Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Digital Learning In The Arts

Before anyone thinks I am going to write about the many ways in which artists are using digital media to express their ideas, let me clarify that this post is simply about the way that digital learning has transformed our small community of painters. We got together four years ago, one of many groups in the Bay Area that did so to support each other's development as artists. Karen and I started our group because we searched the web and found no other local group with similar goals. As it turned out, we were so very wrong. There were other groups but they did not have a web presence. Several of these groups collected dues to support, among other things, postage for a traditional mailing list. If there was a need to talk, they waited until an actual face-to-face event, and if there was an urgent matter, they picked up the phone. Blogger Vs Personal Websites Because we had decided we would not collect fees (too much work!)and that the group would be open to anyone who wanted to show up, we had a communication challenge. We had no money to set up a group website that would do what we wanted. We tried to set up a Google Site, but back then, its features were not friendly to people whose work was mainly images. I didn't know Tumblr existed. We had group members who had fantastic images of their work, but no idea of how to share them digitally. Some had paid family members to set up websites for them, others had no idea of where to start. I suggested setting up a group blog. They all stared back at me, so I figured we needed some workshops. I began teaching blogging sessions, which included how to use a digital camera, how to format images with Photoshop, and how to post on Blogger, the hot authoring tool back then. We agreed on general norms we would use when posting, and began giving editing privileges to members who completed these workshops. These were our first contributors. From them, we learned it was important to agree on how the type of content that should go with images of our work. In order to keep it easy, fun and simple, we agreed that name, media, size, and a short description should be the minimum. Very soon we built up a collective blog. I was a frequent reader of Boing Boing back then and noticed they had guest bloggers, so we used this model. Every time we went out to paint, someone would write about it and share their work on the blog. Our visibility grew. So did our readership, and eventually, our membership. But not everybody became a contributor. For some members, this process was an added layer of work. For others, it was simply too complicated and they had no support for their learning at home. Google Groups Vs Meetup Back then, most group members referred to the blog as a "website." They didn't know about another tool we came to rely on, the Google Group. Having been a member of Yahoo groups, I was ready to try out the advantages of Google Groups. I learned by trial and error. For example, I took a snippet of code provided by Google Groups and pasted it on our blog. This enabled all kinds of people people to sign up for our "mailing list," so we decided to weed out the non-artists by providing a short prompt with the sign-up process: "Describe the work you do as an artist." Our Google Group was originally open to anyone willing to sign up, but then it was vandalized. We were forced to close it and open a new, private group. The best part of using Google Groups? It is free. This enabled us to maintain communication with the overwhelming majority of our members without having to resort to traditional mailings. And I would say that despite the fact that all of us are "older," almost everybody in our group knows how to use e-mail. So e-mail notifications have proved to be the best way to make weekly announcements. The ability to reach people quickly becomes really important during the rainy season when we are forced to cancel painting sessions, and also, when we want to announce shows. In addition, those who are planning to attend our sessions RSVP by e-mail. With my smart phone, I am able to reply and help members who need directions or who cancel their attendance. These days several of our local painting groups use web-based tools to organize themselves. Some have gone public, and others have chosen to stay private. At least one of the private groups has decided to use Meetup to schedule their sessions. Meetup is very convenient because it fuses the group management functions with blogging capabilities. Unfortunately it costs money to use it. Because using Meetup would force us to start collecting dues, we have decided to stay with Google Groups for the moment.

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