What began as a trickle of emails in mid-March from college and university administrations announcing campus closures quickly turned into a deluge. One after another, institutions in higher education temporarily shut down, adhering to the increasingly urgent public safety warnings about COVID-19. Within a few short weeks, the sudden halt to in-person instruction and equally abrupt transition to virtual instruction marked the beginning of changes that would substantially affect education for the foreseeable future. Terms such as online learning and virtual/remote learning, along with options for “synchronous,” “asynchronous” and “hybrid” instruction, became an increasingly significant part of the academic lexicon. Additionally, an excess of resources—suggestions for revising course syllabi, recommended software applications, webinars, tutorials, and other tools for overwhelmed teachers and students—were swiftly disseminated through professional organizations and social media, intended, at the time, as stopgap measures.
Months later, the COVID-19 public health crisis continues unabated, leaving institutions with few options for providing instruction while protecting the health and safety of students, faculty and staff. Virtual/remote learning has become mainstream, and educators are continuing to revamp curricula and pedagogical approaches to accommodate this new learning environment.
ADAPTING TO A NEW ENVIRONMENT
Despite being equipped to navigate the technological side of virtual/remote teaching, design instructors are still exploring—and in some cases, struggling to find—ways to make virtual/remote experiences meaningful for students. From integrating Slack workspaces and Miro board critiques to informal Zoom activities outside of synchronous class meetings, promoting a sense of community has become a significant part of efforts to keep students engaged.
Reflecting on the aspects he appreciates most about being in the classroom with students, Andy Schwanbeck, assistant professor of Graphic Design at La Roche University in Pittsburgh, describes a “high-energy, casual atmosphere where talking, collaborating and sharing work are all part of the regular dynamics.” But, he says, “Building that type of environment takes a little bit of time.” He adds, “I’d like to think if I make my classrooms a space that I enjoy being in, so will my students. In a face-to-face situation, when I dig into something with a student, I might make a sketch, show them a shortcut in whatever software they’re working in, demonstrate a better way to arrange something or run to my office for a book to show them an example of inspiration.”
While Schwanbeck understands the necessity of maintaining safety measures, the loss of face-to-face exchanges with students is still acute. “It’s difficult to reproduce the range of face-to-face interactions in a virtual environment,” Schwanbeck says. “It’s the fluidity of being able to choose how to best respond to a scenario, rather than, say, being forced into one or two methods of virtual interaction, that makes face-to-face so important.”
Shifting from an in-person to a virtual/remote environment has also presented obstacles to faculty working in social impact design and other community-based research and teaching, areas heavily reliant on building long-term relationships through in-person, face-to-face connections. Like many other educators, Penina Acayo Laker, assistant professor of Communication Design at Washington University in St. Louis, moved her studio-based courses online when her campus temporarily closed. As she contemplated longer-term solutions, a question remained as to if or how she could “find creative ways to reimagine what community engagement and partnership look like without physical interaction,” she says.
As a result, she structured her courses around remote ethnographic research activities. “I scheduled synchronous interviews and presentations between our community partners and students, and have had the community partners record interviews at their locations for students to watch later,” Acayo Laker says. And in preparation for a project with the Griot Museum of Black History, for which students will analyze the physical site and space of the museum, she is considering options for funding a photographer and videographer to assist her. “I want to try and bring the current museum experience as close to the students as possible since they will be working to rebrand the museum and develop materials to promote upcoming exhibits,” she says.
All things considered, Acayo Laker says the changes in process have been smooth. “The willingness of our community partners to adapt to the new limitations has been key,” she says. “In fact, some partners are excited to try new forms of communication. They are happy to be able to stay connected and get support for their efforts, which has been especially difficult due to limited funding sources and opportunities.”
