New digital media course synthesizes online creative community

By Eric Devlin
"The Language of Digital Media" a new course that launched in the fall, combines elements of computer science with digital audio and video.

"The Language of Digital Media" a new course that launched in the fall, combines elements of computer science with digital audio and video.

This past fall, Montgomery County Community College launched a new course online called "The Language of Digital Media," which combines elements of computer science and music, to teach students to use state-of-the-art digital tools in audio and video production.

For students who took the course, taught by Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin and Sound Recording and Music Technology Instructor Jen Mitlas, many said it was unlike anything they had ever seen.

The courses introduces students to new technology and tools like the Arduino micro controller and software, digital audio workstations, digital video content, and musical instruments like the MIDI keyboard, along with related audio software like Abelton. The goal is to show how computer systems make it accessible for new users to take audio and digital information as input, to combine it using custom rules they develop and to produce new kinds of sounds, songs and interactive videos.

Students appreciated the way the course seamlessly combines elements of science and the arts. Most importantly, it synthesized a genuine community where they felt free to express themselves creatively without fear of judgment.

Maggie Stoudt, 18, a Liberal Studies major from Perkiomenville, was curious what she would find when she logged on to the asynchronous online course the first time.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “The course description sounded fun. I knew nothing about computer science, so I wasn’t super excited. After I registered, my advisor told me it was the first time for the class and the professors were awesome.”

Twenty-year-old Mersha Wambua, of Willow Grove, enrolled in the course because she heard it would be fun and creative, and she needed to fulfill a requirement for her major in theater arts.

“I knew that it had to do with making music, but I was not sure to what extent,” she said. “Most of the class wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Wambua said she didn’t know she was taking a brand new course, given Martin and Mitlas’ chemistry teaching together.

“I was convinced the teachers had been doing this class for years,” she said.

For Mitlas and Martin, the class initially was not conceived as being held in a virtual format, but rather in a classroom on campus. The class was taught asynchronously, but met online Thursday nights live each week, too, for further discussion. Students responded to having two instructors in the course.

“There’s something different about having two teachers in a class. I’ve never done it in the 20 years I’ve been at Montco,” said Martin. “It’s really powerful for students to see a team interacting with each other. They see colleagues excited about intellectual ideas together. It’s a different feeling for a class.”

Students enjoyed learning about the new tools they were using and working together. Stoudt said her favorite part of the class was learning about Abelton. She also appreciated interacting with her classmates online.

“I really liked doing the discussion board,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone this semester, so it made it fun. We talked about the class and other things. It made the class feel personal in an impersonal setting.”

Elisabeth Deschene, 19, a Liberal Studies major from Upper Dublin Township, said the class gave her the confidence to express herself.

“Normally I’m a very reserved person,” she said. “I don’t like to talk a whole lot. I get worried I will overstay my welcome, but I never got that feeling there. It was a welcoming, supportive environment.”

For Martin and Mitlas, the focus was on creating a safe space where students felt they could share their work without judgment.

 “In the beginning, students had the lights off with their camera on and they were sitting in the dark,” said Martin. “In the end, some of them were going back to projects they’d created in high school they had put aside because they were afraid of being judged. They went back and built these creative, expressive pieces of work. It was a fascinating thing that they were able to share something that intimate with the class.”

“Everyone came out of their shells,” said Mitlas.

For their final projects, each student submitted wildly different assignments that incorporated the tools they learned during the semester.

Blatty Diasilau, 36, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and who currently lives in Lansdale, used his computer science background to create a fireworks visual effect using Arduino.

Wambua recreated a song from one of her favorite albums, “The Need to Know” by The Royal Concept.

“I was proud of the final product. I didn’t think I would be as proud as I was,” she said. “It took such a long time, but it was a lot of fun as I was doing it. It turned out really well.”

Stoudt, meanwhile, took her love of “The Lord of the Rings” original soundtrack and used the Abelton software to recreate the track “Concerning Hobbits” that incorporated birds chirping and other unique sound effects.   

“I wanted to express how I feel when I listen to the song,” she said. “It was a lot of fun putting that together.”

For Martin and Mitlas, the course’s success was a tribute to the power of the tools students were given and the trust students formed with each other.

“It changed the way people saw themselves,” said Martin. “It provided a safe enough space that changed the way they were able to see each other. We had a great time.”