As I prepare my design classes for a new Spring term at ArtCenter College of Design, I am fully aware that we will not “go back to normal” anytime soon. In fact, as far as my teaching methods are concerned, I will never “go back” at all, as our situation has brought upon wonderful opportunities to re-invent what learning can look like in the future. That is the path that I want to explore here.
During the first weeks of online teaching in March 2020, I naively made the mistake of attempting to run my online classes the same way as my in-person version. That quickly caused mental exhaustion on both ends of the screen, and I intuitively knew that I needed to look for new creative online teaching methods. That was yet another mistake. Through my search process, I ultimately realized that I need to look at how to learn virtually instead of teaching online effectively.
I use a technique that I call “Digging Deeper,” which I describe in the first chapter of my book “Creative Strategies.” The book is a companion to my creativity class, which bears the same name. “Digging Deeper” is a process of asking successive questions to get to new results and then prototype the possible “answers.” The sequence often follows the following pattern:
- What is it? (this is the curious mindset, looking for opportunities)
- How does it work? (this is the investigative mindset, trying to understand the principles)
- What can I do with it? (this is the tinker mindset, prototyping answers)
In this particular situation, I was initially searching for examples of online teaching tools and techniques to help me with re-inventing my classes. A little side notes: ArtCenter classes are run like professional studios, and each studio class is 5 hours long. So imagine you would have to be in a 5-hour long video conference with me every week. I certainly would get bored by myself. But that was the baseline from where I was trying to re-design the course. I figured that from my student’s perspective, sitting in front of a screen for that long is bound to dilute their ability to learn the content that I would provide.
I knew this because I saw a similar effect with our children that initially had online classes with classmates simultaneously and with live instructions, the same way that I was teaching. I could tell they were overwhelmed and often distracted by the format. I imagined the same is probably happening to some (or all) of my students as well. Realizing the limits of that learning model, Wakako found an alternative solution for our kids: a virtual school formed during the Summer.
With our kids enrolled and taking their new classes, I noticed something very interesting: Their creative output actually increased considerably. Every evening over dinner, we all shared what we did during the day and when it was time for them to share their creative work I could tell how much effort they have put into it and how proud they were of the results. But why? It was time for me to dig deeper into their learning methodology.
Let’s start with the first step: What is it? Simply put, their school is an asynchronous virtual school where their teachers upload pre-recorded lessons with activities that the students can follow along. The students then upload their assignments for review. It is a reasonably straight-forward model, actually, much like watching an instructional video online. Where it became interesting for me, though, was in the next step: How does it work? Or, more precisely: How does this work from the perspective of a learner?
Every time I took a break from teaching my class, I would step out of our Creative Garage and pass by our children taking their classes. And what I noticed was that they would pause and rewind every time they made a mistake or otherwise missed part of their teacher’s demonstration. And when they needed to take a break (for example, to hold one of our chickens for a bit) they would do so again by pausing the video. Thinking of my “old” in-person classes where students would regularly fall asleep or else miss some of the information because they are distracted with their phones, this presented an opportunity to give them the power to rewind.
This insight led me to my third question, which is always my favorite: What can I do with this knowledge? I decided to take one of my classes to prototype what I had seen: I created pre-recorded video segments of drawing demonstrations, each covering specific topics. Then I created fun in-class challenges (also pre-recorded) that students would complete as part of their 5-hour class time. While students watch the videos and start their challenge, I would use the time to provide individual feedback on their assignments during pre-determined time-slots (so that students could turn the screen off when completing the challenge). So, in essence, I have effectively cloned myself where I can be in multiple places simultaneously.
What was most surprising to me was that at the end of the term, the student’s creative output from my “new online class” was actually better compared to my “old in-person class” at the end of the term. Looking back now, it seems obvious that this would happen as students have access to more information at a pace that is right for them. This works very well for subject matters that require a lot of how-to instructions and demonstrations. But how will this apply to my other classes, such as Product Design and Creative Strategies?
Well, I am actively digging deeper into those topics as we speak and will create new prototypes for the spring term - creativity is always a work in progress.