The preliminary successes and drawbacks of a turn to distance design studio learning.

Dr Lorraine Marshalsey SFHEA

It seems the technological campuses of tomorrow have manifested today as an essential and spontaneous response to the COVID-19 world outbreak. This article briefly discusses the current pivot from an on-campus physical design studio curriculum towards a distance learning and online delivery model in higher education. 

Many universities have quickly re-focused their learning and teaching of design education towards virtual community building, remote distance learning and teaching and alternative assessment outcomes via digital portals. As an educator who teaches physical design studio learning within a College of Art, housed within a parent university in Australia, the transition has been swift and relatively painless. Our university already has five physical campuses and one digital campus, and a highly successful learning management system (LMS) already fluently embedded. Yet, in my own creative institution, I have been surprised in our ability to quickly transition our curriculum, resources and staffing from a physical to a distance mode of studio learning. Indeed, when the severity of the COVID-19 became clear to our university, this switch occurred in a matter of days.

However, not all art schools and design institutions who deliver a conventional and valued face-to-face design studio education have been able to adapt so easily.

As a researcher of studio learning, my field of research has always championed the physical studio as a site for learning. Preceding 2020, my research investigated the shift from specialised studio educational environments to standardized and augmented digital classroom learning and how this has changed the shape of design education. I examined how networked learning continued to dominate higher education (HE) and institutional preference was for Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). Uniform learning spaces to accommodate higher student numbers were widespread and as a result, studio education combined copious physical interactions and digital platforms.

A great deal of previous research into learning spaces and student engagement has focused on self-regulated design learning, the physical environments that impede or support learning, designing and making creative spaces, creating authentic learning encounters and the studio as a setting for production (Davies and Gannon, 2009; Doorley and Witthoft, 2012; Thornburg, 2013; Farías and Wilkie, 2016; Marshalsey 2017; Powers, 2017; Nair and Doctori, 2019). In recent years, the notion of the sticky campus emerged with the aim of encouraging students to stay, study, work, create and socialise actively on university-governed grounds, in buildings and with faculty (Warren and Mahony Architects, 2017; Orr and Shreeve, 2018). Orr and Shreeve (2018) presented the idea of the sticky curriculum for contemporary art and design education. They argue a complex ‘stickiness’ is the posing of uncertain, diverse and thought-provoking opportunities for learners, which may be found external to formal, assessed curriculum (Marshalsey et al. 2020).

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, my research examined the relationship between space and learning in higher design education, and specifically, in the use of specialised ‘sticky studio’ learning spaces located within a wider university context. I attempt to address the pedagogical gap that exists between broader university learning structures and spaces, and the requirements of specialist design education. Wider university systems place pressure on space and time for exploratory learning and practice across the creative disciplines. Often there is no space or time for the necessary self-directed ‘diverse wanderings’ of messy, creative experimentation in studio learning today. Austerlitz et al. (2008, p.6) refers to this “ability to operate in the complexities of uncertainty” as the core of art and design studio education. If educators lose power over a practical curriculum then students may fail to perform, and to the depth and rigour required for creative design practice (Giroux and Aronowitz, 1986). 

It is clear moving assessment and engagement online has consequences and repercussions for practice-based art and design courses in higher education today. For these reasons, and as a reflective design educator and researcher, I was reluctant to fully embrace online studio delivery. Surely, the distinct signature style and values of a hands-on, dynamic studio education would be lost?

Yet, I and my colleagues rode the wave of the physical-to-distance/online delivery shift with little argument or obstacle. I now find myself in a position of being compelled to address what a distance and online ‘sticky studio’ delivery might comprise of and what that might mean as an educator of design students and as a researcher of physical, blended and virtual studio learning. I am now duty-bound to confront and address my assumptions of a non-physical studio delivery much quicker than I had anticipated.

Distance learning in design changes how, what and why we teach and how our students learn. What are the practical implications of design studio education in a time of distance learning? What are the drawbacks and successes of the technological platforms, digital tools and techniques essential for student engagement in distance studio education? Many have embraced this shift so far, yet I am still in the initial stages of understanding the enormous range and diversity of the platforms, workspaces and tools available online to support my teaching practice. I believe we, as creative educators, are situated at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding distance and online delivery for studio education.

The preliminary successes and drawbacks of a turn to distance studio learning

In terms of preliminary successes in my institution, students seem to have greater contact with educators via the university-supported online platforms teaching staff now use in our institution (BlackBoard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams). The feedback from students is positive – they feel they have more one-on-one time with key staff and peers. Voting polls, breakout tasks, interactive hand raising features, chat rooms and shared screen access supports the teaching and learning approach. In relation to the drawbacks, block learning does not work online.

For my own 4th year Honours students, the previously timetabled 4-hour seminar is not feasible to sustain online. It is exhausting for educators to maintain online presence and a challenge for students to stay engaged for so long. Instead, I find myself dispersing the 4-hour block over the entire week. I host the main class on BlackBoard Collaborate for a 2-hour block, where we reflect work to each other, discuss design thinking and strategies for the students’ individual projects with peer feedback. I then set them tasks as homework, and we stay in contact frequently via Teams and email during the rest of the week.

My colleagues also say Miro and Padlet are key platforms for creative engagement and collaboration online, and as a means to display creative work-in-progress. Despite the absence of the daily commute to university, the students (particularly the first-year students who only began their academic experience here in Australia at the end of February) do struggle to remain motivated when isolated at home with little resources other than a computer and internet connection. They miss the evolving interactions with staff and peers in a shared, physical environment. 

As a design educator, I do miss using the floors and walls of my educational environment as a blank canvas to draw ideas and connections with my students, to visually explain concepts and to teach face-to-face. I find it difficult to measure the students’ comprehension via body language and facial expressions as they are essentially invisible to me online and vice versa. Digital Post-it notes are no match for the real thing.

Yet, my attitude as an advocate of studio learning is softening, although I am not entirely convinced the key values and properties of studio can exist online – the creative messiness, the situational responsiveness to student engagement, the visibility of critical play, materiality and the support of the community of practice and discovery. Virtual breakout rooms do not have the same appeal as a group table or studio sofa and demonstrating hands-on drawing, techniques and prototyping via webcam does not have the same attraction.

Yet, in these early days of a changed studio delivery, it is forecast art and design institutions will not fully return to the way we taught the design curriculum before. There are many points for consideration and discussion as we move forward to embrace the future of design studio learning within an emerging, blended sticky studio model in higher education. Who knows what that will look like?

3 thoughts on “The preliminary successes and drawbacks of a turn to distance design studio learning.

  1. Dr Marshalsey, these are indeed important questions. Hoe do we move out of an emergency situation towards crafting a ‘new normal’ supported by an ecosystem of synchronous, asynchronous, formal, informal, physical and virtual learning spaces?

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