Transmedia Europe Express

EUCROMAfacesPREFACE

Creative Skillset has recently been involved in research into the new imperatives in skills engendered by the ongoing disruption and digitisation of our industries. The new skills frequently needed are probably usefully exemplified by the triangulation of Creativity, STEM and Enterprise, a mix we’re calling Fusion skills. (The etymology comes from the CIHE’s 2010 report “The Fuse” which first attempted to delineate these new skills, but after research we added more emphasis on enterprise/business practice than the original document).

In its widest sense it’s the inter-mix of art, science and business drive. It’s what our industries increasingly report they need- exemplified by the demand for creative programmers, technical artists or specialists in one domain who can team up and collaborate with those from another disciplines and speak a common language. Fusion skills are increasingly needed- roles that used to be firmly pigeonholed as creative, or engineering, or business-only now need large portions of all three. Imagine if you will a Venn diagram of three intersecting circles- Creativity/Art, STEM, Enterprise and in the middle area is what we’re calling Fusion. Who needs Fusion skills? Well, not just the creative industries but everybody according to IBM’s Global CEO study (interviewing more than 1500 CEOs from 33 industries worldwide) which showed that Creativity was seen as the most crucial skill needed by industry leaders- above management skills and vision.

the author's take on Fusion skills- an overlap of three domains

the author’s take on Fusion skills- an overlap of three domains

Also, Google and McKinsey readily admit that Data Scientists (in short supply) need creative skills, and even storytelling skills to be able to see patterns in their statistics. It’s the same in the creative industries, where engineering and mathematics are increasingly crucial. Nowadays, often at the heart of the film set you’ll find the data wrangler- an engineer who needs to increasingly understand the subjective and poetic languages of colour and light as well as the science of compression and pixel math. Then there’s all the new data analyst roles in advertising and marcomms that are needed to mine data and understand the psychology of the customer or client, and help design meaningful experiences for them. A mixture of mathematic yet empathetic, code-steeped inventive designer is emerging in the online space. Combine these art/sci mixes with the need to be enterprising and do business in an increasingly freelance or short-term project world, and more jobs than you think are gravitating towards fusion skills, especially in media.

You’ll be hearing more from Creative Skillset about fusion skills in the months to come, but one of the striking conclusions is that the subject and faculty structure (or rather unkindly, silos) in our schools and universities can necessitate against our teachers and trainers teaching these cross-disciplinary skills. So it was important to Creative Skillset that we found some outliers, examples of people teaching these Fusion skills, even if they named them differently, and had different models. A couple of names kept coming up when we talked to industry about exemplars they knew- design leaders d.school in Stanford, and ‘cross-media’ school Eucroma in Denmark.

As Eucroma were about to have their end of course show, we thought we should pay a visit and see for ourselves.

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THE EUCROMA EFFECT

eucroma_logo_webCommencing in February the EUropean CROss-Media Academy is an intense four and a half month european transmedia training programme focusing on synthesizing games, animation and entrepreneurial skills. It delivers 30 credits via the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) meaning existing students can apply those credits towards their degrees. It brings together students from across the EU to work in teams to develop real transmedia IP via what they term Storyworld development, and training and collaboration in new pipelines. The programme, which  has just under 50 participants this year, (growing to approximately 75 next year) takes students through four phases on their way to a convincing and professional product; Prologue, Design, Production and Presentation. The website declares the outcome “is a breed of cross media professionals who can capture new opportunities and package them as “ready to roll” projects”.

the minimal central corridor of EUCROMA- hidden on an industrial estate in Copenhagen

the minimal central corridor of EUCROMA- hidden on an industrial estate in Copenhagen

Eucroma’s difference can be exemplified by its accent on firstly developing and iterating a storyworld first and foremost, with creative and business thinking springing forth from this starting point. The storyworld will then demand a particular pipeline and with it, new forms of collaboration between roles through development of a “production ready” cross-media/transmedia project produced by an international team. Within the curriculum students are exposed to a continuous line up of media experts and top games, animation and business professionals. Students also attend lectures at the Danish Film School with speakers from the film and TV industries, blending in with the rest of the school. Workshops train individuals for their roles. There are nine possible roles in the concept department- from animation or game director to level designer or production designer and music composer. There are also twelve roles in production, from animator, rigger, programmer to audio or vfx designer.

EUCROMAshowEucroma sees its mission as adding something extra to the media professional’s armoury- resilience and adaptablilty. “By providing all the competences necessary for riding the upwinds in a market that expands at ever increasing speed EUCROMA place you at the forefront of development. And now is the time to be here because professionals who can handle the constant technological and conceptual breakthroughs are in high demand. The arrival of a new creative potential or business opportunity always creates a demand for the right people to step up and capture it”. Eucroma is supplying future-proofed new talent who it is intended will stand out from the crowds of media graduates.

One of the main objectives of the EUCROMA program is the final project. Once finished, students will have to give a half-hour oral presentation that covers the basic concept, business plan and select prototypes of their project. This year’s two project themes were a re-working of Sherlock Holmes, and Lost and Found, a kind of The-Borrowers-meets-lost-toys-living-underground amalgam. For both themes there were games, web and animation outputs, led by Games, Animation or Storyworld directors.

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STORYWORLD AS THE SEED

Storyworld-triangle1The Storyworld concept  is axiomatic to the Eucroma programme. To Troels Linde, Director of Eucroma, the seed of an original idea needs to germinate into all the environments, characters, languages, history –in other words a whole world- before a story can truly emerge. This storyworld or diagesis develops from the themes of conflict, characters and setting. No media is selected nor script versions written until this preparatory world is scoped.

A group of directors and story designers are then tasked with establishing the motivations and ethos (or values) that makes the world and its agents tick. In this methodology some kind of conflict needs to drive the story through time. All this is scoped and thought out to ensure both games and films can equally harness and leverage this world.

So often in other training courses the character or the script comes first, or a game is grafted onto a narrative when the storyworld won’t really support it. To Linde this World-first approach means ensuing games, animations and films are coherent and successfully engaging.

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STUDENTS EYE VIEW

Eucroma clearly has a methodology that the curriculum reflects, but does that filter through to the students? I met three students just before their final show. I was keen to find out about their personal journeys and what the course had added to their specialist skills. As you’ll see, their personal learning histories show a broad education with several false starts before they alighted on animation or games study. This may well have informed and enriched the transmedia content they were now engaged in.

Kris_Lewis_HannahKristoffer Malmsten (Conceptual team) had come from Stockholm. Originally he’d found his way to getting involved with computer music and dropped out of high school as he had major success with his band (which won 2 Grammys in 2001). By the mid 2000’s he had re-entered education, keeping his music going,  studying Art History and Cinema History, then moving into film production. “I needed to get creative” he explains- the academic approach he experienced wasn’t close enough to the creative process. In 2011 he was a location co-ordinator for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Finally he applied to Stockholm for a Screenwriting course. Through a university lecturer he heard about the EUCROMA initiative, and how they needed Screenwriters and Story designers. He was aware through his studies of Henry Jenkins’ work and so had an interest in the possibilities of transmedia and this is what attracted him. “I was surprised how market driven the work was, but with a firm academic base” said Malmsten “there were many lectures in the first two months. We started with a coherent storyworld first, which as a script writer isn’t such an alien concept, but is crucial if you are working across media”.

EUCROMAemptyviewIt was striking how exhausting it often is to work with ideas- sorting, modifying, leaving behind, promoting. Some people aren’t used to the amounts of energy you need to devote to this before diving in to a project. Also, listening is vital.”

Lewis MacInnes-Middleton (Production Team) was one of a number of students from University of Abertay’s Games courses. He will return to his fourth year in October. Lewis’s path started with a fusion of subjects at school- Maths, English, History, Product Design, Business Management, before a two year spell at Dundee University studying architecture. “At the time it seemed to make sense, but the pace was slow and I didn’t find it exciting. However, it’s easy to see with hindsight that I’d always made games and the thread from architecture to games to storyworlds is  interesting”. By luck he found himself move from Dundee University to the city’s other university- Abertay – to study games. He got a scholarship for Eucroma, and was selected as a Game Director.

Hannah Drummond, another Abertay student, previously studied business management, English, biology and music at school, with an advanced higher in music before taking an Open University course in Psychology, and then enrolling at Abertay. “At Abertay I discovered Production management was my forte, which is what I’m doing at Eucroma, with a team of almost 50

All three recognised the notion of fusion skills that Creative Skillset is researching. Kristoffer recounted how entrepreneurial skills had been something that previously had helped him navigate and prosper through the digital disruption of the music industry. They all recounted how Eucroma had focused their creative and technical energies on products and audience/users. “In the first 5 weeks we learnt about Storyworlds, and how this concept changes the roles of the director and production designer. In some instances we had to unlearn ways of working, and we had to be adaptable as roles changed as we progressed, and build new ways of working with animators and riggers” said Hannah.

Viral stickers produced by the Lost and Found team.

Viral stickers produced by the Lost and Found team.

They agreed the pace was intense. Lewis noted that “Every week we had to present our work to Danish Film School tutors, and then had a week to react and accommodate what they said” Kristoffer agreed, adding “In the conceptual team the biggest skill was negotiation- we had three directors working in different media, and two mini-teams, and lots of people floating in and out, as well as assets being shared or modified across different media, so communicating and negotiating a look or a character or a background across the team was incredibly important. Transparency and version control became key elements as our directors wanted to see everything

Hannah remarked “there are many acronyms and phrases that only certain roles use- and there are even some acronyms that have different meanings in different media, which can be confusing. It took a while to pick these up

When asked how the teams might be restructured or changed- possibly for the next cohort, there was a consensus regarding the need for a carefully defined producer role, and also a review of workflow at director level- who could unintentionally create bottlenecks for getting work greenlit. There was also discussion about the possible impact of including film media in the next cohort- and how the possible conflict of different methodologies might play out- (film with its emphasis on pre-planning, and games with its reliance on scrum and rapid iteration).  It is planned for next year’s cohorts to set up fully working studios too. Thus it seems that Eucroma will continue to be an alembic to test out what it means to create transmedia projects, as yet there is no orthodoxy emerging. It’s a salient point to remember how many years it took from the invention of film and tv until relatively stable and duplicable team structures evolved.

