VIRTUAL SUCCESS: Working Studios in Design Education

The RGD's new series Virtual Success captures Design Educator wins in virtual learning & teaching. In this edition, Patrick Foster RGD shares with Diana Varma RGD how he replicated the in-class studio experience to virtual learning.     


What is your most successful virtual teaching strategy?
In my traditional senior-level classes, over the past few years, I’ve congregated students into “working studios”, collaboration groups for a project or the term. They are not group work exercises as everyone is working on their own projects, but I wanted the students to have a consistent, specific group of colleagues for feedback during the course. I was trying to replicate the experience I had in studios and agencies in the past, where I could simply ask the guy sitting next to me, “Hey, what do you think about this?” By randomizing the group selection, I’m able to expose students to feedback from people they may not have sought out during the developmental stages of their project, beyond what they would receive during crits.
This became a vitally important tool during the pandemic year. While crits can be useful for everyone in a class, three-hour crits on Zoom can be soul-crushing. Instead of subjecting everyone to three hours of crit, I instead divided students into their studios and scheduled each studio for separate blocks of time during my course meeting time. This way, students got feedback from their groups and from me — and from other students via our message board posts — but weren’t subjected to staring at their webcam for three hours. It wasn’t ideal, of course, but it was way better than it had any right to be.
I wanted students to be able to connect with me every week, but I also didn’t want them to feel any more trapped behind a monitor than they already did. Short blocks for each group were hard for me, but they worked great for the students.
What was your inspiration for the working studio idea?
Vancouver Island University (VIU) has a Teaching and Learning Centre dedicated to helping us all become better instructors. They’ve been promoting the idea of a “flipped classroom” for many years now. The idea being that we offer the lecture and reference material in advance of the actual class meeting time and use this time for engagement and learning work rather than the chalk-and-talk our relatives think of when we say we’re professors. I’m able to spend more useful time working with students in ways that much more mimic mentor/art director roles. By embracing this model and providing the learning information up front, I’m able to spend more useful time one-on-one with my students.
Why do you think this strategy was so successful?
As designers, we spend more time than we probably should in front of a monitor as it is so we were better prepared for a year online than, say, the Forestry Department. But it was still a long, awful year, for all its successes. I think students were grateful to have one-on-one or one-on-four time with me every week, to be able to talk about work — or anything else that was on their mind. And I was able to concentrate on the people in front of me, which can be tricky to do when your screen has 32 thumbnails of varying indifference on it. 
How could you see your efforts expanded or adapted to future design-focused courses you’re teaching?
I already use a variant of the idea in live classes, but I’m also now envisioning bringing this technique to traditional classes, so we don’t necessarily need to show up every week.
What role do you see virtual platforms playing in the future of post-secondary design and creative education and why?
Secondary roles, ideally. Despite doing my master’s thesis on virtual education for design, I don’t think it's a terribly effective way to teach design, at least not with the platforms we currently have available. Technology aside, distance learning also badly underserves people with income or technology challenges. University should be an equalizer, not another way of identifying who is better able to embrace distance learning and who is not.
Patrick Foster RGD has been a designer for 25 years and a teacher of design almost as long.
The thoughts and opinions contained within this article do not necessarily reflect the affiliated institution.