New course allows students to merge coding, design, storytelling

Merging editorial judgment and design principles, undergraduate students in the Web Producing and Interactive Design class created visually creative, forward-thinking websites that explored topics ranging from an examination of technology in education to the chemistry of coffee. A new course, the idea came about because of the need for students to have a chance to merge all of the different skills they are learning at Medill in one class.

“I saw all the things these students have learned at Medill come together,” said Assistant Professor Jeremy Gilbert, who co-taught the class with Assistant Professor Emily Withrow. 

Students chose the topics, researched and reported on them and then created a website that would best showcase what they found. This is the first class to allow students the opportunity to create a story by coding, designing, reporting and producing all at once.

“The students did an outstanding job building sites from the ground up,” Withrow said. “They defined their vision and made it happen.”

All eight projects are showcased on the site The Cultural Quotient. The interactive stories created were:

• Robotic Relations examines how robots function in modern society. The group showcased three examples of today’s robots, used as toys, workers and promoters of well-being.
• The Mad Barista is a walk-through on how coffee goes from bean to cup. Through interviews with local coffee roasters and brewers, the group used videos, photos and interactive components to illustrate the entire process.
• It’s in the Bag tracks the environmental impact of reusable, plastic and paper grocery bags, and analyzes which of the three choices is actually the “greenest.”
• The Beat studies the evolution of electronic dance music, from its roots to its current popularity. A standout feature is the inclusion of Seaquence, which allows users to compose their own electronic music piece.
• Child’s Play looks at the inclusion of the iPad in the classroom and how technology can aid learning. The group looked at the rise of iPads being used as tools in teaching and what the potential benefits and drawbacks are.
• The Adventures of the Social Superfan goes inside the rising culture of superfandom and looks at the language of superfans, the history behind the phenomenon and what the legal implications are when fans create material based on their passion.
• Techercise shows how technology can impact working out, through wearable technology, fitness apps and exercise gamification.
• Social Design offers three social problems and shows how students have designed ways to solve them. Profiling the work of Design for America, the group explains how the social design process works, what DFA has created and links to other social design projects currently underway.

Many of the students came into the class without the coding or design skills needed to build the websites, but thanks to funding from the McCormick Foundation, Sarah Adler (BSJ13), Tyler Fisher (BSJ14) and Katie Zhu (BSJ13) served as student teaching assistants and helped fill in the knowledge gaps.

Both Fisher and Zhu have won the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship for innovative projects they developed while studying the intersection of computer science and media.

But students were also encouraged to formulate their own ideas and investigate what they needed to learn in order to make them happen. From layout to user experience, Gilbert and Withrow encouraged students in the class to be creative with their ideas for the sites.

“If the students define their vision for the site and make it happen, it’ll stick much better,” Withrow said.

As many of the students expressed while presenting their final websites, all of their ideas weren’t fully defined until their reporting and writing was underway.

“Let the content dictate what design you use, instead of the other way around,” said Noah Rawitz (BSJ14), who worked on the Social Design project.

The class came about because both Gilbert and Withrow saw a need for Medill students to have the experience of shepherding a storytelling website from creation to completion and a chance to combine storytelling and technology in an interesting way. Each proposed a class with a similar focus and interest in the class was enthusiastic, so the two combined in order to accommodate the most students. 

“We talked about the need for undergraduate students to have a capstone-like experience,” Gilbert said. “This class gave students a chance to do that. This gives students the opportunity to do something that could be done at a cutting edge news organization.”

Students needed to develop and marry a number of different skills in order to succeed in this class, giving them the chance to put what they’ve learned as undergraduates to practice.