Facilitating interdisciplinary learning and innovation in games art education

University of Brighton Faculty of Arts Student magazine article.


Project Holders: Lynn Parker and Robin Sloan
Institution: University of Abertay Dundee - Institute of Arts, Media and Computer Games

1. About the project

Could you briefly outline your project’s aims?

The project, DACii: Digital Arts Curriculum – Interdisciplinary learning and Innovation has three main aims: 

  • to involve students directly in the development of a new curriculum for game art and design;
  • to facilitate interdisciplinary learning and experimentation with contemporary technologies;
  • to encourage students to engage with research issues that cross disciplinary boundaries and academic departments.

The overarching idea is that, by introducing into the game art education curriculum concepts and methods that are not typically present, our arts graduates will be better equipped to contribute to and lead innovative, interdisciplinary projects. 

Traditionally game art education focuses on the design and production of computer games, and often overlooks the broader conceptual and technological issues that impact production of digital art for education, training and scientific research. Through mixed-methods research, our project seeks to discuss the promotion of arts-led interdisciplinary collaboration within a game art curriculum, and the impact on student practice. The UK games sector faces continued challenges and increasing global competition.  It is anticipated that student-led curriculum design will produce graduates who are creatively, technically and conceptually equipped to help grow the UK games sector.  

The project is structured in two parts.  Firstly, a case study will trial arts-led interdisciplinary research with a group of Computer Arts students responding to a live project brief from our partner department the Division of Environment.  The findings from the case study will feed into a curriculum development phase, where a new syllabus will be implemented and evaluated. 

2. Project progress

What would you say has been the key success of the project?

The key success of the project has been the expansion of lesson content beyond technical proficiency to include interdisciplinary research and practice. Curriculum development for the project was informed by a summer case study that involved a small student group working on an arts-led interdisciplinary project.  The project activity benefited from advice, input, and feedback from our partner department, the Division of Environment, who contributed expertise in environmental visualisation and who provided a real-world problem for the arts students to work on.  

Students were exposed to a range of disciplinary contexts and approaches through a lecture series, field trips, and tutorial sessions. A key finding from this process was that the participants highlighted tutorials and lectures relating to non-game art fields as being the most informative to the development of their creative practice.  The findings of this process drove the development of a new syllabus, and this is – as a direct result of this project – being trialled within a core module in the third year of our Computer Arts curriculum.  The summer phase highlighted five concepts that we have incorporated into the new syllabus:  

  • expansion of the context of Computer Arts practice through interdisciplinary collaboration can enhance creative development;
  • active learning through field trips, brainstorming, discussion groups and regular formative feedback can enhance student engagement;
  • discussion of and exposure to new digital technologies helps stimulate innovative design solutions;
  • the requirements of an interdisciplinary digital design brief may drive individual technical development;
  • the production of working prototypes requires advanced technical skills beyond the remit of arts students at this level, and so emphasis should be placed on conceptualisation and design.

Have there been any unexpected benefits as the project progressed, could you give some details?

As noted above, the project initiated research through a summer case study where interdisciplinary research and new teaching approaches were trialled with a small student group.  This phase resulted in a prototype software application for the Division of Environment and their external stakeholder. 

This application made use of emerging digital technology (multi-touch screens and stereoscopic 3D) in order to engage users. The task posed by our Environment partner concerned the design and development of an interactive media installation that would successfully convey the role of local, natural coastal defences to the community. The specific application being to communicate the need for defence barriers on the West Sands beach located in St. Andrews.  The interactive prototype was designed as a vehicle to allow student experimentation with new technologies, to trial new teaching approaches, and to build on interdisciplinary project development.  The summer phase achieved these aims, and indeed produced a working prototype that has been very well received by the external stakeholder and the Division of Environment, and we are now seeking follow-on funding to continue the collaboration, leading to a more fully developed game. 

Santiago Martinez, a Phd student specialising in Human Computer Interaction, has joined the project team as a researcher. This has complemented the arts practice backgrounds of the project lead and researcher.  This addition to the team was made possible through a change in status of the former project researcher, Robin Sloan, who is now a permanent full-time lecturer.  

Furthermore, the DACii project has raised the profile of interdisciplinary research within the Institute of Arts, Media and Computer games, with a number of staff and students now working collaboratively with partner departments to enhance the visualisation of their research.

Could you give details of any unexpected hurdles you encountered during the course of the project?

The project had planned to make use of the HIVE (Human Immersive Virtual Environment) to expose students to a range of emergent technologies.  The HIVE is an active lab used by a portfolio of projects and unanticipated technical difficulties, associated with other project developments, impacted use of the HIVE through the summer phase of the project. As a contingency measure, a portable touch screen and stereoscopic monitor were utilised by the student group for the creation of the prototype.  Importantly, this portability actually added value since it allowed the technology to be showcased at both an internal exposition of the summer phase output and also to external stakeholders involved with the partner departments.  

Through the curriculum development phase, which commenced in September, a more conceptual approach to technology has been applied, allowing students to prototype innovative concepts without being hampered by limitations imposed by a lack of specialised technical skills. This tied in with one of the findings of the summer case study: that technical (in particular programming) skill limitations can impede creativity of Computer Art students, and so working towards design concepts rather than functioning products empowers students to develop more innovative digital art solutions using a variety of complex technologies. The summer phase relied heavily upon a technical member of staff to implement student creative concepts.  Within our current curriculum, students are unable to access such dedicated programming experts to support the development of working prototypes, therefore a conceptual approach allows a student to be creative in their application of technology but to present their designs in either illustrative or interactive forms without technical limitations. 

