In the age of coronavirus, how are universities teaching design at a distance?

With many design disciplines relying on physical pieces and tactile feedback, university course leaders are having to refocus their teaching as lockdown continues.

In normal circumstances, this time of year would see the UK’s art and design students preparing for degree shows and finishing off final projects. But as the country continues to weather the coronavirus pandemic, university doors remain shut.

With lockdown in full swing, design students and staff alike are shut out of workshops, unable to access specialist equipment or software, and going without many library resources. On top of this, they’re distanced from colleagues, classmates and community.

But as many final year students prepare to end their university careers in just a few months’ time, the show must go on, and lecturers across the country are working to rethink teaching methods and refocus how students’ work is evaluated.

“Students want to be able to share their work with their peers”

Effectively replicating classroom discussions, peer reviewing and one to one mentoring through an online platform was the first hurdle for many university staff to surmount. As Hugh Harwood, programme director for graphic design, illustration and animation at University for the Creative Arts (UCA) Canterbury, tells Design Week, this was particularly pressing for final year classes.

“When you’re supporting students, especially those with final year projects, there needs to be some kind of confidentiality between student and teacher,” he says. “But at the same time, students want to be able to share some aspects of their work with their peers.”

Harwood says that his team and students have turned to Slack for this, because of its “flexibility”: staff can assign different channels for different students, and others can be dedicated to students sharing work progress between them.

And while he says that no one would ever consider the situation ideal, Harwood adds that in some ways the shift has actually had a positive effect on the UCA design community.

“Students are getting to know each other in different ways – when they come to a physical university it’s easy for students to stay in the cliques they feel comfortable in, but having to do things differently has really opened up communication across cohorts,” he says. “Students who have never spoken to each other are now beginning dialogues and learning from one another.”

No replacement for “getting your hands dirty”

While good communication has helped the team to ease some anxieties, there are some things that cannot be replicated remotely. UCA “prides itself on a physical design approach”, according to Harwood, and there is no adequate replacement for most forms of “getting your hands dirty”, he admits.

Since practical skills like letter pressing, book binding and ceramics are equally valued alongside more modern techniques, Harwood says staff have had to refocus their methods of evaluating students’ work. But this has been, he says, somewhat of a hidden positive.

“We obviously won’t be handling any physical objects for the foreseeable future and are therefore having to find ways of evaluating work – the documentation process has become more important than ever,” he says. “And I think that’s a really important asset to bring with us moving forward.”

Gaining a sophistication in the way projects and their processes are documented is a useful skill to sharpen, since this is a client expectation across the industry that students will have to contend with post-university, he explains.

This is echoed by Polly Macpherson, an associate head of the School of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Plymouth, who says students have had to rethink their approach to “deliverables”.

“Watching students incorporate new ways of viewing their projects has been interesting to watch,” she says. “Many are employing things like animations and imagery better and others are thinking about how they can make their creativity more web-friendly.”

“Students were expecting to use our workshops”

But while documentation has become a central role in students’ lives, that university facilities remain closed is still an issue for many to contend with, before they’ve even thought about presenting projects. Macpherson says that in many cases, this has involved students pivoting their ideas away from what they had initially planned.

“We have third year design students who were expecting to use our workshops to make their final projects – thankfully all of them have really stepped up to the challenge and have been able to change their briefs in some way,” she says, giving the example of one student who has already managed to make a bioplastic material from home.

Often this has meant reconsidering materials and this is a challenge faced by all staff and students, not just those in their final year Macpherson says. First-year illustration students, for example, have had some lessons “swapped out” in favour of content that includes materials that can “easily be found around the house”, she tells Design Week.

It has been enjoyable in some ways, she says: “One of the things we lose as we get older is the ability to play, and this does seem like a good opportunity to learn how to play again.”

This is a point of view shared by Joanne Lee, a senior lecturer in graphic design from Sheffield Hallam University, who says “creative constraint” has been a “valuable learning experience for students”, even it often comes with the frustration of not being able to fully realise their initial plans.

“We are aware of disparities of access”

Though there are some unlikely positives from the pandemic experience, there are some omissions that students – and staff – will struggle with. The loss of graduate shows is a painful example of this, and Macpherson explains staff had had to really rethink how they approach this topic.

“We’ve had to manoeuvre how we speak to students about it – it’s obviously a really upsetting set of circumstances, but our priority is to help these young people finish their university careers on a high, rather than having a sour end to it all,” she says.

But elsewhere, the loss of the wider university framework itself and the uniformity that brings has been a challenge. As Lee explains: “We are very aware in disparities of access – some students, especially those who are living in places with less technical infrastructure, have problems with internet speed and bandwidth, and many have relied on laptops and other kit within the university buildings, since they don’t have their own.”

Macpherson adds to this, saying that while many tech companies have made programs available for students and universities to use for free during the pandemic, many will not have the facilities to run these.

With the prospect of starting a new university year in September with a fully online timetable is increasingly likely, Lee says this is an issue that needs resolving in the very near future.

“The university is its people, rather than its buildings”

For many university staff, the task at hand revolves around recreating a community as best as they can. At UCA, Harwood says the team are trying to “keep cultural conversations going” by consistently recommending resources to students.

“We’re giving people links to online exhibitions, interesting blogs and films,” he says. “The beating heart of any university is really its library, and we’re trying to replicate that feeling of having resources at your fingertips, where we can.”

Over at Plymouth, Macpherson says much the same thing. Staff there, for example, have established an Instagram account for students that gives out weekly challenges, to ensure that they’re staying engaged and creative outside of course work.

And at Sheffield Hallam, although the initial shock of university closures felt like “a kind of grief”, Lee says students and staff alike have banded together to recreate the familiar structures of the university where they can. “Virtual drinks”, online end of year celebrations and messaging app are just some of the tactics involved to keep morale high.

With this in mind, Lee adds: “I strongly believe the university is its people, rather than its buildings, and the COVID crisis has emphasised that.”

Some entries for Plymouth’s Instagram competition – under the theme “Daily Life”

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