Post-Pandemic Design Education (Part 1): Where Do We Go From Here?

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Edited by Steven Heller

All art and design schools and university programs in the United States during the age of COVID-19 have had to develop alternative methods of teaching students. Although there has not been a one-size-fits-all solution, various forms of complete or partial remote learning have been in effect for almost a year. When the pandemic ends—and it will—educators will have to decide how to integrate at least some of the new approaches with the old. We asked a medley of teachers and chairpersons from a variety of schools to answer two questions about the imminent future. The first appears today, and a postscript follows tomorrow.

Of the protocols currently in place as health and safety precautions during the pandemic (e.g., remote learning, hybrid learning, asynchronous learning*), which will be instituted as a permanent methodology?

*For the uninitiated, education that involves, say, on-demand sessions that students can engage with on their own schedules.

Angela Riechers

Program Director, Graphic Design, University of the Arts, Philadelphia

All of the programs in the School of Design decided to approach the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink how we deliver content. Some of the things we’ll definitely keep [include] Zoom meetings to bring in guest lecturers and critics from all over the world, and all time zones. Our in-person studio classes were six hours long. We shortened them to four-and-a-half hours for remote learning, which is still within degree granting requirements irements, and have not seen any ill effects for the students. Going forward we are considering different options when back in-person such as making the last hour-and-a-half optional to stay in the classroom, as a work period with a TA instead of the instructor, or to use the time for asynchronous assignments and activities or we may permanently keep the length of the course at 4.5 hours.

We started using apps such as Slack for communication and Miro for presentations, and these have been very effective for both students and teachers. I can see using Miro as a way for students to post interim work between classes for peer or teacher feedback, and it’s great to keep a Slack channel going for each separate class. Many students seem to have the same questions, and the Slack thread becomes a giant FAQ file. I also use Slack to post “hey, look at this design thing I found” links, and students respond better to the text chain–like format than they do to emails.

In the remote learning situation, we generally have a quick look for prelim crit, maybe a lecture/demo, and then ask the students to work in small groups in Zoom breakout rooms, where the instructor pops in and out for more individual attention. We're looking at how what used to be covered exclusively in the classroom can now be taught asynchronously in the future. I’m thinking of doing something similar to the breakout rooms in real life—creating study groups for maybe four students in the classroom and having them meet (could be live, could be online at their discretion) to review each other’s work prior to the next week’s class for peer feedback. It will be consistent, and a way to be accountable to each other.

Sean Adams

Chair, Undergraduate and Graduate Design, ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, CA

Remote learning will stay in place for faculty outside of the region, and partially for individual meetings as needed with students. We will also continue the visiting artist program for some speakers remotely. Asynchronous learning was part of the curriculum previous to the lockdown, and will continue for technical learning such as Adobe InDesign, coding, etc.

Douglas Davis

Professor and Chair, Communication Design Department, New York City College of Technology

As I look forward, I’m reminded that the principles in user-centered design will be useful to apply to our systems. I’ll be thinking about our program in the same way as I would a UX/UI problem. We will need to be responsive so that we can be flexible. We don’t know how our students or staff will feel comfortable engaging with the program (or what platforms they will use to do so). Therefore, I’m pushing for a digital and in-person end-to-end experience. If you can book an appointment for the vaccine, check into a flight and make a deposit with a device, then you should be able to attend or teach a class that way when this is over. Not having that choice is a barrier that will become a strategic disadvantage.

To go one further, I think the pandemic, insurrection and difficulty in vaccine roll-out taught us all just how many systems have to be aligned, stable and trusted to have anything resembling a normal routine. My focus will be on redefining quality in the remote space and investing in what would enable us to meet those measures in person and online. Lastly on this point, the biggest danger to creativity will be the lack of equity in access to vaccines. I’m calling it here and I’m telling you now. If you’re reading this and have influence in opening doors, please think about how you will widen the path at the less-fortunate end of your student body. The talent pool is deep and diverse but it will be even more invisible because of the new barriers the pandemic has placed on a household. My answer to this is partnering with companies, industry organizations and other institutions, because relationships will enable impact beyond our resources.

Lita Talarico

Co-chair, MFA Design, School of Visual Arts, NYC

I want to keep that real/virtual sense of each student sitting in the front row of class. Zoom makes it possible for everyone to see and be seen, hear and be heard. I realize studio classes are better in person, but Zoom has greatly increased the potential for conversation and debate rather than a conventional lecture. It has also reduced or eliminated, so to speak, the back-row students, who are often less attentive or contributory in live classes, which is better for them and me. Having now worked both ways has given me a greater ability to make the in-person experience more dynamic, too.

Natalia Ilyin

Director, Design Program, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle

I’ll retain bits of all three (remote, hybrid and asynchronous). I will post asynchronous lectures and videos that can be watched any time; I’ll provide remote access for people who don’t want to come to class during a snowstorm or, here in the West, during fire-and-smoke season, or who are sick but don’t want to miss class—I guess that really makes my planned use hybrid. It’s nice to have the option of dipping in and out—into and out of modes—depending on who needs what, when. I’d like to run little one-credit, five-week online history courses about things that don’t fit into a normal-length semester. I’d li
ke to place these little courses around the larger courses, not unlike cushions in a reading chair.

Jennifer Rittner

Faculty, MFA Products of Design and MA Design Research, Writing and Criticism, School of Visual Arts, NYC

I plan to continue pre-recording lectures/slide presentations so that students can watch asynchronously and with captions. I don’t enjoy the recording process but I think the students find it useful to be able to watch on their own time, and it means I can leave much more time for active discussion or workshopping during live class time. I’ve been thinking more about timing and access. Asynchronous slide presentations give students the ability to process information at their own pace (more or less). In-class workshopping with other students allows for messy kinds of discoveries to happen, and for particular skills to develop. And more 1:1 with faculty allows them to get more direct feedback and guidance. I’d like to figure out how to keep the way I’m using time and access via Zoom in my teaching practice post-COVID.