3. Impact on teaching and learning

How do you believe the project has impacted on your teaching?

A core module in the curriculum has been designed based upon the findings of the student summer project.  This module has been delivered by Arts and Human-computer interaction (HCI) experts with support from Psychology, Engineering, and Environmental Science specialists.  Anecdotal evidence from the student group has demonstrated that this expertise has inspired their approach to the project brief with a number of the group working out with the field of computer games for entertainment purposes.  

Since this project was proposed, the entire Computer Arts programme has entered a phase of redesign to refresh core themes, and the research team (Parker and Sloan) are central to this process.  The interim findings of the current project have identified the need for student engagement with a wider range of academic and professional contexts to drive creative development. This will be addressed through an interdisciplinary lecture series and through the addition of a research-focussed core module in year three.  There is also a need for development of applied technical skills in order to support students when conducting practice-based, interdisciplinary research.  This approach to coursework will be embedded in the wider programme by the curriculum team.  

How do you believe future students may benefit from the project outcomes?

Future students may benefit from this project in a number of ways.  The raised profile for interdisciplinary research within the Institute of Arts, Media and Computer Games, will offer a greater range of extra-curricular projects for students which will enhance creative practice and employability upon graduation.  The development of the curriculum, using the project findings to enhance the programme as  a whole, will also benefit student progression for a number of years to come. In particular, we hope that future Computer Arts graduates will leave University with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to help grow the UK games and digital media sectors through innovative thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, and entrepreneurship.

What would you consider were the potential wider community benefits from your project?

Our project targeted the theme of ‘graduates with impact’, and our ambition has always been to provide our arts graduates with the tools and knowledge to engage with the wider academic and stakeholder communities. In the current phase of the research, a class of approximately fifty students have been developing personal research agendas based on topics as diverse as virtual commerce, interactive gallery spaces, energy use in the urban environment, and airport navigation. The questions they have identified correspond to real-world problems, in line with the nature of the summer phase of the project. 

The subsequent solutions that students are devising and developing make use of their artistic skills, visual literacy, game design knowledge, and understanding of both perception and human-computer interaction. As we develop this curriculum further, there is potential for replicating the success of the summer phase directly within the curriculum, encouraging our art students to engage with and contribute to the needs and wants of local communities. 

4. Collaborative aspects of the project

How have students responded to the project?

Feedback from the summer phase was very positive, with students highlighting the new application area and approaches to learning as the most interesting elements of the project.  The participants from the summer phase are now currently completing their first semester of their honours study. A number of them were clearly influenced by their experiences, as emergent technology and interdisciplinary practice are central themes within their research.  

As the curriculum design phase of the research is ongoing, student responses have only been collected informally by the research team. A questionnaire will be used to collect more structured feedback at the end of the current semester. To date, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, students appear to be engaging with the diversity of topics covered in class and in lectures. Part of the new curriculum has challenged students to identify and clarify their own research questions, which some students have had more difficulty with. Nonetheless, most students have proposed viable topics for research, and have been using a variety of digital arts production methods to visualise and communicate their solutions. 

Have other members of staff been asked, or offered, to cooperate as the project progressed?

A number of staff members from other departments have participated in the project to enhance or underpin core themes of the project.  For instance, Dr Ken Scott Brown, from the Psychology division, delivered a guest lecture during the summer phase and advised the development of curriculum materials which promote consideration of Psychology practice within creative media.  During the student exposition of their prototype at the end of the summer, several staff and students from around the University were present to ask questions and provide feedback on the working prototype.  This breadth of expertise offered the students insight into the development of their prototype. In general there has been warm enthusiasm from colleagues across the University, in particularly Psychology and Environmental Sciences, to continue to engage with our division in order to work on interdisciplinary research projects.

How do you see other staff and students in the department potentially benefitting from the project outcomes?

Our focus has been on one particular cohort of students studying Computer Arts, and the intention was always to develop a new syllabus for these students allowing them to make use of their specialist 3D art, design, and animation skills to engage with other disciplines and communities. However, it is possible that the new syllabus will not be designed for Computer Arts students alone. As we continue to develop this approach, students from other art and media programmes are likely to join the new module that will be developed as a result of our research. In consequence, the outcomes of the project have the potential to underpin curriculum design for a range of creative art, design, and media students based in our Division. 

How do you envisage the wider subject community may potentially benefit from the project? 

The project is nearing the end of the curriculum phase, and evaluation will begin shortly.  It is expected that the findings of this research will highlight the benefits of a revised approach to teaching practice, interdisciplinary contexts, and integration of new technologies.  The findings of this research will be collated with the findings from the summer phase in a paper detailing the effect of the project on the development of graduates with impact.  This paper – which will also cover examples of student work and a documentary detailing the research undertaken throughout the project - will be presented at an exposition in the University of Abertay in February 2012.  Students and staff from universities around Scotland will be invited to this SICSA (Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance) event to discuss and build on the findings of this project.  This local event will be supported by the online blog to promote further discussion of interdisciplinary working within the field of game art education (www.dacii.blog.com/).  

Contact Information

Lynn Parker, Computer Arts Programme Tutor

Robin Sloan, Lecturer in Computer Arts

back to Art Design Media Learning and Teaching Projects 2011-12 



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