Taking studio practices online: case study 2

Header image: outcome from the Year 2 Material Futures project by Lining Jiang. Work includes potato skins, avocado, waste paper and agar agar.

Studios and studio-based practices are at the core of the creative arts.  Across disciplines (such as performance, fine art, design or film to name but a few) tutors and course leaders are grappling with taking these traditions online. Lockdown has provided the spur to action, but how do we transform our physical teaching and learning practices so fundamentally while maintaining the quality of the student experience?

This series explores the importance of transposing, rather than mirroring, our teaching practices in the online environment.

For the second interview in this series we spoke to Anne Marr,Programme Director, Jewellery, Textiles and Materials, at Central Saint Martins.  Anne is also a UAL Senior Teaching Scholar.

Talking home-made biomaterials and the benefits of asynchronous teaching with Anne Marr, Central Saint Martins.

I was surprised at the speed of change this Spring. It caught us all, staff and students, off guard.  Being only online is undoubtedly a challenge for our programme because we’re very focused on physical skills and tangible objects.  It’s especially tough for the final year students, but there also have been opportunities and new ways of making that have come out of the pandemic lockdown.

Material Futures project: creating using local materials at home

Our second year BA Textile Design students are now doing a project called Material Futures, concerning new directions for textiles.  We have always encouraged them to go “off-loom” and not use the University workshops, but somehow in prior years they never had quite the confidence to do that fully.

Semi-transparent material made of overlapping orange and dark red flower petals, draped over a hand
Work by student Charlie Buxton. Includes floral components.

Students have been forced to find new ways to engage with this unit during lockdown. This time around we arranged a session with materiom.org to look at biomaterials and recipes.  Our students are dispersed around the world, from Hong Kong to Istanbul to Peru, but they do all have in common kitchens and food waste, which they can use to experiment. 

We’ve seen both record attendance and real creativity, with more variation as students engage with their specific localities.  A guest tutor commented that this is the most innovative cohort she’s seen yet.

Student Engagement and Community Building

We’ve also changed our marking schemes this year. Year 1 is now pass/fail and Year 2 will be marked based only on the work done pre-lockdown, so the summer term has effectively moved to providing feedback and guidance only.  Despite that, and against some staff expectations, student engagement has remained consistent.  Students are still emailing, anxious about deadlines and making sure they submit work on time to receive feedback.

Initially some staff members were concerned about becoming more ‘broadcasters’ of teaching and of losing dialogue with their students.  But we’ve all adapted, because we had to.  We’ve been trying to build community, for example hosting a staff and student quiz.  We also have a new Textile ‘afterschool club,’ where our tutors are sharing their favourite Instagram posts and other inspirations across all year groups.  We’re still experimenting with methods. The most challenging, and I don’t know how we address this, is to replicate the happenstance of being in the College and running into someone. That being able to say hello with no agenda.

Contact time and rhythms of working

I think we need to rethink the idea of contact time now we’re online.  Online hours are intense for tutors and students, especially when we’ve spent the last five weeks firefighting as we all learn new technologies.  I accidentally muted a guest speaker and colleagues have got lost in breakout groups! You have to have a sense of humour and admit we’re all human and make mistakes. 

Next year I think we’ll experiment more and potentially understand how sessions can have different rhythms.  Longer sessions can have pauses, where not much is happening, almost like a live stream.  We’ve been thinking about the notion of time a lot.  Partly because we all have in lockdown with normal life so disrupted, but also with having to organise tutorial groups by time zone and then recording sessions and materials too.  Again, we worried that attendance might drop if we put presentations online, but actually it gave students the ability to watch through key material at their own pace and then join a live discussion group later.

Interestingly, the chat function when we’re online has been really important.  We’ve heard new voices as previously quiet students seem more comfortable to share text, emojis and links. Their contributions are spontaneous, immediate and now visible, which is lovely to see.

As an aside our textiles students do prefer being physical and can struggle with digital or online techniques. Another benefit this term is our students being braver and acquiring digital skills, which has been great.

What have you learned that you might take back to your physical spaces?

Finding large spaces for group briefings and then the risk of double booking was stressful in the College. So a part of this that could very well stay online.

The recorded materials for this course, and for the various technical College workshops or academic support too, will remain available for future use. Our Associate Lecturers have been fantastic creating a lot of new video content, for example about making at home through ‘hacking’ everyday materials.  I’ve been watching them back in the evening and found it inspiring to see what my colleagues do.  We’re also talking about podcasts, given everyone’s quite tired of screens and you can still listen while you cook or exercise for example. Even when we do go back to our physical spaces I think we’ll take this with us.   

There are other positives too.  We’re planning a studio visit to an Amsterdam maker, which is only possible now there’s no physical travel needed. And even better, all 200 of us can now fit into that small studio space together!

Funding students to get online has been vital

Lockdown really highlighted for me quite how many students rely on using digital facilities in College buildings. Getting them equipped has made a huge difference and the help for students with restricted access to remote learning has been vital to ensure equality of access at this time.  One student had only an old mobile phone but within a few weeks was able to produce a video at home.  The hardship fund worked smoothly and was critical to that. 

Student feedback so far

Across the years I think the students are OK at the moment.  The first years are getting even more content than they would have done previously, whilst the second years have created quite a positive “we can do this” mentality together.  It took a little while, but the final years have realised that this is a global situation and that they can’t put off their studies because no-one has any guarantees about the future.  It is really hard for them to move from a very polished, skilled outcome in the Summer Shows to being marked on their process only. I really sympathise with that. It is maybe too early to say, but the indications of their work are looking exciting and fresh so far and will certainly inform our pedagogy for years to come.

Other cases studies in this series:

Do you have a comment on this case study, or an experience you’d like to share? Email teachingexchange@arts.ac.uk.

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