Art in public places — teaching art digitally

In their essence, art, craft and design are studio-based disciplines, which makes technology-mediated teaching both daunting and complex. Prior to COVID, despite the strong growth in online teaching for most disciplines, few undergraduate and graduate art programs were offered via digital platforms. The literature has scant studies to draw upon to research teaching art online in post-secondary institutions.

Design is in a different category, having embraced technology enabled-learning much more readily than the fine arts. However, despite the introduction of computer labs in design teaching, hands-on studio based learning (comprised of one on one interaction between student and instructor, and peer-to-peer exchange) is seen as the preferred model that contributes to active learning and social engagement. [Fleischmann, Katja, Online design education; searching for a middle ground, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 2020, vol. 19, 36-57]

The fine arts prove more complex. Art and craft education’s physical infrastructure and tools of the trade – studios, kilns, brushes, stone, marble, canvases, paints – have now been removed from art educators and replaced with “corporate-style telepresence”[“Can you teach art online ?”, Kyle Dancewicz, Art in America, April 17, 2020].

Our blog continues this exploration of teaching art digitally, and chronicles the creation of Art in Public Places as an online course, taught by Professor Kim Morgan at NSCAD University.

Kim faces multiple intersecting challenges. Firstly, like her colleagues at NSCAD and universities all over the world, Kim will be teaching in a time of crisis, with all of the attendant issues associated with the anxiety and insecurity of these times.  Instructors are all focused on providing a positive, safe and engaging experience for their students during disruptive times. Secondly, Art in Public Places  is a new course – representing  the distilling of years of research into an innovative offering which invites students to critique and create art in public space.

She needs to reconfigure her teaching approach from the studio to the e-classroom, losing that important face-to-face, direct and affective connection with her students, and moving from the physical to the virtual. She must learn to work with new technologies for on-line teaching (NSCAD has recently acquired Kaltura and other apps, which must be properly understood and mastered).

The short timeline is very challenging – creating a new class for online teaching in just a few weeks, as courses had to be migrated to digital learning in July and August, and ready for the Fall 2020 launch.  The course would normally involve class discussions, field research and building collaborative projects using NSCAD facilities, with hands on participation.

Apart from the requirement of learning a new teaching medium, Kim is concerned about the inevitable technological failures, disruptions and glitches – poor internet connections, power outages, software not working properly, students not being able to log on, and other factors beyond her purview. Troubleshooting these things can take up the whole designated online classroom time.   It can be frustrating for the students and detract from the course content.  This is a concern for a seasoned, confident instructor accustomed to setting the pace and cadence of her instruction.

Brittany (Britt) Moore Shirley, Kim’s Digital Media Intern, helps to smooth that transition and bridge the digital gap. “One of the biggest struggles with facilitating online studies is that students and faculty are familiar with conceptualizing space in person. Therefore, our interactions and ability to bond and work together triumphs in those physical settings,” says Britt.  “Obviously, online study isn’t impossible but it’s important to acknowledge both groups are being asked to very quickly pick up a new kind of visual language and knowledge that exists only in virtual space. Generally, artists, creators, researchers, and instructors are not as familiar with virtual space as a place to interact as those roles and more.”

In terms of the new visual language proposed, the image below shows the Miro Spread Britt uses to visualize and compartmentalize each task/requirement that needs to be addressed in Kim’s course. It illustrates how new circumstances spawn new teaching and learning approaches.

Next time: getting ready for Art in Public Places launch!

Click on diagram for larger image