Learning in the Time of Coronavirus — and After

AUTHOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the university’s actions to address systemic racism and champion inclusivity among our SCAD community, please visit www.SCAD.edu/black-lives-matter. In this column, below, I want to explicitly address another urgent challenge for higher ed during this historic year: the need for universities to grow and change in the face of COVID-19.

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In our most enduring stories, remarkable adventures result in radical transformations — the hero and the community having grown wiser, stronger, healthier, reborn through tests and trials. We are only now beginning to feel our way more confidently through the strange fog of the largest health crisis in a century, and the transformation into who and what SCAD will become next has already begun. That’s why I’m sharing these words directly with you, the SCAD community — our students, parents, professors, staff members, alumni, creative leaders, employers of our graduates, and friends around the world.

As many well know, higher ed has long tiptoed across a bubble of its own making. Many institutions, including SCAD, continue to grow — by adapting curriculum to evolving professions and producing graduates that employers want to hire — but many colleges and universities were struggling long before the virus, with declining enrollments, shrinking departments, escalating discount rates, and scandals of every stripe. Even pre-pandemic, colleges were already closing or consolidating at the highest rate in U.S. history — a record 50 in 2018 — and COVID-19 has quickened that pace.

“The status quo is unsustainable,” says Forbes, especially for smaller colleges. Some analysts predict a 15% drop in enrollments across higher ed. Life won’t look the same for large universities, either, with big-time college football games raising serious health concerns. There are no longer any sacred cows.

Many universities rely on fundraising to support operations, but with travel curtailed (now, for health reasons, and later, for financial ones), most major fundraising simply won’t happen. Expenses associated with adherence to health and cleanliness standards, including designated residence hall space for possible quarantine, will further burden struggling universities.

Many in higher ed and public life have evinced relative inaction. “There’s no playbook for this,” said Brian McCrory, editor of the Boston Globe, echoing a desperate plea voiced by small business owners and tech giants. But a playbook does exist: SCAD has written our own, and we’re using it to great effect to continue preparing our students for their creative professions, despite — actually, in response to — the most impactful social change in a generation. Change has come, is coming.

In the last five years alone, SCAD has weathered significant climatological challenges and campus evacuations (the longest due to Hurricane Matthew in 2016), which taught us valuable lessons for times of academic upheaval, remote operations, and resettlement. We kept students safe while engaging them academically to ensure continuity of learning, a productive distraction from the anxieties of disruption and displacement. And for the past several years in Hong Kong, SCAD learned additional lessons as we continued to educate students in the midst of social unrest and pro-democracy protests. As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, SCAD transitioned our Hong Kong students to virtual learning in January 2020, long before other U.S. universities confronted that decision. By early March, we were well acquainted with health protocols. Our eyes were wide open.

The upheaval of this monstrous pandemic presented a whole new level of complexity with unpredictable ramifications. This was no mere hurricane evac. This was force majeure. SCAD was among the first universities in the U.S. to announce a 100% virtual spring quarter and the immediate suspension of all events, including major exhibitions, festivals, and athletic competitions. Students were understandably shaken. The cancellation of traditional graduation proved hardest of all. The walk across the stage is an honored rite of passage that can scarcely be replaced, and heartache and anguish were palpable in messages and phone calls with students and parents.

Throughout the month of March, anxiety rippled across higher ed, and many colleges and universities chose to hunker down: Elsewhere, colleges felt compelled to close residence halls (not at SCAD, although we did ensure rigorous social distancing), grades were transitioned to pass/fail (not here), and many faculty members struggled to adapt to online instruction. At SCAD, we chose another way, using strategies learned and developed over many years of experience and research.

A spring not soon forgotten

The virus loomed, and we had a choice: retreat (doing little or nothing to advance our mission) or do everything in our power to advance our students’ educations. We announced operational changes on the last day of winter quarter. We had to reimagine every learning resource for the virtual environment and had but two weeks to do it, before the start of spring. We prevailed thanks, in large part, to the tireless work of our SCAD team during and beyond those 14 days. Those two weeks changed everything. These three principles guided our work:

· Remember your mission;

· Double down on your resources; and

· When necessary, invent something new.

The virus compelled every organization to reorient their work. As one writer reminds us, “Leading through a crisis requires taking the long view.” Restaurants learned that their core mission was not, in fact, serving diners inside a building: It was feeding people. Likewise, at SCAD, the heart of our mission has less to do with physical studios and everything to do with preparing students for creative professions — professions that have, in recent years, become increasingly virtual and remote in practice. Scenes are animated in one country while sound is added in another. Clothes are designed and sewn on opposite sides of the planet. Designers visit jobsites through virtual reality. SCAD used this critical moment to pilot technologies that would teach our students how to excel while working remotely in any industry.