I’d also like to keep using Miro boards for group brainstorming. I love watching the hive mind at work as students add their ideas. I think they are sometimes freer with their thoughts because it’s (somewhat) anonymous. In my graphic design history classes, my students are using Miro to create a collective design history resource, where they add visual artifacts they discover in a variety of archives. They get to see themselves building their own historical timeline. And in my graduate classes, we’ve used the boards to workshop challenging issues like politics and power. Students share their thoughts on the board and then we have more tools to work with when we’re ready for discussion. I think that even when students are reticent to speak, they find value in being able to put their thoughts somewhere.

Gail Anderson

Chair, BFA Design and Advertising, School of Visual Arts, NYC

My departments … account for 750+ students at the School of Visual Arts. We were able to pivot to asynchronous learning this past fall, after a sudden spring 2020 emergency transition to remote learning. Much handwringing was involved, but our all-adjunct faculty stepped up in ways I could never have imagined, and invested hours in online training and reimagining their syllabi. Now that we’re all well-versed in the Canvas platform (we showed minimal interest only a year ago), we’re better-prepared and savvier as a group. We’re more organized, with our modules and second cameras and assignment sheets.

As we prepare to reenter the physical world in the coming months (knock on wood), I’m certain many of us will maintain our tidy Canvas modules and the weekly structure we’ve created for ourselves and for our students. This has been a lemonade-from-lemons [past] year, for sure, but I’ll feel comfortable continuing to provide asynchronous (a word I could barely spell six months ago) content for my classes moving forward. I like creating bonus goodies and resources; it feels like an enjoyable means to continue learning at your own pace outside the classroom.

Anne H. Berry

Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Cleveland State University

At Cleveland State University, design faculty have been teaching remotely with synchronous class meetings since March 2020. I’m always open to adjusting my teaching practice and trying new approaches and have genuinely tried to think about the remote/virtual teaching experience as an opportunity rather than a limitation. (It sounds cheesy, I know.) And there are still many challenges and frustrations. However, I find that I am pushing myself a bit harder to try and engage students on a wider variety of levels, including looking for ways to encourage their interactions with one another outside of class meetings. So, I will likely continue integrating applications like Slack and Miro and/or other activities that provide students with options to interact remotely/virtually.

There’s a lot I’ve taken for granted when it comes to the rhythms of an in-person classroom setting and how I comfortably navigate that environment. So, I’ve also dedicated more time during remote/synchronous class meetings to having informal conversations about how students are feeling, how they are managing in the midst of a pandemic, or discussing general interests. Those types of conversations tended to happen spontaneously during in-person classes. However, given what the country has experienced in the last four years, let alone the last 12 months, I like the idea of intentionally providing space for students to talk and reflect and share on a regular basis.

I’m continually impressed at how active students are when using the Zoom chat. In some ways, they are more forthcoming and less reserved when responding to questions or weighing in on class activities.

Stefan Sagmeister

Instructor, MFA Design, School of Visual Arts, NYC

I started to offer four individual slots of 15 minutes each to students every week, putting this hour aside from the overall three-and-a-half hour class for more individual questions. This worked out very well and I feel many students felt their needs better met this way.

Gjoko Muratovski

Director, Myron E. Ullman Jr. School of Design, University of CincinnatiThe general assumption is that by fall 2021, most people will get vaccinated and we will be able to resume with face-to-face activities. If not, we can extend our remote teaching until it is safe to return to “normal” conditions. However, there are certain practices that we introduced during the pandemic that I would like to keep. For example, it has become evident to everyone that design education does not need to be exclusively face-to-face, as it was very much believed until the pandemic. Moving forward, I see a great benefit in maintaining some kind of hybrid and asynchronous modes of teaching. Despite the lack of hands-on exposure, the student evaluations of remote teaching during the pandemic registered higher satisfaction scores than under normal circumstances. Clearly, this generation of digital natives appreciates having more flexible teaching and learning models, even when they are missing out on in-person engagement. Studio courses that focus heavily on the process of making and require access to specialized facilities should resume back to in-person learning, but overall, students should be given the opportunity to create their own educational experience. Now, at the same time while I am saying this, I do know that there will be many faculty who would simply opt to return to the typical “prescribed” educational model. However, I think that going back to a default mode of working would be a missed opportunity for us to start anew.

Briar Levit

Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, ORI have found teaching graphic design history online much better than teaching it in a lecture hall. The chat function may be the single-greatest benefit. Students
feel more comfortable asking for clarification and chiming in with opinions along the way. Seeing these comments often fuels my own excitement as I lecture. Additionally, I find I can get a dialog started from the chat, and watch it develop organically into a verbal discussion—something that was very challenging in a large lecture hall. Other benefits—images can be understood better when we are all looking at a screen one or two feet away, instead of a washed-out projection in the dark (which we all know encourages drowsiness—or worse, naps!). I’ve also taken up the use of live captions, which students have said is very helpful. They can’t rely on these for proper nouns, but it can be a helpful reference at times.

The jury is still out on my ability to share actual artifacts. I’ve just purchased a document camera, which, frankly, I already wanted when I was in the classroom in the Before Times. So far, I feel like this is a nice way to break up the still image monotony. When in-person learning starts up again, I have requested to teach this particular class online again. While I enjoy walking into class and greeting folks, for a lecture class, the benefits of online teaching have outweighed those of teaching in person.