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School’s Out – My First Quarter in the UW MCDM Program – COM 529

This past May, in a post titled Heading Back to School, I talked about my decision to attend the Master of Communication in Digital Media (aka MCDM) Program at the University of Washington. This post is a review of my first quarter as a late-career graduate student.

I spent the summer alternately elated that I would be going back to school and concerned that I was making a big mistake. Would I be able to keep up with home, work, and school? Would this old dog be able to learn some new tricks? I was also concerned about the inevitable group projects and the associated lack of control over the outcome, particularly when my peers were also busy mid- and late-career professionals.

Things started off in late summer, with two full days of orientation. We toured the campus, learned more about the curriculum, and met a number of members of the faculty. We also met and became acquainted with the other members of our cohort. I learned that the cohort was composed of three main types of students: local folks like myself, people who had come to Seattle from other parts of the country, and people who had come from other countries. The international contingent included people from China, India, Peru, and Brazil.

During the orientation we were told to plan on spending 4 hours in class each week and another 15-20 hours per week working outside of class. Earlier in the summer I had considered taking two classes at a time. After hearing more about the time requirements, I believe that my decision to take just one class was the right one for me.

I signed up for COM 529, Strategic Research and Business Practice. Taught by the dynamic duo of Hanson Hosein and Malcolm Parks, this is a core (mandatory) course. We were told that we would be faced with the challenge of helping a real-world client learn to solve a specific problem using social media. The class met once per week, from 6:00 PM to 9:50 PM each Wednesday.

I was worried that a four hour class would drag on, and that I might have trouble staying awake and focused for the duration. This did not turn out to be a problem! Hanson and Mac made sure to pack each and every evening with a variety of learning experiences. We’d start out by reviewing and discussing the reading assignments. We generally had one or more guest speakers (either live or via Skype) along with lectures from Hanson and Mac. Hanson liked to start off on a light note, often setting the stage with a YouTube video or two. Mac was bit more formal, but just as informative and entertaining.

Things started off on the right foot with our first assignment. We were asked to write up our impressions of one of the entries in the Cluetrain Manifesto. I chose “Markets are conversations,” since that statement resonates nicely with my employer’s customer-centric model. We were also asked to read a chapter drawn from William Zinsser’s classic book, On Writing Well.

Our primary textbooks were Charlene Li’s Open Leadership and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, supplanted by readings from The Wealth of Networks and You Are Not a Gadget. We generally read 3 or 4 chapters per week. It was all interesting, but some of it was slow going, especially the assigned chapter from The Wealth of Networks, a book full of paragraphs that are nearly a page long, each loaded with obscure polysyllabic words.

In the first week we learned that we would be split in to teams and that each team would be responsible for three major deliverables related to a real-world client. We met each of the clients in the second week of the quarter. The clients included the United States EPA, NPR’s BirdNote, the Pacific Science Center, the Woodland Park Zoo, and The New Hive. I was impressed by The New Hive’s plan to develop a user base around the concept of “slow social media” and addressed my initial paper to their project.

Also in the first week, we created a lively backchannel using Twitter. I created a Twitter list for the class and signed up most of my classmates in the first week or two. We used the tag #mcdmresearch to flag our tweets and were sufficiently prolific to become a Twitter trending topic in Seattle at least once or twice.

A number of factors contributed to our grade including class participation and the submission of a “minute paper” each week. Each member of the class was tasked with writing up a short paper each week and posting it to a protected section of the MCDM’s MediaSpace site. Almost everyone spent far longer than a minute on these submissions; reading them gave me additional perspective on what transpired in the class, and also left me in awe of the writing abilities exhibited by my classmates.

A few weeks in, the groups were formed. We had a very strong group and I was very pleased to be a part of it. We managed to collaboratively write an initial paper, film and edit a multimedia stop-motion video, and to rewrite the initial paper based on feedback received from the client. I really enjoyed working with my group. At various times we met on campus, in a Microsoft conference room, at my house (after cooking and eating pizza, of course), and at the home of another member of the group. Everyone pitched in and did 150% of what they needed to do and I hope to be able to work with one or more of them again sometime soon. The biggest technical challenge with our group project turned out to be collaborative editing and reviewing. After an initial attempt to write our paper using Google Docs, we settled on Microsoft Word’s change tracking feature. Not everyone in the group was familiar with this form of collaborative work; in retrospect we should have spent 10 or 15 minutes making sure that everyone truly understood the best way for us to work together.

We had a number of impressive guest speakers including Sam De La Garza (Ford Fiesta’s branding program), Kristy Bolsinger (Real Networks), Adam Brotman (Starbucks Digital), Colleen Moffitt (Communique PR), and Anil Batra (POP). We peppered them with questions and enjoyed learning from them.

After spending nearly four hours in class you think we’d be worn out and eager to leave. That was definitely not the case! Mac, Hanson, the guest speakers, and the Twitter conversation blended together to inform and enlighten us in a different way each week. There were plenty of post-class conversations and mini-meetings and we left only with reluctance.

The group projects were extremely impressive. Each group chose a different approach; each learned a lot about planning, storytelling, and the ins and outs of video production along the way. You can see the finished products in this post on the Flip the Media blog.

I was able to arrange my travel schedule in such a way that I didn’t miss any classes. I made short trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas during the quarter. I settled in to a weekly rhythm that worked out really well. After attending class on Wednesday, I wrote my minute paper each Thursday. I spent some time each Sunday on the reading materials, and then arrived on campus shortly after noon each Wednesday to do my final preparation for class.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable return to graduate school for me. I learned a lot, and I also believe that I contributed a lot.

This coming quarter I will be taking Ken Rufo’s Evolution of Digital Media class. Kathy Gill was scheduled to teach this class but she is out on medical leave (get well soon, @kegill) and I was asked to re-register for Ken’s section.