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As Otis College Classes Go Online, Instructors Are Developing Innovative Ways to Teach

Since the March 12th Decision to Move All Classes Online, Otis College Instructors, Resource Staff, and Academic Leaders Put Their Creativity to Work in New Ways.
Anna Raya 

When Governor Gavin Newsom enacted stay at home restrictions across the state of California last week, we were suddenly living a new reality. Concern for our own health and safety and that of our loved ones during this COVID-19 pandemic is top of mind for everyone. But a close second is how we will adapt to life in this time of social distancing. For Otis College students, like so many all over the world, there are understandable questions about how the remainder of the spring semester will be conducted in a virtual world. 

Behind the scenes last week and through this week, department chairs and instructors, Technical Support Services, Academic Computing, and the Teaching and Learning Center staff have been steadfastly working with academic leadership to develop new and innovative ways to deliver the rigorous curriculum for which Otis College is known. 

“I think we all need to know that we’re supporting each other, that we’re all trying to figure this out together,” says Interim Provost Kim Russo. To this end, the sense of community that has defined Otis over the college’s 100 years is playing out in real and important ways like never before. “It’s a challenge, yes. It’s a lot to ask the faculty to have to do this in such a quick time period, but everyone is rallying and helping each other out.”

This first in a series of stories about Otis’s transition online for the remainder of the spring semester will document the ways the community has been coming together to serve students. 

Instructors will conduct lectures and critiques in real time and asynchronously using the video conferencing app Zoom, as well as utillize Google Drive, email, and Otis’s learning management systems, O-Space and The Nest. “But as people are digging deeper, they recognize that a-three hour lecture on Zoom isn’t always going to work, so they are starting to think more about how to create three hours’ worth of class time in a different way,” says Russo.

Interim Assistant Provost Joanne Mitchell describes how Linda Hudson, chair of the Foundation program, has been working with area heads from Life Drawing, Drawing Studio, Connections Through Color and Design, and 3-D Design to “create a community of colleagues sharing ideas and thinking creatively on how to take these very analog courses and deliver the education remotely. We are very much an analog school in our style of teaching. It’s exciting to start to explore these digital tools and how they could actually work all the time, not just right now during this emergency.”

In Drawing Studio, a still-life and landscape drawing class, instructor Marjan Hormozi will be broadcasting from her own studio, using her own work as examples and the props she incorporates as objects for the students to study. Assignments will now turn to students drawing in their own environment—still lifes, corners of rooms, landscapes. 

“[Remote learning] will encourage students to learn how to create a space at home with what they have. For some, they will be at the kitchen table, maybe their family is around them and it’s not ideal,” Russo says. “I would say that’s real life. This is an opportunity for our students to figure out: In your real life, how do you create the space to have your studio practice? How do you make smaller pieces because that’s all that the space you have allows? Think about what it means to make small work—what can ‘small’ be that’s also very powerful?”

Creative Practices instructor Liz Nuremberg will implement a project culled from her own undergraduate experience and a drawing class that was inspired by the artist Jennifer Barlett, who made hundreds of drawings and paintings of a garden as viewed from a window. “Deep observation of the same subject matter from the outside, changing perspective, changing media—it sounds simple, but it was an incredibly powerful class,” Nuremberg says. “It was sort of similar to what Pablo Picasso did with Las Meninas.”  

In Scott Zaragoza’s Life Drawing II class, students will do one- to three-minute gesture drawing warmups using recorded modelling sessions available on Vimeo by Croquis Cafe, a free live-model video resource for artists. For longer figure studies, “students will be asked to use their own bodies standing in front of the mirror to draw long poses—clothed of course,” Zaragoza says. “They’ve done self-studies before of their hands and feet, but now their assignments will be extended to torso studies and draping studies. What’s great is that students will have even more of an experience in their own bodies—that’s always been present in life drawing, but will be much more immediate now.”

In working with faculty members last week, Russo says the conversations purposely moved away from the idea of Now we can’t do this towards an excitement around This is what we can do. “What is the value in those limitations, and in teaching students how to continue to be artists and designers even when their situation or their resources are limited?” she says. 

2-D Design instructor Linda Swanson is even incorporating data visualizations she’s seeing in the reporting about COVID-19 into some of her coursework. “Data visualization is one of the most stimulating parts of the epidemic,” she says. “I understand this is not a course in [data visualization], per se, but the design elements are all there. So maybe there will be an introduction to Edward Tufte and having students share what they are seeing online in that regard, and tracking some personal activity to translate to a design.” 

Printmaking instructor Nancy Jo Haselbacher, who ordinarily teaches in the printmaking lab, has switched to an idea of having students carve stamps out of potatoes and stamp them on textile surfaces. 

“I had a conversation with another instructor who teaches rapid prototyping and how now students may not have the requisite software or equipment to work,” says Jean-Marie Venturini, one of two instructional designers in the Teaching and Learning Center who is helping faculty transition their classrooms online. “So I asked, ‘What did students do before the software and equipment existed?’ He said they built models out of foam core. So there is an opportunity to pivot and shift the outcome, but still maintain the learning goals for the class.”  

This type of reverse engineering is going into how instructors are now planning their courses. “We’re not trying to replicate the classroom experience exactly,” says Russo. “We’re looking at the learning outcomes of the course and the program, looking at the syllabus, and saying, ‘What is it that I’m trying to have students know and be able to do by the end of the semester, and how can I get them to understand or know these things with the tools I now have?’” 

“There is admittedly a technical learning curve for many of our faculty,” Venturini says. “They are putting aside that hesitation and really jumping in. I think also there is inspiration to be found in their compassion and understanding. Not everything is going to go smoothly, we will have a lot of failures. But what is great about the creative process is that it acknowledges how failure can lead to even greater achievement.”

Main Image: Drawing Studio instructor Marjan Hormozi in a video she recorded from her studio for her class. (Courtesy of Marjan Hormozi.)