Redesigning the Bachelor of Media Studies experience

Interdisciplinary programs allow students to build their own curriculum based on topics that interest them and that go beyond the scope of one single discipline. This model has great benefits, including acquiring broad knowledge from multiple disciplines. However, when not properly executed, it may prevent students from specializing in one aspect of study or result in a fragmented program. But what if there was a way for students to have the best of both worlds? This was the approach for the recent renewal of the Bachelor of Media Studies, which explored some of its program’s key challenges, renewed its curriculum in response, and reconstructed its identity in the process.


A broad but disconnected teaching and learning experience

The Bachelor of Media Studies (BMS) is an interdisciplinary program that covers a wide variety of subjects across many areas of expertise, from English and Art History to Film Studies, Creative Writing, and Computer Science, to name a few. Now in its ninth cohort, the program enjoys a high employment rate for students upon graduation, as well as many applicants each year. Yet, while the interdisciplinary aspect of the BMS is inherent – and beneficial – to the experience, the breadth of courses available and seemingly lack of core structure have, at times, proved overwhelming for students.

When Dr. Richard Arias-Hernandez, associate professor of teaching at the UBC School of Information became Acting Chair of the BMS in 2018, he and his team soon identified two main challenges the program needed to address. “I started talking to students and instructors about some of the issues the program was facing at the time, to try to figure out some of the reasons behind them.”

Christine D’Onofrio, associate professor of teaching at the UBC Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, has been involved in the BMS program since its inception in 2014. After hearing about the plan to transform the BMS, she saw an opportunity to improve its overall experience. “I wanted to be a part of the new BMS and help create a program that would benefit both instructors and students,” she says. Together, Christine and Richard have alternated as program Chairs throughout this project, which received three-year support from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF).

Among instructors, the main challenge came from the fact that, since the program is not housed by one single department but relies on professors from multiple areas, each was teaching in their own environment, without a sense of belonging to the BMS community as a whole. “When we started looking at the entire BMS structure, even though we were working in the same program, we realized that we just didn’t know each other, or how each course fit into the next one. We didn’t even have a physical space to meet! Everyone, myself included, would teach their course and go home,” Richard remembers. “We didn’t know who was who, which was problematic and reflected on the program’s structure.”

The pre-renewal BMS curriculum offered a broad but disjointed understanding of Media Studies

Credit: Christine D’Onofrio


This feeling was echoed in students’ feedback, as Richard confirms. “The fragmentation of the program is something that came back from students during the surveys, town halls and focus groups we organized. Because teaching areas were not talking to each other, students had to find the links in the program themselves.” For that reason, the program was associated with a “Jack of all trades” identity, which is a term Richard and Christine agree with.

“With the pre-existing BMS structure, you get to taste a little bit of what media studies mean from a wide variety of perspectives, but you don’t get the opportunity to become a specialist at the end of the program,” Richard explains.

“The biggest challenge with the current BMS structure is also its greatest strength,” Christine continues. “It is quite spread out between many disciplinary methods, but the best thing about the BMS is that it understands media as a whole, not just through one particular discipline.”

Following these findings, Richard, Christine and their team got involved with the Curriculum and Course Services team at the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology to tackle renewing the program curriculum and improve the teaching and learning experience of everyone involved.


A more streamlined and focused experience

One of the first things Christine, Richard and their team did was to reflect on the BMS identity, starting with their own, to come up with guiding principles that would accompany the different steps of the curriculum renewal project. To achieve this, they conducted paired interviews where two instructors from separate departments discussed what the identity of the BMS was to each of them. They compiled their thoughts in an identity statement, and passed them to another pair of instructors to add their own. This iterative process ultimately resulted in a one-page description of the program identity and mission that highlights the team’s strengths, finds common values in studying media, and provides the foundation to design a more streamlined teaching and learning experience. “This was great because it’s something we wrote as a group and where each discipline contributed. The conversations we had were fascinating,” Richard shares.

