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April 26, 2023

The NFT Research Group | SODA

Set up to explore educational approaches to Web3, SODA’s NFT brain trust shares its findings
Credit: The Modal gallery at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts
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The NFT Research Group | SODA

Back in April 2021, as the School of Digital Arts (SODA) prepared to open its doors for the first time, its Senior Lecturer in Game Art designed and sold 10,000 “hand-knitted” digital Knitties on the Cardano blockchain, raising close to £1 million ($1.24 million) in the process. Following SODA’s opening, the School promptly established an NFT Research Group to explore ways of preparing students for possible careers in Web3. Situated in central Manchester, close to the offices of NFT marketplace KnownOrigin, SODA feels like a new kind of educational institution built on its innate interdisciplinarity.

The School’s NFT Research Group consists of staff members from different disciplines across SODA, while engaging with other faculties across the wider university. Colleagues from the neighboring Manchester Fashion Institute have become integral to the group, which was established to enhance understanding of NFTs among the educational and research staff beyond the initial media hype. Currently, the NFT Research Group explores creative opportunities enabled by NFTs through prototyping, workshops, and exhibitions. For Alasdair Swenson, who leads SODA’s BA in Future Media Production: 

By incorporating NFTs into our teaching and research, SODA recognizes the potential value of Web3 to our students’ future careers. 

Recently, the School has consolidated its efforts into a new initiative called Shareloom, which involves developing a website and Discord community to support students in creating NFTs to bolster their work, employability, and potential future income. The primary objectives of SODA’s NFT Research Group include:

  • Creating value and opportunities for students across the university
  • Building a legacy of student work and community engagement
  • Working with sustainable blockchains
  • Experimenting with future-facing technology to create exciting “phygital” experiences
  • Maintaining an open, inclusive, and safe environment for the community
The Modal gallery at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

RCS: Students at the School of Digital Arts (SODA) have access to a remarkable range of different courses, from Animation to Games Art to Sound Design at both pre- and postgraduate level. Are there any guiding principles adopted by the School that apply across all subjects of study? In what ways are interdisciplinarity and cross-fertilization part of the fabric of SODA? 

Alasdair Swenson: At SODA, interdisciplinarity is deeply ingrained in our foundational values. 

Our building has been designed with modularity at its core, ensuring that all of our studios are equipped to patch video and audio between our different spaces. 

However, predicting the exact usage of these spaces is impossible. We therefore prioritize flexibility to ensure that students are able to collaborate and experiment with our studios and equipment. This approach encourages innovation across our different courses and disciplines

Adam Cooke: Our Foundation Year students are currently experiencing a diverse range of approaches. The Creative Coding and UX module invites interdisciplinary thinking in order to equip students with the tools to move fluidly between disciplines, or to situate themselves at the borders where new spaces begin to open up. This gives them an advantage over other students who might have taken a more linear pathway to their creative studies.

Joe Duffy: We are aiming to develop our students’ awareness of platforms that encourage and enable their entrepreneurial and global awareness. Working within interdisciplinary formats enhances their ability to engage with wider audiences and more diverse communities. 

A workshop in the virtual production studio at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

RCS: SODA’s NFT Research Group was formed with the intention of building the teaching faculty’s understanding of NFTs and Web3 “beyond the hype.” How have you sought to apply that knowledge in your teaching? Are there any specific projects that you can share?

Marsha Courneya: From an early stage, our Research Group has been inviting colleagues from other departments to participate. By collaborating with academics from Manchester Fashion Institute, we have found overlap across both digital arts and fashion in terms of supply chains, manufacturing, marketing, and potential student projects. Both Alasdair and I have visited Barbara Nigro’s fashion students for an NFT minting workshop to transform their final-year projects into something students can sell.

AC: The Research Group wishes to bring our graduates into the Web3 space through modular content, collaborative partnerships, and by distributing their perspectives. At last year’s Digital Societies conference, a small student-led team captured the thoughts of those in our immediate neighborhood and further afield via a short documentary. This was an illuminating work that took the public’s temperature on new and potentially difficult concepts. Our first-year students studying Future Media Production have jumped straight into the space with a “thinking through making” attitude — expanding and sharpening their social and ethical understandings through action. 

AS: Based on our broad observations, we have found that students’ initial reaction to questions about NFTs can be somewhat negative. I see this as an understandable response to the media hype that students have experienced. 

Perceived barriers such as high costs and exclusivity have led to students pushing against exploring NFTs as part of their creative or technical practice. 
The Village Green at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

However, my work within the NFT Research Group has developed my own confidence and understanding of NFTs to establish possible opportunities for students. I recently ran a unit called “Production, Planning and Finance” where we looked at established models such as grants, crowdfunding, and NFTs as an emerging way for creatives to fund their media projects.

For the opening event of SODA’s building, we created 100 launch event NFTs, working with our graphic design partners at Instruct Studio to split SODA’s ribbon graphic into 100 sections which were then minted on the Cardano blockchain. To complement this, we developed a project called “Bloomin’ NFTs” where we invited visitors to engage with the minting process. We developed a virtual environment where they could plant a digital seed and see it grow into a flower with its associated DNA (metadata). Participants then had the choice to let the flower go, which spoke to the impermanence of data, or to keep it and mint it as an NFT, which allowed them to keep the flowers’ DNA for it to be “regrown” in other virtual spaces. 

