University of Nebraska Lincoln Johnny Carson Center
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Building an Emerging Media Arts Program from the Ground Up

Adaptations in Higher Education is an ongoing series of interviews with educators and administrators from around the world, representing diverse backgrounds, disciplines and institutions. These interviews examine how educational institutions are adapting to the ever-changing education landscape and how the built environment helps or hinders them in that effort.

This fall, we interviewed Megan Elliott, the director of the brand new Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts at University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The Center’s new curriculum in emerging media arts was actually designed at the same time its building was being designed and renovated. Part 1 of our interview focuses on the “origin story” of the new Center and how Megan worked with many stakeholders to assure that the program and the space worked together to achieve her vision.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

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Megan Elliott

Why “Emerging Media Arts”?

Mike Hamilton: What brought the emerging media arts program to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln campus?

Megan Elliott: The Johnny Carson Foundation wanted to make a major gift to the university. While the film program may have seemed like a natural fit, the foundation didn’t necessarily want to scale the film program up and instead wanted to create a new program that built on some of the principles of film but was really looking forward to the 21st century. So the university worked on devising a program and a center of the emerging media arts.

Simultaneous Design of Space and Pedagogy

Mike Hamilton: Can you talk about the challenges of creating a new program and curriculum at the same time we were designing the building to support it?

Megan Elliott:   As you know, the hardest thing for me was to make a decision, because we didn't know what we were teaching. We knew how we wanted to teach. We knew it had to be project-based, experiential learning. We knew we wanted it to be student-centric and student-driven. We knew that we wanted to blow up all business models. We wanted the space to be alive 24/7, 365. Most spaces at universities are alive for two semesters of the year, and for three months they're empty. That is not a good use of space.

We wanted it to drive towards creativity. We wanted it to be flexible. We wanted it to be adaptable. We wanted to be able to discover the cure for cancer. We wanted it to do all the things. But we didn't know exactly what we would be teaching, so that was challenging. Did we need small edit bays or did we need large collaborative spaces? So, I think together we decided to design large, open spaces that could be flexible and we could rehab to meet our needs as opposed to closing off spaces and not having anywhere to go.

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Mike Hamilton: In an ideal world, we would matriculate your current cohort all the way through the four-year undergrad program and use that to really understand the needs of the building.

Megan Elliott: If I could go back and do it all over again, I would also include professors that have a more active research agenda – in the literal sense of the word. Most of the people we spoke with did their work in offices. But now I'm hiring more faculty with live research agendas, and they need labs and studios. So we are figuring out how to build that and repurpose some of these spaces for their research agendas.

Mike Hamilton: How important is this building for recruiting students and for recruiting professors?

Megan Elliott: Extremely, extremely important, because it's where they're going to be living – essentially their home. We tried to make it "res-emmercial.”  Already our students are hanging out here all the time. For example, down in the lounge space, they're drawing on whiteboards and making up silly stories and just sticking stuff up. And so I’m hopeful that the downstairs space will be really active. If it's messy and stuff's hanging off shelves and whatever, I don't care. I think that's great.

In that way, for this space, I was much more influenced by architecture and design disciplines than by film. In architecture and design, you're iterating and prototyping and agile all the time. That's what students are doing now treating it like a true emerging media arts space. They don’t even have access to the VR technology yet, but they're learning to iterate and prototype and tell stories and all of the core competencies that you need before you even start to handle tech.

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Designing a Curriculum for 21st Century Demands

Mike Hamilton: What major changes are you seeing in higher education?

Megan Elliott:  I was only ever in it for a year and a half before I came here, so my experience in Australia and in the rest of the world has really been adjacent to higher ed. But generally speaking, one thing is clear:  Everything that was off the table is on the table. You've got to change and you've got to adapt.

Demographics are changing. We have more non-traditional students. We need to be able to scale and consider how hybrid learning models that are both online and offline can engage a generation that has grown up with the mentality of "I want my content when, where, and how I want it." 

One of the ways we’ve addressed this with the Johnny Carson Center is to create an international advisory council. We use technologies like Zoom to beam people in so that our students can feel as networked from the middle of the country as if they were on the coasts. I think that's really important.

Mike Hamilton: How has emphasis on return on investment in education affected your curriculum and how classes are conducted?

Megan Elliott: I think about that all the time from the perspective of the students. We want them to get the best education. But we also want them to be incredibly networked so that they feel that they can get a job or raise money to start a company straight out of school. This has become our audacious goal: that our students are able to realize either the job of their dreams or raise money to start the company of their dreams straight out of school. I don't know if I'm going to get to that in four years, but it's something to aim for all the time. That’s our North Star to lean towards and it prevents us from saying “yes” to the wrong things. 

We’re encouraging these type of outcomes by building this curriculum to be part of the Nebraska Innovation Network. This will allow our students to start a company here in Lincoln, Nebraska, if they want to. Straight out of the gate, we've got our Ignite colloquium, which we hold every Friday and is open to the public. It’s a non-credit bearing course, because we want the public to come in and meet our students and for them to meet other people as a way of starting those networks in their very first year.

Mike Hamilton: What's your biggest anxiety finishing out this year, and what are you most confident about at this point?

Megan Elliott:  My biggest concern is always the students and that they are learning what they need to learn. That they're confident, that they're comfortable, that they're successful. And also that our faculty are successful in their creative research initiatives.

I think I am confident that we're on the path to success. I genuinely feel that the faculty we've hired, the building, they're all great.

What’s so magical and what drew me to this role in Lincoln, Nebraska, after living in Beijing, Shanghai, London, Switzerland:  Everybody here wants us to succeed. From the Chancellor, to the mayor, to heads of industry, everyone wants us to succeed.

Mike Hamilton: So three years from now, when the current sophomores are walking across the commencement stage, getting their diplomas from this school, what's going to be going through your mind?
Megan Elliott: Wow. I'll just be so proud of them and of us, you know? If my vision is fulfilled, I'll be standing there alongside their first employers. Years from now, I can imagine us at the Sundance Film Festival, having parties celebrating the success of our students as professionals in the field. Somedays, that vision feels a lifetime away. But we’ll get there. I know we will. It's just going to take a while.