EUCROMAbikesOf course, Eucroma aren’t the only ones grappling with the methodologies and pedagogies of transmedia- the Media Academy Wales’ Transform@lab (an intensive cross-platform idea development lab for emerging creatives) also has a European cohort, and roughly the same duration, but moves through European locations and doesn’t focus on animation and games. However, the strengths of these programmes are somehow amplified by having a pan-european cohort- the different cultural sensibilities and the way different schools have different strengths may make for a higher degree of unpredictability and innovation in outcome. Within university courses, cross-media projects are a challenge of organisation and synchronisation, and sometimes getting buy-in from students themselves who join a specific course for that  discipline and see their future in that. Interestingly, as of yet there are no Transmedia courses listed as such on UCAS . Why? Word is getting out, and prospective students will soon see the value in being a transmedia producer as opposed to a tv or film producer for instance. Into this gap private providers will enter the market. Alternatively, more University degree courses may want to see Eucroma type courses as Finishing Schools.

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TRANSMEDIA ISNT FUSION…

EUCROMAinspiration…but I guess any new media form which hasn’t established technologies or pathways tends to use more fusion skills- for instance if there isn’t the right software around you code your own solution, or if there isn’t an established business model you need to improvise, or use rapid prototyping instead of rigorous planning. What was interesting about Eucroma is that it calls on ‘Fusion’ skills more than a single media course like film, tv, animation might do because  transmedia is so nebulous as a concept. Eucroma compensates for this by having a strong methodology (Storyworld) and a narrow spectrum of media (games and animation). However, its only just finished it’s second cohort, and is in the enviable position of being able to modify the curriculum whilst still offering 30 ECTS credits.

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TRANS-FUSION

Our investigation into Fusion skills will hopefully lead us to many more outliers like Eucroma. On 17th July Creative Skillset are launching “Fusion Skills: Perspectives and Good Practice” a research report report is based on desk research that explored a wide range of current programmes, curricula, associations and institutions active in the ‘fusion’ field, (including Eucroma). This was created from interviews with a wide range of academics and professionals who are experiencing ‘fusion’ in the workplace.

The research acknowledges the need for a framework to help make sense of what is going on, with the intermixing  or collision of STEM, Creative Practice and New Business.
As a response to these aspects, the report recommends some ‘principles’ for skills development in worlds of education and business management at organizational and individual levels. We hope to create collective action to take forward some of the recommendations. You’ll be able to see more on http://www.creativeskillset.org/research/ in due course.

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Thanks to Troels Linde, Gunnar Ville and the Danish Film School for their hospitality.

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British SAMR time: a way to redefine digitisation in the creative industries?

One of the most useful reports this year has been Booz&Co’s “The Digital Future of Creative UK: The Economic Impact of Digitization and the Internet on the Creative Sector in the UK” (Künstner, Le Merle, Gmelin, and Dietsche 2013). The report provides a comprehensive view of the impact digitisation has had on the creative sector with analyses of its effect on consumers, creators, distributors, and publishers in the U.K. and Europe. Digitisation (I’m insisting on the English spelling, sorry!) is described as a megatrend by Booz, with the race away from analog still having profound repercussions to products and services in the creative industries.

Whilst that is undoubtedly so, I wonder if the narrative of permanent digital revolution and disruptive digitisation is useful or even accurate to assist in addressing skills gaps or needs in the creative  industries.

pi_large-750x416Digitisation as a blanket term is too broad and because we all feel we share this ‘common sense’ definition, we might be missing real focused and strategic skills support for key areas hidden within this overarching narrative. If we are aren’t really interrogating or challenging this term sufficiently, then we may lack sufficiently sophisticated conceptual models  to understand what is driving change at the heart of our industries, and thus we will be always looking in the rear view mirror and trying to react after damage or disruption is done, rather than using skills as preventative medicine, to forearm the workforce and our employers for whatever’s next.

Of course Booz&Co and other such informed commentators are not saying we are at the beginning of the digital wave, but the distinction about further detail about where we are on that graph tends to be based only around the notion that things will just get ‘more so’, with change accelerated as digital natives enter the workforce and demand more responsive services and goods instantaneously. Even the term ‘digital native’ is banded around as a universally accepted blanket description despite sixteen million adults from the age of 15 upwards in the UK who don’t have basic online skills. In addition, the e-Learning Foundation estimates that 700,000 of the most disadvantaged schoolchildren in the U.K. lack home access to the Internet.

These phrases like digitization and digital natives we come across in reports have become too tidy and convenient, and yes, alluring. They mask areas of grey and ambiguity. Ignoring the grey areas leads to a monoculture of skills responses.

digitisation2As Martin Weller in his book The Digital Scholar says, “far from being the tech-savvy, digitally immersed cyborgs portrayed in much of the literature, there are some relatively poor information skills amongst the net generation”

Malcolm Brown reports in “The NetGens 2.0: Clouds on the Horizon” (2009) that young people are held back by poor performance caused by three factors: insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level.

So some evidence doesn’t quite fit with what we’d like to believe. Intuitively we know digitization is sweeping through our industries, right? Well, yes and no. My point is not to refute the tropes of digital disruption, digital natives or the grand narrative of digitisation, but rather to say we need to dissect and analyse them a bit more if we are to design effective skills solutions to these issues. We need to identify the grey areas and accept how attractive, convenient yet simplistic some of this nomenclature is.

However, there are frameworks out there that can possibly help us interpret where we are in this spectrum of digitisation, if we look beyond industry reports and consultants research, and perhaps surprisingly towards the world of education theory and pedagogy.

Before we examine one of these frameworks let’s just see how digitization is playing out in one particular subsector. Let’s look at video editing, an essential process in broadcast. I’ve selected this because I had firsthand experience of the change from analogue to digital.

Video Editing and the digital wave

When Booz&Co mention the red-hot megatrend of digitisation, we need to remember that this has been happening in many of our industries for at least 25 years now.

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

A Steenbeck film editor; splicing film was essentially descructive

Digital or ‘Non-linear’ editing swept away film-based Steenbeck machine editing in the late 80s and early 90s. By then M-JPEG had become the standard codec for editing. The proliferation of Firewire IEEE 1394 architecture and the new DV format that was launched in 1995 brought digital editing systems to the masses and arguably opened up editing to the consumer. Suddenly the camera output was digital, so the word ‘digitising’ as a process of ingesting into the edit suite became a misnomer. Digital was the norm, the establishment, by 2000. Final Cut Pro received a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award in 2002.

So for us to talk about digitisation as a skills issue in this sector today isn’t really accurate, and in fact is misleading, and may actually stop us addressing real issues of technological disruption. Technology of course is an issue, and the networks and connectivity that comes in its wake requires new skills, but digitization of the process is so over.

However, if we don’t have the shared grammar to articulate this- if digitisation is the only blanket term we can use, I doubt we can really grapple with some of the skills problems in the workplace. Taking this at face value sets an agenda for more universal funding of Final Cut Pro or Avid workshops, or Stereo 3D, rather than IT or network skills, or asset management, or whatever. In short, we are not able to be as strategically canny about our skills solutions as we could be.

 

SAMR School

As it happens there is a framework that we might wish to adopt to help us to understand what is happening in our industries, and it (maybe surprisingly) comes from education. As far as I know, no one has thought to apply it to the notion of digitisation in the workplace, to help us understand the wider skills agenda that technology and digitisation leave behind in their wake.

SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition. It was originally formulated by Dr.Ruben R. Puentedura as a way of examining how digital technology impacts on teaching and learning, (rather wittily referred to as ‘Padagogy’ –  a cross between iPads and pedagogy)  but I think it maps nicely as a description of the different stages of digitisation in any creative industry. SAMR charts how every technology travels and evolves through enhancement of the preceding technology, towards the final transformative stages of modification and redefinition.

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura's SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura’s SAMR model may hold the key to understanding digitisation

So let’s see how this might relate to my earlier example of video editing. Well, the Substitution stage was where the early digital Non-Linear editing machines like Lightworks, Optima and Avid started to do the job of the film editing steenbecks. They offered simple non-destructive EDLs (Edit Decision Lists), essentially the same as the still available film systems.

The next stage is Augmentation. One can suggest here that the technologists are asking- how can we further enhance the process of editing? The resulting new technological tools introduce functional improvements. Once material was digitised this was represented by the speed at which Edit Decision Lists could be created, in a variety of different formats, and edits could be re-ordered, and fades and dissolves could be programmed and viewed almost simultaneously. The editing process had been enhanced, but it was still familiar to any dyed in the wool film editors from the previous stage.

The third stage and the first of the two transformative stages is Modification. The onward march of technology (in this case around data speeds, compression and open formats) meant a significant redesign of the process. MPEG and Quicktime meant that edits didn’t have to be solely off-line (typified by low visual quality) but approached online or near broadcast levels. Tasks are modified, and some even obsolete. New things can be done that weren’t possible before. Edits could be output ‘live’ direct to broadcast, for instance, and this changed the face of news broadcast.

The final stage is Redefinition. Previously inconceivable tasks are incorporated into the editing function. Examples are how multiple media can easily by inserted- digital stills, titles, 3D graphics, compositing via multiple layers (all undoable), and lastly how multiple users can collaborate and work on the same (distributed) edit at the same time, or call on global archives and newsrooms, using new networked communications.

credit: R. Puentedura www.hippasus.com

credit: R. Puentedura http://www.hippasus.com

From this limited example it seems to me that utilising the SAMR framework is effective in contextualising the kind of skills interventions that might be needed.

This is important, because in the case I have outlined, the application of SAMR could have allowed us to pinpoint particular skills work at each stage. By understanding where an industry is on the SAMR spectrum can help us understand the kind of competencies we need to promote, and how we might allocate precious learning resources. From my quick assessment here, for instance, we might conclude that IT, Networking, or asset management skills will help the industry progress more than yet more Final Cut Pro courses, which were more important at earlier stages. That’s because SAMR allows us to see that editing is at the Redefinition stage. Other industry practices will be at other stages. Scriptwriting, or Tailoring, might be at Augmentation level for instance.

To me the useful thing about the SAMR model is that it can be predictive- and help us accelerate skills development in a competitive global marketplace. I’d invite readers to do an audit of particular industries they are familiar with, and see if SAMR helps to identify the kind of training needed now, and in the near future. To me, it’s far more fruitful than just saying that digitisation is the phenomena at hand. Where we are on the SAMR spectrum can help us be smarter in our use of skills development.

