Cenário: A Creative Matter Repository
Mariana Figueiredo & Eduardo Morais (2010)
During the last decade, the progresses in deployment and use of broadband Internet have led to new habits of Web usage. Online social networking became a privileged means of establishing social contact. A new generation of young Internet users, the so-called Digital Natives, engage with both their friends and wider affinity-based online communities through the sharing of photos, videos, and other artistic creations in specialized Web services. A study of media sharing platforms in use by the academia has shown that higher education institutions are however ill-prepared to host and catalog the creative output of a new generation of students, as they enroll in Architecture, Design, Fine Arts, Media and other creativity-focused courses. The platforms currently put in place for the sharing of the students’ creative output lag behind Web services such as Flickr or YouTube, both in abilities and ease-of-use.
The inexistence of such a platform, specifically designed for contextualized sharing of creative academic projects on the Internet has led to the development of the Cenário web application. At first intended for implementation in the specific context of Porto’s academia, the platform is a social object repository primarily concerned with the triad student — work — academic institution. Cenário meets the portfolio-building needs of students in higher education institutions, while highlighting relationships and presenting evidence of artistic and intellectual lineage and collaboration. Suited to the habits of a new Web-literate generation of users, the platform also provides a pleasant user environment that encourages browsing and participation.
The ultimate goal of Cenário is to enable, through access to a meaningful portfolio of academia’s creative output, new opportunities for inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional cooperation.
Cenário: A Creative Matter Repository
A survey of the platforms used by sixteen art and design Higher Education institutions for the dissemination of their common heritage found most had an unsatisfactory Web presence, with no easy way of access to their students’ creations . While digital libraries and institutional repositories allow access to a vast array of academic resources, these typically lack capabilities allowing proper and satisfactory access to creative projects. Some colleges did develop their own Web presence for the exhibition of student projects, working actively in the process of connecting with the community. However, many of these showcases were found to be focused on marketing an institution rather than allowing access to a large part of their creative output, therefore providing the public with a biased choice of fragments, lacking information about the context of production. Other content sharing architectures implemented by academic institutions — such as wikis, blog hosting and the leasing of web space to students — were also found inadequate; either by lacking the specialized abilities required to enable access to multiple types of creative content, or by offering limited means of contextualizing the work produced at said institutions . ‘E-portfolios’ were judged a promising architecture, but lacking sophisticated open-source software packages with a large user community.
Cenário is an ‘e-portfolio’ Web application aimed at addressing the need of content sharing platforms specifically designed to catalog the creative projects of the new generation of Higher Education students, to be implemented in the specific context of the academia of Porto. Research conducted by the authors of this paper at the Multimedia MSc at FEUP (Faculdade de Engenharia da Universidade do Porto) led to the development of the Mille Plateaux — http://milleplateaux.sf.net — content management system backing the Cenário prototype, as well as two MSc dissertations [1, 2].
Digital Natives’ Attitude
As early as 2000, calls were made for new media to “positively transform scholarly practices” by better supporting “the needs and practices of their users, instead of the publishing process” . This call is still as pertinent, and more so if new media art is often the object of publication in many schools. Instead, many institutions effectively turned their backs on the fact that digital media is a very important enabler of social interactions among the youth ; and that it was through the engagement with the Web that many of their new students found the social context that first led them to pursue their interests .
Recent statistics demonstrate the dramatic increase in both Internet use and Web service participation among Portuguese students. In early 2009, already half of the 15-to-18 year olds logged on to social networking websites on a daily basis . According to the same survey, 43% of Portuguese Internet users had shared photos through Web services, and 41% had uploaded videos. Among the 82 thousand students that enrolled in Higher Education for the first time that year, it is therefore expected that a large majority has a prior engagement with the Web . Among the eight thousand students enrolled for the first time in Arts and Humanities courses, a habit of participation and usage of social networking and media sharing platforms leads to a set of preconceptions and expectations pertaining to both the sharing and the access of the work produced in the academic environment. Therefore, the students often take direct action to ensure the access to their work. Students will blog about their academic exploits and creative endeavors, upload their creations to Web services such as Flickr, YouTube or Vimeo, and compile portfolios in platforms such as DeviantArt or the Behance Network. This fragmentation and de-contextualization of both the institutions’ and students’ creative output turns each class into a closed group, often lacking knowledge about the work and the research done by others under the same roof.
