Following the publication of our coronavirus student survey, Bath School of Design head Kerry Curtis reflects on a rollercoaster year that forced students and staff to adapt to remote learning.
Early in March 2020, just before the UK went into its first lockdown, we were settling into our new Locksbrook Campus. But rather than displaying students' work on the walls, we were pinning up posters advising on Covid-19 precautions.
On 4 March we held a campus launch event and we noted that many of our London-based guests sent their apologies as they were feeling a "little under the weather".
The next day we started discussing contingency scenarios and soon we were working on the swiftest, most collaborative approach that I have ever seen as we scrambled to prepare for the inevitable closure of the campus.
Academic teams had rewritten the curriculum for online delivery and had discussed new approaches with students in course meetings by Friday 20 March. The techs loaned out as much equipment as possible and students cleared out their studios dragging rolls of fabrics, half-finished experiments and portfolios behind them.
By Monday 23 March we had closed campuses and moved to online-only teaching
Students laughed, cried, got angry and booked taxis, trains and flights home, often with their parents on speakerphone. By Monday 23 March – just ahead of the UK's nationwide lockdown order on 26 March – we had closed campuses and moved to online-only teaching.
On 28 September 2020 we opened campuses again for the new academic year but now under highly controlled restrictions, with in-house-designed posters setting out our regulations for risk assessed covid-safe studios and workshops.
On 8 December we closed a few days earlier than originally planned for Christmas and have not been permitted to reopen since due to the latest lockdown, although there is a possibility we will be able to reopen from 8 March 2020.
It's been very interesting following the student responses through the pandemic. They have been kind and considerate and very appreciative of the way the school has delivered new approaches to learning and of our continual efforts to help keep their spirits high. Achieving this has meant a high workload for academics, who are also juggling their own domestic constraints.
Students are frustrated but generally positive about what we are offering them. They know that getting back onto campus is largely out of our control and we feel confident that we are delivering intellectual and conceptual academic learning.
Students are frustrated but generally positive about what we are offering them
There have been a few incidents where the students have not been satisfied with the approach to online teaching delivery and they have told us and then we have worked with them to improve it. It’s been incredibly important to get students involved in finding solutions.
Students have wanted more structure and asked for online sessions to be outcome-driven. They want to be reassured that their degrees are still valid despite not having learned the technical skills usually explored in workshops.
They also don’t want us to tell them as a group how brilliant they are, how creative and adaptable they are, as some of them don’t feel like that and that it just adds more pressure.
However, as academics, it’s hard not to keep praising their resilience and development in their design practice because we have been seeing such high-quality ideas and work submitted.
Design students are solutions-driven. They are looking to resolve design problems
The student responses to the survey we conducted with Dezeen are similar to the feedback we’ve been getting from students directly. The academic and technical teams have done everything possible to make teaching and the development of individual design practice rich and exciting.
Design students are solutions-driven. They are looking to resolve design problems. They are looking at the pandemic and considering how they have to adapt to ensure good careers in a post-covid environment or an ongoing pandemic environment.
Students are desperate to get back into studios and the workshops. Due to the nature of 3D making it’s been hardest for fashion design students and furniture and product design students. We’ve had students firing clay pots in barbecues and doing fashion shoots in bedrooms.
We’ve been conscious about the disparity of experience for students, particularly those students without parental support or from low incomes as well as students who share bedrooms with siblings or those that moved back to their student accommodation to find their housemates breaking covid rules.
Some students have had to work in supermarkets and coffee shops throughout the pandemic to make ends meet. Fortunately, the university hardship fund has been able to help students to purchase laptops and navigate other financial restrictions. We have introduced "no detriment" policies to ensure that students have the opportunity to get the grades they deserve.
Sam Foxton, a year-two furniture and product design student and our senior student representative, recently prepared a SWOT analysis of all the student feedback to date. This found that students have been understanding and supportive of the difficult situation that academics are in. However, that combination of in-person and online sessions has allowed for flexibility for learning, with the majority of the taught sessions receiving praise.
As a result of this report, the school has proposed to help students develop skills in time planning and set clearer expectations
The report demonstrates that the student representative system has been successful but that it’s not easy for students, with some students struggling to experience a creative atmosphere due to limited studio access and finding module requirements a little "foggy" during online learning. The report finds that many students have lost a lot of inspiration towards their work, further reducing the creative rich atmosphere.
As a result of this report, the school has proposed to help students develop skills in time planning and set clearer expectations. Courses have been organising guest speakers from industry and course alumni talks to help students imagine their future careers.
We look forward to getting back to our campuses soon. As we prepare we are also reflecting on what we’ve learnt along the way. The quality of the student work has remained high and some students (and staff) have benefited from this new way of working. So we question, as we prepare to reopen, what can we take forward positively and what do we leave at home?