From Ship Building to 3D printing: Belfast’s Future Classrooms 2013

conference-imageWhat happens in the classroom has an impact on the creative industries talent pipeline, and schools have a much longer event horizon until their talent hits the professional world. Dealing with that ten year lag is problematic for political planners and policy makers. The Web 2.0 revolution is barely ten years old, and inventing a curriculum around it ten years ago would have seemed a folly. There was no facebook, twitter, linkedin, let alone bandwidth nor access to support such an endeavour.

We have to assume that tropes like the internet of things, big data and the cloud will only grow in prominence for the creative industries of tomorrow, but we need to match this with flexibility, resilience and an appetite to engage with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’; namely to engage with disruption rather than build defences against it.

With the sad demise of the Learning Without Frontiers conferencethis year, there’s not a lot of places that these kinds of debates and foresight can erupt off the webpages and into what the cybernauts of yesteryear used to call ‘meatspace’.

School’s Out?

Today 39% of 2-4 year olds have used a smart device, with this jumping to 52% among 5-8 year olds, while a CISCO reportsays the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops and internet-capable phones will exceed the number of humans in 2015. Research by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) concluded that at least 6% of desktop/laptop computers in schools would be tablets by the end of 2012 (4.5% in primary, 6.9% in secondary), with this rising to 22% by the end of 2015.

So the opportunity to attend Future Classrooms 2013, Northern Ireland’s first conference designed to help education leaders and key decision makers develop strategies for the creative use of technology in the classroom was a foray into this area that I jumped at.

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit wallaceict.net)

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit wallaceict.net)

In the comparatively heavily regulated and prescribed world of learning, how do we ensure teaching not only makes use of new technology, but also adopts flexible and far-sighted strategies for coping with change, and performs the neat trick of supplying not only the creative thinkers and practitioners for whatever Web 3.0 might be (with presumed trajectories of a world of work prefixed by nano- and virtual- and augmented- connectivities we can only dream of), but also supply fulfilled individuals who can guide and inform such a future.

So many projections revolve around a technological determinism which may be our future undoing. If we unwittingly plan straitjackets for today’s children we end up (with the best will in the world) making the Schools system become the next Kodak, Blockbusters or HMV- failed models from a past era.

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

In the US, we see the logical extension of doing nothing- the privatisation and unbundling of education, and the apotheosis of the idea that connectivity and distance learning will fill the gaps and technology alone will save the day. The rhetoric can always portray teachers as passive pawns in a teleological narrative they are swept along by. Right now, the guiding lights and guardians of education in the states are Computer Scientists and Edtech providers such as Sebastian ThrunDaphne Koller, and of course Salman Khan.

Often best practice in the schools system can be under the radar, finding its way around the system, in after schools clubs, special bootcamps and projects, local experiments outside the mainstream, and grass roots innovation often away from the political limelight. In the UK we are lucky to have a more humanist tradition evidenced by leading lights like Keri Facer and Sir Ken Robinson, who put the teacher and pedagogy before metrics, and quality before scale.

There’s never been a more critical time to include and empower teachers. That dialogue needs to start with information and exposure to best practice, rather than a sales pitch for new technology alone. As such Future Classrooms 2013 felt like the start of a measured and optimistic approach to how we can make our schools great, and get a real sense that today’s children have the conceptual tools (and yes, the technological tools) to create their own future. However, it wasn’t a start, but rather a progress report, and a celebration of much success.my_lanyard

A Buoyant Titanic

On first of March 2013 school managers, teachers and curriculum leaders from Northern Ireland gathered at the (very buoyant) Titanic Centre in Belfast for a day on how our young people learn and how to prepare our future workforce for a modern competitive economy of tomorrow, yet focus on creative approaches across the curriculum and advice on how mobile technology can be deployed to support this. Significantly it also launched a flexible Mobile Technology strategy for Schools. A range of speakers were complemented and grounded by an exhibition of school children creative work and exploring curriculum with Apps, programmes and even a 3D printing machine, a sort of technology playground of creative activity led by the children themselves.

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

We often use the term pedagogy without realising its roots- the Greek paidagōgía, for teaching children (Andragogy meaning methods for teaching adults). Future Classrooms 2013 highlighted the role of three Creative Learning Centres who have spearheaded the agenda of creativity and engagement within the schools and the youth sector in Northern Ireland. Funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and managed by Northern Ireland Screen, they are Studio ON in Belfast, The Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry and the AmmA Centre in Armagh, acting as hubs for spreading skills development in digital creative media among teachers and young people as well as building new curricula, and collectively work with more than 250 schools. Over 1500 teachers and 3000 young people have benefited from the advice, workshops and resources of these centres. This model of strategic support beyond the school walls has enabled teachers and schoolchildren to explore creative and mobile technology on their own terms, and provided a level of friendly mediation between the often baffling array of ‘Ed Tech’ providers and the end-user.

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

Averil Morrow, Director of the AmmA Centre states “We have seen a huge increase in demand recently for training from teachers and from school management teams in the use of mobile technologies, particularly tablet devices. Head teachers want to be shown how to deploy this technology and how it can help improve the learning process for their pupils.”

Highlights of the Day

The first neologism of the day came from Stephen McGowan, Head of Creativity DCAL who told us of the concept of ESTEAM (I’m assuming that’s how it’s spelt); a neat way of highlighting Enterprise and STEAM– the future components of creativity that the economy craves. This seems very close to Creative Skillset’s new philosophy of Fusion skills, which you’ll hear more about in the months ahead. It’s a good sign that policy makers are starting to understand the power of creativity, as David Willetts has recently been pronouncing on STEAM, but ESTEAM sounds like it may soon supplant this as the acronym de nos jours, which enriches our lexicon. The Creative Industries have been too slow to create adopt snappy terms that encapsulate what’s needed, and gain good PR to promote change.

Education conferences such as this have many stakeholders- educationalists, politicians, young learners and industry representatives, and so the stage is often set for conflict, with teachers who often are the recipients of misplaced and historical school policies, and stern industrialists who chide the system for not supplying todays talent to their specifications, and bemoan having to cope with skills shortages that were precipitated further down the talent timeline. This conference wasn’t one of them.

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran is Managing Director of Allstate Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland’s largest IT company, employing over 2300 people, of whom around three hundred have been sourced from Europe and India. His keynote speech was refreshing. He explained that the paradigm of the last few years, with education agencies asking business to ‘tell us what you need’ doesn’t work anymore- businesses simply don’t have the ability to project skills supply and demand into the future, so they need to support a proactive education system. Telematics and Analytics are his future growth areas, but he needs an education system that supplies ESTEAM workers ready to adapt. He sees a real shift from the passive “computer point-and-click generation to the mobile tap-and-swipe generation” as the main challenge for schools. He recognises the folly of businesses being too prescriptive about what they want out of schools today, but that businesses need to simultaneously be more supportive within the classroom.

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU's Knowledge Media Institute

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute

Professor Peter J Scott, Director of the Knowledge Media Institute of the UK’s Open University took some of the themes of mobile learning further, reminding us that television itself could often deliver learning by stealth. 8 million viewers saw theBBC’s Frozen Planet, and that this essentially was an OU course. 300,000 people engaged with the OU through this partnership. He explained that the TV programme was the ‘sit back’ gateway that brought you to the ‘sit forward’ and often mobile-enhanced interactive learning possibilities. He also made it clear that pedagogy in this area is always open to change as platforms change. There are 156 postgraduate and 397 undergraduate courses on offer through the OU, and the advent of the semantic web and the leveraging of big data analytics will have an impact on that provision. Scott talked about one of the major design challenges for his team in the future is to provide connectiveness that encourages students to talk and solve problems together.

Back to School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

Such speakers supplied a kind of grown-ups context for learning, but the picture of tomorrow’s school classrooms came alive forcefully with a school case study presentation by David Cleland, Vice principal  of Wallace High School who talked of their journey into mobile learning. They’d had positive experience of Moving Image Arts (MIA), the first A-Level in the UK in digital film-making, assisted by the Nerve Centre and accredited by the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), and this had spurred on a deeper investigation into technology.

In 2010-11 he’d noticed that over 140 pupils had mobile devices, and so germinated an idea that led to the equipping of 530 students at Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) with an iPad 2, the first 1:1 initiative in Northern Ireland. Cleland told how parents had inspired and permitted such adoption, whilst teachers drove the initiative. Open evenings with parents and pupils together gave confidence that the quality of learning would benefit. That was September 2011.

He cautioned against sudden and deep disruption, likening ICT to a double decker bus, were the journey should be one of small progress between stops, and where the next stop is only visible from where you are, not the end of the journey itself.

Cleland also highlighted the need to bring on board naturally wary teachers, and how a “Photoshop and Digital Media” teacher training course had little take-up until it was re-branded as a “Get the most from your digital camera” workshop and re-scheduled before the summer holidays. You have to bring people with you during major changes, and the formation of staff working groups led by Cleland created a new integrated ICT policy.

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

It took one and a half years to get iPads into the classroom, but only three days intensive training were needed for staff partially because of the near ubiquity of iPads in the home, and a summer to test out teaching issues.

Now the school continues to exploit new learner centred technologies, using Cloud services, and utilising Google Docs with a VLE for their learning materials. Training is integrated and ongoing, and pupils use free Apps as well as Garageband, iMovie, Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. The School is now creating a library of App textbooks for future cohorts.

Nerve logoJohn Peto, Director of Education at The Nerve Centre point out that using the same standardised and connective tool (in their case, Apple’s iPad) across different subjects can lead to important interdisciplinary learning, with the children bringing ideas from other Apps work in other subjects into their current classroom. He talks of some children learning French by default, and how at every stage the parents need to be involved, and how support needs to be constant. The launch of the Creative Classrooms site, produced by the three creative learning centres is a careers resource to support the KS3 curriculum for Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities, and Employability. Students are asked to think about what it means to be creative, and lessons have been designed to encourage students to explore their own nascent creative skills.

Attendees at the conference were also given copies of the new “Mobile Technology handbook for all schools in Northern Ireland” a guide to spreading best practice from planning, preparation to deployment and evaluation. With its objective of one device to one user in the classroom this presages an exciting future to learning in schools, led by teachers and parents, informed and supported by the creative learning centres. The Handbook is crammed with examples of technology currently being used in Schools across Northern Ireland, and the guide leaves it to the schools which mobile technology they should choose, putting power into the hands of the teachers, not the hardware suppliers.

