After 30 years of teaching, 18 at the University of Maine, I had significant apprehensions last March, when my UMaine students were summarily ushered off-campus and “billeted” at home after the spring break, there to remain for the rest of the semester. I crossed my fingers and hoped that technologies were up to the task of bringing a new, vibrant classroom into being.
Like many others, my approach to teaching studio art was molded by years of tradition—kids show up with 2D design kits or drawing boards and teachers pass on to them what they can about practice, process, and skill-building. Weeks of working together one-on-one and in groups is the long-established pedagogical standard. Then along comes COVID.
Skeptics among us envisioned our lives as educators swirling down the proverbial drain.
How does one even begin to replace a hands-on, direct live learning experience with a computer screen where the class is spread out across the State and beyond? In our collective panic last spring, my colleagues and I metaphorically circled the wagons and prepared for battle. We spent hours conferring and sharing as we prepared for September, thanking our lucky stars that we had the summer to rethink and retrain.
Hats off to University IT departments/Google Drive & Classroom/Zoom/Kaltura/YouTube/Instagram/documents cameras. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the world of the teacher in 2021. And, knock me over with a feather, it works. I’ve learned how to do it and even acknowledge there are some advantages.
ZOOM, with all the squared-in faces, is a classroom as well as a faculty office for individual student/teacher conferences. GOOGLE gives us the platform for presenting assignments and storing submitted work in digital portfolios. KALTURA helps teachers build customized media libraries, and YOUTUBE has a wealth of informational videos that are professionally put together (some more than others). INSTAGRAM has developed into a platform where students publically display their work and share a part of their class experience. The DOCUMENTS CAMERA has been an amazing tool; it allows for in-the-moment demonstration, clarification, explanation, and review. In combination, these programs neatly stitch together an effective methodology where students meet their teachers to learn.
Those little windows filled with heads take the shape of a forum where ideas are exchanged, discussions flow, personal attachments are made, and a sense of community develops. Kids occasionally attend class in their pajamas, and some gobble down a sandwich while they work. I have met many cats and dogs as they wander into view and get introduced to the group. Attendance is taken with a screenshot. The rules of what constitutes classroom protocol have changed.
The best surprise of all is about achievement and the quality of the work that the students produce. Although I no longer circulate and hover over students’ shoulders, guiding them as I make my way around the classroom, I am discovering that a little more independence and autonomy allows for well-thought-out problem solving and critical thinking. Students are more outspoken during critiques because they feel more relaxed in this less formal setting. I have learned to be comfortable in my new role, as well.
Getting and giving a college education is undergoing a seismic shift as we keep things moving forward. It’s very different; some things are forfeited for certain, but new innovations are on the horizon every semester, every day. More than anything, it takes an open mind and a few simple computer skills to make it effective. It has been a year—one with steep learning curves and many challenges. Even with a myriad of uncertainties and doubts at the onset, I’m reporting that I feel pretty good about my new classroom, which is, for the time being, the new norm.
Kerstin Engman, University of Maine Art Department
Image at top: Kerstin Engman, Zoom Studio.