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New Horizons in 'New Media'

Programs at community colleges grow as the demand soars. Some teachers and business leaders worry about market saturation, but most say there are still plenty of jobs.

February 28, 2001|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Programs that train students for careers in the Internet and entertainment trades are exploding at the state's community colleges, soaring from just a handful four years ago to 112 today.

Commonly called "new media" or "media arts" education, the programs also go by such labels as "multimedia," "entertainment technology," "digital media" and "electronic media." They vary from one-year vocational certificate programs to two-year degree programs that prepare students for transfer to universities.

Students trained in the new programs go to a variety of jobs, such as Web site design, Web animation, CD-ROM design, traditional animation and 3-D animation. They may also work on production involving new design software, or digital technology used in film and television.

Classes combining art, entertainment and the emerging computer fields are highly popular. Many faculty and business leaders look favorably on the trend, saying demand for workers in these industries will continue to grow, despite the volatile marketplace.

But a few educators and industry insiders speculate that there will be a shakeout of media-education programs--much as the recent downturn in technology-related stocks has brought a shakeout of Internet companies.

Their ranks include Michael Eggert, director of Web production at Wirebreak Entertainment, who graduated two years ago from Santa Monica College's Academy of Entertainment Technology.

Eggert praises the education he got at Santa Monica College. But when asked about prospects for more recent graduates, he said: "To be quite honest, it's about over, as far as a hot trend goes."

A recent wave of layoffs and bankruptcies among Internet firms has meant many Internet media fields "have reached a saturation point," he said.

Yet to most of the educators involved in media arts, the creation of such programs is overdue, providing a pipeline of workers for what are likely to be among California's most important industries for years to come.

Educators could offer only anecdotal information about their students' success in the job market, saying most seem to do well.

"This is everywhere; there is huge demand," said San Mateo College Dean John Avakian, who directs a statewide effort to foster new media training. "I do think we can be caught up in the moment. But teaching digital media skills in a somewhat broad sense, that's a great service."

Students also remain confident that the training will provide them with lucrative jobs in the new economy.

Graduation Rate Remains Low

"The Internet is basically everywhere; you will look at it in your car, on your TV. Everything will need a Web site," said Michael Knox of Buena Park, a student at Santa Monica College's Academy of Entertainment Technology.

Knox has good reason to think so: Although he is just 19 and has not finished the program, he is already designing Web sites for Los Angeles County.

Relatively few of the nearly 700 students enrolled in Santa Monica's program receive certificates--just 50 since the program began four years ago. But Dean Katharine Muller says that is mostly because students get jobs before they finish, or because they don't set out to complete the program, but rather to pick up skills they lack. Many students in the program, parlay internships into jobs.

Still, Muller said, "We try not to promise them they are all going to get jobs."

One difficulty of training for emerging media fields is that the job market changes rapidly. Santa Monica has revised its curriculum every year, Muller said. An early focus on computer animation for film and television has shifted to Web animation, she said.

New community college programs have tended to specialize, some emphasizing graphic arts, others film and television, and still others, Web design.

The South Orange County Community College District has ambitious plans to build the Digital Innovation Center for the Arts, Science and Technology at the former Tustin Marine base using a $2-million state grant. The district's plans include partnerships with businesses to train students in such high-tech areas as animation, laser optics and virtual reality.

The community college district hopes the former helicopter hangar that will house the center will include an 18,000-square-foot sound stage where students can learn the latest in digital movie technology and work on professional productions.

There are new, planned or expanded programs at Orange Coast College, Santa Barbara College, Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Los Angeles Mission College, Los Angeles Valley College, College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, College of Marin, Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut and many others.

De Anza College in Cupertino has developed new animation classes in recent years in response to changes in the industry. But, so far, it has kept its program's traditional name--creative arts. Dean Nancy Canter explained that " 'new media' is one of those trendy titles."

But she also acknowledged that it has crossed her mind to give it just such a name. "The grants would probably be more available if I did," she mused.

State officials charged with approving new programs say they concentrate heavily on ensuring that new programs meet academic standards. But market data or reports are also examined, said Charlie Klein, a specialist in academic planning for the state community college chancellor.

"I do feel we have to be watchful in the coming years to see that we don't saturate the market," Klein said. "But up to now, all the materials I've reviewed have indicated the demand in this industry . . . is so high that we can establish virtually any number of these programs and still have jobs."

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