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

The handbook reminds us “We are yet to see how new mobile computers will change the ways in which technology is managed, accessed and utilised in schools. However, no matter the mechanism or device the key to success will always be a pupil-centred approach where questioning, creativity and learning are paramount. It is vital that the use of mobile devices in schools is rooted in School Improvement and the enhancement and enrichment of learning at all levels”.

Conferences about education can be heavy on theory, policy and foresight, but the accompanying “Have a Go” Exhibition showed that the future classroom is actually here. Over lunch curious delegates passed through a room of industrious children, seemingly oblivious to the attention they garnered, immersed in their tablets, creating stop-frame animations, solving maths puzzles, and even printing out models on a 3D ‘Makerbot’ printer. Whilst we grown-ups struggle with the ‘internet of things’ and cloud computing, these children are engaging and learning new technologies like 3D modelling and design on a site full of historic resonance- where no doubt some of their grandfathers once built ships out of steel, they build imaginative models out of thermoplastic polymers, ready for tomorrow’s industries.

My thanks to Barry Brennan of Studio ON for arranging my visit.claymation

A MOOC Point: Universities go freemium?

In the US, 2012 was the year of the MOOC or Massive Open Online ClassroomThe surprise development of free courses at the likes of the Higher Education elite like Yale, Stanford and Harvard made the headlines and garnered huge excitement and demand, and now the revolution has moved to the UK. Will this apotheosis of democratic learning change HE forever, or will it become merely a freemium marketing campaign for the UK’s cash-strapped Universities?

Previous visions of the future of education have been wide of the mark.

Previous visions of the future of education have been wide of the mark.

Will 2013 be the year of the MOOC in the UK? Commentators seem to think that the “Massive Open Online Classroom” is the consequence of the concatenation of increased fees for University attendance, faster and more ubiquitous bandwidth in the home, and a wired public who want to use their free-time and ‘cognitive surplus’ for personal betterment and learning.

These factors, plus the fact it’s the time of year when commentators are prognosticating on future trends and making resolutions means the MOOC concept is gaining in purchase, and the UK is starting to follow the US lead in opening up the academy doors, democratising learning, or grandstanding and marketing competitive advantage, depending on who you believe.

It may be that UK Educationalists have been slow on the uptake about understanding this new generation of students and how they consume knowledge, for all the academic talk about digital natives. Having ten thousand people in a virtual classroom isn’t so alien to a clientele of students used to playing World of Warcraft with thousands of others simultaneously from across the globe. Essentially it’s the same technology anyway, whether MOOC or WoW.  However to most academics, raised on the anxiety of ever-increasing class sizes in the real world, and the corollary negative consequence on learning, the MOOC is counter-intuitive.

However, probably one of the surprising things about MOOCs is they are a grass roots faculty development- not the corporatization of learning by big business. Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun co-founded Udacity, one of the 3 big MOOC purveyors in the states, exclaiming “One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students”.

Of course, Distance Learning is nothing new. In 1858, the University of London opened its degrees to any (male, of course) student, regardless of their location, thus spawning decades of debate about pedagogic quality. In the late 20th century the term Blended Learning arose, almost as an admission that distance learning alone couldn’t deliver the quality of learning.  Universities were more receptive to delivering Blended Learning (or Click and Brick as one wag put it) because it maintained their control and need for real estate if you’re being cynical. However with the dominant digital media being the CD at the time, and the nascent internet running at a mere 14k, and being accessible in 1990 to only 3 million people worldwide, of which only 15% where in Europe, distance learning lacked interactivity and couldn’t fulfil the need for a social forum of discussion and debate. Rich Media at the time referred to a 240 pixel quicktime file. It seems to have taken the ubiquity of Web 2.0 tools and social media networks to deliver some of the potential of e-learning.

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ENTER THE MOOC 

Every technology needs a creation myth. The first MOOC was in 2008. A “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” course at the University of Manitoba was planned with a class of 25 students when it was decided to open it up online for free, merely because they could, and in the spirit of the subject matter. Learners could participate with their choice of tools: threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life, and synchronous online meetings with the course content available through RSS feeds. There was a huge surprise for organisers Stephen Downes and George Siemens when eventually around 2400 people registered. They had just encountered the scaleable and connective possibilities the internet now afforded higher education.

In response, Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island gave birth to the name, borrowing from the game term Massive Online Role Playing Game or MORPG. The MOOC was born, although there were many more obscure precedents.

But the ‘Massive’ in MOOC had yet to really happen. If in the myth of MOOCs Manitoba was the urtext, then Stanford was the eureka moment.

Stanford Professor and co-founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun

Stanford Professor and co-founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun

“In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge…and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined. This one class had more educational impact than my entire career.” Says Professor Sebastian Thrun who gave up teaching at Stanford to co-found and create free courses for Udacity, explaining “One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) soon followed with a series of MOOCs entitled MITx in early 2012 with free courses in circuits and electronics, before being joined by Harward to launch edX having together committed $60 million to the project, which saw  370,000 students enroll for free on courses as varied as Computer Science, Statistics, Copyright, Justice, and Greek Heroes. Meanwhile Coursera launched, having raised $16 million in venture funding, and now claims to have 1.7 million students, with courses from 33 of the biggest names in HE including Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley and CalTech, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and from the UK, the University of Edinburgh which currently runs 5 MOOCs of around 5 weeks long. Coursera MOOCs span the Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, and Computer Science.

edX is a partnership between MIT and Harvard

edX is a partnership between MIT and Harvard

Can such scaling up of HE ‘products’ work and reap results? Yes it seems, if you exclude grading and forms of assessment (apart from peer assessment or in some cases, automated assessment. Coursera uses peer grading: submit an assignment and five of your cohort grade it, as you do theirs).

Because the learner isn’t assessed, no credits or qualifications ensue. A MOOC participant from say, Harvard can’t say they have a degree from Harvard. That is where the idea of freemium comes in. Will a MOOC prove to be the gateway drug to get bums on seats, bringing those Clicks in to Bricks?

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HIGHER EDUCATION or HYPER EDUCATION?

Distance Learning, e-learning, whatever the nomenclature, has always suffered from hype. In 1999 John Chambers, the president and CEO of Cisco Systems proclaimed “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error”. Today the hype is no different.

Udacity's imagery reads differently from most Universities

Udacity’s imagery reads differently from most Universities

2013 will see if MOOCs can find fertile ground for adoption in the UK. It could be argued that despite the post-Browne fee hikes in HE learners are not experiencing the financial pain of the average American student. Also the scale and geographical constituency of the HE environment in the UK is very different. Also most MOOC courses seem to be STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) based, since it seems they translate best into the MOOC format- with less need for face to face interaction, or iterative practice.  In the UK, we don’t yet have the kind of aspirations in computer science and maths, because we don’t yet have a Silicon Valley equivalent to fuel that desire, or career demand.

It may well be that OOCs would be a more realistic achievement, but without the M, would venture capital be invested like in the States? Anyway, in the UK, are our Higher Education institutions innovative enough to leap in and take early adopter rewards? Will the Russell Group be incited into enjoining the fray, worried about losing global market share?

There’s a lot of talk about democratising learning, but is there also a business model predicated on massive numbers, like freemium computer games, that go into profit if only a very small percentage of players choose to buy a wizard’s cloak of invisibility or a ‘power-up’?  Will people pay for the accreditation, the extra certificate, the grade that proves their standard of learning? That has to be the end-game of this freemium offer. Or could UK MOOCs be seen as a loss leader to entice high fee-paying overseas students, to entice the BRICs to Bricks (if you’ll excuse the pun)?

Udacity have recently partnered with Pearson, paving the way for certification “now, students wishing to pursue our official credential and be part of our job placement program should also take an additional final exam in a Pearson testing center. There are over 4000 centers in more than 170 countries.”

Coursera: the strength of 33 Universities

Coursera: the strength of 33 Universities

Coursera, the largest of the big three MOOC aggregators says it may charge between $30 and $80 per certificate, depending on the course, to students who complete successfully. MIT and Harvard say they will likely charge a “modest fee” for the opportunity to earn an edX certificate. Udacity, on the other hand, seems to want to make its money from finding jobs for its students, and promote them to employers.  In Silicon Valley, headhunters often get paid finder’s fees equivalent to 20 percent of a software engineer’s starting salary, which could mean around $15,000 per recruit.

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ONLINE and OPEN

One point that isn’t so well reported- it tends to get lost because journalists and PR like all those big numbers- is that of the nature of openness- the power of the network that the learner builds and develops. MOOCs are social. It’s not the 1970s Open University paradigm of sitting down at home to do your coursework alone and then sending it in.

As online education author Tony Bates says “While the hype about MOOCs presaging a revolution in higher education has focussed on their scale, the real revolution is that universities with scarcity at the heart of their business models are embracing openness”.

A snapshot from Dave Cormier's excellent YouTube clip.

A snapshot from Dave Cormier’s excellent YouTube clip.

There’s probably no better introduction to this aspect of the MOOC than Dave Cormier’s YouTube clip. To Cormier (who originally coined the phrase) MOOCs promote participation, not consumption, and life-long networked learning. They’re a way to connect and collaborate. A MOOC is not a course but an event where people can get together in communities of practice. The course content is distributed not centralised – it’s what each learner finds out and shares from across the internet, not the University’s course content stored in one central location. All those Tweets, Blogs, Vlogs and websites knit together to make a knowledge corpus that can be approached and negotiated from different angles, with learners on different paths. Unlike a classroom course with a steady and incremental drip of information, a MOOC has no single path towards completion. To Cormier this allows new ideas and connections to be made, and those ideas are fed back into the network for all.

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R MOOCS UK OK?

In the UK, December 2012 saw the news that the Open University had created a new company, Futurelearn, which will offer free online courses from UK Universities like Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick.  These Universities were evidently chosen for their high performance in league tables. Futurelearn intends to offer courses in the second half of 2013.

