In the Face of COVID-19, Rhode Island School of Design Implements Remote Teaching & Learning Practices
PROVIDENCE, RI (April 29, 2020) – With the campus shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rhode Island School of Design has transitioned to remote teaching and learning for the remainder of the spring semester. Within a matter of days, RISD leadership and faculty were tasked with how to safely deliver a rigorous art and design education – so much of which is hands-on and studio-based – to students dispersed around the globe.
“It has been remarkable to hear how faculty members are reinventing ways to achieve their courses’ learning objectives from a distance. While this has been an extremely hard adjustment for students on multiple fronts, our students are engaging in these new approaches. This pedagogic shift has required tremendous creativity and resilience, and will no doubt create unanticipated learning opportunities. I am grateful to everyone who has been part of this effort,” notes RISD President Rosanne Somerson. “No one navigates difficult situations and uncertainty better than artists and designers, because making ideas or things that have never existed before is an essential component of creative work. My hope is that we will emerge from this as an even stronger and more versatile community.”
“RISD’s history is one in which embodied learning is a deeply held pedagogical value, and we have fashioned the school to support a material-based education,” notes RISD Provost Kent Kleinman. “Therefore, the pivot to remote teaching was more so a conceptual challenge than a technical one. This situation has demanded a rethinking of fundamentals: how works are made; what subjects are most urgent; how aesthetic communities form at a remove; what role art and design should assume in response to the dire social and cultural conditions the world is currently suffering. These are important subjects for any RISD student to tackle and, while we may not have access to our physical plant, this semester continues to offer a probing, substantive, even essential educational experience.”
As such, RISD faculty have had to reinvent ways to deliver their curricula in highly stimulating and evocative ways, from a distance. Some of these classes and methods include:
Sean Salstrom, an assistant professor in RISD’s Glass department, sent students in his Optics class a kit that included a prism, a spherical lens, a high-end laser pointer, and a telescope with a cellphone camera mount. Students are now spending part of the semester studying optics first-hand: researching and observing the interaction of light with space and material which can easily be done in the constrained “studio” environment of self-isolation. In one example of putting these tools to use, a student used his laser pointer with a multi-point diffuser and aimed it at the steam rising from the pot of boiling water for his dinner. The resulting captured image of the effect was stunning, and he might never have had that idea had he not been confined to his home.
Salstrom has also arranged an upcoming evening for all his students to use their telescopes to collectively view and photograph the moon, in an assignment modeled on one undertaken last year by the Event Horizon Telescope team that collected data for making an image of a Black Hole.
RISD Film/Animation/Video (FAV) students and faculty continue to explore remotely the art of the moving image using film, animation, installations, interactive media or a combination. Although FAV can be translated more easily into the digital domain than some other mediums, the standard laptop does not have the capacity to handle the large files students work with. Instead of using high-end cameras and other specialized equipment, students are now using smartphone video cameras and DIY workarounds.
FAV Professor Amy Kravitz says that the transition has been toughest for students using stop-motion animation and puppetry. Animation instructor Gina Kamentsky developed the “Dirt-Cheap Down-Shooting Stand for Wayward Animators,” a tool made out of a cardboard box. Using her step-by-step PDF tutorial, students around are able to create a stable, workable animation stand at home.
Students are working toward completing a final piece to share this spring via online film festivals attended by critics from the professional film and festival worlds. Seniors in the Open Media track will share their work online via multimedia portraits that include images of the artists in the studio and documentation of their final projects and work completed as sophomores and juniors.
RISD Industrial Design sophomores are tuning in from around the world via Zoom for RISD’s course, History of Industrial Design. Created and taught by Matthew Bird 89 ID, the class covers centuries of global making, focusing on objects humans have created since before the Industrial Revolution. Bird updates and builds upon his course website every year, adding new recordings of his presentations along with an eclectic collection of resources. The course culminates in a multiphase research project focused on a randomly assigned object from the department’s product collection dating back to the 1800s. Though students have not been able to physically hold the objects since leaving campus in mid-March, they can research details of their background online—from the patent number, the inventor and early advertisements.