The Cenário project arose from a hands-on approach at providing students and institutions with a tool we called a ‘creative matter repository’, a portfolio-building platform meant to expose the existing connections among the academic community. The creative work was found to be the ideal focus point through which social connections would be represented in this repository. Social networking abilities are “a feature, not the destination” of Cenário . Relationships in the platform are ‘reality-based’: only salient inasmuch as presented in the credits for a particular work in the catalogue.
Due to their regular concern on promoting the projects developed by their students, FAUP (Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto) was selected to verify the validity and the applicability of the platform as a specific use-case from the academia of Porto. Possibilities and strategies were pointed out, to demonstrate an effective and accurate usage of Cenário. However, keeping in mind the hypothetical implementation the platform across the city’s Higher Education institutions, it was necessary to account for a whole spectrum of creative output and work habits.
Architecture and UI
In designing and establishing the specifications for the platform a triad of core elements was identified, around which the content structure was designed — projects, creators and groups —, allowing for the definition of how these elements will be presented in Cenário. Each element always has its own web page, reference by its own permanent link. The simplicity of navigation was considered a design priority; therefore each elemental page is linked to its related items. One click takes a user from one project to its author or to the class in which said project was created. Moreover, each project is treated as a sum of several parts: multiple kinds of artifacts — text, images, hyperlinks, video, audio and zipped files – can be attached to a project, allowing users to catalog projects of varying characteristics and needs. Content from Web services such as YouTube may be embedded, providing project authors flexibility in compiling portfolios from content they previously disseminated on the internet. In addition, besides linking to groups and creators (which may be multiple), users can provide further contextual information about each project. Projects may be freely tagged by its authors, as well as described by standardized taxonomies. A read-only API was included in the prototype, allowing developers to build on the Cenário platform by retrieving XML data in which elements are described according to the Dublin Core metadata standard already used in most digital libraries and institutional repositories.
Simplicity was the main concern for the user interface design of the prototype. Although the UI reflects usage patterns and common elements found throughout the popular Web services Cenário users are expected to be already familiar with, the user experience is focused on the content and the relationships between works, authors and groups, rather than the Web interface itself. The content structure is constant through the entire platform: a main content column with a ‘contextual’ sidebar. Projects, being complex elements made of a number of multimedia artifacts, are presented via a tabbed interface, which was discovered to be a better UI solution than the disorganized, Tumblr-like presentation implemented in the earlier versions of the prototype. Each type of artifact has its own tab, and each group of artifacts is presented in an optimized fashion – e.g. a gallery interface for images. The sidebar will contain links to the elements directly related to the project, author or group, as well as the other content descriptors such as taxonomies and tags. Relevant management functions can also be found in the sidebar when a user is logged in, thus eliminating the need for a separate ‘administration area’ in the Cenário prototype.
Work practices and information storage and sharing habits of different institutions were considered in the development of content submission and management interfaces. A simple and direct workflow was achieved, one that can eventually be applied in every academic environment. Groups can be created within groups, forming management hierarchies. These may supervise the works submitted into the groups by students. The platform has little features that enforce any kind of content submission guidelines, but in order for the platform to federate individual institutions that may desire supervision abilities, group administrators are given editing privileges over the submitted content.
Web Service Development
In order to build a prototype suitable for ‘beta-testing’ and further optimization, a survey of open-source content management platforms found most were inadequate to the specificities of the Cenário requirements . The Mille Plateaux CMS was therefore developed from scratch, using common Web technologies such as the Apache Webserver, the PHP scripting language and the MySQL relational database system. The Cenário information architecture was abstracted, so that the Mille Plateaux system may be implemented as backend of hypothetically similar Web services focused on the project-user-group triad. The eventual open-sourcing of its content management system may provide Cenário with the benefit of a much larger communities of users and developers.
Funding and initial institutional support are at the present critical issues as to the online availability of the platform. Web applications may be never truly ‘complete’, but larger scale tests may only happen when Cenário becomes accessible over the Internet. User feedback and participation in the continuing evolution and design processes is as powerful inasmuch as the user is engaged with the platform . Only an evaluation of the salience of the ‘live’ Cenário to its users will point future developments and outcomes of the project.
We found that Cenário will reach critical mass only if all agents of academic life are involved after the project goes online. Expecting to benefit from the same drive that compels students to share their creative output on other Web services, authors are able to submit their projects themselves, while professors and other institutional agents may encourage the students to do so, having the ability to supervise the content if desired.
It is expected that Cenário will strengthen the bonds formed during a student’s higher education, at the same time it provides the opportunity for new collaborations to arise. In providing access to a large body of work produced in academic contexts, Cenário is also expected to be an enjoyable as well as a valuable tool for arts and design researchers, ‘cool hunters’, and employers alike.
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