Futurelearn_logoThe Futurelearn Company will be able to draw on The Open University’s expertise in distance learning and its pioneering work in accessible education resources. Futurelearn promises to be a single gateway. “Futurelearn will not replicate class-based learning online but reimagine it” says the Press Release.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said: “MOOCs represent an enormous development in higher education, one that has the potential to bring about long-lasting change to the HE sector. Futurelearn will take our proud heritage and work with some of Britain’s best-known universities to write the next chapter in the story of British higher education.”

It’s clear from the accompanying press releases that the UK government and academia have woken up to MOOCS. The talk is of extending access, opening up research and learning, and giving the world access to the ‘highest quality educational opportunities’.

CEO Simon Nelson (who previously spent 14 years at the heart of the development and management of BBC Online) said “until now UK universities have only had the option of working with US-based platforms.” This appears to be a strong motive- a rearguard action to address the huge traction that successful US MOOC aggregators like Coursera, EdX and Udacity seem to have. Having an early presence in the MOOCsphere seems to be imperative. The fact there seems to be no fixed business plan as yet, and yet a stellar academic cast of partner universities seems to point to a freemium model at least initially. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how students interact, where value can be created, and where people will be prepared to pay for that extra value,” Martin Bean said, adding that any income would be shared with Futurelearn’s members. Meanwhile Mark Taylor, Dean of the Warwick Business School hopes its offering on Futurelearn would “act as a kind of taster” for students who might then consider paid-for courses at the institution. “There is a philanthropic element to it but at the end of the day we have to pay the bills” he said.

Why have 200 students when you can have 150,000?

Why have 200 students when you can have 150,000?

The fact that 12 sober and rational HEIs have stepped into this compact seemingly without a business plan or long term strategy seems to imply a number of Deans are waking up and smelling the aroma of Coursera coffee.

However, there are two other elements that might be in play here. Firstly, Universities might at last have finally woken up to the power of analytics. As a regular visitor to UK universities, this author has always been surprised on how little they know about the behaviour and location of their greatest assets- alumni and current students.

Like the relationship between games designers and online players has changed, the fact that valuable consumer/student behavioural data can be harvested and analysed means online or blended learning courses can ‘always be in beta’ like a Game App, and pinch points of attrition and drop out can be identified and changed. Valuable information on where the learner meanders and the obstacles they might encounter can be aggregated and fed back into the course experience.

Secondly, there’s the accessibility agenda, and the fact this might be accomplished via an online presence for those aspirational time-rich yet financially poor digital natives out there. Professor Sir Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, explains that Futurelearn is a new opportunity to “provide learning in a different way and open up our expertise to new audiences. Online learning is becoming an integral part of what universities do”. Globalism and accessibility seem to be entwined.  Cardiff University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Riordan said: “Cardiff is a global player…This exciting initiative provides a real opportunity to extend access across the world to our high quality education experience.”  Accessibility here means the global market.

Credit: Babson Research Group

Credit: Babson Research Group

However, as Doug Clows says in his blog about MOOCs “If someone’s going to be doing it, I’d rather it was the OU, with its 40-year tradition and commitment to opening access to higher education, than a venture capitalist with a commitment only to making money”.

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HOW WE DIDN’T GET IT RIGHT BEFORE: THE CONVENIENTLY FORGOTTEN HISTORY OF UKeU

Those with long memories (well, a decade) may feel a sense of déjà vu here. The UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited) was a company with a website portal that promoted online degrees from UK universities. It was first proposed as a concept by David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education for the UK, in a speech in February 2000. UKeU (like Futurelearn today) was to be a broker, an agent for e-degrees, marketing online degrees from British universities and providing a technological platform to make them happen.

Set up by the government of the time with £62 million, and constituting 12 universities (coincidentally the same number signed up to today’s Futurelearn) allied to a tech company to provide the software, by January 2004 it housed some 25 courses.

Unfortunately only 900 students signed up by the time the plug was pulled on funding – thus costing a total of £44,000 for each learner. “People who burnt public money in what was a political enterprise should be censured” fulminated Ian Gibson, MP and Chair of the Commons science and technology committee at the time.

With mobile learning and social media do you meed to physically be at Uni?

With mobile learning and social media do you meed to physically be at Uni?

HEFCE, who took a lot of political fire in the months ahead, saw UKeU as a vehicle to invest and prepare UK universities for e-learning. It admitted it had been disappointed in the lack of private finance, but resigned to dismantling  the scheme. There is not even a url left to remember it by- this was snapped up and adopted by a UKEU finance company.

A Select Committee found that the UKeU project failed largely because it took a “supply-driven rather than a demand-led approach to a very ambitious venture in an emerging market”.

Consultants complained about a “lack of focus” in management and said marketing was based “more on optimism than market-led judgements”. Other criticisms ranged from the fact that UKeU ignored Blended Learning, being purely online, and that costs of developing a proprietary platform were more than expected.

It was noted by the Select Committee that too few UKeU staff were appointed with knowledge of e-learning. “UKeU did not have anyone with e-learning expertise in a senior management position. The Chief Executive, had experience of e-business but not e-learning.´

But it mustn’t be forgotten that the early noughties were the time of much optimism and that UKeU wasn’t alone as a grand project that failed. The Open University, a British success story in distance learning in the pre-digital age, also tried to make it in the US and had to admit defeat after losing £9m.

Even Universities in the US had fingers burnt.  Columbia University launched Fathom in spring 2000 in collaboration with 14 universities, libraries and museums, including the London School of Economics and the British Museum. Columbia put up most of the initial $20m, which was followed the next year with another $20m. But the paying customers didn’t come. Fathom finally sank in January 2003. Cornell launched the virtual Cardean University; a joint project with the famous Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania and a company called Caliber (which went bankrupt); and Temple University, which closed its “for-profit” company without offering a single course.

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MOOCs: This time it’s personal

There are good reasons to think that history won’t repeat itself. Firstly UKeU was a product of the technocrats of the time, working on a proprietary platform- before facebook, YouTube, flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter. It’s easy to forget that the term “Web 2.0” was first described in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci in an article “Fragmented Future” and readily available platforms and services didn’t exist at the early stages of UKeU’s genesis.

David Kernohan's Poster for Digital Storytelling 106

David Kernohan’s Poster for Digital Storytelling 106

UKeU was based on a broadcast paradigm, a one-to-many approach. It was to be asymmetric, with chunks of video, text, imagery delivered to the learner. Universities also had few digital assets, and what they already owned as assets was predicated around Blended Learning methodologies. Uncoupling this into purely online gobbets would have diminished its effectiveness. We’re also a lot more able to deliver and store dynamic rich media now. Universities can use YouTube or Vimeo rather than proprietary systems. The astronomical amounts of data produced by UKeU at the time now would fit on an a schoolboys hard drive- HEFCE’s electronic archive consists of over 13 GB of material organised in nearly 90,000 files in over 11,000 folders  with  supplementary archives of a further 5 GB. We’d call that puny now. Ironically and rather telling for the time, HEFCE also have in storage a paper archive consisting of 166 boxes of material. That’s what £62 million got you in old money.

Nowadays, Universities have developed their own experience of distance learning, albeit none announced with the kind of fanfare accompanying UKeU at the time. There’s a sense that everyone is a little cautious this time round, although it doesn’t seem that the ‘supply-driven, not demand-led’ criticism can be levelled at Futurelearn. The demand seems to be in evidence in the US, so why not here?

October 2012 edition of Time: MOOCs were everywhere in 2012.

October 2012 edition of Time: MOOCs were everywhere in 2012.

A revolution in social media and the ubiquity of online devices have meant Futurelearn is behind the curve but keen to catch a slab of market share from Udacity, Coursera and edX, which offer around 230 MOOCs from around 40 mostly US-based institutions to more than 3 million students.

Clay Shirky draws parallels between what happened in the music business with the disruption now underway in HE in his insightful blog Napster, Udacity, and the Academy. “It’s been interesting watching this unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.” He also notes that academic critics of MOOCs focus on issues of quality and a concern that the access agenda has gone too far, forgetting that the MP3 file transformed the music industry for ever despite not being of the ‘high quality’ so many people thought was essential.

Clay Shirky compares the disruption of HE to the digitisation of the music industry.

Clay Shirky compares the disruption of HE to the digitisation of the music industry.

MOOCs and Money?

Probably one of the more sober assessments of MOOCs comes from Sir John Daniel in Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myths, Paradox and Possibility, written in September 2012. He makes the point that MOOCs have already bifurcated into two distinct types of course-  xMOOCs and cMOOCs. xMOOCs (as in edX) were the biggies that impressed us all (and mainstream media) with the large numbers and massive scale yet may revolve around more of a ‘broadcast’ paradigm with passive consumers and a conservative pedagogy, whereas cMOOCs (connective) are more about a pro-active network of learners generating and sharing  new knowledge, which is present across the network, not just in the central emanation. By this rationale the MOOCs original genesis was very cMOOC, but the xMOOC’s basis is more about corporate start-up behaviour looking for a monetisation strategy.

To me Daniel’s essay is useful because he points to how today’s xMOOCs are in some way a rehearsal for attempting to maintain university market position in the digital world of information fecundity.

In terms of a wider gamut of motivations other than academic altruism Daniel picks up references to how MITx is supposedly being used as a testing ground for mastering this disruptive technology and applying it to their residential students; one of Coursera’s university’s course offering is fuelled by a fear that there will be a loss of revenue if they don’t contribute; the factor of attrition (it’s not unusual for 93% to drop out before completion) – which makes the numbers the press quote superfluous.

As reporter Jeffrey R. Young says in Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses “Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups: Build fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists—and even two universities—have invested more than $22-million in the effort already. “Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow,” says Daphne Koller, the company’s other co-founder, who is also a professor at Stanford”.

Freemium could mean certification of HR recruitment services follow

Freemium could mean certification or HR recruitment services follow

So how exactly will the money follow? It seems Coursera think it may be generated by Certification, proper assessments (as opposed to peer graded), employee recruitment (and other HR matchmaking services), applicant screening for employers, learners pay for extra bespoke tutoring, selling the MOOC platform to companies to use for their own training programmes, tuition fees, and sponsorship. Some of these monetisation strategies can be controlled by the participating university (ie certification) and some by the MOOC aggregator company (eg recruitment). It’ll be interesting to see how these contradictory drivers might be played out in the year ahead.

