Teaching for Tomorrow: Penny Ann Dolin Creates Learning Opportunities for the Real World
How to leverage a contextual learning environment to prepare students for future careers.
Teaching a diverse population of creative college students can be a challenge for even the most experienced educator. With varying skill sets, design aesthetics, and creative experiences, structuring a curriculum that challenges everyone while pushing students toward their future careers takes versatility and creative thinking — skills Penny Ann Dolin, a graphic information technology professor at Arizona State University, brings to the table project after project.
“I’ve always been focused on ways to engage,” she says. “I do a fair amount of traditional lectures, but I always move around a lot — that seems to keep people engaged. I ask thought questions. And I use humor. I find that’s one of the best ways to get through to students today.”
She also focuses on making lessons tangible by helping her students touch and feel them — literally. “Any time I can find something real and tangible in the analog world, I bring it to class,” she says. “Before we get into the photo studio for the first time I give a lecture about reciprocity and shutter speed and aperture, and I bring a bag of cameras to class. I taught a printing class today and brought in an old photo mechanical, a paste up, and some samples. Passing those items around while I’m talking really keeps everyone engaged.”
But that’s just a taste of Penny’s engagement approaches. “I use video. I ask questions and poll them in real time. I break large classes into teams so they can work together and solve questions I’ll ask. And when they get them right,” she says, “I toss imaginary T-shirts.”
By never sticking with one approach, Penny is able to keep her classes on their toes, ensuring they’re engaged and learning. She’s also being true to her own philosophy by integrating creative solutions to help students learn. “Professor Dolin truly puts the time in and really cares for her students,” says current student Emma Mester. “She also challenges your ideas to make them better.”
“I’m teaching my classes problem-solving,” Penny says. “Sure, they’re coming here to learn how to take photographs, but what I’m really teaching them is how to solve problems — and I tell them that. At the end of the day, every client needs you to solve their problems — it’s what you’re paid for.”
Learning in a New York minute
This multifaceted approach has long been Penny’s in-class signature. “Penny understands one theory of learning does not fit all people,” says Thomas Schildgen, ASU professor emeritus and Penny’s graduate adviser. “Her success in higher education is the result of continued efforts to expose the students to a variety of practical experiences.”
Penny credits her professional background with exposing her to the real-world needs of today’s creative leaders, designers, and photographers. She started her career as a photojournalist, shooting for The New York Times, Newsday, and The Boston Globe. After a few years, she transitioned into the commercial photography field, launching Silver Sight Studio in Connecticut. Here, she shot photographs for Fortune 500 companies, traveling extensively for her elite assignments. “Since I was a commercial photographer in New York for a very long time, I know people have to learn how to express their value pretty quickly,” she says.
That East Coast drive came in handy when Penny pursued a graduate degree at Arizona State University, interning at The Arizona Republic newspaper during this time. After graduation, she joined American Color — at the time, the country’s third-largest prepress company — where she spent five years and served as western region technical manager.
This work experience, she notes, gave her unparalleled context that she continues to bring to her classes. “Penny has been a supporter of implementing contextual learning into the collegiate curriculum, and she understands that it represents a complex interaction of technical content, instructional methodology, personnel dynamics, and quality expectations placed on the students,” Thomas says. “The students enrolled in a contextual learning environment must monitor and direct their own learning while taking advantage of mentor guidance.”
Creating a contextual learning environment
Establishing an immersive and contextual learning environment isn’t easy, but the added work helps Penny’s students gain critical hard and soft skills as they move forward in their education and their careers. The context, she explains, starts within the program itself.
“The students I teach are in the graphic information technology program. What’s unique about this program is that it offers students different streams,” Penny says. “It’s something many schools are now emulating.”
This, she adds, enables students to learn across diverse disciplines. “We’re not just design,” she says. “We teach design and print, but we also prepare students for careers in web design and development. We teach imaging, which encompasses photography and video. We even cover animation, and are delving more into 360 VR. I laugh and say we’re kind of like the Adobe Creative Cloud.”
But, ultimately, she has one overarching goal: “We’re going where students will go after graduation,” wherever that may lead. This goal ensures students can see the big picture. “She ensures we always have reasoning and purpose for what we create,” says Emma. “This is very important when we’re creating for clients and not just ourselves.”
This mindset and comprehensive approach has helped countless graduates excel in their careers and beyond. “Penny’s passion for the field is very inspiring,” says Lisa Gould, Penny’s colleague at ASU. Her son Aaron is a graduate of the GIT program. “Penny is always excited to teach her classes and always had her students’ best interests in mind. She would do anything possible to ensure that they all succeeded during and after college.” Lisa’s son was no exception.
“After graduation, Penny was instrumental in Aaron’s career, recommending him for his first position — a position with a Phoenix-based luxury magazine. She also recommended him for a position in the ASU marketing department.”
Collaborate to elevate
While Penny is the first to cite technology as a critical piece of her classroom experience, she’s also quick to remind students that work doesn’t stop and start with a click. “Not every solution is in the software first,” she says. “Problems first need to be solved in the real world.” For example, if Penny’s students are taking photographs of a set with props, she has them pretend they’re shooting with film.
“They can’t just slam off a shot in raw and then go in and fix it, crop it, and tweak it,” she says. “I want them to think about how they’re going to highlight this, or create a shadow here. How is this item going to be positioned? Am I going to use fishing line to hold this up?”
This training, she notes, ensures students are prepared for whatever comes their way. “Obviously in their future careers, they won’t be doing everything in an analog fashion. But once they learn how to resolve these types of issues, moving into more of the software area makes more sense.”
Beyond that, she adds, once students have this foundation they’re better positioned to succeed with the right tools and technology. “It’s like driving,” Penny says. “My students drive automatic cars and I always remind them that when they’re in drive, they’re still shifting. If you understand what your car is doing, you can drive it better. The same goes for technical tools. If students understand what problems software is solving, they can use it better.”
Once students hit this point, she adds, the tools can take center stage — and, for Penny and her students, that means Adobe Creative Cloud. “Adobe really is what a student has to learn today to be in the graphics industry,” Penny says. “I cannot imagine shooting without being tethered to Adobe Lightroom in the photo studio. And how do you do final edits and distribution without Photoshop? We use Adobe Premiere when we teach video, and InDesign is absolutely indispensable for print projects.”
These tools, she notes, will be central to students’ long-term careers, no matter what direction the industry heads. “As professors we teach a number of skills including communication, writing, and critical inquiry — the really deep things you’re supposed to learn at the university level. But the bottom line is, if you are a creative, visual person in our field, you have to know the tools. It’s really that simple.”