Broad mind, best spirit

May 12, 1995

Academics at the artistic end of the higher education spectrum are facing a dilemma over how to respond to the multimedia revolution.

They are trying to decide whether the whizzkids of new technology have presented them with a handy set of tools or a totally fresh medium to work in. And in the heat of the ensuing debate, many have been left wondering whether they should be trying to keep the digital gadgetry at arm's length, or embrace it and make it their own before the technocrats assume total control.

Robin Baker, the new director of Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, plans to place his institution firmly and defiantly in the second, more proactive camp. More than that - he would like to put Ravensbourne at the leading edge of innovation in the use of multimedia facilities to educate and train students in the competitive field of design and communication.

That might not seem so surprising, given the reputation of the Kent college's school of broadcasting and its other provision in the areas of three dimensional design, graphic design and fashion.

But Professor Baker's master plan, that he is shaping in consultation with his senior staff members, has raised questions about the role of new technology which are being asked by heads of arts, crafts and media courses throughout higher education.

Some academics, such as Professor Baker himself, see new opportunities opening up in the creation of products and designs which would just not be possible without the aid of a computer. For example, a computer can use genetic algorithms to select among forms "grown" from an original.

"There can be lots of problems with this as far as some designers are concerned because they feel that the visual ownership ought to be theirs, not the machine's. That is one of the things we are going to have to address," he says.

John Millns, head of Ravensbourne's school of three-dimensional design, agrees that courses could develop a stronger focus on these issues. He sees great scope for the use of virtual prototyping and virtual interiors in his discipline.

"At the moment it is difficult for us to test how a product or design will behave - such as in the case of a teapot, we have to make a mock-up before we know whether the spout pours without spilling and whether the balance is right. Students need to be able to make the mock-up, and use the new technology available, although eventually they will be able to do it all with the technology," he says.

Mr Millns tries to ensure that his students' exposure to new technology only increases as they develop their capacity to produce sound design ideas through more traditional methods.

"Students need to build up a whole range of experiences. They tend to use the leading edge technology far more as they build up their knowledge of the traditional techniques," he says.

A similar approach is taken in the school of graphic design, where students are working towards a BA Hons in visual communication. The computer systems available to them are some of the very latest from Quantel, which has invested heavily in the course.

But students do not use the Quantel Paintbox system, capable of eye-popping video effects, until their third year. Before that, they have to cover the technical groundwork of more conventional graphic design.

Colin Cheeseman, lecturer in moving image, explained why he felt so strongly that the new technology, important though it was, should never be regarded as anything more than a tool: "We are quite clear in our aim to train designers who understand moving image making and sequencing, and that equipment is just a means to an end. The Quantel system is only a new way of editing and adding elements that could come from another source like a live action shoot or a piece of animation. Its main role is to combine all of these elements into a finished piece of work.

"An effect should not be used just because it is a new effect. What we say to the students is that you should not be able to identify from the final product how it has been produced."

The industry is requiring an increasing knowledge of the technology from its designers, who must become all-rounders in the new multimedia studios they are likely to encounter. Colin Watson, senior lecturer in computing, explained: "Before, it was the operator who worked the equipment and the designer who directed them. Now we are producing designers who actually have the ability to use the equipment creatively."

The growing importance and complexity of the technology used in broadcasting also has a major impact on the training of HND TV systems engineering students at the college. The kind of equipment they will encounter when they enter the industry (and around 93 per cent do find jobs on completing the course) can include the Silicon Graphics computers that the BBC uses to provide a virtual backdrop for its news presenters.

The pace of development is so rapid, however, that it would be unrealistic to expect young engineers to know everything about each new piece of equipment. Graham Lee, engineering course leader, explained: "These days I try to remember far less than I used to, because I try to maintain an analytical mind. The first questions you need to ask about a new piece of equipment are: what can it do, and how will we integrate it into our system? The actual technology of how it works becomes less important because it is unlikely you would maintain it yourself."

Broadcasting students are able to gain first-hand experience of much of the technology they will use in the industry, through a fully-operational studio at the college.

Graham Lewis, TV studio controller, sees big ethical issues looming with the emergence of interactive TV technology, and expects that students will be called to take these on board.

He predicts that the social impact of multimedia systems will raise tension between the Government's wish to regulate broadcasting and the customers' desire to make use of the new interactive capabilities.

"When broadcasting shifts to reach particular interest groups, as it is beginning to, it is responding to something which is led by change in society," he says.

Where does this leave broadcasting on the question of whether multimedia systems should be regarded as a new medium, or another tool? Graham Lee says there is no easy answer, but he is sure television will not be a totally digital world.

"When you make a TV set work," he says, "it is not digital. Everything in between is, but you start off analogue and you end up analogue. We are moving towards a tapeless type of environment. But if you go for the total virtual reality thing like Silicon Graphics then there is a question of how you tie that in to the existing system. My view is that any new technology will be integrated within a TV studio and will just become another part of broadcasting."

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