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Postscript: DON’T JUDGE A MOOC BY ITS COVER: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

I’ve decided to subscribe to two separate MOOCs, one by the University of West Virginia through Coursera, and one from the University of Edinburgh through Udacity, just to experience them myself. It looks like a combined commitment to 15 hours per week. My motives surprised me. MOOCs originally seemed to me to be a great way to learn, and being part of an online community of learners might spur me on more than a textbook or isolated study.

I’ve worked in Higher Education, and have written and designed degree and postgraduate courses and so feel comfortable with the way courses operate, but I admit I felt the excitement of having certificates from these hallowed institutions as a lure, emblazoned on my CV, even if they are without any credits or real qualification value.

The last words should probably go to one of the facilitators of the first MOOC. George Siemens comments in Finally, alternatives to prominent MOOCs, “Even if MOOCs disappear from the landscape in the next few years, the change drivers that gave birth to them will continue to exert pressure and render slow plodding systems obsolete (or, perhaps more accurately, less relevant). If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won’t have. It’s not only about being right, it’s about experimenting and playing in the front line of knowledge”.

FeelingLikeABoss

A Roundabout way of doing things

History seems to tell us its culture not real estate that will make Silicon Roundabout work. How will Bricks and Mortar (or plate glass) effect grass roots innovation?

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

A digital hub in a transport hub: the vision for Silicon Roundabout (courtesy BBC)

In early December, Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson united to unveil plans to transform Shoreditch, East London, in a bid to turn it into a high tech hub for the UK.

In a sure sign that both politicians and journalists still like to think in what Nicholas Negroponte might call ‘Atoms not Bits’ (Bricks and mortar are still seen as more impressive than abstract and rather invisible interventions in the market) media headlines led with the proposed £50 million new building and “largest indoor civic space in europe” which will sprout from Old Street roundabout. Cameron announced that Microsoft will open a technology developer centre and there will be an incubator centre run by UCL with Cisco and DC Thompson to help new companies. It’s not clear the effect this will have on the low rent environment that was Shoreditch’s original attraction for many start-ups.

Although the government now prefers the title Tech City, Silicon Roundabout was the original vernacular used by its earliest denizens. The term seems to have been christened in July 2008 by Matt Biddulph, who was at the time CTO of Dopplr (the online service that lets travellers share future travel plans with friends, since swallowed by Nokia). Dopplr was one of the first 15 companies identified then as a cluster. The term was seized upon by Mark Prigg, Science and Technology Editor of The Evening Standard with the headline “Roundabout is London’s Answer to Silicon Valley”. 

By January 2010, Wired magazine noted there were 85 start-up companies in the area, drawn by rents, hip nightlife and a legacy of existing tech and creative firms from the 80’s; Dopplr, Last.fm, Consolidated Independent, Tinker.it, TweetDeck, Berg, Trampoline Systems, AMEE, Skimbit, Fotango, weartical.com, Songkick, Techlightenment, Poke London, Kizoom, BrightLemon, Redmonk, Moo, LShift and Livemusic being the leading lights.

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

The undeveloped real estate: Old St Roundabout

By the time DEMOS had written the report “A Tale of Tech City: The future of inner east london’s digital economy” in June 2012, the area had gained both acreage and density with over 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs.

This makes it the biggest employer of all the UK ‘Silicons’: Silicon Glen (Dundee/Inverclyde) and Silicon Fen (Cambridge). There seems to be a contest on for Silicon Beach between Brighton and Bournemouth, which hasn’t yet caught the public imagination.

Why is it when we talk about clusters of high-tech companies and media agencies, it isn’t long before some comparison to Silicon Valley is made? No other Silicon suffixed cluster has been able to nestle within a capital city outside of Africa (Silicon Lagoon in Lagos, Silicon Cape in Cape Town and Silicon Savannah in Nairobi tell a story of central funding in Africa), so London’s cluster is quite unusual in this respect. Israel’s Silicon Wadi centres around Tel Aviv, (although it has since stretched to Jerusalem, however that may be due to the concentration of space in Israel, and also media agencies like Thomson Reuters and the BBC needing such a base). Less well known are Silicon Alley in New York, Silicon Dominion in Virginia and Silicon Forest in Portland, Oregon, to name just a few.

As AnnaLee Saxenian Dean and Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, – who has spent years studying the valley’s attributes – says “Simply having the ingredients of Silicon Valley doesn’t mean you have its regional dynamism. This notion that you can grow the next Silicon Valley by putting together a science park, venture capital and a university has been roundly disproven.”

So what makes Silicon Valley endure, and can we learn anything from it? The Santa Clara Valley (originally mostly walnut and apricot farms) seem to be as much about the culture engendered as the low rents and lock-ups of the time, and the ready supply of gifted students from Stanford and Berkeley.

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

Wish you were here? This is what 225,300 high-tech jobs look like

AnnaLee Saxenian charts how what became Silicon Valley benefitted from the collapse of the Boston high-tech centre that had built up around Route 128 in the 70’s defined by six of the ten largest technology firms in the world (including DEC, Wang, Lotus, Raytheon, Sun Microsystems).

The towering monoliths of Route 128 operated in competitive secrecy. Former DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) VP Gordon Bell remarked that DEC was “a large entity that operates as an island in the regional economy”. At one point DEC employed more than 120,000 people, which like it’s rival neighbours was constricted by an insular culture that was enforced by ‘non-compete clauses’ and non-disclosure agreements, and scientists who were dissuaded from publishing in acknowledged peer-reviewed journals.

Against this command and control backdrop, where these ‘island’ companies kept to themselves, there was an urban culture of openness and collaboration developing in California. Silicon Valley’s success and Route 128’s nadir was about two competing social and business cultures rather than the setting aside of business parks or tax incentives.

In “Imagine: How Creativity Works”  Jonah Lehrer charts how the creativity of an urban area depends upon its ability to encourage the free-flow of information.  Although both Boston and San Jose had a density of talent, the talent wasn’t able to interact or share within the Route 128 cluster.

In urban California, the start-ups were more informal and being smaller, had to share engineers and techies to get by as a necessity. Work was more project-based, with companies having short lifespans (the average tenure at a Silicon Valley company was less than two years). The café and bar culture promoted informal interaction and dense social networks loosened tongues. Whereas information flowed vertically in the towering walled fiefdoms of DEC, Lotus and Wang in Boston, it flowed horizontally with ease in California. Also non-compete clauses (a powerful weapon in the hands of the big Boston corporations) were almost never enforced in California, thus freeing out of work engineers and executives to quickly re-enter the job market and work for competitors.

Informal urban networks grew through bar and café culture- and the zeal for informal meeting places spread to loose groups like the now almost mythic Homebrew Computer Club, founded in a Menlo Park garage in 1975. It was a club for hobbyists, since there was not yet an established industry for this new creativity. Within a year nearly 750 people were members. As early member and doctor, engineer, and entrepreneur Bob Lash states “The excitement at homebrew was electric, and during the period of ’74 to ’76 I constructed a working 12-bit microprogrammed minicomputer using a 30-bit micro-control store entirely out of about 100 SSI/MSI TTL wire-wrapped chips, which (thanks to the understanding of my wife) I still have in the garage” Members built their own inexpensive machines from components to impress each other, and circuit diagrams and schematics were shared as freely as advice and support. Alliances were made; it was here that a Hewlett-Packard engineer called Steve Wozniak had shown his ground breaking twenty dollar microprocessor with 256k of memory that caught the attention of a young Steve Jobs. As interest grew, meetings moved to the Stanford University Physics department.

The two Steves

The two Steves

Through a culture of informality, unregulated curiosity, sprawling social networks and a lack of centralised policy Silicon Valley grew to spawn 225,300 high-tech jobs and the most billionaires in the United States per capita.

It’s clear that this culture was also present in Silicon Roundabout’s inception. Hoxton’s cafes, bars and clubs provide that informal network, where everyone knows everyone. In a 2008 article Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, of interactive consultancy tinker.it (the online store for Arduino products), said the area had developed a sense of community, adding: “We are based in a building with a courtyard in the middle and everyone around is doing really exciting things. Generally we all end up having coffee together and comparing what we are working on. I think a lot of deals have been done that way.” That was in 2008, but Alexandra is still in Shoreditch, as an interaction designer & entrepreneur at Designswarm. Matt Webb, co-founder of design consultancy Schulze and Webb, said “The networking possibilities are amazing. On our first day here we were having lunch in the park and we came across the guys from last.fm, who we are really keen to work with”.

Tech City and 3,200 firms

Tech City and 3,200 firms

It’s this cultural narrative that politicians often miss in their desire to see high tech clusters mushroom in their own backyard. It’s a culture of serendipity and accidental meetings, a loose social network where unplanned alliances can transform companies.

In London we are seeing the rebranding of Silicon Roundabout into Tech City, led by the creation of the Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO) as a branch of the government’s UK Trade & Investment (UKT&I) group. Erik van der Kleij, chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation outlines their mission “The digital sector is the only sector of the economy that is capable of giving us double digit growth. At government level, that is an area we’re very keen to help with and not mess up. We want to do the things at policy level to help growth happen” Plans involve merging Tech City with the vacant Olympic Park media centre further east in Stratford which has never had the social buzz of Shoreditch, but definitely has the post-Olympic cheap rents.

TechCityLogoIn their 136 page “A Tale of Tech City: the future of inner East London’s digital economy” Demos’ Centre for London thinktank issues a caution; “There are fears that by concentrating its energy on the Olympic Park sites, which many see as the main reason for the government’s continued attention, the TCIO risks diminishing the energy of what is still a young cluster.”  It also comments “our evidence also tells us that artificially generating clusters in mature industries – as digital content and ICT now are – is very difficult”.

Innovation and Growth is not an exact science. It may well be that the Tech City vision will be realised not by a 50 million pound civic centre and start up incubator complex as much as the ability to hold whatever todays version of the Homebrew Computer club may be, in some bar or café, where chance encounter and talent footfall might combine and connect.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture.

Where next? But the culture needs to be right for Innovation, and that means social culture too.

MISSING IN ACTION: Why Women aren’t animated about games

(Published Dec 2010) With a major report highlighting that women are leaving the media industries in their droves, Animation and Games are shown to particularly lack female talent. So what’s it like for that rarest of species, the female games animator?

This is an abridged version of an article in IMAGINE magazine, available from here

blendercookiecom

In my previous article here I discussed the curious dissonance between the increasingly familiar imagery of the casual female gamer  (replacing that of the male hardcore gamer in the popular unconscious, primarily thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS campaigns) and an industry that remains remorselessly male.

