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One year later: OCAD U reflects on pandemic's lessons

 Photo of a person, with a map of world showing a red line to present COVID-19 infecting a person's lungs

March 11 marks a significant milestone – it’s been one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

We’ve lived through 365 days of masking, social distancing, disruptions to our daily lives and routines, economic hardship and illness in the face of an evolving virus.

And, as OCAD University President Ana Serrano said in her message to the community about the one-year anniversary: “While it has been difficult and challenging, our community has come together, demonstrating such resilience and creativity, and an unwavering commitment to supporting one another and our students.”

Here we share the perspectives of six members from the OCAD U community about working, teaching and living during such an unprecedented year.

Rising to the challenge

OCAD U faculty members had to rethink their approach to teaching and the pivot from in-person to online learning had to happen quickly once the campus closed its doors on March 18, 2020.

Online learning has not been a mainstay at the University, which is well-known for its hands-on, studio-based learning format. However, faculty members nonetheless found inventive ways to switch to remote delivery, says Stephen Foster, dean of the Faculty of Art.

“For us to pivot and develop these courses so quickly was incredible. Many faculty stood out and took on the challenge. Even faculty members who never saw themselves teaching online were suddenly devising new materials and approaches,” says Foster. “People figured out how to make it happen by finding new ways to innovate around studio education.”

Among the stellar examples Foster cites is Pixel Pusher, a third-year course in the Drawing and Painting program that assistant professor Julius Manapul restructured into a dynamic online studio seminar and home studio format that was both stimulating and engaging. Manapul is also the associate chair of Contemporary Drawing and Painting.

To support faculty make the transition, the Faculty & Curriculum Development Centre (FCDC) developed and introduced a number of resources, including Guidelines for Hybrid and Online Course Delivery with an accompanying checklist to support the development and delivery of inclusive and accessible online courses. The FCDC also introduced online course templates (which were downloaded 500 times) as well as the 78-page Toolkit for Teaching Art and Design Online, which includes strategies and resources for teaching courses online.

In addition, there have been a wide range of workshops, supports and resources offered by FCDC and IT Services, in collaboration with Student Accessibility Services, the Dorothy H. Hoover Library and the Writing & Learning Centre.

Change sparks growth

Among those faculty members who has been reenergized by the pivot to remote learning is Faculty of Art associate professor Simone Jones. The lesson she has taken away from this transition is how, in the midst of a crisis, opportunities for growth can arise. She notes how switching to remote education has prompted her to reconsider how she may teach in the future.

“I now see my curriculum as being “modular,” that is, some activities are perfectly suited as asynchronous content, and other activities are absolutely suited to in-person/hands-on experiences,” says Jones, who also chairs OCAD U’s Senate. “I believe this will actually re-activate studio learning at the institution, because it will prioritize what activities are best suited to take place in the building.”

Leveraging the power of technology

Of course, OCAD U’s transition to remote education couldn’t have happened without having the right technological programs, tools and training in place. CIO Alastair MacLeod, who has been leading OCAD U’s IT department for 23 years, has never encountered a challenge like this before.

Looking back, he says the main quality that allowed him and his team to effectively shift OCAD U to remote learning was being able to adapt to change. That’s certainly a useful skill to have at any time, but during the pandemic, it allowed IT Services to meet the new needs of the University’s community. IT Services worked in close collaboration with the FCDC to address the challenges and find solutions together.

Over the last year, the IT Services team has provided 120 one-on-one tech support sessions, responded to almost 7,000 IT support tickets, and facilitated more than 36,000 MS Team meetings. They have also enabled the smooth operation of the Canvas learning management system, which has been used by faculty to issue more than 12,000 assignments.

“This situation opened my eyes to how adaptable people can be in a crisis,” says MacLeod. “Being able to adjust to the speed of change in this case was key.”

 Advancing diversity

What has stood out for Dr. Dori Tunstall, dean of the Faculty of Design, over the past year is how the coronavirus has catalyzed a greater focus on equality. In part, this has been triggered by pandemic’s disproportionate impact on BIPOC community members. It has also been influenced by the escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement following numerous incidents of police violence against Blacks.

As a result, anti-black racism has become a front-and-centre issue, and Dr. Tunstall has been heartened to see OCAD U faculty members address it in different ways in their programming. She herself introduced the issue into a third-year Advertising course she taught: she paired students with local Black- and Indigenous-led businesses to help them adapt their digital brand strategy during COVID-19.

“In some ways, we have accelerated our efforts to live up to our values at OCAD U: equity, diversity, decolonization,” Dr. Tunstall says. “We didn’t separate the pandemic from the wider issues of social justice and health justice; we brought it really beautifully together and did things that were important to our ethos as an institution.”

And, last summer, Dr. Tunstall was appointed to the City of Toronto’s new Economic and Culture Recovery Advisory Group, serving with representatives from sectors or industries such as art and design, academia, finance, health care, the law and the trades. The group also includes grassroots community organizations such as the Parkdale Centre for Innovation, the Centre for Young Black Professionals and the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective.

One for all, all for one

Addressing the public health challenge of COVID-19 has required a collective public response – we are all in this together, after all. It is this lesson that Dr. Jutta Treviranus hopes we remember when the pandemic ends, so that we can work toward designing a more inclusive society.

Dr. Treviranus is director of OCAD U’s Inclusive Design Research Centre, an international community of open source developers, designers, researchers and educators working to ensure emerging technologies and practices are designed in ways that serve people of all abilities, languages, cultures and other differences.”

During the pandemic, she was asked to serve on the Privy Council’s external advisory committee on the federal government’s public communications on COVID-19. She also served on multiple UN advisory committees, including one focused on digital technologies, sustainable development and social justice.

“People have finally twigged to the idea that collective safety depends on inclusive design,” she says. “We are seeing a reanimation of efforts to find design solutions that work for the greatest number of people possible and that reach out to those at the margins.”

The value of visual design

At the outset of the pandemic, there was an immediate need among hospitals and community clinics to share clear and accurate health information with the public. Understanding how effective visual design could make a difference, Faculty of Design associate professor Dr. Kate Sellen started the COVID-19 Printables project.

Executed through OCAD U’s Health Design Studio, which problem-solves health-care design challenges, the project has involved Dr. Sellen and her team working with a group of physicians to develop nine one-page patient handouts on topics such as understanding symptoms, isolation, hospital visitation, wearing a mask and testing; a version on vaccine after care is now in the works.

The strategically designed handouts present key information in plain language and infographics featuring widely understood icons. The handouts are being downloaded by medical practitioners at emergency departments, community health centres and refugee services organizations around the world, and can be updated according to each region’s public health guidelines. Several have been translated into more than 40 languages to accommodate those for whom English is not a primary language.

Last July, the project was awarded the COVID-19 Prize from the International Institute for Information Design.

“What became clear through this project is the importance of simple communication using visual design principals for getting important information out to people during a public health crisis,” says Dr. Sellen, Canada Research Chair in Health Design.

Learn more about the major highlights of 2020 by reading our story, OCAD U Looks Back at 2020, which reports on how OCAD U responded and adapted to the new reality of COVID-19.

IMAGE CREDIT: The Calm and the Storm by Marc Ortali, Industrial Design student, from the Materials as Communication exhibition.