About Digital Arts Communication

hands with digital chip and laptop in background

Digital Arts Communication (DAC) is offered as a Minor for Arts students.

Digital Arts Communication students learn how to design with digital images, hypertext, sound, and video. And most important, they learn to design, develop, and test media for a wide variety of businesses and professions, ranging from the high-tech sector, to corporate communications, to the creative industries.

So why take Digital Arts Communication? Because digital technologies are rapidly changing how we communicate - both in our personal and professional lives. Using digital technologies, professionals in almost every field need to reach more people, using richer media, in more interactive ways. The Digital Arts Communication minor provides students with the knowledge and skills required to design communication for an increasingly digital world.

DAC Student: Aqsa Zubair's story

Combining Digital Arts Communication with a Coop education is a great way to get noticed and then hired by employers, according to Aqsa Zuabir, a Business and Law student in the Faculty of Arts. The key to successful professionalization, says Zubair, is to find as many ways as possible to engage in experiential learning, which she defines as "learning from doing and then reflecting on that to understand what you actually learned.  It is also implementing these reflections in other aspects of my life."

Finishing her degree in Winter 2016, Zubair explains that as the world becomes increasingly digital, students need to know how to design, produce, and share rich media, especially as part of their professionalization. This kind of knowledge, she says, only comes through practice via real-world challenges and constant exposure to technologies, opportunities, and challenges.

"Coop and DAC definitely fed into each other and I took that work knowledge back to class."

Taken together, DAC and Coop complement each other: the first providing hands-on experiences with technologies and media design; the second providing actual situations requiring students to improvise, innovate, and cultivate new skills and ideas: "my Coop work experience ended up helping me in DAC; Coop and DAC definitely fed into each other and I took that work knowledge back to class."

Zubair completed 6 DAC courses, and points to three courses in particular-- Information Design, Digital Presentations, and Machinima and Digital Story Telling -- as having a strong experiential learning component. She mentions Information Design because it teaches people to design backwards, to start with other people's experiences -- namely  from user needs and goals -- and then to design solutions; Digital Presentations, because it requires them to deliver presentations in front of an entire theatre of people, and therefore to experience their digital design decisions in real time and in an actual space; and finally Machinima, because students learn to  work in groups to solve design problems, using complex and sometimes tricky software platforms, in order to design and then build compelling digital movies.

Experiential learning is important to all students, says Zubair.  And DAC is a great way to get the experiences that will matter later, when students move on to become professionals. To back this up, she says she would recommend the hands-on, problem-solving, practical learning that DAC provides to students interested in a design-oriented career:

I have in the past recommended DAC to other students. DAC instructors are able to take beginner designers and turn them into versatile designers. This versatility is taught through the variety of courses, which, coupled together, create a breadth of understanding. You learn different kinds of design thinking which can be applied to different media. When it comes to experiential learning, DAC is a great place to start and then work experience can help you specialize and you go from there.

DAC Faculty: An Interview with Jill Tomasson Goodwin

Professor Tomasson Goodwin, can you tell me, what does experiential learning mean to you?

For me, experiential learning is, at its core, ‘learning by doing’ but the best experiential learning ‘closes the learning-doing loop with reflection’. In experiential learning, students need to practice something, and then think, write and talk about that practice. You learn by doing, and then deepen the understanding through articulation and internalization. In teaching and learning circles, this practice is also called deep learning.

Of your courses, which ones do you think have the strongest experiential learning component?

Two courses: one is called User Experience Design, and the other is called Digital Presentations. Both are Digital Arts Communications (DAC) classes. The first involves group work; the second, individual work.

Tell me about the experiential learning in the User Experience Design (UX) course. How does it work?

The students work in assigned groups of three. They stay with that same group all term and have a real-world client they work for. To set up the project, I have worked with the client before term to put the requirements together. Generally, the project involves iterative design cycles and draws heavily on a technology; in past terms, I have used augmented reality and social media platforms. The students work to solve a real and pressing problem for that client and their solutions matter.  To me, this course feature is an important part of experiential learning.

And in the Digital Presentations Course?

Digital Presentations is different. There is no external client. The project is worked on individually all term. There is feedback at each design milestone from other students and me: topic selection, storyboarding, script, slide deck, rehearsal. This course, too, has real world consequences because of the final public event. The class hosts an evening of Ted-like talks in our 400-seat theatre, and the event invitation is published on the university website and anyone in the community – the university or more broadly, the city -- can come.  It’s ‘real world’ because the students inspire, inform, or persuade in front of ‘real’ people they may or may not know about topics they are passionate about.

Is iterative learning a part of the reflection component of experiential learning?

Yes, there is reflection during each design iteration. In UX, for example, there are three major course milestone: each one involves a student-run interview with the course client’s customers.  In the course, the client is the UWaterloo Marketing and Undergraduate Recruitment department, and their customers are incoming high school students, so our students interview the high school students.  The first is to gather insight into the everyday world of a senior high school student, to create what’s called a ‘persona’ document (to help guide design decisions); the second is to test the DAC groups’ design prototype with the high school students (who would be using it); and the third is to test a second version of the prototype.

The class prepares extensively for each of these three interviews with the high school students. At every stage I give feedback. For example, I help them learn how to interview in a professional manner and provide written and verbal suggestions about what could be done better next time. Groups write their own reflections afterwards -- examining what went well, what could be improved, et cetera. There are also individual reflections -- ones identifying transferable skills like team work, collaboration, and communication. All of these skills are transferable employability skills or grad school skills, which students tie to specific in-course activities – the interviews, for example -- and other project pieces, including a final presentation to the client.

So these skills can help students find employment after university?

Yes, employers believe that students come out of university without the necessary skills to contribute to the workplace. In reality, students have the skills employers want but don't always know how to articulate them, and equally, the employer doesn’t know how to recognize them in the student. So DAC courses help students to strengthen those skills, and equally, to recognize and then speaking about those skills.

Do you think experiential learning is important for both you and the students? If so, why?

Yes - for both me and the students. It is important to me because it allows me to learn alongside the students. I don’t lecture or have a set of disciplinary notes, but I have the expertise and deep practices around this knowledge.  I’m co-creating new knowledge, helping the students through problem solving for the particular set of UX or presentation issues. I teach and refine my own practice and expertise at the same time.

On the students’ side, experiential learning ties what they know with what they can do, and what they can learn to do. With their reflections, they also learn a vocabulary that helps them to identify their own transferable skills, which they can use in graduate school, summer or co-op jobs, and permanent employment.

What DAC students have done

Victoria Stacey - founding editor of Passion8 magazine

Tallen Kay - producer at Arc Media

Matt Neill - founder of POET (Point of Experience Technology)

Andrew Askes and Jon Lucas - co-founders of Arc Media

Professors Glenn Stillar, Dave Goodwin, and Jill Tomasson-Goodwin, made the biggest impact on my education and career path. The consistent support and mentorship of Professor Stillar played a very big part in making my undergraduate experience at Waterloo unique, engaging, and applicable to my career.”

- Jon Lucas (BA Liberal Arts), founding co-director, Arc Media

Students at uWaterloo who are interested in a career in digital media should get involved in the DAC program, as well as REAP. Extremely passionate professors that want to see students succeed run both of these programs, and they’ve played an integral part in getting our business off the ground.”

- Andrew Askes (BA Economics), founding co-director, Arc Media