Going digital: a lightbulb moment for arts graduates

Increasing numbers of arts and humanities graduates are taking courses in using digital media to power their creative development


A rudimentary search for postgraduate courses with “digital” in the title now throws up dozens of options across the university and Institutes of Technology sectors, many of which have only been established within the past couple of years. Interestingly, only a handful of these are aimed at techies; the majority of postgraduate courses in this field are now aimed at graduates of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

With titles like Art in the Digital World (NCAD), Digital Humanities (NUI Maynooth) and Creative Digital Media (DIT), it’s clear that higher education providers are meeting a demand among arts and humanities graduates to carry their bedrock skills into the digital realm. But what do these courses entail and are there really jobs at the end of the line for fine artists, historians and social scientists who opt to go digital?

Ian Dodson is director of the Digital Marketing Institute, and he says that the flowering of digital-themed postgraduate courses aimed at arts graduates is evidence of a mindset change taking place in both industry and culture.

“When the light bulb was invented, people spent a lot of time talking about the bulb. It took time for people to really grasp the significance of the light,” he says. “It’s the same with digital technology; we have been so dazzled by the technology itself that we are only now starting to look at its impact on culture, business and human behaviour.”

As companies are waking up to the challenges and opportunities of the digital space, demand is growing for people who understand how to use and apply the technology, rather than simply build it. “Take a sociologist. Do they need a lot of technical knowledge to figure out to analyse and optimise how the technology is used? No. It’s a much more holistic business now. Websites are being ordered according to character types. There’s a more personality-driven view of how the internet is used.”

Technologists can only bring it so far – digital technologies will only really take off when other fields get involved, according to Dodson. “When you consider how much marketing and business have been changed by digital technology in the past five years, imagine where we’ll be in another five?”

Hence the apparently sudden drive to get arts and humanities graduates into digital. It’s not about training people in specific channels or platforms either, says Dodson. It’s about exposing people to the field and getting them excited about different opportunities and new ways of doing things.

“There are four key areas with employment opportunities at the moment. Search optimisation is still very valuable to companies. While users are all focused on the social side, industry still values the search.

Meanwhile, many companies are looking to engage with social networking in more than just a tokenistic way, and they need people who understand that side.

“Mobile technology is feeding demand for the liberation of applications from the computer in the corner. With that comes a demand for people who understand what people want and how they use it.”

The fourth, rapidly growing area is analytics, or Big Data.

“There is so much information out there right now, and companies are looking for people who know how to interpret that and use it. Business intelligence, in short. We’re only scratching the surface.”

Dodson is seeing people from a broad range of disciplines taking the postgraduate programme in digital marketing at the DMI, from geologists to sociologists to musicians and accountants.

Leah Hilliard is course coordinator of the MA Art in the Digital World at the National College of Art and Design. She says that while students on the course are exposed to a range of technical activities such as post-production, sound production and video production, it’s all designed to help them translate their undergraduate learning into a digital context that works for their objectives, rather than exhaustively perfecting any particular technical skill.

“We don’t test students on their ability with any one piece of software or application at the end of the course. We expose them to a range of practical applications that they may use in self-directed productions appropriate to their interests.”

As with many postgraduate programmes, much of the value comes from the interaction between graduates.

According to Hilliard, the intake is diverse and the conversations “critical”. “Of course we have fine arts graduates on the course but also mathematicians, philosophers, film-makers and theologians. The fact that the programme takes place in NCAD means that the learning all takes place against a fine arts background. The course is a 60/40 split between practical skill acquisition and theory. This is a self-directed programme: graduates tend to come in with one set of skills and pop out with something else. It’s quite individual.”

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