More Than Just a *HELP* Icon

Now, there are real people to show us how to use today's intimidating technology.

By Matthew Lorenz

Matthew Whelan loathes index cards. They remind him of all the monotonous presentations he made for classes in high school--worse than that, the ones he sat through. Resolved to help fellow students in his modern studies seminar at the University of Virginia, Whelan opened up a recent presentation on museums with a clip from the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Now, it can't be said for certain that Whelan's classmates hung on every word of museum analysis until he thumped to rest in his seat and removed his reading glasses. It is possible that some students may have drifted occasionally into thoughts of Ferris and friends run amuck in a museum and everywhere else in Chicago, after a tease from the 1980s cult movie that made Matthew Broderick a teen icon. But Whelan definitely got the class's attention before they expected to give it. "I thought it would be a fun way to begin the presentation," he said. "Everyone likes it when you pull out a TV in class."

There's more to it than that, though. The clip from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" isn't the only one Whelan used, and it wasn't as easy as just rolling a TV around, he admits. He assembled his video at U.Va.'s Digital Media and Music Center (DMMC). And in his case, he feels the extra effort was worth it. "When you can visually reinforce something abstract that you're studying in books, it makes it more concrete," he said.

The DMMC stands just beyond the B section of Clemons Library--beyond works of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the Vedas of early Hinduism, bound in dusty cardboard--and it offers some of the most advanced technology at U.Va. Students often stroll by with a look of perplexity as they contemplate the inside and its serious-looking machinery. The DMMC's clear-paned, front wall invites glances and inquiries--that's if students notice.

Headed by Rick Provine and Perry Roland, the DMMC aims to help students, faculty and staff incorporate multimedia into their studies and lives. These "media" (videos, sound recordings, computer graphics and sound, to name a few) present many options for the members of the U.Va. community. You can: get help creating a web page or writing a CD-ROM; create and edit a video or audio cassette while you narrate it and add sound effects; write your own audio CD (if you're a musician or just a technology buff); or create your own MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file and download others off the Internet. (A MIDI file contains the audio notation of a piece of music so that the performance can be reenacted.) And you can do all this with access to the library's considerable video, audio and CD-ROM collections.

With all these possibilities, you might think that herds of students in a procrastination-induced-rush would be burdening Provine and Roland constantly. You'd be wrong, though. "This is one of six electronic centers associated with the library," says Provine. "And because of the technology involved with all this, it's intimidating to some people. They're all called 'center,' and with all these computer jargony terms that get tossed out, people start to shut down." Though the DMMC has a steady flow of users--mostly from the Curry School of Education and the fine arts program--it could stand some denser traffic. It's never rush-hour at the DMMC, and this is surprising because it seems to give its users only one problem: too many options. At the DMMC, the student's multimedia wish is the staff's command. "We have all this equipment here that you can come and use to enhance a presentation or to develop a Web site for a class," Provine says. "If you want to put a bunch of stuff on the Web and bring materials together and do something more than just a paper, you can." The possibilities are endless and so, it seems, is the staff's willingness to help.

One of the DMMC's main goals is to help students use computers to gain access to the rich variety of music and video that can be found on-line. "More and more, what we do here is Internet related," Provine says. "The Web affords you with a way to get a bunch of data together that can be revised and recycled and easily updated--easily broadcast and shared with a larger group of people." Provine and Roland represent a wealth of general Internet knowledge, and since music is their area of expertise and interest, they offer refreshing perspectives on uses for the Internet. "On the Web, you can hear music as it's happening--live performances or whatever you can get--and it just gives people a lot more opportunity to go out and find music through avenues other than just the radio."

Provine also has some insights about general on-line usage. As in all things, he says, some people take more advantage of the Internet's opportunities than others: some surf the net, checking out different sites and seeing what interests they can feed; others advertise their business or product or band, and lunge toward the free promotion. Provine has no problem spotting an opportunist. "I would say 'indie' [independent], alternative music is probably the big winner in terms of distributing music on the Web. It tends to come from younger people who are more comfortable with computing in general," he says. "And who has the best access to this stuff? College students. That's the demographic out there that's waiting."

Younger people innovate on their personal computers, and learn to make use of the technology that the Internet affords. The DMMC offers an environment where members of the U.Va. community can share these innovations, and converse with Provine and Roland, who don't just dabble as Internet users on the side. Provine explains the draw of the Internet: "It's a whole new broadcast medium and an avenue for getting stuff out there and distributing cheaply and to a really broad audience."

Of course, the Internet has downsides, and people continue to iron out the kinks. "A lot of these web sites seem to follow very closely to Sturgeon's law," Roland says. "That is, that ninety percent of everything is crap...Is it really worth it for me to know what some guy or gal in Minneapolis has in a CD collection?...Those kinds of sites sort of gum up the works, and there's lots of junk that you've got to wade through." But these same drawbacks can be seen on the flip-side, Provine says in reply to Roland. "This whole democratization of the Internet is the thing that's made it grow as quickly as it has--the thing that's kind of unique about it. It's grown up with no governance; nobody has really laid down rules about what to do on the Web. That's what makes it ninety percent crap, but what also makes it the phenomenon that it is."

Provine and the DMMC assembled a brochure to explain their specific role and mission at U.Va. The DMMC's goal is simply to assist others in attaining their own. Tacked on a student's wall, this brochure looms as a good reminder of the innovations that can enliven an upcoming project, most of all for the person preparing it. Provine has a vision for the DMMC and hopes that the brochure will bring people through the door. "The challenge is finding useful ways to use this stuff--just getting people to learn about it so you can draw on their creativity and they can find useful ways," he says. "The important thing is to help people realize the potential that this stuff creates."

Next Story