Apps demand drives growth in creative digital media course

Course equips students with skills required to create the services and content for latest communications devices


In the next few weeks 10 new apps ranging from casual games to a children’s fitness programme and a guide to home spice blending will appear on the Apple app store.

This may sound fairly unremarkable until you learn that all of the apps have been developed by students on DIT’s MSc in creative digital media programme. This hugely popular course currently has 55 full-time and 45 part-time students from a diverse range of backgrounds who are learning the skills required to create the services and content for the latest communications devices including smartphones, watches and even Google Glass.

The programme dates back to the mid-1990s when DIT established its first masters in interactive multimedia course, explains head of digital media development Hugh McAtamney. “This was the first course of its kind in Ireland and it drew in people from various backgrounds including art and computer science. This was really the start of the digital media programme.”

He points out that the scope of digital media has expanded greatly since then.

“We have seen digital media expand into lots of different domains like social media. Everyone is a content creator now. Digital media skills have now become core skills that every student needs. Students today need to be digitally literate and able to use all the digital media tools available.”

The focus of the programme has shifted markedly over the past five years but the backgrounds of the students remain as diverse as ever.

“There has been a revolution in new platforms and mobile content has become increasingly important. We still attract a lot of art and design students who want to enhance their digital skills but we get a lot of people from other areas as well. For example, we have a pathologist on the programme who has created an interactive tutorial system for medical students; another student had a degree in old Irish and she has developed an interactive learning app for children; and we had a microbiologist who has gone on to become creative director for a new games development start-up.”

Indeed, games play a key role in the course. “We discovered probably more by accident than by design that we can teach people the digital media skills they need and help them become innovators by using the tools without turning them into computer scientists. And game design is a great way of teaching people.

“They learn how to create rules and how to design something which can be played and enjoyed by users. Games teach you how to structure a programme and how to make it interactive and usable. They also require multimedia skills as they have to look good. The principles are very transferable.”

Interestingly, the students learn games design in the offline world first. “Students have to play and review an ordinary board game every week,” McAtamney explains. “And then they have to come up with their own idea for a game and go ahead and design and make it. We have a production class where they learn how to develop and produce their games.”

The focus then shifts to putting what they have learned in this process into action in the digital world with groups of students being given game ideas to design and develop. “They have to develop these digital games in 10 weeks and we put a lot of emphasis on finishing and publishing the games online,” says McAtamney.

But it is not all about games. “The philosophy of the original programme is still there. A lot of the core skills are still the same and we need to teach people about programming and design. But the focus has very much shifted to apps in the past two years. The programme is based on group projects and all but one of the projects this year are apps for smartphones or tablets. The challenge is the variety of different devices and platforms out there and the need to be able to design for all of them. The great thing about these new devices is that the technology tends to be very disruptive and things come out of them which weren’t envisaged by their developers.”

Commercial considerations are also emphasised. “This is not about creating art. It’s very practical. The crucial thing is to give our students the edge to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the content which will be required for a rapidly changing range of devices. We encourage students to look for areas where content and solutions do not currently exist and then design apps and programmes to meet that need.”

These considerations are also reflected in the entrepreneurship module which forms a key element of the programme. “We have a Dragons Den-style process where we have people from industry come in and our students pitch their ideas to them. They have to do these pitches a number of times and the successful students get to go on to finish the project.”

Applications for the next programme which starts in September are already open and places are taken up very quickly, according to McAtamney.

“The programme has already gained quite a level of international recognition with two out of eight of last year’s Mitchell Scholars from the US choosing it. Last year we had 120 applications and took 37 students from them. The programme is always oversubscribed and I believe this is because of its very practical nature. Graduates are not only able to go to prospective employers with the qualification but are also able to point to the app they have on the App Store – this means a lot these days.”

For further information on the DIT MSc in creative digital media go to istory.ie