community, and could respond more efficiently when they were free from institutional norms and restrictions imposed from outside. JOEC applies this mutual aid model to tackle the disparities in students’ access to digital tools and knowledge. It lets students share their resources and skills with each other for the common goal of making a media project.
The JOEC method prioritizes the well-being of both educators and students and trains students to become equipped for the challenges they face in the unequal and chaotic media industries, and society at large. Because the core of this method is based on agency, co-creation, and exploration, let me first provide a literature background on these issues and why they matter in an online media production course.
In this piece, I refer to collaborative learning and media co-creation, both as co-creation due to the similarities in their practical and philosophical approach to group-based settings. But what do they mean and entail? Schmitz and Foelsing define collaborative learning as “those social interaction processes in which two or more learners actively work together towards a shared learning goal and engage in a process of co-construction (Dillenbourg, 1999). Furthermore, learners provide new knowledge for each other, give feedback, support each other’s engagement while also assuming responsibility for their own learning process.”
Collaborative learning and co-construction of knowledge go hand in hand. Media production courses can go further to co-create media works, which is itself another form of co-constructing knowledge. Co-creation is “an alternative to—and often a contestation of—a singular voice, authority, and process.” Collaborative learning and media co-creation contest such divisions as teacher-student, maker-crew, or maker-subject-audience. There is an important difference between co-creation and the traditional division of labor practiced in media production in film schools and film industries alike. While in division of labor, each person assumes a specific task, such as directing, cinematography, or editing, in co-creation, everyone is involved in the whole process on equal footing. Hence, collaborative learning and co-creation both refer to a liberatory process in which equally distributed agency and synthesis of perspectives replace traditional divisions and hierarchies.
Revolutionary educators have advocated for replacing hierarchy and division with agency and equality. In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire criticizes the traditional type of education, in which the instructor transfers information to students, and, in turn, students are supposed to retain the information and present their mastery over it via exams and assignments. He argues against this “banking” method of education and for an education whose very structure uproots equality. He recommends a system in which “the teacher-student contradiction” dissolves. The teacher becomes a facilitator in a “problem-posing education,” where students actively participate in responding to challenges and constructing knowledge. Granting students the power of decision-making acknowledges that everyone has “the capacity to think, question, and act.” It can lead to a society that values all citizens’ knowledge and experiences, a more equal and just society.
Such collaborative learning helps students thrive in online courses. Studies show that in online education, feeling isolated and distant from peers and educators leads to students underperforming, losing motivation, and even dropping out. Moore considers dialogue, structure, and autonomy as three factors that can reduce such perceived distance (“transactional distance” in his terms). Additional studies support the positive impact of collaboration on students’ performance in online learning. Therefore, giving more agency to students and involving them in a (structured) process of co-creation helps students thrive in the course, and beyond, as citizens with agency.
Educators may adopt a balance between structure and lack of structure, between “exploration” and “exploitation” (using established practices). Adding an exploratory element to co-creation leads to an even longer-term success. Kapur showed that engaging students in complex and “ill-structured” problems may lead them to “fail,” but it would be “a productive failure.” He showed that the students who work on such problems in groups, went through trial and error, and even failed to deliver a “productive outcome” performed better in future challenges than their peers who had worked on well-structured problems. Adopting an open and exploratory approach equips students with better problem-solving skills.
But what do these practices look like in an online media production course? In the following sections, I will discuss the workflow and tasks. First, an overview of the workflow:
The educator designs the general framework for the media project, a framework that is flexible enough to let students explore different forms and tools. The importance of such flexibility becomes clearer in the rest of this piece. Next, the educator needs to put students in groups. This can be done in collaboration with students. JOEC can work with any type of grouping. However, educators may explore putting students with diverse backgrounds and tool accessibility in each group to increase the possibilities of resource sharing and synthesizing different perspectives. Once the groups are formed, students need to set up reliable channels of communication with each other and select communication and production tools. After selecting the tools, students embark on co-creating their projects. Throughout this process, the educator-as-facilitator supervises students without interfering in their decision-making. The educator may come up with guidelines, provide scaffolding and regular communication, and facilitate peer and instructor feedback for each group.
Members of each group should collaborate on an equal basis throughout and no advantage in access or previous skills should create a hierarchy among group members. Educators must discourage the students with a more extensive background in media production from creating an “informational power asymmetry,” and encourage them to adopt the principle of equality in decision-making, based on sharing and co-constructing. In addition to in-group co-creation, students will be responsible to document and share their findings and progress with other groups and the educator. This way, students benefit from an extra level of “mutual aid” and perspective sharing.
The documentation aspect of the project asks students to reflect on the process, from selecting tools to co-creating the media work and communicating with their peers and the educator. This is especially important for co-constructing the knowledge regarding equality in digital media and media industries in general. As Highlander Research and Education Center’s principles for a justice-oriented education state, “[e]ducation is never neutral: it either maintains the current system of domination, or it is designed to liberate people.” Similarly, technology is never neutral, no matter how much designers or practitioners claim otherwise. Engaging students in reflecting on “the matrix of domination” or “the overall social organization within which intersecting oppressions originate, develop, and are contained” trains them for tackling real-world challenges and hopefully designing strategies to reduce inequalities. Educational scholars have further confirmed the positive impacts of working on “‘real-world’ problems with ill-defined tasks.” They have also shown how self-reflection as a practice can positively influence students’ performances.
Now, let us dive into more details for the tool selection process.
