A&D Educators Share Ways the Pandemic is Shifting Teaching

In a normal year, students, educators and administrators around the country would be planning parties, writing commencement speeches, and thinking of ways to celebrate earned degrees and the end of another school year. This year, of course, little seems normal. But as the Class of 2020 prepares to step into a world that might seem unrecognizable, institutions are finding ways to lift spirits as graduates move their tassels—even if only in their living rooms. As part of our ongoing coverage of the design community in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked A&D school faculty and administrators what graduation looks like in 2020, and what the world should expect from newly-credentialed designers.  

Frances Bronet, Pratt Institute, New York, U.S. 

These are extraordinary and dissonant times—we are working in the immediate while designing for an equitable future. The ingenuity, rigor, and social commitment of our designers is at the forefront of making a world in ways we could not expect. Our design researchers are collaborating with our Pratt technical staff and shops to make products to protect our healthcare workers. Our robust community networks have built support for small businesses in the creative economy. In our pivot to online teaching, the faculty have formed cohorts for teaching in the School of Design…

In our industrial design studio class, sophomores are re-examining seating. Recognizing that the students may be in a variety of shelter-in-place scenarios wherever they might be in the world, what will seating be? What is protected seating when you share limited space? In terms of quickly adapting existing curricula to digital learning, I am grateful to the faculty for their hard work and dedication to deliver a creative education remotely… Moving the design and architectural reviews online is making us rethink our current—perhaps unchallenged—practices. Students and faculty are creating new ways to present their work with classes that do not rely on elaborate physical models and printed drawings pinned to the wall. Now is an opportunity for faculty to leverage expertise in VR/AR [virtual reality and artificial reality] to create and build virtual space.

We will see a resurgence of our graduates develop their own platforms, some of them seeded by the very acceleration and learning they will do as new formats emerge. Our very own Center for Career and Professional Development is redefining how they are advising students in order to flexibly position them for work environments that are now profoundly altered. We are maintaining contact with our academic and industry partners and our resilient Brooklyn community. As we work to maintain these critical connections, our long-term mutual engagement and reciprocal support are central to rebuilding any diminished workforce. Remembering our most vulnerable, including our own community of freelancers is crucial; we continue to collaborate and innovate around what will be a fluctuating new economy…

For the immediate, we are addressing building excellent models for online education while we share our own capacities, from fabrication to excess space to answer pressing community needs, such as face shield production, food pantry supplies, public safety collaboration, to hospital overflow space. In the long-term, we are identifying emerging trends, and anticipating how they will change the field. Our Pratt Center for Community Development has generated a resource kit addressing community demands and resources, from support for nonprofits to mutual aid networks for our students and small businesses. Our graduate students in Planning and the Environment are leading seminars to build democratic platforms, anticipating ways to build a more equitable future. Design writ large—from interior design to planning and architecture—is bringing diverse cohorts together to create new allies and organizations that may be able to negate illness, to help avert getting lonely, isolated, or depressed. Design can reimagine our environment to make things better. As our staff in Student Affairs has stated: “this is the moment we have been training for—from student involvement to prescient design.”

Anthony Cissell, Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, U.S. 

The university went virtual over spring break, in the middle of March. We were pretty well positioned for it, because SCAD had a robust U-learning system already in place. The challenge was, of the 700 faculty members, only perhaps 15 to 20 percent had taught online classes before. We had all the tech and systems ready to go, but we had to educate all our faculty very quickly on how to teach in a virtual classroom because how students engage with them is very different. The spirit of collaboration really helped everybody.

After we all got over the initial shock, though, we discovered we had all these tools in place that we weren’t actually utilizing to their full potential. Particularly in the architecture and interior design departments... We realized it was a fantastic opportunity. We had not been online because there was always this idea that we can’t do the building arts online, the idea that buildings are physical things and we have to be in them to be educated about them. But we realized we had this incredible opportunity to bring the curriculum closer in line to where professional practice is. I’m a practicing architect and I regularly call on virtual meetings for project teams spread across four or five different cities. There was an ‘aha’ moment about a week into it where we figured out that we are going to come out of this with a lot of capabilities we weren’t taking advantage of before…

