‘This Is an Unprecedented Disaster’: Art Schools Are Scrambling to Develop Contingency Plans for Students as Education Moves Online

Administrators are being forced to adapt to a rapidly changing situation.

Photo courtesy of Art and Education.

As governments around the world race to catch up with the novel coronavirus and the havoc it is wreaking on health care systems and the world economy, art schools throughout the US have their own problem: figuring out how to educate students while keeping them, faculty, and staff safe.

“This is an unprecedented disaster,” says Deborah Obalil, executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a membership organization of 39 schools throughout the US and Canada. 

“While institutions have many disaster plans in place for immediate disruptions to the campus, such as earthquakes, fires, floods, or tornadoes, the constantly changing directives from local, state, and federal health authorities mean that institutions are having to quickly adjust for the safety and well-being of their campus communities.”

None of the five art schools contacted by Artnet News had reported any COVID-19 cases among their communities, and Obalil says she has heard of no cases among AICAD schools. But schools are cancelling in-person classes, and many—including the Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—are extending spring break for a week to allow schools to adapt to fast-changing conditions. 


Going Online

At the moment, schools are surveying students about their needs and getting faculty up to speed on remote instruction. 

Many art schools were already looking to online teaching, but their degrees of preparedness vary widely, Obalil says. Schools that had active digital platforms will now see hundreds more students using them.

“Some art and design schools have been investing in online courses for a number of years,” Obalil says. “The Otis College of Art & Design has instructional designers on staff that work with faculty to develop online courses. The Minneapolis College of Art & Design has multiple fully online graduate programs that it has been running successfully for years.”

Brian Smith, who teaches in the BFA design program at SVA, has found that investment in online learning is paying off. 

“I’ve used Canvas [SVA’s online platform] for years to give out my syllabus, assign projects, grade work, and give feedback,” he says. “I also really like that I can communicate with all my students in one place. [Monday] was the first time I taught the course remotely, and it honestly went super smoothly. I was able to easily show my slides as well as keep an eye on the chat section of the platform so I could see my students asking questions.”

An instructor based in New York, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wasn’t quite so sunny. 

“It’s a sad substitute for teaching in person,” she said.

A class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Practical Problems of Distance Learning

Schools won’t go entirely online, especially for students whose practices aren’t easily transportable, and not all students were able to leave campus for spring break in the first place. 

The College for Creative Studies in Detroit is keeping some of its labs open 24 hours a day. The school will enforce social-distancing measures by spacing out equipment and restricting labs to 10 students at a time, says Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies and chief academic officer. The school is also setting up online classes.

“We’ve had aspirations to have more content available online but we’ve never been called upon to react this quickly and this globally,” he says. 

But digital learning has its limitations, he admits, noting that classes cannot be held in real time as students leave campus to go home to various parts of the world. About 80 percent of the school’s graduate students are international.  

“We may want to do the first lecture in a synchronous mode, but then record it so it can be viewed at another time. We have students in China who are 12 hours apart and we’re still working out some issues raised by the Great Firewall,” he says, using the nickname for China’s internet regulations. 

But international students may stop applying, the New York instructor says—and the effects could be catastrophic for her school. 

“If we don’t get the virus under control, we’re going to lose all our international students, which will cripple the school,” she says, noting that the parents of currents students are demanding their children return home because of what they see as a poor response by the US government. 


Staying Optimistic

“The pandemic is a global phenomenon, and art school is a global enterprise,” says David Bogen, vice president for academic affairs and provost at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The school is using platforms like Canvas and Zoom for instruction, as well as good old-fashioned email. 

“There are many ways to document works and give critiques.” But he admitted he wasn’t sure how exactly critiques would happen. “We’re building it on the fly,” he says. 

Meanwhile, Benjamin Cook, an artist in Covington, Kentucky, and an instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, has created an Instagram account to digitally present now-canceled thesis exhibitions. 

“Students were understandably disappointed, so I thought I could fill in that space,” he says. “I created the gallery Friday morning at 11 and had 10,000 followers in 48 hours, and now we’re up to 15,000.”

What’s he calling the project? Naturally, it’s the Social Distance Gallery.

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