Taking studio practices online: case study

Talking power dynamics and student agency with Shibboleth Shechter, Camberwell College of Arts

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 our first case study we spoke to Shibboleth Shechter about her experience of 2020. Shibboleth is Course Leader, BA (Hons) Interior and Spatial Design at Camberwell College of Arts and a UAL Senior Teaching Scholar.

What has surprised you in the move to creative teaching and learning online?

How quickly we at UAL have made changes to teaching and learning. Normal processes for even small adjustments can take so long, and this situation has shown that if there is the impetus and the will we really can make significant modifications.  Looking forward it gives me hope that we can adapt further.

In what ways have you seen students’ creative practices adjust or change in response to the online creative learning context?

To me the most inspiring thing that happened during this period is the ‘Wednesday Social’ that a group of our third years initiated. They approached the teaching team to help them set up an informal space in which students and staff could discuss the impact of the current crisis on the thinking and practice of spatial design. They organised four sessions – private space, liminal space public space and global space. This is the first time in my many years of teaching that students on our course have taken the initiative to define the curriculum. It is also the first time that we had students from across all three years engaged in conversation.

The students did an amazing job facilitating, asking people to upload images to prompt debate beforehand. In the final session they also invited MA students and asked the teaching team to invite an external speaker to join us (we invited architect and independent curator Mariana Pestana). The students are now exploring the possibility of networked making, co-creating drawings and mappings of the conversations.

This type of cross programme learning would just not be possible in physical space, what with constraints on rooms and on finding a time to meet. About a quarter of our total 240 student cohort took part and I think more students have listened back to the recordings afterwards as well. Having the text chat alongside the spoken discussion helped some quieter participants to join in.

This obviously happened organically and I think the current situation upended the power dynamics such that the students felt the agency to make this request. I’m now thinking about next term and how I can try to recreate that dynamic and make our students feel empowered from the start of their studies, without over-formalising and losing what made these sessions work so well.

What from this experience would you like to take back into the classroom when you get there?

I’d like to keep some of the creativity in ‘making-do’ that I’ve seen lately from our students. We’re fortunate that a lot of interior and spatial design can be done using digital software, however, experimenting with materials is foundational to our course ethos, so it has been encouraging to see that some of them have been making models from vegetables, straws, whatever they can find at home.  I hope we can keep this creative spontaneity when we get back to physical spaces.

How do you do crits online? 

We haven’t dramatically changed the way we do crits online as compared to the studio and like all synchronous online teaching, we found them to be exhausting. Moving forward we are considering practical solutions, such as dividing the students into smaller groups and running the crits over several days. We are also considering more innovative approaches to the reviews, taking a cue from the energy that we saw in the informal conversations of the Wednesday Socials.  

On the more positive side, without the requirement to travel to London the opportunities for collaboration have really opened up.  We invited critics from across the UK, but also from across the world. A critic from New York joined one of our sessions. I think UAL’s connections are something we can really leverage and build on here.

What have you learned during this experience so far?

So far, we are coping, but I don’t think collectively we have yet really understood the full potential of the platforms we’re using.  Speaking to colleagues we’re mostly doing a slightly different version of what we did before: a mix of lectures and tutorials, rethought but not dramatically transformed.

The feedback from students about the move online so far has been very complimentary. They say they’re getting all the workshops, teaching and feedback that they expect in an acceptable format and they are enjoying that staff are providing more information online, including links to interesting lectures and opportunities. Having said that, I think students see this a crisis situation and also view it as a temporary change. If lockdown continues longer or when we’re dealing with new students (who have not met face to face) I’m not sure they would say the same.

There must be better ways of using the tools in innovative ways and we just need some time to investigate that. I acknowledge the speed of the move online has been challenging, alongside the fact that using the platforms so expansively is new to us all. And I suspect that we’re all thinking of this situation as being somewhat temporary.

I’ve been reading and looking for guidance on how to use the tools differently and examples of good practice but I’m not sure I’ve found much that hits the mark yet. I’m conscious too that UAL is No. 2 for art and design education in the world, so we can’t just do what others do.  If we want students to continue to come here we need to make our online experience innovative and attractive to them.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the start of the move to online delivery? 

It’s surprised me how tiring the online model of synchronous teaching is for staff. Looking at a screen and being present for a long period is totally unsustainable. Having lived it, if we will need to continue teaching and learning online, I’m definitely now considering other, more innovative ways of interacting with our students.

Other case 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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