The program’s scattered structure and curricular focus areas of expertise were on top of everybody’s list, as Richard details. “We went to a retreat and put together proposals, ideas, courses and people to figure out which areas we could create across the different disciplines and departments, and we came up with three “streams” of expertise for the future program: Data, Narrative and Visual.”

“The BMS will still be an incredibly interdisciplinary program,” Christine assures, “but it gives our students a bit of grounding and lets them better identify where they fit in that interdisciplinarity.”

Under the new structure, students will now choose a focus area, while benefitting from a more coherent “spine” of courses that gives them a broad understanding of the BMS’ key components.

Additionally, the team recommended creating a new, interdisciplinary course code that features team-taught courses that connect multiple disciplinary perspectives in media theory and practice courses. These interdisciplinary courses are now a key component of the program “spine.”

They also changed the program’s admission requirements by adding a second-year entry into the program, which will create an opportunity for students to transfer into the BMS after their first year at UBC. “Previously, no one could join the program after the first year, which was not equitable for students hearing about the program later on,” Christine explains. “It was also going against the idea of the open and multidisciplinary nature of the BMS.”

The BMS team presented their curriculum renewal project at the TLEF Showcase at Celebrate Learning Week 2022

Credit: Christine D’Onofrio


“In a sense, we are moving away from the “Jack of all trades” philosophy that was associated with the program, since it will be possible to focus primarily on one stream,” Richard explains. “We chose these Narrative, Data and Visual focus areas because this is where we have the expertise now, but the modular aspect of the program gives us an opportunity to grow in the future by adding new streams, such as sound and space, global perspectives or Indigenous media.” The ever-evolving nature of the field of media studies is something that the BMS is excited to accompany.


A newfound identity informed by the community

With its new structure, the BMS is looking to create a more unified and integrated learning experience that fosters a stronger sense of belonging in the program for both instructors and students.

On the instructor’s side, the project changed the way they interact with one another. As Richard confirms, this new unified learning experience helped them improve how the BMS is taught. “I think one of the biggest successes was the creation of our community. For instance, we now regularly meet with steering committee representatives from all the participating units during the term. We are even thinking about co-teaching some courses, where two instructors from different departments teach a course together.”

Credit: Christine D’Onofrio

According to Richard and Christine, the most drastic improvement is the relationship between courses from different departments, which was only made possible thanks to instructors thinking outside the scope of their expertise. “The community did a great job at making us instructors think beyond our own courses,” Richard explains.

“In a way, I think that what benefits us as instructors now will benefit students once the program begins [next fall],” Christine continues. “Just spending more time with one another builds a network of relationships outside our own disciplines and makes it easier to see how each course informs the next. I believe students will greatly benefit from that.”

Making sure graduates are better prepared to navigate media culture to become thriving professionals or academics was the lifeline of the project, and the overarching objective for the BMS and the program renewal team. “We want to see down the road that this fragmentation we had is no longer there,” says Richard. “Hearing from our students that they feel enrolled in a program that maintains the interdisciplinary nature of how a BMS program should be — where each course informs the other in a way that better prepares them for whatever comes next — would be a great success.”


The first cohort under the redesigned structure of the BMS will begin in September 2023. Going forward, Christine, Richard and their team will aim to understand to what degree the renewal has a positive impact on the student experience. However, Richard can already attest to how the community approach was beneficial for BMS instructors.

“This is one of the most interesting projects that I have worked on,” Richard explains. “It was just a joy to attend these meetings and to exchange these ideas. I learned so much about media study from other perspectives.”

Christine echoes how grateful she is to be a part of the BMS renewal program, and cannot wait for students to experience a new way to learn about media studies. “The last three years were revealing in many ways. This was a lot of hard work, but the excitement to teach something you believe in, and seeing so many people participate, makes it worth it. This is one of the most fulfilling projects that I have worked on at UBC.”