NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

A lack of informal learning in design teaching is a loss to students

“We are moving to an integrated learning model.” These exciting words have permeated discussions in the Higher Education (HE) sector most of 2020 and 2021. The incredible work of transforming teaching to accommodate COVID restrictions has disrupted many traditional teaching methods and forced educators to envisage new ways of delivering and assessing creative content.

By Dr Meghan Kelly

”We are moving to an integrated learning model”.

These exciting words have permeated discussions in the Higher Education (HE) sector most of 2020 and 2021. The incredible work of transforming teaching to accommodate COVID restrictions has disrupted many traditional teaching methods and forced educators to envisage new ways of delivering and assessing creative content. The stop gap measures of 2020 have moved to become more regular teaching practices. The reality of what this means in practice for design education is still emerging. The pivot from face-to-face to online learning has led to design courses grappling with how much face to face and how much online is suitable for the pedagogy of each and every unit or course.

Yet, what must still be navigated is how we develop student informal learning skills in a digital environment, particularly in disciplines such as design, where social engagement is critical to learning.

COVID-19 has provided educators with the unique opportunity to reconceptualise and reconfigure creative HE practices to being more equitable and accessible. The last two years have shown us it is achievable to teach design practices online. Teaching online is effective, impactful, addresses the needs of diverse student cohorts and enhances digital skills and knowledge as students learn to enact visual discourse in the digital realm. Some students feel more engaged due to an increased autonomy in digital learning environments (McGuinness & Fulton, 2021). Yet, what must still be navigated is how we develop student informal learning skills in a digital environment, particularly in disciplines such as design, where social engagement is critical to learning. For the purpose of this short contribution, formal learning is identified as activities organised by the educator in a teaching environment and informal learning is learning obtained through other channels before, during or after the class (Folkestad, 2006, p.139; Gonzalez-Ramirez, 2021, p.41). It is acknowledged there is a strong interplay between these learning styles and both formal and informal learning are present in the learning process (Folkestad, 2006; Gonzalez-Ramirez, 2021).

Students have been unable to rehearse how they may work with others to cultivate skills, trust, reliability and communication, or to practice supportive problem solving and reflective discourse which is commonly enabled through informal learning.

Design is understood a social process with an exchange of visual messaging between people (Kennedy, 2010). As identified by Frascara, “designers are specialists in human communication, and their specific medium is visual” (2004, p4). Designers are required to be skilled at building on collaborative enterprises to produce “genuine sparks of innovation” (Barnum, Haddock and Hicks, 2011, p13). Frascara (2004) attests the generation of ideas is a team effort requiring research, conception, interacting with others and exceptional interpersonal relations. It is the combination of ideas that inspire breakthroughs. “This requires an ability to engage with the social dynamic of the design process: working with people, maintaining dialogue, and managing expectations and timeframes” (Barnum et.al., 2011, p 23). 

The dynamics of design have traditionally been taught in face to face on campus environments that simulated work environments, where social processes are built on and practiced through informal learning. Moving all learning to online has removed students from the informal face to face forums of debate, discussion, and visual stimulation used in the development of their design practice. Social distancing has impacted a designers’ ability to garner contributions and ideas from others around them, and to develop their ideas and understand different perspectives (Rees, 2018). Students have been unable to rehearse how they may work with others to cultivate skills, trust, reliability and communication, or to practice supportive problem solving and reflective discourse which is commonly enabled through informal learning (Thomson and Trigwell, 2018). Times where questions are difficult to address in a public forum or when a student may not feel confident in their design skills, cannot be easily addressed in a digital learning environment.

Design educators in higher education are at a point where we must take the best of the old and the new and reconfigure their teaching practices as they refine the balance of online and face to face delivery in our design courses. The interactive, informal learning that educators have taken for granted must now be addressed formally in our pedagogy. The urgency is to find ways to develop socially inclusive opportunities to enhance informal learning outcomes in digital spaces as lecturers navigate how much face to face and how much online is suitable for teaching design in an integrated learning model post this pandemic.

 

References

Barnum, A., Haddock, S., & Hicks, A. (2011). Graphic design: Australian style manual. McGraw-Hill Education.

Folkestad, G. (2006). Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education, 23 (2), 135-145.

Frascara, J. (2004). Communication design: principles, methods, and practice. Allworth Press.

Gonzalez-Ramirez, J., Mulqueen, K., Zealand, R., Silverstein, S., Reina, C., BuShell, S., Ladda, S., (2021). Emergency Online Learning: College Students’ Perceptions during the Covid-19 Crisis. College Student Journal. 55 (1), 29-46.

Kennedy, K. (2010). Visual communication research designs. Abingdon: Routledge.

Rees, B (2018) Effective Communication Strategies for Designers, Toptal, accessed 07.07.21 https://www.toptal.com/designers/product-design/effective-design-communication-strategies

McGuinness, C., & Fulton, C. (2021). Digital literacy in higher education: A case study of student engagement with e-tutorials using blended learning. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 18, 1–28.

Thomson, K. E., & Trigwell, K. R. (2018) The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching? Studies in Higher Education, 43 (9), 1526-1547.


Dr Meghan Kelly is an Associate Professor in Communication Design at Deakin University and currently serves as Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the Faculty of Arts and Education. Kelly’s research is in the areas of visual communication design, participatory design practices and the impact of process on self-determined design outcomes. She explores issues surrounding identity creation and representation, turning intangible knowledge into tangible designs in a cross-cultural context.

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