The digital age is booming – and so are courses in new media at universities

The way that we approach and receive traditional media – news, television, music, advertising – has changed beyond recognition over the last quarter of a century. And universities are spearheading the charge to educate the new media techies of tomorrow.

For a phrase that's often bandied about, it's not always clear what new media is. "From our perspective," says Catherine Stones, programme leader on the BA new media course at Leeds University, "it's about using new technologies – particularly screen-based devices – to communicate. Media is all about communication, and this is the use of new technology within that."

In the first two years of the degree, Leeds students explore a number of different elements: design for new media, say, and audio-visual production, before specialising in the third year. Students are also exposed to the history of the media and the impact of technology on societies.

Graduates of the degree have gone on to take up exciting positions in advertising, marketing and creative design. Stones is confident when she says that students leave the course ready to go into the industry. And often, the industry comes to them. "Every week I get an email from a company saying, 'have you got a good graduate coming up?'" says Stones.

High on Stones' list last year would have been Danny Blackman, 22. After winning a prestigious award from D&AD, the educational charity for the design and advertising industries, he was snapped up by London-based digital creative agency Collective, and has gone on to do some inspirational work with Honda.

"For me, the course was excellent, as it gave me a good insight into a broad range of disciplines but still allowed me to specialise in the area I wanted – interaction design," he says. "When I look back at the work I was doing before uni, I'd say I developed a lot in three years. From simple html pages, by the end of the course I was producing full database-driven statistics packages, full flash websites and the standard of my design improved greatly."

Leeds is the only Russell Group university to offer a course in new media. But plenty of post-1992 universities have such degrees. London Metropolitan University offers undergraduates a course in digital media. The first year introduces students to a range of options: web design, creative digital video, 3D modelling and animation. The new BA in digital media at Brighton is also consumer-focused, with an emphasis on creating digital media for commercial and marketing purposes.

And never one to miss out on hot new trends, the University of Hertfordshire is recruiting for its BA multimedia design course, which begins in September. The degree is a new version of an existing degree, software systems for the arts and media. This is all part of making sure the curriculum hasn't become stale, according to Alan Peacock, subject leader for media at Hertfordshire.

The first half of the degree is a whistle-stop tour of multimedia design. Students can then specialise in anything from virtual reality to the use of digital media in artworks. But Peacock refuses to pigeonhole the degree. "It's distinctly vocational," he says, "because people use it to go into employment. It's academic in as much as we are following an academic learning process. It's a training course because the students get a focused set of skills that they need in the workplace."

So, while the course discusses theoretical issues, it is also about being creative, but with one eye on the market. "Being wildly imaginative isn't enough," he says. "The students have to be able to create something that people will want to consume."

Aside from giving students the technical nous, can the course impart imagination? Yes, says Peacock. "You can teach people to think creatively beyond the norm. I'd hope that's really what art, design and media education is all about. Otherwise the world would stand still."