“Our class time is the only thing that isn’t pandemic-related—that’s about building community and generating hope,” says Bird. “The virus has made everyone more keenly aware of how valuable our community is, and that’s not a small thing.”
In facing the challenges that COVID-19 poses to studio education, RISD’s Graphic Design department has drawn from its strength as a community of creative communicators to build dynamic remote learning environments and make work that is both publicly engaged and personally meaningful.
“This isn’t just a RISD moment or a higher ed moment—it’s a global moment,” says Assistant Professor Ramon Tejada. “That has helped them pivot to ask what this means for them as artists, as designers, as people.”
RISD students have also been addressing COVID-19 through projects. “One student has been collecting news images and trying to make serialized work capturing the gradual changes that she’s observing since news gives her the only way of knowing and feeling what’s happening in the world right now,” says Assistant Professor Minkyoung Kim. “Another had already been looking at online grocery shopping in an interesting way. Since that has suddenly become a really important social matter, he’s now working on how to reflect the current situation in his work.”
For RISD’s Landscape Architecture department, COVID-19 concerns make solving these problems increasingly complicated and incredibly urgent. Landscape Architecture Department Head Johanna Barthmeier-Payne says the pandemic “is forcefully bringing forward questions about scenario-building and decision-making and conditions related to the climate crisis.”
Through site analysis, in-depth research and focused design projects, students engage critically with issues in Site | Ecology | Design, a first-year studio that Barthmeier-Payne is teaching this year along with Courtney Goode and Gavin Zeitz MLA 18. The shift to remote learning has called for major adjustments to the course’s usual structure, leading instructors to design a new intriguing experience that offers the students a way of preparing for professional practice. In small teams, students are responding to a hypothetical request for proposals to develop a transformation plan for Phillipsdale Historic Village, an abandoned industrial area in East Providence, RI, into a dynamic site for social interaction, industrial innovation and sustainable biodiversity. A website created by Courtney Goode, includes a detailed project brief, an expansive archive of documentation about the longtime industrial ‘village’ and galvanizing reminders of how landscape designers impact the world.
When grad students in RISD’s Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) department attended a Google classroom workshop last fall, they had no idea how critical the teaching tool would become. Now that the global pandemic is forcing educators around the world to become experts in distance teaching, they’re using such tools to develop inspiring online curricula and make real connections with younger students.
A key aspect of the work is facilitating creativity and learning that doesn’t depend on access to the art-making materials kids have when they’re physically at school. Teaching broad concepts using household objects, their smartphones and whatever pencils and paper they’ve got on hand calls for extra creative lesson planning.
“The geographical disruption has created an extraordinary opportunity to increase the size of our pedagogical toolbox,” TLAD Department Head Paul Sproll explains. “Teachers will use these new skills and hybrid forms of communication to transform the brick-and-mortar classrooms of the future.”
ABOUT RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN
RISD’s mission, through its college and museum, is to educate students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, to discover and transmit knowledge and to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation. The college’s strategic plan NEXT: RISD 2020-2027 sets an ambitious vision for educating students for the future and bringing creative practices to bear on the creation of just societies, a sustainable planet and new ways of making and knowing. RISD’s immersive model of art and design education, which emphasizes critical making through studio-based learning and robust study in the liberal arts, prepares students to intervene in the critical challenges of our time. Working with exceptional faculty and in extraordinary specialized facilities, 2,500 students from 69 countries engage in 42 full-time bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. RISD’s 30,000 alumni worldwide testify to the impact of this model of education, exemplifying the vital role artists and designers play in today’s society. Founded in 1877, RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) and the RISD Museum help make Providence, RI among the most culturally active and creative cities in the region. Find more information at risd.edu.
Media Contact: Christina Allan