Spring-Summer 2005

The Community Media & Technology Program — An Interview with Fred Johnson

The Community Media and Technology (CMT) Program at U Mass Boston's College of Public and Community Services (CPCS) is evolving, with some new structural changes in the coming year. The ComTechReview sat down with Fred Johnson, Director of the CMT program and the Clark Taylor Center for Media, Arts, and Technology, to learn about what these changes mean.

Fred Johnson
Fred Johnson

FJ: We are now a little over a year beyond the time when the Board of Higher Education allowed us to start offering a B.A. in Community Media and Technology. We're finding that despite the meager resources that are afforded public higher education in Massachusetts these days — for things like faculty and outreach — our program is growing and raising a number of logistical questions for the College regarding how this new curriculum, and these new kinds of practices, fit together here. CPCS has a unique competency-based curriculum, we have a unique way of delivering that curriculum, and we've had to find a way to work through integrating everything.

What we've come up with is an approach that focuses our efforts around the Clark Taylor Center for Media, Arts and Technology, generously funded by Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor in honor of his father, a recently-retired CPCS faculty member. The Taylor Center is really three kinds of places. First of all, it's a center for research and development (R&D), a place where this College's social justice values, research and project-based learning initiatives are able to find institutional expression, one that allows our program to form partnerships nationally, regionally and locally with community and non-profit organizations, government agencies, and NGOs — and the CTC VISTA program here couldn't be a better example. Secondly, it's an overall learning center for CPCS, where students and faculty have an opportunity to undertake some innovative uses of software and media applications for curriculum development and curriculum design and for teaching and organizing with technology and media tools. Third, it is the administrative entity that houses the CMT program.

In terms of the R&D, I and other faculty are starting to do research focused on community media and technology applications and policies, and the Clark Taylor Center provides the structure that allows us to invite other people to come here and affiliate with us in a number of different ways, to undertake participatory community-based research with community media and technology practitioners, for example, or more traditional, academic research, so long as it helps create knowledge about the emerging new sectors of media/technology practice. This opens up opportunities for research and knowledge creation focused on the potential of new media, communications and computing to create media change, social change and justice. There is too little discussion about the actual policy and political environment out of which technology and our media system emerge, and that's one of the things we want to convene discussions about in the Clark Taylor Center for Media, Arts, and Technology. Communications technology is the core element of the global economy that's driving change; it's part of the strategic core; and there's no reason we should not be looking at that in all kinds of critical ways and undertaking project-based learning about it. We're starting a public policy network consistent with the University's responsibility to convene significant discussions around matters of the public interest and public policy.

CTR: How will distance learning be utilized by the CMT program?

FJ: We're looking at a number of options about distance learning, and one of the things that we're able to do through UMB's Division of Corporate, Continuing, and Distance Education is offer the core, most significant parts of our curriculum online to anyone anywhere in the world at Massachusetts resident rates. We're looking at guest faculty and co-teaching arrangements with prominent folks who might be in California or North Carolina, for example, which would allow us to have our students working with some of the most accomplished practitioners in the fields that come together in our program. We're looking into hybrid courses that are interactive on-line classes that collaborate with classes someone might be teaching at another institution. One initiative that we're pretty confidant is going to work for us is to convene classes that provide a week of intensive instruction and the creation of a face-to-face community of learners, after which participants go off to their respective sites and finish up using on-line courseware. I'm really attracted to that model and we are going to be doing a lot of that. That approach could easily be integrated into national organizations' training programs of professional development and at the same time provide people with academic credit.

CTR: How do the CMT program and the Taylor Center address digital divide issues?

FJ: What we're concerned with is the fact that media and information technology, whether in the form of media, data, whatever, are driving serious changes in our society. There are two major divides, one digital and one cultural. There's a whole political initiative around equitable distribution of the Internet and telecom resources in the US and globally, but we're also trying to reform, no transform, our media system, and those are really two different sets of political efforts that we have a responsibility to work on simultaneously to see how they can cross-fertilize, and cross-subsidize, each other. There's a digital divide where we're concerned about access to, and development of, the Internet and other Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and the equitable distribution of the social benefits associated with access to the Internet and its resources around the planet. And there's that other divide that's more of a cultural divide — a huge shift in how mass media functions in terms of media culture in our societies. The globalizing media are cultural institutions that are increasingly becoming hyper-commercialized and unaccountable for any public interest obligations. Overcoming both of these divides is critical to democratic development, and they contain key elements of any solutions the world is going to come up with to address the huge racial and economic injustice disparities we are now facing.

We see these venues — the Clark Taylor Center for Community Media, Arts and Technology, and the CMT program — as a place where we look at how these things all fit together, how they synthesize, how they don't synthesize. We're looking for a common vision to the extent that's feasible, and also looking for the places where it's not possible; and, we want to learn how to establish collaborative processes across the boundaries of impossibility — that's where the real fun begins. We're interested in seeing how a lot of the changes in information technology are becoming forms of expression, and what these new forms of expression have to do with citizenship or artistry — how they find their way into the media culture. We want to explore from the perspectives of communities all kinds of global and national communications issues. Looking at how media reform might impact on local news, for example, or what local policies are going to be required around equitable wi-fi and broadband—all those things are part of the national policy debate, but need to be looked at from the point of view of their impact on communities, and that's our job. That's how we're seeing this, and we want people to understand that this is a good place to undertake those kinds of dialogues and investigations.

Professor_Schackman.jpg Daniel Schackman, previously a VISTA with CTCNet, is one of two VISTA Leaders with the CTC VISTA Project and Assistant Editor of the Community Technology Review.


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