We also chose to continue assigning numerical grades this spring, despite the fact that others switched to pass/fail, leaving a permanent mark on student transcripts, demotivating students, and hobbling their ability to attend graduate school. At SCAD, the quality of our instruction remains as high as ever: In every SCAD class, at least five grading opportunities are required every quarter. Because of this SCAD policy, grounded in effective educational research and methodology, faculty are able to fairly and accurately assess student learning based on defined criteria.

To succeed this spring, we doubled down on the resources we already had. We’ve established a reputation as a university that teaches teachers how to teach, and we used that experience to create virtual workshops for SCAD professors new to online instruction, introducing them to new software and instructional strategies. Faculty learned how to evolve critiques, where digital markup tools provide clarity that paper pinups can’t. Everyone saw the value of recorded lectures, too, which students can play back at 1.5x speed. These tools will remain a central part of instruction long into the future — a leap forward that would not have happened without the virus.

We also renegotiated over 100 licenses with more than 60 companies to provide our students extended access to the software they needed to work remotely, such as Toon Boom, AVID, Cinema 4D and TVPaint. We made Slack available to SCAD faculty and staff members, with 30,000 messages exchanged the week before spring quarter began — colleagues sharing best practices, deans and chairs communicating policy adjustments, everyone sharing announcements and messages of encouragement with one another. We piloted SCAD vLab, an in-house program to allow students in our technology intensive programs to remotely access SCAD’s computer labs for building virtualization, film rendering, computer animation, and media projects.

SCAD’s embrace of technology has been one of our secret weapons against the virus: For example, animators around the world use Blender and Autodesk Maya, and in addition to ensuring our students had access to both while working from home, we went further, providing animation students access to Katana(developed by Academy Award-winning Pixar animator and SCAD alumnus Steve Lavietes) — industry-standard tech available exclusively to SCAD.

Perhaps the greatest educational challenge this spring concerned in-person learning opportunities outside the classroom. SCAD events are the DNA of experiential learning: They draw industry pros to campus for masterclasses and networking, bring media attention to degree programs, and showcase student talent for all the world to see and hire. And yet, we had to cancel traditional events. Instead of dwelling on cancellations, we created something new: Guests and Gusto, the finest virtual visiting artist series at any university in the world.

Thanks to our extensive professional network, SCAD students have quite literally gotten face time with Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jerry Saltz, Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming, Grammy Award-winning producer Tricky Stewart, and dozens more screenwriters, filmmakers, designers, artists, performers, and entrepreneurs who’ve popped into classes. This series has also served as a think tank of sorts, providing real-time insights into how industries are evolving during the pandemic (e.g., one guest explained the new reality of pitching TV shows to Netflix via Zoom). We now have more than 200 hours of masterclasses recorded and available to all students for all time, a priceless resource.

In addition to all these new and reimagined learning resources, SCAD effectively refunded $25.5 million in housing and dining fees for students who chose to move out of SCAD residence halls, allowed those students to retain the on-campus portion of their scholarships (totaling $5.3 million), and distributed a total of $6.3 million in financial support to thousands of students through the CARES Act and the SCAD Student Relief Fund. We’ve created new virtual wellness resources for our students, too, including online group and individual therapy sessions to help students manage mental health during a period when many of us felt more stress than at any other time in our lives. We also created a 24/7 emotional support hotline answered by licensed SCAD counselors.

This spring was, without any doubt, the most challenging chapter in our history, which is why, in addition to the refunds and financial relief provided, we also advertised our policy to ensure that any student dissatisfied with a Spring 2020 course would be offered a retake at no additional tuition.

Insights to guide the future of SCAD

Communities gain new perceptions of themselves and their strengths as a result of their journeys, and SCAD has learned much. I know many in higher ed will try to go backward — to what worked, or was hardly working, before. At SCAD, our insights have already begun to shape our evolution for fall and beyond. We’ve learned that:

· Remote collaboration is permanent.

· In the online environment, students prefer real-time instruction.

· Barriers to engagement have been eliminated.

Throughout the spring, I’ve made many calls to CEOs, business leaders, and other friends of SCAD, and the one universal comment from all is this: WFH is here to stay, and we will embrace this fact in our teaching and learning. Zoom will make group assignments and office hours more efficient for all — for students studying virtually and those attending classes in person. Technology like CLO 3D allows students to create accurate fashion designs and patterns quickly through rapid visualization. Exhibitions and events will happen in-person while being broadcast online, too. In recent days, I’ve received multiple invitations to virtual student exhibitions — technology that students will continue to use to promote their work long after the virus. Professors and students who embraced remote learning now have new tools in the toolbox.

