Columbia DSL
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Columbia DSL

Old tech meets new in a Rotary Phone that is powered by IBM’s Watson & the Internet of Things. An enchanted storytelling object that is designed to augment a creative process.

Calm Technology in the Classroom

I’m fascinated by the notion of experiential learning. Since I began teaching at Columbia University, much of my work has been focused on mixing theory and practice. Once a year I teach a class entitled, Building Storyworlds: the art, craft & biz of storytelling in 21c. This graduate level course is open to students from across the University, as well as a select number of auditors. Each semester I’m joined by a wide array of writing, producing, directing, theater, visual arts, journalism, computer science, urban design, business and narrative medicine students.

Throughout the semester a steady stream of guest speakers pull back the curtain on the challenges they face telling and selling stories in an ever-shifting digital landscape. As the course progresses, students interact with industry experts, and their classmates, to craft an immersive storytelling project that centers around an enchanted object. At the close of the semester, students pitch and present a prototype that demonstrates their proof of concept to a panel of experts.

Embracing ambiguity

At the start of each semester, I introduce a nonlinear approach to learning that embraces an iterative development process. Often my students are very solution-oriented and have difficulty living within the space of uncertainty that underpins this approach. This discomfort is not unique to my students, but it is something I’ve found to be a common struggle across academia and various industries.

“We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” ― Marshall McLuhan

In my time as a steering committee member for the World Economic Forum, I’ve seen the challenges that emerging technology can have on various industries first hand. As Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and the Internet of Things touch into our everyday lives the notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is rapidly becoming a reality. Thanks to emergent technologies, the automation and augmentation of humanity will disrupt how we work, learn, and live which in turn will require that we become adaptive and more comfortable with ambiguity.

Ubiquitous, mobile supercomputing. Artificially-intelligent robots. Self-driving cars. Neuro-technological brain enhancements. Genetic editing. The evidence of dramatic change is all around us and it’s happening at exponential speed.

Story, Design & Future Thinking

Within Building Storyworlds: the art, craft & biz of storytelling in 21c students are introduced to a number of methods and frameworks that are designed to teach collaborative practice. The foundation of the class is focused on human-centered design, story architecture, and future scenario reasoning.

Course Learning Objectives include

  • Develop adaptive problem solving skills
  • Become fluent in methods of collaborative practice
  • Learn rapid prototyping and feedback methods
  • Develop a basic understanding of conditional statements

A kit to introduce code to storytellers

I recently received a grant to develop an IoT kit that will help to introduce my students to conditional statements. The kit will serve as a vehicle for students to experiment with IFTT (if this, then that) in order explore how the intersection of story and code. The hope is that, by the end of the course, my students will be able to communicate with creative coders/technologists in a meaningful way that can help move their ideas into reality.

Students utilize a wide range of technology within the course such as simple plug & play IoT kits from SAM Labs

Throughout the course, students utilize a wide range of technology, ranging from simple plug & play IoT kits (like SAM Labs) to an introduction to Arduino and Raspberry Pi to experimenting with Watson APIs through IBM’s Bluemix platform.

We’re currently working on an assessment model for the kit so that we can track learning retention and transference. Our goal is to share our findings and other course materials by releasing them under a creative commons license so others can remix them. We’ll be posting these on medium as well as on the tumblr account associated with the class.

The Evolution of an Industry

Last year the Hollywood Reporter ran a story entitled “Megan Ellison’s Executive Poaching Spree Sparks Talk of Big Plans.” The article details Ellison’s ambitions to embrace digital storytelling and evolve Annapurna Pictures beyond features and into VR, games and other emergent opportunities. Megan, like her famous forward-thinking father is no stranger to the software industry herself, and could be well positioned to disrupt Hollywood.

Meanwhile, even traditional tech companies like IBM are taking steps to bring screenwriters in-house. As storytelling enters IBM there is a desire, and clear opportunity, to mix machine insights with that of its human counterparts. At the Digital Storytelling Lab we’ve been experimenting with leveraging a diverse group of collaborators working in story, play, design, tech and data in an effort to explore new forms and functions of storytelling. By mixing emergent technology with a diversity of perspectives we attempt to break from assumptions and established market conditions. For instance, our Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things prototype with its 2,000 collaborators in more than 60 countries is an effort to explore how Artificial Intelligence can help augment creativity.

Finally, even platforms are looking to bridge the hardware gap in an effort to maintain relevance in world that will eventually move beyond mobile phones. Based on a desire to create a more ubiquitous experience for its users, Snap Inc. (formerly known as Snapchat) recently released an inexpensive wearable called Spectacles. These smart sunglasses enable users to record 10 second videos, without having to pull out a phone or launching an app. The step hints at a camera-first future — one that will dovetail into AR (augmented reality) in effort to make capturing and sharing a Snap Story more seamless.

Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things participants step into a massive connected crime scene at Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival

The Evolution of a Program

Columbia University School of the Arts has a rich history of cultivating amazing storytellers and I’m excited to be part of the program’s evolution. Last fall marked the third year anniversary of the school’s Digital Storytelling Lab. Within a short period of time the lab has grown by leaps and bounds. Through its prototypes, programs, workshops and recent MOOC, the lab is exploring the current and future landscape of digital storytelling.

Our newest addition to the lab is a set of three courses that are currently being offered in the School of the Arts. In addition to the Building Storyworlds course that I teach, we’ve added an introduction to the theory and practice of interactivity taught by Nick Fortugno (co-founder Playmatics and renowned game designer) as well as a studio course that will launch in the Fall of 2017.

A Living Breathing Syllabus

As I teach this semester the goal is to continue my experimentation with a living breathing syllabus that is intended to evolve throughout the year. To see what’s coming up for 2017, please check out the the Building Storyworlds’ syllabus, and to follow along, make sure to visit the class’ tumblr.

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lance weiler

lance weiler

4.1K Followers

Storyteller working with Code - Founding member & Director of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab - curates @creativemachines