NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Virtual learning and the cultural connection to place

The pandemic has presented design education with as many opportunities as it has challenges. With literally a day or two to prepare, most Australian tertiary education providers were hurled into a world of online learning at a scale way beyond what they ever really imagined or prepared for.

By Associate Professor Gene Bawden

The pandemic has presented design education with as many opportunities as it has challenges. With literally a day or two to prepare, most Australian tertiary education providers were hurled into a world of online learning at a scale way beyond what they ever really imagined or prepared for. This was especially true for those in Melbourne, who essentially delivered an entire year remotely, with many continuing with online and hybrid delivery methods in 2021. While we stumbled through awkward Teams meetings, clumsy Zoom classes and grappled with platforms we had only dabbled in before, we experienced a unique democratising of the design learning experience. Both student and teacher were learning together, simultaneously respecting the challenges and conquests of each other’s ability to teach, learn and communicate in a non-spatial studio experience. While there is much we hope to never return to, there are processes and behaviours that have now embedded themselves in curriculum and design practices that could only have been fast-tracked by the immediacy of response to the pandemic.

Learning through the immediacy of cultural context has been a major advantage for design students and has established a framework of collaboration methods that they will engage with throughout their careers

Collaboration is key to the future of all design practices, but how we collaborate has irreversibly changed; and, in many ways through the unintended consequences and unexpected circumstances of online engagement. With students located in disparate cities and towns around Australia and the rest of the world, their cultural connection to place was, unusually, made more authentic through the virtual experience. Coming together in a shared physical space frequently requires compromise and adaption by those for whom that space is not their own; international students entering an Australian learning space, for example. With many participants around the globe restricted to home – and a small radius of engagement around it– “home” became the space from which they drew their inspiration, knowledge, and contextualised their work. While they shared a familiar COVID narrative; being (co)located in different cities around the world meant that collaborators’ differing cultural connections were immediate, felt and real … not a memory that had to be reflected on, or worse, ignored and forgotten. Their cultural contexts were easily brought into view because they were literally “in view”. Their sharing of different lived experiences was immediately easier, and cultural knowing could be incorporated into collaborative projects, or indeed used to challenge them. The homogenising of solutions realised in the biases and belief systems of a particular place were immediately revealed. For example, a recent engagement undertaken across countries with regard to gender equity and inclusion had to be carefully reimagined if it was to work across multiple global sites. What would be a standard communication campaign in Australia, needed to be more activist and guerrilla-like in a country in which homosexuality and gender diversity was criminalised or silenced. Learning through the immediacy of cultural context has been a major advantage for design students and has established a framework of collaboration methods that they will engage with throughout their careers.

Discomfort and opposing ideas were prompted through the simple selection of an image as a virtual background, which swiftly cascaded into other unusual learning dilemmas. The teacher . . . had the authority and ability to mute the image; but was doing so censoring the cultural belief systems of a participant in another country?

Cultural contexts and identity of place manifested in various ways through the online experience. The familiarity of each participant’s domestic space laid bare a narrative of self; that swiftly became carefully curated through rearranged furniture and objects or carefully composed virtual backgrounds. On one occasion a virtual background was used by a student as a controversial anti-western political statement. This was a unique, immediate, brave and confrontational opportunity that would have otherwise been denied to the student in a face-to-face experience. Discomfort and opposing ideas were prompted through the simple selection of an image as a virtual background, which swiftly cascaded into other unusual learning dilemmas. The teacher and therefore host of the event had to grapple with knowing how to navigate the complexity of such an immediate and impactful design act. They had the authority and ability to mute the image; but was doing so censoring the cultural belief systems of a participant in another country? The image was adversely affecting other students who were offended by the imagery; but was asking the participant to remove the image privileging a dominant white paradigm that unwittingly pre-existed in the learning environment anyway? Ultimately it provided the opportunity for debate and the important realisation that design cannot play into, or contribute to, a veneer of homogenised “acceptable” cultural contexts; but must be prepared to challenge; question and profoundly understand its contribution to a future contextualised within a much smaller world.

The internationalisation agenda essential to design education that we feared lost through lockdowns and cancelled study tours has been somewhat reimagined through online learning experiences. And while we believe it has made exposure to these experiences more accessible, this relies heavily on the assumption that all involved have access to quality technology and internet. While 2020’s shift to online learning enabled inclusive, culturally specific input and reflection; it undoubtedly excluded those for whom technology and poor connections were, and remain, a debilitating daily struggle.


Associate Professor Gene Bawden is Head of Design at Monash University, Faculty of Art Design and Architecture. At Monash, he has played central roles in design education and course development, including the implementation of a tailored design thinking program for the Monash Business School MBA and Global Executive MBA. As a founding member and co-director of XYX Lab, Gene has developed the design thinking process into a robust and self-reflexive process, while honouring its heritage in design practice. As a team of researchers and facilitators, XYX Lab utilise bespoke material tools of enquiry to enable a design thinking processes aimed at mitigating gender inequality in Australia’s urban environments.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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