Anezka Sebek (Panelist)

Anezka Sebek
Associate Professor Media Design
Art, Media & Technology at Parsons School of Design

10:30 am to 11:30 am
Beyond the Classroom: How do we teach VR?
VR/AR/MR in an arts and humanities design school and university

Indonesian-born Anezka Sebek has taught full time at Parsons in the MFA in Design and Technology program since 1999.  She designs curricula in the BFA/MFA new media technologies such as virtual, augmented, and mixed reality as well as teaching in the BFA/MFA in Design and Technology studio and thesis courses. Before turning to teaching, her extensive career in the film industry included projects for television, advertising, documentaries and feature films. She was best known as a visual effects and computer animation producer for technologically complex projects that combined live-action with digital effects. She has written, produced, and directed music videos, narrative shorts, and documentaries. Ms. Sebek served on juries for ACM Siggraph Electronic and Animation Theater (2003/04) and Ars Electronica (2008/09/11/13). She completed her Ph.D. in Sociology with her dissertation entitled Family Homelessness in the Small City (2016).

Reflective Essay :

What kinds of practices do educators and practitioners need to foster (facilitate) critical engagement with immersive media, particularly about various modes of learning?

Computer and video production industry best practices served as the core of our teaching practices in the Making VR Pi Collaboration Studio, Spring 2016. Iterative production processes are well suited to provide step-by-step critical engagement with content and technology.  We are long- time industry colleagues in the animation and visual effects industry. Thus, we used deadline-driven production methods to aggressively plan and execute studio deliverables with students who were all new to the technology and the VR medium. The time was tight, but the output of the students was admirable.

The challenges for the virtual reality (VR) storytelling studios are the challenges of any media production: how good is the story, the characters, the plot, the environment? How do visitors move around in the experience? Is it engaging for them? Do they care to repeat it for further exploration? Do they have the power to change the outcome of the story? And yet, no matter what the user experience, the story always reigns supreme.

The collaboration studio opportunity grew out of an ongoing arrangement between the Learning Community Charter School (LCCS) and Liberty Science Center in Jersey City to celebrate the mathematical constant of Pi.  In previous years, all grade levels of the school were allowed to demonstrate their curiosity and creativity to express the fun of Pi as part of the school’s dedication to project-based learning. The event was entering its sixth year, and it was more famous for fabulous pies than for the exploration of math constant of Pi. Tammy wanted to refocus the event back to its STEM roots. She invited a great variety of companies and organizations, including Google Expeditions, to display their “Maker-centric” methods of introducing students to math concepts in animation, music, and physical computing. She also invited the Parsons MFA DT graduate students to collaborate with the LCCS students to explore ways to tell the story of Pi.

Fourteen Parsons MFA DT students signed up for the studio. Sixteen students from the fifth through the eighth grade signed up from the LCCS side. It is a challenge to teach new media game design and storytelling concepts in a fifteen-week course and even more of a daring experiment to deliver working projects by Pi Day only six weeks from the start of the semester.  The state-of-the-art of emerging visual technologies is always shifting, and many students had not yet had opportunities for working in VR. On the LCCS side, Michelle Flam and Mike Buono’s students started by creating a Hero’s Journey narrative (a la Joseph Campbell) complete with rough storyboards and character designs. The MFA DT students then joined the LCCS kids and evolved their ideas.  We allowed all the students creative freedom and thus addressed the problem of favoring one learning modality over another. The graduate students worked in teams. Everyone engaged with learning at their own pace and relied on the wisdom of the team to solve production problems. Parson’s Kyle Li was our technical supervisor and taught six students the needed short-cut methods to produce Google Cardboard games with Unity 3D. Two of our students designed the promotional print assets including a T-Shirt and a board game. Two students created a 2D storybook and animation about the concept of Pi entitled What if no one thought of Pi? Three students embarked on the difficulties of projection technologies and algorithmic animations where the visitor controls a set of variables in an equation that makes a simple polygon (a = 2*PI/N) or a more complex geometry (y = cos(x1*a) * sin(x2*a)). One student produced a music video with Pi animations to which another student choreographed a hip-hop dance performed in the theater.

When Pi Day, 3.14.16 arrived, we presented successful working projects at Liberty Science Center to 3400 visitors. Putting the projects through 3400 user experience tests in a public setting was enlightening for the graduate students as well as the LCCS students. They learned to make minimum viable products (MVP) in the form of compelling story-driven VR experiences. And, they had a chance to produce further iterations of their work over the remaining half of the semester.

Going forward, the primary focus of the Spring 2017 VR and Storytelling Studio will be to allow for more time for graduate and middle school student interaction and in-depth collaboration. We learned from the first Spring 2016 collaboration that LCCS students should not only create the original narrative, but they should also engage and interact more deeply with the process of making the final products of the studio. To accomplish this, we are physically embedding the graduate students in the LCCS class to allow for close collaboration and communication.

The modes of learning for a middle school vs. a graduate student are different. Graduate students in the Parsons MFA DT are digital natives and familiar with digital production craft. They are also encouraged to be autodidactic and to adopt new methods of making quickly.  Middle school LCCS students, the Minecraft Generation, on the other hand, are familiar with technology but not necessarily with the sophistication of virtual reality or simulation software. However, we are finding that when middle schoolers are allowed to tinker with technology, in the way Seymour Papert encouraged his students to do, they are quickly able to create and understand principles of the VR medium and its tools.

For both populations, the highest hurdle for creating moments of criticality remains the crafting of the content for a compelling VR experience. Ideally, the rules of the 360-world should be bendable so that they are more fantastic than the real world. The visitor should freely experience the artificial world. The fantasies, plots, characters, and environments should deliver meaning that genuinely engages and resonates in the visitor’s soul. Testing for each of these effects is essential and impossible on a tight schedule. Even with our limited six-week prototypes, we learned that only after the fully rendered experience is complete can we take off our headsets or step out of our projection domes, to look back and unpack the meaning that was created by the experience.

In review: 1) The studio critically engaged with the projects as we reflected on each iteration in a time-restricted production schedule. 2) We addressed the modalities of learning by allowing both graduate and middle school students to create unique projects of their own making and design as they learned new ideas and technologies 3) Going forward, we know that we will deepen and expand the collaboration opportunities between the graduate students and LCCS students.

In the final assessment, the opportunity for mutual exchange between the graduate and middle school students remains the greatest educational benefit of this endeavor.