TECHNOLOGY AND THE CRITIQUE PROCESS
Tiffany Roman, assistant professor of Instructional Technology at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, says she understands the dilemma that design educators face. Yet, with a BFA in graphic and visual communication design, a PhD in instructional systems technology and experience teaching graphic design at the high school level, she is vocal about the opportunities created through remote teaching and using technology to support remote learning. Through multimodal critique approaches, for example, she says that students “communicate with each other and the instructor using various technologies while critiques transpire” and expand across virtual and physical spaces. “Multimodal critiques expose students to tools commonly used in the industry,” she says. “Since many tools offer similar functionality, students may be able to adapt the collaboration, critique and technology skills acquired from multimodal critiques to new contexts.” Tools and software applications can be both beneficial for facilitating virtual/remote learning and helping students develop professionally.
David J. Walker, assistant professor of Art in Graphic Design at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, also sees advantages in virtual/remote teaching. “Remote design education is preparing design students to work remotely,” he says. “I believe that design firms and agencies will make the hard shift to [review] virtual portfolios and employ designers from anywhere.” Though he predicts that design jobs will be more competitive in the near future, he believes that there will be more professional opportunities, given the flexibility of working remotely. “[Today’s] students will be more prepared to handle the demands of working in the absence of a workplace environment than any other class,” he says.
Due to the close relationship between design education and design practice, Walker applauds continued support from design professionals during the pandemic. “Professional practitioners can be of help if they are willing to get on Zoom calls to share experiences relevant to a given course,” he says. Putting students in close proximity to design professionals gives them a preview of what to expect. “Students get a gauge of the design vernacular, see works in progress and learn about the processes of working designers,” he says. “They love hearing from professionals and asking situational questions.”
Amid the rapid changes taking place in higher education and beyond, much of educators’ collective focus has been on students. However, in addition to planning and organizing virtual instruction, design faculty have themselves struggled to connect. Liese Zahabi, assistant professor of Design at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the AIGA Design Educators Community (DEC) steering committee, served as one of three cochairs of the DEC SHIFT virtual summit for educators, which took place in early August. “What we mostly heard [from participants] was how disconnected and isolated everyone felt. While many amazing resources and information have been working their way through social media outlets, we hoped that creating this event would allow educators to pool their ideas and resources in a centralized place,” she says.
The summit, unique in its integration of a Slack workspace for participants and its blend of live and prerecorded sessions, also created greater accessibility to a wider audience that covered the globe. “A huge takeaway for me was the richly diverse group of attendees,” Zahabi says. “It was refreshing to hear from design educators living and working in different contexts and cultures, and to also have the chance to learn from them. This included nontraditional designers working in contexts different from traditional higher education in the United States.”
Physical distancing and technological barriers are not the only obstacles that educators are facing. The impact of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent nationwide Black Lives Matter protests have also been stark reminders of the design industry’s systemic failures in addressing its own lack of diversity. Yet again, design educators are rising to the challenge. Rebecca Tegtmeyer, associate professor at Michigan State University; Kelly Walters, assistant professor of Communication Design at Parsons School of Design; and Meaghan A. Dee, associate professor and chair of Graphic Design at Virginia Tech, say they see diversity, equity and inclusion as foundational to their work and teaching. Through individual and collective efforts, they have committed themselves to instituting inclusive and antiracist practices in their curricula and pedagogy.
WHERE DO DESIGN EDUCATORS GO FROM HERE?
Design is continually in flux, adapting and expanding in response to technological advancements and the shifting needs of society. Consequently, design educators must also adapt. For Schwanbeck, moving past the initial awkwardness of virtual meetings has made him more aware that he and his students “can still have plenty of impactful conversations, learn from one another and get excited about what we’re doing,” he says. Moreover, conscientious students remain dedicated, regardless of the course format. “I suppose that makes me optimistic as well,” he says, “knowing that this age of soon-to-be designers have proven their adaptability and resilience in such a big way.”
Zahabi comprehends the need for educators to “continue thinking of ways to engage our students that give them the tools and ongoing intellectual curiosity that will empower them to teach themselves throughout their careers and lives.” She continues, “the future of design education will be—must be—more inclusive, diverse and multifaceted.”
Walker sees silver linings too. He laments the lost opportunities for educators to get to know new students through in-person interactions, but is grateful to be able to continue teaching and maintain the rapport he’s developed with students. As he says, “I am enjoying the challenge of guiding them through this strange and different new normal.” ca