by Heather Zises
These days, working from home or remotely, many people are discovering new ways to support each other through a renewed sense of community, trusted leadership, and innovation. Spearheading the campaign for a return to normalcy in the workplace is technology. Up until the quarantine, video meeting and conference platforms like Zoom remained distinctly separate from creative industries. Now, during these times of social distancing, virtual platforms have become essential in all trades as an alternative to in-person services.
As studio artists grapple to find a balance between connection and distance, they feel the urge to create and learn new techniques. And despite limited access to materials and space, most are using a myriad of digital experiences in the form of webinars, live streams, workshops, and online summits to connect with audiences. While some artists are making and repurposing works that respond directly to the developing events, others are exploring new realms of possibility.
This pivot is particularly prominent in the art world where online classes have become a trendsetter for art education. Online learning is not a new concept and is often heralded for its convenience in regards to logistics. Ranging from a one-off to a multi-part series, online classes are ubiquitous, accessible, and for the most part, affordable. Knowing what media will be needed in advance of the class is helpful, as it may significantly affect the overall success of the course. It’s also worth finding out if the classes are downloadable, if coursework is provided, and if there is an option to have a critique from the instructor.
Switching to online art classes may be a new approach and there are several advantages.
1. Keeping a personal connection
The main benefit of online art classes is that they help maintain a personal connection between students and teachers. Video as a medium encourages a level of familiarity that helps build a community. Although not in a studio, teachers can foster more personal connections with their students and in exchange it allows them to get to know the instructor and how they act or react to certain situations. Participants can still interact with each other too and in real-time. This element is particularly helpful when it comes to asking and answering questions.
An unexpected development that can also arise from utilizing video as a learning platform is the ability to view work or objects as mediated through a screen. Operating through a visible layer often adds a sense of mystery or depth that may not have presented itself in reality. For students, having access to this new, in-between space may very well generate new ideas about their work and practice. For educators, it enables them to explore and test new methods and materials.
Known as reflective teaching (RT), the process provides instructors an opportunity to assess how effective their approaches are and identify areas for improvement. Although RT is mainly a solitary process, teachers can also enlist trusted colleagues to collaborate with on best practices. In the face of the pandemic, developing a trusted community both on and offline is paramount, and RT is a meaningful way to share solutions and present fresh approaches.
2. Easy access
Another benefit to remote classes is that students can attend from anywhere the Internet is available. To mirror offline activity, online courses can be scheduled at specific times, so that they still feel formal. Building off of this conceit, many teachers can offer syllabi with project deadlines, homework, and supplemental links if applicable. With these guidelines set in place, this revised format feels legitimate and as a result, helps both students and teachers feel more committed to the class.
3. Plenty of options to stay in touch
Additional strategies on staying connected to students as teachers are to use more than one digital platform to communicate. For example, in addition to hosting weekly or bi-weekly Zoom classes, instructors can set up virtual office hours, and students can “drop-in”, just like they would IRL, and ask questions.
Another way to cultivate ongoing exchanges with students is to create a YouTube channel with quality content that complements the subject matter of virtual lessons. This aspect is beneficial for both artists and teachers because when individuals are able to access a lot of good content that is enriching their education, they are likely to visit the channel regularly and recommend it to others. A positive side effect of adding extra content to a YouTube channel is that it drives more traffic which will increase the visibility and popularity of select online classes.
4. Flexibility is key!
A final note on communicating online is to adjust expectations and have patience with technology. In regards to students, if their computers don’t have a quality camera, they should consider investing in an external webcam which can be clipped onto a laptop or placed upon a desktop. It makes a huge difference in terms of clarity and can be especially helpful when learning a new technique that requires great detail. As for teachers, it is important to remain flexible and accepting of “substitutions” in case students do not have the necessary materials for a specific class or cannot access a location for an offsite assignment.
As more people are relying upon video conference calls to hold meetings and accomplish tasks, independent creatives and cultural institutions have followed suit by embracing a spate of digital arts programming that is tailored to their specific needs. Universities and colleges have generated a newfound momentum in the digital classroom as art professors test their ability to work with plasticity. Although gone are the days of the in-classroom experience, Christopher Kaczmarek, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art and Program Coordinator of Visual Arts at Montclair State University lauds Zoom as a teaching aid, “The advent of Zoom has made it more fluid for one-on-one interaction with students. Online classes add a layer of humanity because teachers and students still have the ability to read each other through body language and facial expressions.”
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As our new world grapples with finding a balance between connection and distance, many new ideas and sustainable approaches to online learning become the hope among the challenges.
Heather Zises, a media professional with over 20 years of relevant experience in public relations, copywriting and editing, is an accomplished editor and writer. She has extensive knowledge of publications, independent magazines, contemporary art, and lifestyle platforms. Her multi-award-winning book, 50 Contemporary Women Artists (Schiffer 2018), is available at leading art institutions and distinguished university libraries. Heather is Director of Communications at The Magnusson Group and a founding member of Ninth Street Collective, a group of art administrators who focus on professional development for artists. She possesses extensive knowledge of marketing and public relations in all fields.