Considering the shift in how we consume games, and the rise in woman gamers, why aren’t we seeing young women being attracted into the industry. Seemingly, despite being welcome to play games, they aren’t being welcomed to work on games.

MirrorsEdge

Vital Statistics

The gender imbalance is a normal fact of working in games. It only achieved wider exposure recently when Skillset published their “Women in the creative media industries” report in September 2010.

Statistics often don’t reveal causes or motivation. However, if we look a little wider we’ll see that the Animation industry as a whole isn’t good either- 20% women, almost half the percentage as in the TV industry (41%).

Now, a number of social and economic factors could be at play here. It’s true for instance that other high-tech laden media sectors like Interactive Media also suffer such an imbalance (5%) and that the increasing proportion of coding and programming roles within modern games companies (and proportionately less growth in art roles) doesn’t particularly favour women’s entry into the industry since less women study those subjects at school or college.

It’s also important to discount rife sexism or lack of opportunity as factors. The few women in the games industry don’t cite chauvinism as a contributing factor. At a “Women in Film and TV” event at Waterstones Piccadilly branch in London in February cleverly entitled “Wiimen: a discussion about women in the gaming industry” the feeling of being welcome in the games industry amongst the all-female panellists was unanimous, but compounded with the recognition that women in games tended to congregate around marketing and organizational roles.wow_women

The Rare breed: women games animators

Women Games Animators are therefore doubly rare, being a dwindling section of an even smaller section in one of the most dynamic media sectors in the UK.

Like some endangered species, they are worthy of study.

What do Women Animators within the Games Industry say about gender? Althea Deane, a freelance animator for over 20 years and currently contracted as a character animator at Evolution (behind the famous Motorstorm series) states “Generally, people are just glad to see a woman in a sea of men, to be honest! However, it is quite a macho culture compared to the field of television in which I worked previously”.

“In our project, I’m the only women animator” adds Alma Salinas from Sony’s London studios, “and at my last company too” but she is also of the opinion that no roles need be male dominated “I think any role can be female friendly” she says. “The video game industry offers equal pay and a great working environment, but somehow it always feel that the girls are on land owned by others”

Ellen Holland, a games animator for five years at Rare, one of Microsoft’s big studios says “Sometimes guys don’t know how to relate to women initially so you need a bit of a tough skin and to be willing to give as good as you get, but there’s no discrimination here”

After a while, most games personnel seem to have acclimatised to this situation, which in other media industries might raise more concern.

casting-female-games-charactersLisa Harmon, a Senior artist and animator with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, who has worked in the industry for ten years on titles such as TV Superstars, LittleBigPlanet (PSP version), Primal, 24: The Game and Heavenly Sword speaks for many when she says “I don’t think that a lack of women in this industry harms it, and anyway I don’t know of any women already in the industry that are bothered by it. During my time in games I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced any discrimination, but I do think the games industry is still seen as geeky and something you do as you’re growing up rather than as a career.”

This view was expressed more stridently by an animator who preferred to remain anonymous “I realise that it’s probably not a very PC answer as there is always talk of trying to increase the interest/roles for women in games but, in the end, I’ve never come up against any discrimination nor have any of my fellow female colleagues (to my knowledge). I find it raised by others as an issue when, to me personally, it has never been one”.

In other words- it’s a free country. Women just don’t choose to do animation or games. Get over it. But there must be some reasons why the figures are SO low, right?

So, if the sea of male faces isn’t so intimidating, why aren’t women animators coming through? Is it something about how animation is taught? Or does animation have an image problem, with games only being at the extreme end? Or is it all about role models- the lack of a female Walt Disney, John Lasseter or Nick Park, for instance?

leavesturncomFinding a Unicorn

How do women games animators explain the apparent lack of female animation talent? Firstly to most the animation department is less imbalanced than  than other areas of games development. “Someone said to me recently finding a female programmer was like finding a unicorn” quotes Rare’s Ellen Holland, whilst SCEE’s Lisa Harmon states “female animators are fairly rare but female game coders are even rarer” whereas Elisa Capretto exclaims “female games designers….I don’t think they even exist!”

Trinity3Dcom

“Not so many women are aware that games animation is an option when they are making their career choices, I certainly didn’t” says Rare’s Ellen Holland “I attended three courses, and I must say I did notice that the more technical the course the less women there seemed to be in them”.

“There were about 25% women on my course at university and they were generally more interested in producing some kind of artistic output at the end of the course rather than making a career from it”, says SCEE’s Lisa Harmon.

Alma Salinas, who studied in Spain, remembers being surprised that on her masters course there were only 2 women out of 17 students.

Elisa Capretto, a Junior Character Animator at Ubisoft Reflections (the Newcastle company behind the famous Driver series) says, “Girls seem more interested in people-facing roles in games, rather than just sitting in front of a PC.”

A major factor seems to be technology and how it is taught. We tend to think of animation as craft, but the increasing levels of programming that are impinging on games animation could be one explanation. It’s long been thought that women tend to opt out of technical subjects when they choose University courses.

However the UKRC suggest women chose a wide range of technological subjects, but then don’t see the career path into jobs.

The UKRC is the UK Government’s lead organisation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) and they highlight revealing figures regarding who studies Computer Science courses at university. 16.5% of students are female, whereas in strategically important specialist subjects like software engineering there are only 760 women on university courses in the whole of the UK (out of 6,400).

This lack of female talent has repercussions for various industries. The ICT professional workforce consists of 59,059 women which may sound a lot, but is only 12.5% of the 474,000-strong sector. Maybe that’s why both interactive media and games are so extreme on gender balance. As modern games animation practice relies more and more on technical fixes, on games physics created by code to produce animation (as opposed to keyframes crafted by animators) are the skills needed migrating from the arts to the computer sciences?

womentyping

Nice work if you can get it?

Maybe it’s a mistake to look for a single determining factor. Work patterns might also contribute. Skillset’s “Women in the Creative Industries” report found that representation is highest in sectors comprising larger employers in which more stable, permanent employment models are common, such as terrestrial television (48 percent), and it could be said that animation and games companies are relatively smaller, more volatile, and therefore not as attractive. However, there are many games and animation companies that have now been around for the best part of ten years or even longer- so instability isn’t the full story.

Julie Prescott, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool whose own survey of 450 women in games across the globe found 43 percent felt that long-hours culture was adversely affecting their health and well-being. 31 percent were unhappy with the work-life balance. 22 percent reported working between 46 and 55 hours a week, and 10 per cent more than 56 hours a week. 80 percent felt that their company had a long-hours culture.

So it may be the so-called “Crunch” work cycle in games production that marks it out particularly as an acute case, with ever evolving workflows and technology meaning it’s as hard as ever to predict deadlines, and the burden of extra hours is expected.ceriseirisnetwork

Animator Althea Deane seems to agree- “It’s primarily the butch ‘crunch’ culture in games. Even women without children prefer jobs that allow for a life outside the studio, and for women with children, (who are still the primary care-givers in this country), the long hour culture must make the games industry an extremely off-putting prospect. As for animation as a whole, outside of games, I’m less sure why more women aren’t involved. Possibly the uncertainty of working from one short-term contract to another, with few of the benefits of a permanent job – pension, sick pay, paid holidays”

It therefore may be significant that the admin roles that women tend to cluster around in both games and animation have the advantage of more regular hours.

“The games industry needs to shake off its macho ‘work or die’ image. This will mean more careful planning of schedules and less assumption that it can work its employees over their required hours for weeks on end. It should also try to project a more fun, less aggressive image generally. We’re making games, not annexing Poland” says Deane.gamegirlsxr6

The animation gene pool

Could it be that work patterns and culture combine with a creeping procedural approach to animation  into a potent toxic mix, keeping women away?

“The most significant difference between videogames and movies is the pipeline….in games you do not have the same freedom of interpretation as in tv and film” explains Sony’s Alma Salinas “The animator has to be able to perform functional animations, responding and exchanging with the technical team. The animator must also understand the limitations of the games engine they are working with. They have to enjoy the technical part of the job.”

Elisa Capretto, who previously worked as a character animator on a short film agrees “While animation for tv is more straightforward and immediate, game animations needs to be processed and compressed, and rigged carefully to fit into the memory budget of the game”. The process can be tedious and long, and usually needs a lot of iteration between the technical and art teams.

All this is conjecture, and the statistics aren’t granular enough to really come to conclusions. But at least we’ve heard some female voices on the subject. No-one is suggesting that all jobs need to feature equal proportions of the sexes, but a gross imbalance like games animation raises questions about whether the industry is getting the widest gene pool of talent. If 50% of the population won’t really consider working as games animators, even for arbitrary or mistaken reasons, then that’s an issue. If, once informed, they still choose not to make it a career, that’s their choice. However such information isn’t getting through to girls at the key points when they make decisions about what to study, or what is even possible. It just maybe the animation and games industry are missing a trick by not promoting themselves to half the population, and therefore a lot of raw talent drifts elsewhere.

wiifit

The Wii revolution and the rise of the female gamer is a five year old phenomenon, and as such maybe not long enough to change attitudes, university choices, career destinations. “Maybe we should just wait for the new generation of gamer girls to grow up. I think it will take some more time” says Ubisoft’s Elisa Capretto.

Ellen Holland from Rare suggests we might be starting to see the green shoots of this new generation of gamer girls. “I attended The London Games Industry Career Fair this year and did notice there seemed to be quite a lot of young girls looking to get into the industry. It was really nice to see. We need more events that aim to get girls excited about technology and change perceptions about what it’s like to work in the technology industry”.

The Women in creative media industries report is available here
You can find my full Missing In Action article in IMAGINE animation magazine December issue 2010. Thanks to all the animators who answered my questionnaire and gave a human perspective to dry statistics!

TWO’S A CROWD: Crowdfunding new animation

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

Black Sunrise: a Crowdfunded feature length animation by Nick Cross

(First published Nov 2011) The rise of Social Media over the last five years has meant that many industries have changed the way they do business. Whilst some people’s social media world is limited to connecting to mates on Facebook and following celebrities on Twitter, social media has presented the animation industry with new ways to do business and to market itself. Whereas it used to be your dog-eared rolodex or contacts book that was the limit of your reach as a practicing freelance animator, now there are identifiable virtual communities out there to pitch to and persuade- if you have the ambition, temerity and thick skin.

