Multidisciplinary approach

Australian Ben Stubbs argues that bringing in students from different disciplines has been beneficial. Students with Communication and Media degrees are joining the course alongside Journalism majors. Stubbs finds the whole nature of immersive journalism so different from conventional journalistic storytelling, and that the different skillsets brought by students benefit the group work.

For Senior Lecturer Malin Picha Edwardsson, group work combining four Engineering students with one Journalism student proved to be challenging. She attributes this to the students from different backgrounds “speaking in different languages”, and having trouble with group collaboration: “By the time we got them [the groupsj to actually function, then time had run out for making the final result”. Obviously, this was a valuable learning experience for the students.

In their Storylab class project, Edwardsson and her colleagues gained insights into various challenges that new technology can introduce. As immersive technologies were introduced on a small scale as part of a larger class, technical issues often came up. Lack of time to test the equipment as well as teach how to use it can frustrate students, and the full potential for learning storytelling is missed. Moreover, VR was only part of the course, and learning the technology' became a major challenge for successful work.The students did not have the right equipment nor anyone to teach them how to work with that technology properly, so they were facing a tough test.

Getting new software to work also caused problems during the first year of Sejsbo’s course at DJMX.The programs worked slowly, causing students to spend hours of time just waiting. Taking theVR class for the first time, Sejsbo’s students were not very' excited. The equipment was not working properly, and for some groups not at all: “So their experience of, ‘Can this do something?’ was very limited - it was an eye-opener to all the difficulties”.

In the following year, VR storytelling was incorporated into a longer six- week course in which the students produced flatscreen documentaries. They were instructed to make an extra VR production of one scene from the documentary. This time, as students were occupied in working with the flatscreen documentaries, they did not put energy into the VR production, and felt that it was an “irritating appendix”. In autumn 2019 the course has been adjusted again so that the last week of the Documentary course will be reserved forVR storytelling. Based on the previous experiences, the teachers are now very aware of the limitations with the equipment, and are aiming to avoid frustrating the students.

Sigmund Trageton has found that the students need more time for the planning phase of the filming. Another point he notes is understanding how to structure stories with this technology.

I don’t think the students knew how much work it would take, from a technical point of view. And maybe they also thought that it would be easier in a way, to tell compelling stories, because of the medium itself [...] If we want to have a better quality of the end product, we also need to give them more time and more teaching about this medium. But like the plan is now for this semester, it’s [that] we have so much other things to teach them.

Ben Stubbs has recognized that there is much to be taught in a short time. Overburdening the students with too much information is a risk, he states. It is challenging to get students to handle all the storytelling aspects, including the use of interactivity.

Because a lot of what they are going to learn comes from experimenting, during that month during the teaching break, where they are going to take the camera and go out and make some mistakes. And they come back to the edit suite, and they realize, “Hey, we should’ve done this.” So, it’s kind of balancing.

Bigger questions at play, such as ethics

Stubbs noted that setting proper requirements for the students’ coursework is important. Previously, students were producing only linear stories. From 2019, the UniSA course requires use of interactivity. Students can add branching storylines in the Immerse editing application using hot spots that can be accessed via focusing the user’s gaze on them.

Just playing with that idea, that what a story in VR can be. That journalism normally is that beginning, middle, and end, but this allows [them] to do something different.

Even though the course held by Mette Sejsbo at DJMX is an introduction to the technology, bigger questions are immediately also at play. These include topics such as the role ofVR in journalism and what it should be used for. Students are eager to discuss these dilemmas.

Final coursework from students ofSejsbo’s documentary class in 2018 was very varied in quality and style. Some of the best works included small stories where the viewer was taken into a place not very well-known to many, for example showing a wheelchair-user’s view of the world. For Sejsbo, an intriguing aspect in teaching VR storytelling is the question of what it means for our way of telling stories. She asks what the effects of this are on learning and engaging people:

If we want to speak so much asVR supposedly does, or that’s what the producers hope it does, engage people more, what is the cost on the information level? [...] And also, to say, if we use VR, if we go for it, what kind of things should it be for?

Therefore, when teaching VR journalism or documentary-making, it is important also to consider why the format is being used. Sejsbo wants to teach the students to tell stories in a new way and understand 360-degree stories and their consequences in portraying our world. Finding the proper narrative tools for VR journalism is important.

Sigmund Trageton feels that the students need to experience the medium in order to understand it properly.

I think if you’re gonna use VR or 360, you have to experience it in a head- mounted display. If not, it’s a little bit, you know, in between.

Ethical questions are part of the UniSA coursework. Stubbs wants the students to be aware of what the so-called gray areas in VR ethics are. Stubbs hopes that students make deliberate choices concerning ethics while they produce their own course assignments.

Stubbs states that the notion of what a journalist is can and should be questioned to some extent. As future roles of journalists are still debatable, journalism educators should remain alert to how the field is changing.

 
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