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Thinking and Reflecting on Nine Years As MDM Director

May 05, 2020 By Richard Smith

After nine years as MDM director at the Centre for Digital Media, Richard Smith is moving on to a new phase in his career. Below are his thoughts on the last nine years.

So, looking back, what do I see?

The first thing I see is that the MDM has been a learning experience. I have learned a lot here, and I suppose that is why it has been so rewarding. When I came to the MDM program in 2011, I didn’t know much about how digital media was made. I was a critic of social media impacts, but I didn’t make anything (beyond a few web pages). I now know a lot more about the process that goes into making digital media, because I have watched what you, the students and faculty, do every day. I didn’t know anything about the production techniques (scrum, agile, pipelines), and I didn’t know anything about the research approach (like UI/UX research). I have learned a lot being at the CDM. I wouldn’t say I am skilled in any of those production or research processes, but I have a much better appreciation for the work.

The second thing I see is that the MDM has been a managerial experience. Prior to this I had never really managed a large group of people, never been in charge of a big budget, never had to make a lot of decisions or do a lot of reporting to boards or committees. I didn’t give speeches or present awards. I was pretty much just responsible for myself. At the MDM I had to deal with managing people, managing different bureaucracies (four universities, a trust, deans and directors). It was bewildering and new at first but I gradually got used to it, and I found that I enjoyed it. I discovered that I enjoyed leadership, and guiding a group of people forward.

The third thing I see is that this has been very much a team experience. The people who make up the MDM are a team in the very best sense of the word. They are committed to a common goal but unique in their abilities and skills. They care for and trust each other and they are focused on a vision and mission that is guided by a decision making tool that I have never really seen before: what’s best for the students? This guiding principle is used every time we have to make a decision, and it wasn’t my invention. It was here when I arrived (I learned it from Jeannette Kopak).

Fourth, this has been a collaborative experience. When you are running a graduate program it is without a doubt that the magic you are trying to achieve is going to be an amalgam of what the staff bring to the program, what the faculty bring to the program and what the students bring to the program. We cannot – and do not – assume that the students are mere receptacles into whom we can spill our wisdom. To do so is to miss out entirely on the contributions that the students can make to their own and each other’s education. And, ultimately, to ours. When the MDM is at its best we are creating a rich environment for self-directed learning among a group of people.

Fifth, the MDM is also an integrative experience because of the deep and fundamental commitment we have made to problem-based learning and experiential learning. The work we do is not based on textbooks and problems that exist only in the minds of faculty. We tackle real world problems for real world clients and we bring those clients in as an integral part of the learning experience. It would be far easier, to be honest, to not have clients. They are a huge challenge – to find, to convince, to manage, and to coordinate – but they are the reason why the education at the MDM is unlike anything else. Without the gut feel that you get from engaging with a real client, you would have book learning and not real learning. And, importantly, you wouldn’t have the confidence that comes from having been there, and done that.

All of these elements—the learning, the management, the teamwork, the collaboration and the integration—have had the result that I have been changed by being here. Long ago I learned that the MDM was a program that transformed students. That by helping students become leaders of teams in the production of digital media through experiential learning was a transformative process. Little did I realize that it would transform me. But it has. It has been my honour and privilege to be here while the staff and faculty of the MDM made this magic with ten cohorts.

Throughout my career I have been an advocate of looking inside the black box of technology. But looking into the box is quite different from being inside the box. I am so grateful to have had a chance to spend some time with you “inside the box” of digital media. Especially making innovative digital media products that seek to change the world for the better. Because that is one of the greatest things we do here: we don’t just recreate past success, we challenge ourselves, each and every time, to create something new, solving new problems and tackling new issues in new ways. And that is the most exciting and fulfilling work there is.

As I reflect on my time at the MDM, these are the things that I take away. Ultimately this has been an intensely rewarding experience for me. The very best in my life. I shall treasure it forever.

It has been a privilege to be here with you during these years and a great honour to have been given this opportunity. To the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the MDM: Thank you.