University of Virginia's New Digital Media 'Groups Lab' Helps Students Complete Class Projects in the Digital Age

March 27, 2008 – University of Virginia students Zoe Neale, Erica Litovitz and Teri Dulong-Rae huddle around a computer in the G-Lab, a new computing area on the third floor of the school's Clemons Library. Tasked with creating a Web site for a class assignment, the students are trying to decide how best to complete the project, which will require site-building programs, graphic editor applications and digital animating software.

While it sounds like they may be studying computer science, this group of students is actually enrolled in a history course.

The growing use of digital media in classes at the University prompted the creation of the G-Lab, or "Groups Lab." The new facility is an extension of the Digital Media Lab, also located on Clemons' third floor, which offers a wide range of digital media equipment, software and support.

The new lab occupies space that previously held a few general-purpose workstations, said Jama Coartney, who heads the Digital Media Lab, including the new G-Lab. "The Digital Media Lab can hold physically about 20 people, and not comfortably. In this new G-Lab space, we can have classes of 35."

The history students at work in the G-Lab have experienced firsthand the increase in the academic use of digital media at the University. Their current project, for U.Va. history professor Brian Balogh's "Viewing America" class, is titled "Create Your Own Unit." The assignment instructs student groups to assemble a Web site that contains analysis of a historical event or trend not normally explored by the syllabus, incorporating digital source material related to the topic. Neale is her group's "webmaster," the student in charge of actually putting the group's work online.

"I like the project. I didn't know how to make a Web site before and I have had to learn to put it together," she said.

The assignment is only one of the many multimedia components of the course, which explores life in post-WWII America. After receiving a Teaching + Technology grant from the University, Balogh developed a password-protected Web site to serve as the main reference resource for the class. Along with traditional reading assignments, students are required to explore video and audio sources posted on the site.

In the unit covering the relationship between politics and the media, the class Web site includes clips of Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech" and the Nixon-Kennedy debates. While studying the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s, students listen to Jimi Hendrix play the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. To further understand the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the class watches video of pro-segregation speeches by Alabama's Gov. George Wallace and news coverage of riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, each week students are required to view a movie contemporary to the period they are studying, including classics like "Dr. Strangelove" and "Easy Rider."

Balogh's use of digital sources stems both from the "media-rich" period his class covers and the effectiveness of multimedia elements as teaching tools.

"What I look for while I'm teaching is a kind of intense engagement with the material, and after 20 years of teaching I don't delude myself," Balogh said. "I don't expect 100 percent of the students to be intensely engaged with the material all the time. But what I do find about the digital material I work with and the generation of students that I work with now is that there is a better chance of getting students deeply engaged with the material through digital media than any other that I know."

Balogh added that digital sources he requires students to digest supplement, rather than supplant, the use of traditional print materials in his course.

"It is still my job to assign good articles and good books, and I do that," Balogh said. "My course is a lot of work. I think one of the ways I get students to do the work is to get them engaged, and one of the ways I do that is to try and use digital material."

According to Judy Thomas, head of the Robertson Media Center, home of the Digital Media Lab, Balogh's efforts to integrate digital media in the classroom have paved the way for other professors to do the same.

"Brian's basic approach, which was to get students to work together to come up with a group-based, innovative-but-discipline-appropriate project, was really groundbreaking," Thomas said.

The creation of the G-Lab will not only provide more resources to professors who use multimedia elements in their classes, but also help their students cope with digital assignments like Balogh's "Create Your Own Unit" project. 

"All the resources they need for developing the Web site, such as the Web development programs and flash ... are all right there on the same system," Loren Moulds, a graduate student and teaching assistant for "Viewing America," said.  "All the students have laptops, but the best part is this is a place that is centrally located. It is a really nice, clean and open space, where they can get together and work."

— By Catherine Conkle