Online educators face a number of challenges in replacing the school’s equipment with alternative tools. First, what tools emulate the equipment used in their in-person classes more closely? Second, what tools work for everyone in the class? Third, which tools can facilitate communication among the course members? These questions frequently come up on academic forums. Due to vast inequalities in access to digital technologies and the knowledge to use them, educators have a hard time finding universal tools. Probably, that is an impossible task. Why not pose the challenge of selecting production and communication tools to students? Applying the “problem-posing” education and the mutual aid model practiced by communities, the educator gives agency to students to collaboratively construct a list of tools that would work best for them collectively. This way, not only they apply the best practices of online and liberatory pedagogy but also the educator lets students decide what works best for them considering their own background and accessibility. The educator may still provide a list of suggested tools without enforcing them. Table 1, at the end of this piece, can work as a reference for that purpose.
Students, in their respective groups, need to come up with a set of tools for their communication purposes as well as producing their media project. They have to choose the communication tools that work for everyone in their group, considering everyone’s accessibility. They may assign someone as a liaison to facilitate meetings and streamline sharing files and documents. In addition to helping with intra-group communication, liaisons help with the logistical issues of class-wide communications by representing their groups in inter-group and group-educator dialogues. When it comes to production tools, however, students have more flexibility. Not everyone in a group has to have access to all the selected production tools, because as discussed in the next section, they can break down the tasks according to each person’s digital access and interests.
Flexibility in the project’s structure and requirements helps students further, letting them explore more options according to their needs. Some students might not have access to reliable internet or smart devices, for example. Liaisons can help with such challenges by facilitating file sharing, but students may also adopt appropriate tools for these situations. For instance, the Share Via SMS (SVS) application lets one send (large) image and sound files via SMS without an internet connection. Students can even explore sharing files via physical storage devices, potentially with the liaison’s help. Additionally, the project’s flexibility enables students to explore the “unintended opportunities” of tools. For example, students may use TikTok to send sample works or feedback to each other. The educator can also encourage students to explore open access tools (and content) and freeware. This way, students co-construct knowledge on different forms of digital technologies and resources and their places in justice-oriented knowledge and media production.
While the core of producing the media project comes after selecting the tools, students need to know that there is an iterative process in tool selection. They test the tools to produce different aspects of the project. Based on the results and the feedback they receive on their reports from the educator and possibly other groups, they modify their selections until they think those tools equip them sufficiently for producing the project.
Co-Creating the Media Project
This phase requires students to practice a more structured project management than they did in the previous step. They should adopt an iterative process, in which they define and divide tasks, work individually or in smaller groups on their tasks, report back to the group, solve the problems collectively, and then again define and divide tasks. Students must consider a set of criteria as they distribute the tasks. After the first phase, members have a general sense of who can use which tools in what ways. In addition to accessibility, group members should take into account which task they are more interested in completing and which tasks they are more confident to finish by the assigned deadlines.
It is crucial to note again that while the tasks are divided, each member has a say in every part of the project, collectively decided in regular meetings or communication channels. Such practice replaces division of labor with co-creation. It prevents unnecessary hierarchies and trains students to adopt solidarity over competition. It also incorporates more perspectives into each part of the project, and brings students out of their isolation in online education. This collaborative method facilitates resource sharing throughout the process, engages students in the various parts of producing a media project, and gives them a holistic grasp of media production by actually doing it.
To make this process smoother, the educator should encourage students to embrace uncertainty. Students should know that the process is as important, if not more important than, the final outcome. They should also learn that they develop stronger problem-solving skills when faced with ambiguities in their challenges. Student shall carefully document their work and problem-solving process, and produce a reflection on the implications of their findings for justice in media industries. Those documents along with the final media project(s) let the educator assess students’ performances.
The proposed method, JOEC, attempts to find a solution to the challenges “distance learning” poses by tackling the root of the challenges: the inequalities in digital access, knowledge, and media production. It provides a unique opportunity for students to use their autonomy to have dialogue with each other on these matters and co-create by sharing their resources together. In this exploratory co-creation approach, educators need to let students “fail” to an extent without losing grade. Removing that stigma from students not only prevents the educator from possibly penalizing or rewarding students for their type of access but also motivates students to take risks and come up with creative solutions that they can apply in real-world challenges. The findings regarding the positive long-term effects of “productive failure” should reduce educators’ fear of providing students with complex and loosely-defined projects.
It is understandable that making drastic changes in one’s pedagogical approach and providing more flexibility to students may sound overwhelming. However, this method puts the well-being of students and educators as its top priority by putting them in a solidarity-based environment. Educators will spend less time standardizing tools and workflows for everyone, responding to students’ access issues, and assessing their works based on pre-established rules. Instead, they spend their time scaffolding and facilitating students’ co-creation. Also, the same way educators encourage students to explore and embrace productive failure, they need to make peace with the exploratory approach of the course itself, and communicate it transparently to students, especially in the early iterations.
This proposed method, while based on proven theories, will only improve by practicing it in different contexts and with different demographics. The educators’ dialogue with students and with each other as well as students’ documentations are key to such improvements.
Communication and File Sharing
MIT’s Annotation Studio
Adobe Premiere Rush
Adobe Spark Video
Share Via SMS (SVS)
Call Recorder Lite
Hamidreza Nassiri is a PhD Candidate in Communication Arts (Film Studies) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation examines how the emergence of digital technologies in the Iranian film industry has influenced social, cultural, and economic equality in film and media at the domestic as well as global levels. He has taught “Media Production,” “Introduction to Film,” and “Speech Composition” at the UW-Madison.
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Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2000), 227–228. ↑
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Costanza-Chock, “Design Pedagogies.” ↑