Rebooting the LAB concept in digital storytelling

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My second year results in inorganic chemistry

Introduction

I dreamt of becoming a scientist. This was the tacit condition that granted me a return ticket back to Britain after eight years schooling in Ghana. A-levels in sciences and a degree in Applied Chemistry in Leicester would, I fancifully naively thought, get me a ping in science journals — perhaps, something to do with Malaria for which I have bad memories.

By some account, I wasn’t too bad a chemist and my family’s name would soon become popular in science journals and feature on BBC News. However, it was not of my doing. A geneticist in Leicester had uncovered a major discovery; markers in DNA that could serve as fingerprints to identify relations and families. Dr Alec Jeffries agreed to test his theory on my siblings and I in a landmark test case Sarbah Vs Home Office. We would become project alpha.

For my final project at postgraduate journalism school in Falmouth, I followed up on a 40-minute documentary on the implications of genetic fingerprinting and the moral questions experts like Baroness Warnock and Dr Alec Jeffries posed. What happens if a new born baby is detected to have Huntington’s disease? My first feature was broadcast on BBC Radio Leicester — where I ended up working.

Years of training in science methodologies, creating hypotheses, testing, and objectively seeking results would become the framework for understanding tech, social and political issues in a new field — journalism. The lab approach would also filter into my lectures, where I have encouraged discovery to create grounded, yet mutable knowledge, elicited through what scientists call ‘Aha’ moments.

And then years later, we arrive here, a formal lab in storytelling. I’m reminded of my personal journey and preposterous ambition, but as it happens, somehow I did get a ping in journals, for innovations, The Knight Batten, and International Videojournalism Awards, for experiments in storytelling that I’m looking forward to sharing in greater detail.

The LAB

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Near the Syrian border working with young Syrian filmmakers

The disLAB as a concept adheres to many of the principles that I worked through in a science lab and to a large extent is recognisable in the social sciences and PhD programmes. It involves:

  1. Taking a hypothesis (an idea).
  2. Testing it through various assumed parameters.
  3. Evaluating and document the results to discover whether they align with the initial idea.
  4. If not, try again by altering some of the test’s framework.
  5. If it fails again, it may be useful in providing data nonetheless, otherwise if the idea proves commercially viable (prototype) take steps to capitalise on it.

Often, the start of the day is framed by a burst of knowledge, before we enter the test phase.

For instance, I maintain that increasingly we base our realities of storytelling from memories and emotions of cinema. I have tested this. However there are wider implications on the impact from different networks and cultures. Similarly, our attempts to rationalise VR is largely through the lens of Western cinema. How can we think of anything else when our experiences are based on these?

I’m currently reworking the design on my site in attempt to move away from large tracts of text to pod articles which can link to lengthier pieces and turned into podcasts. It requires an understanding of trigger points that will compel a user to click.

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Students being supervised in the newsroom

LAB methods
The lab approach is not entirely new with aspects of it found in modular-run courses. Its heuristic is de facto often practised in humanities, final year undergraduate essays, and through a spectrum of methodologies on PhD programmes. So why has it become talked about as a feature for digital contemporary learning, particularly amongst tech- hackathons?

Firstly, the explosion in digital tools and thinking with masked links to antecedents and historical epistemologies places a new emphasis on learning. Twitter, once new, had its form in the telegram, where each word was costed. The less words you used, the cheaper the gram. Its use was infrequent compared to the frequency of twitter, but it did have an impact on shaping journalism. The pyramid approach to reportage was in part born from telegrams. Occasionally the lines went down, so journalists learned how to say the most important things first.

In digital start ups, agility, fluidity, and a multipurpose approach, with an emphasis on being lean, is key to a company’s success. Today, user testing is now the norm, often a significant element of in vogue design thinking. Meanwhile, the cracks in communications as being universal across cultures has been exposed. Different cultures and networks are rewriting their relationship with users, once blithely subordinated to fixed traditional systems.

Universities generally adhere to a modular system, with knowledge bolted down. This has its merits but also can be problematic, as its rigidity does not allow for swift responses to dynamics of the market. No sooner have you written your syllabus, when a new app, bot or process is making itself heard.

Secondly, the modern modular approach of ‘chalk and board’ learning by presentations is being replicated by a spectrum of smaller independent learning centres offering cohorts the opportunity to learn a skill with varying degrees of fixed knowledge. This was, until recently, an exclusive ground for universities.

Hence, universities have to up their game. Rather than a general approach of providing students for nominal jobs in mainstream industries, there has to an onus on entrepreneurial skills and the ability to innovate and become confident leaders in their field. The tech industry has revelled in this over the years, with the creation of a raft of new jobs. Such innovation requires experimenting and a palimpsestic approach rather than a unitary modular one.

Thirdly, you can’t excuse the loop effect of hype. That said a nimble approach to innovation requires a fundamental shift in processing students for exams, and instead rewarding them for endeavours — the process of trying and even failing should be gradable. We should become less risk averse. As Robert Mackenzie, the head of the BBC News Lab says, the Lab approach should have the provision to fail.

I’m thankful to the BBC News Lab for their warm reception to me when I joined to see them at work. I hope to go back with some of our students. In the last three years, I have been fortunate to have recommended two of our bright stars , who continue to shine — one of them is still at the lab, whilst the other moved to the Telegraph.

The extension of the LAB approach places an emphasis on enterprise, working collaboratively with industry, third parties and competing for commercial deals. We’ve some ideas lined up that will give students that feel. It should be a hub where ambition is welcome and students engage with its lecturers — leaders in their fields and PhD practitioners. May be that fanciful way of thinking isn’t misplaced after all.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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