Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review of First Year

Many of these blog posts are mandatory tasks set for my course, Game Art Design at De Montfort University, and this post is one such example. I am to write a review of the first year of the course as a means of providing constructive feedback for my tutors. I warn you, it’s pretty big and doesn't have pictures, so regular readers (mum!) may want to give this one a miss. Without further ado, my thoughts on the course so far…

Game Production (the 3D stuff)

Curiously, I never get much of my own work done in Game Production lessons, but that’s as much my choosing as anything. After the tutorial which usually opens the session, I wander around to see what other students are doing; helping and learning from them in any way I can. It seems clear to me that there is a direct correlation between engagement with other classmates and improvement over the year. The guru project, where third-year students set first-years a task and assisted in its completion, is a great example of this being encouraged. The third years were able to give immediate feedback which was extremely valuable. More on feedback later.

I have found that all projects given have been suitably challenging and have targeted new skills in each case. Expectations for each project are made clear with one exception: the design document. I would have found it helpful for a template to be suggested, and the expected content, audience and the purpose of the document to be identified.

The tutorials given are generally clear and well-planned, though I sometimes struggle to keep up. Many students have not known or forgotten how to do things which have been covered in tutorials. So reducing the pace some might help out all around. Some tutorials have not had written documents. Other documents have yielded additional gems of knowledge which had not been verbally communicated.

I’m a fan of video tutorials, and am somewhat surprised by the reluctance to record the tutorials and make them available during the lesson. I understand the hesitation over quality, accuracy or conciseness, but I do feel that many students would benefit from such videos.

It might also be helpful and rewarding to maintain a “skills checklist”, where students mark off when they have demonstrated a technique in an assessed project. This might encourage students to push themselves a little further in trying things a little out of their comfort zone. Examples of these skills might be “created a normal map from a handpainted height map”, “retopologised a high-poly model”, “used a sculpting package”, “handpainted a texture” and so on.

Visual Design (the 2D stuff)

I very much enjoyed the little day trips spent off-campus sketching in the first term.  They certainly gave me a good attitude to drawing: it need not be confined by a studio, and there are fantastic sources of inspiration everywhere. I am sure this practice will continue next year as it should. Some trips were cut rather short by spending a fair amount of time travelling to the destination, notably Bradgate park. I wonder whether DMU has access to a minibus or similar that could be hired for the day to take students down?

I am sure almost every student in their feedback will mention the inadequacy of the life drawing facilities. I won’t dwell – it’s really far too crowded in there for the large first year cohort. I’m not one to enjoy doing the same thing twice, and have therefore been glad to try different media for life drawing, but the technique of blind contour drawing has become somewhat tiresome for me personally. I feel I have learned what I can from it, and would prefer to choose my own warm-up exercise. Next year I will do just this, consequences be damned!

The handbook is a valuable resource with some good stuff in, but it isn’t mentioned often and is easily forgotten. Having seen Photoshop paintings at open days and in final presentations, I was surprised to learn that no Photoshop tutorials were given, but putting on DVDs with this sort of tutorial has offset my disappointment somewhat. Given the strong negativity towards certain artists, art styles and methods, might I suggest a “reading list” of approved Photoshop tutorials be provided? Students could then be responsible for finding these and could watch them at their own pace without using up valuable lesson time.

Oh and a little housekeeping: how about asking next year’s intake to name their Facebook account Dmuga11 so we know which year they started?

Critical Game Studies (the blagging... err blogging... stuff)

Writing the blogs has become less of a chore – enjoyable, even – of late. A few of the links provided were broken, but quite frankly after I’d seen what were acceptable sources of research, I was pretty content to hunt down and read up on topics without the links. I see no links are provided for second-years, which is suitable.

I was disappointed that the “review a game” presentation was dropped this year. Not only do I like giving presentations, I think they are a valuable skill to nurture. From the presentations given after the first term, it seems clear to me that some people could really use the practice and confidence. The end of year presentation has also been dropped, reducing our total from a planned three presentations to just one this year.

I will now unfairly and selectively quote the Critical Game Studies handbook: “A key goal of this syllabus… is to develop… presentation skills”. Sure, it’s not the first thing mentioned, but it is mentioned, and I was very a little upset (offended?) that the two tutors who attended were entirely occupied assessing our work on Facebook and the shared network. No feedback on presentation skills have been given this year.