JD: Our collaborations with partners in Canada, Malaysia, India, and the US along with study abroad opportunities, collaborative online learning projects, and our RISE scheme all offer opportunities for us to broaden the learning environment. Our students work collaboratively within emergent spaces, including in the metaverse, while learning how to monetize their work and become pioneering digital practitioners.  

A flower generated as part of the “Bloomin’ NFTs” project. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

RCS: What is the potential value of an understanding of Web3 technologies — blockchain, NFTs, and smart contracts — to your students’ future careers? Can you share any insights from your teaching so far?

AC: The promise of the decentralized web is to take control away from larger companies while powering the individual. An understanding of new forms of ownership opens up space for discussion about the agency of individual users and how technology might amplify one’s democratic rights, all the while empowering co-creators to make challenging work in an increasingly digitized society. The signs from our industry partners and our recent metaverse event with Queen’s University Belfast and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport appear to be incredibly positive. 

In only 18 months, our students’ work is creating an impact locally while being recognized nationally. 

AS: We are lucky to be in Manchester and observing a growing local community of NFT and blockchain organizations, artists, and events. It’s been great to hear my students tell me about NFT events that they have attended. KnownOrigin are right across the road and we are discussing with them how we can work together to help SODA’s students engage with this emerging space for entrepreneurship and innovation within the arts and media. 

I am currently delivering a unit on our BA Future Media Production where students are tasked with developing promotional media proposals for music artists. Around 25% of students are incorporating NFTs within their proposals. But it is interesting to see how important tangible experiences are to our students — all the proposals that include NFTs do so as part of a physical product or experience such as a gig or festival. 

The Modal gallery at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

RCS: What have your explorations of future-facing technologies yielded across the School so far? Are there any socially progressive innovations that give you cause for optimism?

AS: SODA is only just finishing its second year as a school of digital arts. We are still learning a lot from our students — it’s great to see how they are using our facilities, including the Mo-Sys virtual production studio and Vicon motion capture suite. 

One general observation I have is that the media concepts students are learning reflect consideration for the environment, community, and the social impact of their work. 

For me, these have always been important aspects of ethical media to teach our students. However, the responsibility of academia will continue to grow as media face new levels of scrutiny as to their purpose and the ideas behind their creation. 

A view of SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

RCS: How can SODA ensure an open, inclusive, and safe environment as its community engages with new and disruptive technologies whose regulation is still insecure?

JD: At SODA, we support our learners by providing guidance around how to navigate NFT marketplaces and communities. We help them to identify rug pulls and scams so that they remain aware of the risks in unregulated terrain.  

AS: For me, the greatest benefit I can provide is to help students ensure that the media they create considers the human impact of their creations. 

One component of our course considers Industry 4.0, which encompasses the vast array of emerging digital technologies used in media production and their ongoing impact within the media landscape. When I ask students what they think should be prioritized in Industry 5.0, it is both fascinating and encouraging to hear their emphasis on the human element and the impact of technology on community, jobs, health, and well-being. Their thoughts align with existing research, policies, and ongoing discussions surrounding the priorities of Industry 5.0 in the next technological era. I believe that students are highly conscious of concerns relating to technology but may not fully appreciate the positive impact they can have in addressing such issues.

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Adam Cooke is an interdisciplinary designer and researcher specializing in data literacy, young people, and participation. He works across media including creative coding, motion, and extended realities with a focus on interaction using participatory methods with stakeholders for social good. Adam is currently undertaking his PhD, titled “Algorithmic Assemblages,” combining social science research methods with research through design practice. He works on the Future Media Production BA (Hons) in the School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also the Society thematic lead for the innovative Co-Labs module — a research-led, collaborative, and transdisciplinary unit where students, staff, and external industries come together to think, make, and co-create.

Marsha Courneya is Senior Research Assistant at the School of Digital Arts. A writer, editor, and open licensing specialist, Marsha’s work centers on copyright law reform and using open licensing to create sustainable economic models of collective authorship. She has run workshops with Creative Commons, Mozilla, and the Cologne Game Lab, where she applies systems thinking to storyworlds and empowers participants to build on elements in the public domain. 

Joe Duffy is International Lead at The School of Digital Arts (SODA). He is responsible for establishing new partnerships between SODA and courses for student exchange opportunities, recruitment, and collaborative learning projects around the world. He is interested in teaching and learning, course development, and embedding an international experience for all students, while highlighting and promoting the amazing work produced in Manchester at SODA. He is also a practicing artist engaged with filmmaking, photography, and installation work. Recent projects have involved investigations of memory and trauma within landscapes, examining place through both emergent media and analog processes.

Alasdair Swenson is a creative technologist and researcher, his creative projects explore the boundaries of interactive and immersive technology in Unreal Engine and Virtual Production. His work has been shown at the People’s History Museum, Manchester and Imperial War Museum North. He has also collaborated with a number of well-known organizations, including Soup Collective to develop innovative interaction for public-facing media installations such as at the launch of MediaCityUK. Alasdair leads the Future Media Production BA (Hons) in the School of Digital Arts (SODA), Manchester Metropolitan University with a curriculum focused on how to tell new stories with emerging technologies.