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In Conversation with Jessica Mace about remote teaching

Jessica Mace, instructor, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences, OCAD University

Jessica Mace is an instructor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and recipient of a 2018 OCAD U Inspired Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching First Year Students. We spoke with her about her approach to teaching the spring edition of the first-year required course, Global Visual and Material Culture: Beginnings to 1800.

This six-week course surveys a broad range of art, design and material culture artifacts and practices, from the earliest recorded creative expressions of human culture to the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

What’s the format of your course? How have you approached the design to be an engaging experience?

The lectures for this version of the course are recorded as videos and posted online. I’ve worked to edit the lecture to highlight important images and concepts in a visual way using recording/editing software. For example, where I might point to something with a cursor or through gesture in a classroom setting, I can now zoom, highlight, and overlay images to show important ideas.

The lectures are short and less 30 minutes. I combine them with other resources, like articles, virtual tours, websites, etc. that I’ve pulled to complement the lecture, to highlight particular ideas, or to link the historic works to contemporary events.

I have also posted additional optional resources that students can dive into, if a particular subject is of interest. In this six-week term, two content modules are posted per week that students can digest at their own pace throughout the week, and in their own time zone. Students also participate in weekly discussions in groups responding to prompts that connect to the content or to their assignments.

While my students are learning at their pace, allowing them a sense of independence and responsibility for their learning, I am available to support them if they do reach out.

How are students engaging with you and each other?

My students engage with each other in weekly discussions. They have been divided into groups of about 10 to create a sense of community, so they can get to know each other over the course of the term.

Each week I post a new discussion prompt related to the content or to their assignments; for example, we played Pictionary as an icebreaker, but also a way to get familiar with the textbook and to practice new vocabulary. Another week, students workshopped their ideas for an upcoming assignment and solicited advice from their classmates. It’s been amazing to watch them develop a community of support within these teams.

I send out bi-weekly announcements to students providing reminders and updates, but, also, I hold office hours twice a week by chat (through Microsoft Teams). If a student has a question in a discussion or replies to the questions that I’ve embedded in the videos, I’ll often reach out to them individually by email to help them or to let them know that I’m right there with them. I keep the lines of communication open by email.

What’s different and what’s the same in your course versus the in-person version? Are your students learning the same things they’d learn in an in-person class?

Online learning and in-person learning are different beasts, but I’ve tried to keep some continuity between the two, and to convey the same quality of learning even if packaged in a different format.

When designing the course, I asked myself “what is it that we want students to get from this course?”—not just in terms of content but also learning skills—and “how can I still get that to them by using a different delivery method and assignments, given the constraints of the pandemic?”

To do this, I went through the course learning outcomes, the key aspects of content, and my own personal goals of things that I want students to take away, and worked with that.

So, they’ll get the same content and the same learning skills, but in a new way. What was once lectures in an auditorium setting has now been transformed into shorter lectures and time for guided discovery.  

The assignments and forms of assessment, are also a little different. Given the online format and the circumstances of the pandemic (not to mention the rapid pace of the six-week term), I abandoned the traditional in-class midterm exam, formal research essay, and final exam.

Instead, the plan was to devise alternative and creative ways for the students to engage with the content, themes, and desired learning skills. Through weekly discussions, for example, the students practice writing about visual culture in a low-stakes setting, and these, combined with their assignments, help the students learn how to translate the visual into the textual.

This is so important to OCAD U students across the board, whether or not they continue in visual culture studies… chances are most of them will have to write about their work and practice at some point in their student career, not to mention beyond (artist’s statements, funding applications, website copy, etc.).

Students are still developing other writing and learning skills in this class in their assignments, but in a new way; they are still asked to do things like research, create a thesis statement and craft an argument, but in a looser, more creative framework.

Overall, the goal was not to have them worry about memorizing or cramming for an exam—especially with so much else to worry about right now—but to be constantly thinking about the content and making connections with respect to the bigger picture throughout the term (and hopefully beyond!).

How are students producing work without access to the university’s facilities?

I designed the assignments for this term to correspond to what is available. Instead of asking students to go to the library, I’m asking them to get familiar with and use the online tools of the library. These are things that exist beyond the confines of the pandemic, so it’s actually a great way to learn what’s available and how to work with them now.

The library has been fantastic in offering help and support to students (including one-on-one research consultations); and, above and beyond this, librarian Daniel Payne was so keen to help my students in researching and preparing their tableau vivant research paper that he created a tailor-made video to demonstrate the required research tools (and even created his own tableau vivant as an example!).

The Writing and Learning Centre have also been very supportive in the development of this course, and in their ongoing support of students. There are still “drop-in” sessions, one-on-one tutoring, and consultations, but all online.

Again, the format and the mode of delivery may be different, but those networks of support are still very much in place.

Why should students register for remote learning classes like yours in the fall?

May students may feel intimidated and overwhelmed in the classroom setting, particularly in large lecture courses—an auditorium of 280 students isn’t the ideal learning space for everyone. So, if that’s the case, why not try a new format?

Many students can become incredibly stressed in test or exam settings. For those students, it could be their chance to thrive by partaking in different forms of assessment.

For students who are thinking, “that’s not me, I thrive in those kinds of situations!”… I get it, but we can learn so much from pushing ourselves into trying new things. Did I think that I would be teaching this way right now? No way! But here we are, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. You go to university to try new things and to test your abilities, so why not give this a chance?

Also, the study of visual culture translates pretty well to an online format. You could do worse than looking at and thinking about beautiful objects from the comfort of your home!