The F word

The F word is a bad word. It instantly launches all of the tutors into defensive mode. Indeed, I have witnessed pre-emptive defence of the F word, which is as telling as anything. I’m talking about feedback. With some trepidation, a heap of anxiety and a small amount of fear, I will launch – not my attack – but my constructive suggestions. No defence necessary, please.

It is entirely possible with enough initiative and commitment for aspiring game artists to teach themselves the subject without attending university by reading tutorials and books. I have met several very talented 2d and 3d artists who have done just that. So with such cost (and take note: next year’s intake will be more sensitive to this), why would a student subscribe to this course? Course reputation, structured learning, peer support – these are fringe benefits for sure, but the one thing no book can ever provide is that of professional-grade criticism. Identifying areas of weakness and targets for improvement; I cannot stress enough how important these factors are to my attendance of this course.

Let me begin with the marking, an important part of feedback. We are told that no mark may be given to students until the marks are moderated at the end of the year. This is simultaneously surprising, disappointing and frustrating. I am sceptical that nothing can be done. I find the argument that “giving Johnny his mark may make him complacent” to be patronising: Johnny has nobody to blame but himself in this case. If Johnny is prone to this attitude, better that his complacency stings him during first year than allow the same to happen next year when the mark forms part of his final grade. Giving Johnny his mark could equally give him the kick up his arse that he needs. And students perfectly well understand that marks could be moderated up or down, there is no need to cushion us from that eventuality by leaving us completely in the dark.

We are, however, given performance indications twice a year at our formative assessments, which last around 5 minutes. These are not entirely ineffective, since high-level discussion of performance is useful. It is not, however, sufficient time to discuss any singular piece, and in this regard I have found feedback in all modules to be severely lacking.

While it is easy to fall back on the “a student can ask us for feedback at any time” staple, I do not believe this is entirely fair. There is rarely an opportune moment to do this, and not all students possess the initiative in any case. If they did, would the tutors’ temperaments bear the continual informal office drop-ins?

Solutions, not problems 

Extending formative assessments would be impractical (and imperfect – it is possibly the slowest feedback loop I can think of). However, other solutions could be considered to attempt to address the topic of feedback.

Solution 1: Lunchtime feedback sessions.
Tutors would allocate a 15 minute lunchtime slot per term per student. They would bring their work – both in progress and completed – and the tutor would be able to give proper feedback while they eat their lunch.

Solution 2: Use web 2.0 to give feedback.
Visual Design: I’m unsure why tutor critiquing on Facebook has died down to a trickle. It is very good when it arrives. I have not had the privilege of receiving any this year on Facebook.

Game Production: Facebook can be used to leave feedback as the tutor makes their assessment after hand-in. After all, why wait until formative assessment to give the notes made at assessment to the student? Giving them sooner allows the student to put the advice given into practice in their next assignment.

Critical Studies: Blogs (generally) allow visitors to leave comments. From the handbook: “Web 2.0 tools support learning and teaching, including tutor and peer critique”. I concede peer critique is as lacking as tutor critique, but why not leave a comment after reading a blog post, while it is still fresh?

Solution 3: support peer feedback
Peer feedback is relied upon extremely heavily right now. It would be good to acknowledge it and support it better. Visual Design is pretty well catered for on Facebook, but the few tend to feed back to the many. To get more people involved in providing feedback, some words of encouragement could be given by the tutor, and the odd “Like” on a good piece of feedback would go a long way.

For Game Production, to ensure inclusiveness and quality, one could formalise peer feedback by asking students to complete short forms. These would be placed by the student on the K drive with their work and each student would be expected to examine and assess maybe two other students’ work. I would be very happy to mock up something suitable.

Closing comments

I have left what I feel is the most positive thing about the course until last. I am delighted to report that enthusiasm is alive and strong among students on the course. One can never understate its importance - all endeavours benefit from enthusiasm.  It is contagious and spirals positively upwards and outwards. But it is not indefinitely self-sustaining – complacency, apathy and negativity can kill enthusiasm and one must be ever vigilant against these threats. Enthusiasm is a flame which is difficult to rekindle once lost. It would be deeply regrettable if recent developments in the UK Education sector snuffed the one thing that funding never bought.

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