Great ideas remain great ideas until you can persuade others to help make them a reality. Traditionally there are gatekeepers between you and the funds needed (like arts officers, fundholders, VCs, commissioning editors) and they don’t necessarily want to sink a few thousand into your idea, because as a creative you are probably not very good at filling in forms or describing your idea in a document, right?

In cases of funding via screen agencies, arts organisations, film commissioners or broadcasters, it can be nigh near impossible to get in front of the right person and make that pitch where they see the fire in your eyes, sense the passion in your voice and understand that whilst you couldn’t string two acronyms together in your application form, you have a great idea and can be trusted to produce a seminal animation of world shattering import.

This essentially is the lure of Crowdfunding- where the internet cuts out the middle man/woman and instead of appealing and pitching to one important funder or venture capitalist to greenlight your project, you appeal to the masses via social media. If enough people give you ten dollars, euros or pounds you have circumvented the need to go through the official channels.

FARMING FOR FUNDS

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross's animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

The Pig Farmer: Nick Cross’s animated short that led to plans for a crowdsourced feature

One of the early successful adopters of this approach in the animation world is Nick Cross from Toronto, Canada, who raised funds for The Pig Farmer- a sad tale of porcine tragedy at the hands (or rather paws) of drug-addled yet cunning foxes. “It’s like Porky Pig, Ren & Stimpy and The Manson Family all fed into a blender together” exclaimed cgchannel in a review. Nick was no ingénue- he’d worked in the animation industry for around 14 years (including a spell with Jon Kricfalusi, where he may have picked up the Ren and Stimpy black humour) and had always made films in his spare time.

Nick used the site IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com) which is now one of the main internet platforms for crowdfunding, to raise money. IndieGoGo was launched in 2008 as a place where anyone with an idea – creative, cause-related, or entrepreneurial – could build a campaign and raise money, using social media to get the message out. Essentially you have a page for your campaign- to make your case with text, stills or video, or to drive people to your website. You can tap into analytics to manage the contributions you get and build a sense of community. It makes economic sense to offer what are called perks to the idly curious who browse the site, to persuade them to part with a little cash.IndieGoGo_Logo_black_high_res

In exchange for a donation of $25 Nick offered funders their name on the credits of the film as well as a DVD and found 15 people soon signed up. This was just the lowest rung in the funding ladder. For a donation of $100 you could be credited as Associate Producer and receive a full credit on the film, a DVD copy of the finished film of ALL Nick’s previous work as well as a signed, limited edition print. 12 people bought into this arrangement. True diehard fans could show their support by becoming an executive producer for $500; and that’s what three people did- receiving credits, all the other benefits, and a signed original drawing.

So Nick got almost four thousand dollars of his 5k target. This enabled him make the film (http://vimeo.com/19113506) which was released in January 2011 and allowed IndieGoGo to claim a 4% fee- one of the ways the site is sustained.

Toronto animator Nick Cross

Toronto animator Nick Cross

“I had pretty much given up trying to get funding for my films after a few unsuccessful attempts at grant applications to various government art funding agencies,” Cross recounts in an interview with Jeremy Fries on his Independent Animators Blog. “It was just too much work that I realized I could put to more productive use by actually making the film instead of writing detailed budgets and art statements trying to justify my idea and convince a group of people that it had “ artistic merit,” whatever that means.  However, it seems that this new model of soliciting fans and other filmmakers for “donations” in return for various “perks” actually kind of works. I only tried for a small sum that helped me to hire a musician and offset a bit of the cost of software upgrades, but I was really encouraged by the response that I got. I think that more and more filmmakers are going to go this route in the future”
Nick quickly got to work on another crowdfunded project. Black Sunrise will be my first feature-length film” he explains “My hope is that with financing, I will be able to work full-time on this film instead of having to divide my energies between this film and taking on commercial work”.

He’s raising his sights towards raising 25,000 dollars for a feature length animation, which at the time of writing has garnered donations of 9,500 dollars, with 16 days till the end of donations. IndieGoGo offers a limited timeframe to encourage the creator to be pro-active themselves.

THE CROWD MAY TURN NASTY?

In a way none of this is new. Artists have had Donate buttons on their websites since the birth of microtransaction operators like PayPal, or have attained funds by asking the wider family and friends to be ‘associate producers’. The main catalyst for the explosion in crowdfunding now is the ascendance of social media platforms and video services like YouTube which mean anyone can put forward a personal in-your-face pitch for cash to the online communities they can now reach.

It’s important to do a reality check here. Crowdfunding has its difficulties, it’s not a licence to print money. Firstly, it needs to be remembered that in order to get your idea made you increasingly need to promise something special in return, and sometimes that can get in the way of your production. Promising access to a behind the scenes production journal or blog, or unique assets (crowdfunded stop-motion animators Justin and Shel Wagner Rasch gave away their original puppets to funders) or offering visiting rights on set to your funders could interfere with your creative process. If you’re worrying too much about the updates to the blog or organising twenty donors to visit your audio dub you’re probably not in the right frame of mind to do the work, so you need to think carefully about what you offer. There’s a reason why creative people have agents, publicists and producers- to evangelise and barter in ways that the creator sometimes can’t.

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Black Sunrise (image courtesy Nick Cross)

Crowdfunding increasingly demands the artist is a persuasive performer and eloquent orator, and that’s not the kind of personality trait many animators have. Ask yourself how many animators are household names through shameless promotion and the ability to do great soundbites, compared with film directors. Maybe Animators just haven’t got the chutzpah for this showmanship?

As the crowdfunding marketplace grows, one can imagine there’s a danger of a nuclear arms race of perks, with funders expecting ever greater trinkets or souvenirs for their ten dollars. Also, just how many associate producers can be credited before it ceases to become an accolade worth having?

Another important factor is reputation. People need to trust you can deliver before they fund. Nick Cross has been part of the canadian animation scene since 1998- making short films on his own. People trust him to deliver, and via his previous portfolio they know the kind of animation that they might expect to be produced. It’s not so obvious that college leavers will be able to generate the same kinds of sums, although some clearly do with the right patter and prototype work. Another thing to bear in mind is Nick releases his films on the internet for free- he’s not making money, so is probably viewed more charitably because of this.

IRON-SKY THINKING

A word of warning to all who enter the world of crowdfunding- you need a thick skin. There’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested in your life’s work. Also, there’s a fine art to pitching your project. It seems people react best to certain emotional triggers in the pitch.

our epic "What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?" animation

The epic “What if the nazis escaped to the dark side of the moon after WWII?” animation

Energia Productions, the company behind the science fiction comedy Iron Sky based on Nazi invaders from the dark side of the moon recently put out a request on crowdsourcing site Sponsume (www.sponsume.com) for funds to cope with going over budget during their shoot due to bad weather conditions, and asked for 50,000 euros. Only seven backers came forward, and a meagre 4% of the proposed target was reached.

Iron Sky is no hastily thought up operation- it’s a fantastic looking CGI film produced in collaboration with an on-line community of film enthusiasts, that has already secured 6.3 million euros through traditional film funding channels like the Finnish Film Foundation, Eurimages, Hessen Film Invest, Screen Queensland, and pre-sales. They aim to eventually cover 900,000 euros of the budget through crowdfunding. (see http://www.ironsky.net). As such the failure to reach 50,000 euros to assist with an over-budget shoot could be seen as worrying.

It may be the public didn’t warm to supporting the fact the production team went over budget, or it maybe that in this instance Energia Productions had pitched the offer too high- a name on the end credits for 850 euros, or an associate producer name check for 8,500 is steep compared to Nick Cross’s offer. Alternatively it might be that Sponsume is a relatively new site and therefore hasn’t got the traction of major crowd sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter (not mentioned in this article because it is US only). Whatever the reason or mix of factors, it seems to be a matter of finding a sweet spot where the public’s imagination and conscience can be engaged and they will donate in enough numbers to significantly meet your target.

ironsky_newlogo1The good news is that other methods of crowdfunding like selling “War Bonds” and merchandising has raised about 50,000 euros to date for Iron Sky, helping support the core team, and it has been stated that this fantastic looking project has 200,000 euros committed by crowd investors so far. For large productions it seems that  crowdsourcing needs to be just one ingredient in the funding mix. It’s clear in a world of crowdfunding there will be winners and losers- and some media forms may suit better than others.

GAME, CROWD AND MATCH?

Crowdfunding isn’t seen as a business model to reap financial profits from, but that might be starting to change. Crowdfunding offers the chance for new business models in other media too. Games apps website Appbackr proclaims itself “the first crowdfunding marketplace for mobile apps”. It uses crowdfunding principles in a different way by enabling app developers to find funders (called backrs) who can help fund applications and drive sales. The app developer receives payment from a backr for a designated number of app copies. When the purchased copies are downloaded in mobile app stores, the developer receives an additional payment and the backrs also profit. The real advantage here is giving the developer money upfront (a small percentage goes to Appbackr too). The site suggests backing an already completed app has a potential profit margin of 26%, or backing a concept (that will take several months or longer to yield revenue) has a potential profit of 54%.

appbackr-logoAt the time of writing “App of the week” on the Appbackr site is Boogie Monster by Monstrous with $11,765 raised in funds.Backing an app early gives you the opportunity to make a higher return, thus encouraging popular themes and genres, and therein may lie the achilles heel of crowdfunding, which is the notions of surprise, novelty and innovation.

Would some of the greatest animation films of all time have ever been made through crowdfunding? Or would imagery and story have been toned down to appeal to the vanity of the widest range of funders? Imagine a world where Nick Parks debut “A Grand Day Out”, Jan Švankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” or Len Lye’s “Free Radicals” were originally funded in this way. Would they have produced the same film, or have made certain compromises for the audience?

It maybe that the answer will be up to us- the public- since with our new role as funders we become arbiters of taste. We may no longer be able to blame commissioning editors, broadcasters or moguls for mediocre animation fare- we’ll be forced to blame our own conservatism. Crowdfunding gives us a chance to put our money where our mouth is. Let’s invest wisely, but not TOO wisely, eh?

This is an article originally written for IMAGINE animation magazine Autumn 2011.

UPDATE: I’ve now written a second article on Crowdfunding with a UK success story here