In addition to seeking insights from industry, we sought feedback from students, too. Early on this spring, I created a task force of SCAD leaders to personally outreach, by phone, all 14,000+ SCAD students: to listen, support, and encourage. We helped students improve home Wi-Fi signals, apply for emergency financial relief, find library books, and more. Through these conversations, we found that many students prefer synchronous courses (where they interact with their classmates and professors via Zoom for lectures and assignments), as compared to more conventional online learning, which is independent and self-guided using content created by faculty members. As a result, we have initiated the process of revising SCAD eLearning courses to feature real-time engagement.

While all of us have desired genuine in-person interactions with other human beings in recent months, Zoom has removed all barriers to engagement for SCAD students and the industry pros and employers they need to know. After meeting SCAD production design student Christina LeClerc and seeing her work via Zoom, visiting artist Janie Bryant (the Emmy-winning costume designer for Mad Men) offered Christina an internship. And consider our research and design consultancy, SCADpro, which completed 11 research assignments 100% virtually this spring (with Future Logistics, TRANE, Gulfstream, and others), opening doors for new partnerships with companies. What this means for SCAD is that we must continue to invest in the technology and infrastructure that affords the highest-quality virtual collaboration experience. In the coming years, the number of industry pros engaging students at SCAD will be higher than ever, thanks to Zoom. Of course, we will continue to bring the pros to campus in person, too.

What fall at SCAD looks like

·On July 10, SCAD announced that the majority of classes for Fall 2020 would continue online. In select instances, students may return to Savannah and Atlanta to access specific tools and equipment, including digital textile printers, 3D printers, and more. The strategies that have proven so successful as SCAD works to maintain a healthy and safe campus — controlled access, continual deep cleaning, PPE requirements, and social distancing — will all contribute to safe learning and working environments. While there will be opportunities for real-time, on-ground instruction, this will operate in the form of a course, PRO 540, that utilizes the techniques, strategies, and skills that drive SCADpro.

Real-time virtual instruction — i.e., what most SCAD students experienced this spring — will continue alongside on-ground learning this fall, providing options to students who find that virtual learning mode most ideal, as well as for students who have already secured jobs and internships (in other cities) and for those who may not yet feel comfortable in a physical classroom, even while following social distancing protocols. Just like in spring, real-time virtual courses this fall will meet at specific times (8am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm, and 8pm).

Anytime online instruction — i.e., what SCAD eLearning provides, where students work independently, explore content, participate in online discussions, and move at their own pace on a Monday-through-Sunday schedule — will continue, as well. SCAD eLearning, winner of awards for online instructional design, has been thriving for 17 years and offers 24 graduate and undergraduate degrees (in everything from animation to interior design), and many students, especially working professionals and parents, prefer this mode of learning for the freedom it provides. Orestis Kourakis, who completed his M.A. in photography while living and working in Thessaloniki, Greece, said, “Even though I was 8,000 miles away, I had the resources every onsite student would have.”

All three learning modalities will share much in common: defined learning outcomes, five grading opportunities, emphasis on effective communication via SCADamp, masterclasses with industry pros, and a minimum of 50 hours of formal instruction (or its equivalent, for SCAD eLearners). Students may combine a course in each mode (online, virtual, and on-ground) in one quarter or over time — or may focus entirely on one modality. Choice reigns supreme. Everyone’s circumstances and needs differ.

This season of tremendous difficulty — the most challenging in our university’s 42-year history — has been our finest hour. Much remains to be seen. How flattened is the curve? What of the second wave we’ve heard so much about? How U.S. universities respond will be as varied in color and kind as the masks we see at the grocery store.

In the end, our successful spring and our ambitious, thoughtful plans for fall are not really about following some mythical “playbook.” This is simply SCAD at its finest: inventive, strategic, positive, collaborative, transformative. Very soon, our beloved campuses will reopen and students will swarm joyfully through our doors and classrooms once again. It is a new day in academia, and SCAD is poised to shine on and keep shining, thanks to the resilience, light, and love of this heroic learning community.

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Watch the online commencement event for the SCAD Class of 2020, which aired live on Saturday, May 30, 2020, featuring Alicia Keys, Rachel Brosnahan, and more.



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Paula Wallace

Paula Wallace


Designer. Author. President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) || http://scad.edu || http://instagram.com/paulaswallace