President Paula Wallace and I had a great conversation at the outset of this. She called me up and said: 'Let’s talk about how we not just survive this quarter. Everybody’s sort of in survival mode, and that’s one way to go about it, but I don’t think that’s the way we like to do things.' So we talked about what’s next, looking at the profession. What is actually next for architecture and design and preservation? I said, I think it’s about we’re about to do. That’s what next. That’s what’s coming down the pike for architecture and interiors and building arts: virtual reality. It’s project teams working in cities all over the country collaborating on projects in a virtual meeting space. Coming out of this lockdown, every professional office is going to get a crash course in virtual reality and online collaborative meeting spaces. When we come out of this, some of these things that a lot of firms have been side-eyeing are not going to be so far-fetched. So we sat back and said, what do we need to do? We need to go out and get all the tools the profession is using and use this quarter to introduce students to these tools. We got licenses for all of the meeting platforms, and online markup and review [programs] for drawings, and are using this quarter to introduce a higher level of professional, collaborative meeting tools to our students.

At SCAD my message has been that our mission in the architecture department is to produce design leaders of the future. Anybody can learn Revit and sit in front of a computer for five years, but I want our students to walk into those conference rooms and sit with the principals and owners and make decisions about design. Over the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen a ramping up of the digital tools for architecture. Programs like Revit have become industry standards. In academia, there’s been a focus on students being able to work with these technical tools for drawing and production. But this health crisis is teaching us that sometimes you’re going to be in situations where you won’t have a computer that can do the heavy lifting of those programs. So we are focusing on graduating students into a profession who can sit down and use any of the most advance tools you can come up, but who can also walk into that conference room and communicate

We should be looking at these students and thinking: these are my future project managers who know how to use the virtual markup tools and manage communication across the virtual world. On the academic side, we need to return our focus to the fundamentals of producing architecture and design—not only the digital skillset, but the analog skillset, which allows them to walk into conference rooms and sketch designs and make decisions with owners. On the professional practice side, we should look to these students and see that they are learning a whole different way of communicating right now that is part of the future of our profession.

David Sprouls, New York School of Interior Design, New York, U.S. 

We have over 550 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, and in a matter of days we went from students being on site to them sheltering at home doing remote-learning, and our staff at home as well. It took about a week to get all the faculty, students, and classwork itself onto an online platform. Luckily, we already had a lot of distance-learning classes and programs. So we had the technical know-how, and the people to do it. We just were not planning on having to do it all in a week.

But our students are driven and they want this education. There was a level-headedness and pragmatism that prevailed. What’s gratifying is that we had a number of faculty who had never taught an online class and now are doing it—and are enjoying it and seeing how they can incorporate what they’ve learned into their other classes. So the takeaway is: Not everything is going to change. I think we’re just accelerating changes that were happening anyway. Studio critiques have been interesting and challenging. In some ways, faculty is spending more time with their students than they might in a studio setting. But I’ve also heard they miss being all in one room together.

In terms of moving forward, we made the decision that all of our summer classes are going to be online. For the fall semester, we’re in a wait-and-see mode, planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Student associations are planning get-togethers via Zoom because there’s a sense of wanting to share experiences with other people, outside of the classroom. There’s a level of anxiety running through every aspect of our lives right now. People are isolated. Humans are social creatures, they want to share their stories and see each other’s faces. So every other Friday morning we have a full staff meeting, from maintenance people to our president, to tell stories and see each other. The feedback has been great.

In terms of commencement, this is the time of year when we get excited for ceremonies and events. There are a lot of discussions about what to do. I feel it’s important that, even though things are up in the air, we still celebrate students’ accomplishments in May or June, at the end of the semester. I don’t want to postpone because I don’t know what’s coming down the pike. So we will have a virtual commencement and a virtual thesis exhibition with students’ work, so we can send out portfolios. Students are no long able to go on interviews and portfolio reviews, so we’re trying to do what we can to help them get work in front of potential employers. We need to have as close to a normal [scenario] as possible—a ceremony with speakers calling out student’s names, them moving their tassels, and all the other kinds of bells and whistles.  And then, hopefully before too long, we can have an onsite thesis exhibition, where students can come together with their friends and family and faculty—and party. 

> See our full coverage of COVID-19 and its impact on the A&D industry

ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW, is gathering information about our industry’s response to COVID-19. Click here if you’d like to participate.

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