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Education innovator advocates for transdisciplinary ‘StudioLab’

Students participate in an information architecture exercise in Jon McKenzie's Social Activism and Tactical Media Design class.

A 21st-century learning approach requires more than rows of fixed seats, says Jon McKenzie. In a new transdisciplinary pedagogy that encourages active learning, McKenzie has combined the kinds of conceptual, aesthetic and technical learning found in seminar, studio and lab spaces into an approach he calls “StudioLab.”

“In traditional liberal arts, different learning spaces are siloed into the areas of humanities and social sciences, art and design, and science and engineering. My StudioLab approach uses media studios that convert quickly from seminar to studio to lab, enabling students to integrate critical thinking, creation and media production,” says McKenzie, the Arts and Sciences dean’s fellow for media and design and visiting professor of English.

The secret, says McKenzie, is putting furniture on wheels. Movable furniture allows for different formats, such as seating the students in rows to teach a software program then breaking them into small groups for team-based projects. A lot of technology isn’t necessary, other than a projector, because students bring their own computers. McKenzie’s media studios are designed as collaborative environments, even when students are working on individual projects.

The StudioLab pedagogy is designed to teach students to create “transmedia knowledge,” in which content is shaped across different media forms. McKenzie offers the example of a research paper, which uses a particular aesthetic form to convey logical clarity (including an abstract, an introduction and a description of methodology). But the same research might be presented in PowerPoint to a potential donor or Comic Life (a desktop publishing program) for community members.

The StudioLab pedagogy uses small critical design teams to train students to think beyond traditional media forms. The design process mixes critical thinking with tactical media and design thinking. McKenzie notes that though most disciplines are already transmediated – scientists create scientific posters, for example, and everyone uses PowerPoint at conferences – not much study and training are put into learning media other than print.

This fall, McKenzie is teaching Social Activism and Tactical Media Design, using an active learning classroom in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall designed by students in the College of Human Ecology. The class mixes studio, lab and seminar-based activities to explore theories and practices of social activism and tactical media through hands-on critical engagement with human-centered design, “arguably the transmedia rhetoric of the global creative economy,” says McKenzie. He draws on contemporary fields of human-computer interaction and media theory to show how artists and activists use digital media to create social engagement.

“Critical design and media production, alongside critical thinking and writing, are essential elements of being a creative and productive member of contemporary culture and 21st-century civic society,” explains McKenzie in his syllabus. “The ability to think critically and creatively, to analyze and to make, and to communicate ideas and experiences across diverse media to different audiences will serve students in any field they enter.”

Students practice human-centered design via smart media and design thinking, says McKenzie, using as models the Guerrilla Girls, Banksy, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. He defines “smart media” as emerging genres of digital communication such as TED talks, theory comics and video essays, forms that combine traditional scholarship and contemporary media culture.

“Design thinking is a collaborative, interdisciplinary problem-solving approach to social innovation, organizational change and product development that has been used in design, engineering and education industries,” he says.

McKenzie is the author of “Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance,” which focuses on cultural, organizational and technological performance in post-disciplinary societies; he is also co-editor of “Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research.” His work has been translated into a half-dozen languages. His current book project is “StudioLab Manifesto: Critical Design for Liberal Arts” with Alainya Kavaloski; he will present on StudioLab at the SXSW EDU Conference & Festival in March 2018. His website is

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

A longer version of this story is here.

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Jeff Tyson