RCA e-learn magazine article

The Royal College of Art’s Art and Design Graduate Diploma Programme Provides Students with an Engaging Online Studio Learning Experience

The Royal College of Art’s (RCA) Graduate Diploma Art & Design programme prepares students for master’s level study of Art and Design.

The course helps students who do not necessarily have a traditional portfolio develop proficiency in the independent learning methods and practices of art and design. The course provides an introduction to the role and influence of art and design in the world today and prepares students to matriculate to masters’ programmes. The interdisciplinary programme has a diverse student base, stemming from 19 different countries with students ranging in ages from 23-60 years old. 

As a programme that traditionally involves copious amounts of studio work and collaboration, the team of innovative educators, led by Gary Clough, Head of Programme, Graduate Diploma Art & Design, jumped into action two days after the beginning of their 2020 Spring cohort to build an effective online learning solution for their students in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.  

The Platform

The whole of RCA was utilizing a Moodle™ platform designed, hosted, and managed by eThink Education prior to the pandemic to support their students. The Graduate Diploma team primarily used Moodle™ as a repository for information and to provide communication to their students. However, when the pandemic hit, Moodle™ became the front door of the university. “Moodle™ has not only changed how we inform our students, but it has changed how we teach. Moodle™ is not often thought of as a production tool, but we are using it as one to produce an online university environment for our students”, said Gary Clough. 

Moodle™ has served as a central hub for all learning in the programme, allowing students to have one clear location they need to go to find all of their tools, assignments, and announcements alongside general RCA resources.  

“Moodle™ has become central as a teaching and learning tool – it is like an ecology. We have incorporated a range of tools like Lumin, Padlet, PebblePad, Panopto, and Google Calendar to bring together all of the aspects students need. It is a place to do workshops, house our gallery, encourage peer review, and more. The streamlined nature of Moodle™ is what makes it a coherent and effective platform as students aren’t aware they are leaving the main Moodle™ platform to access their other resources”. said Richard Nash, Tutor Research, Graduate Diploma Art & Design.

The Graduate Diploma team has taken full advantage of the interoperability of their platform and is using a wealth of tools to mimic the in-person learning environment.  

“Other educators should not worry about the transition online, because it doesn’t have to be lesser even if it is different. It takes ingenuity and creativity and that is what we do all day”

The Tools 

To communicate with students, the Graduate Diploma team utilizes the built-in Announcements tool within Moodle™. Instead of sending students information via email, the team committed to using Announcements so that messaging would be easily accessed within the platform and it would prevent confusion for students. Additionally, using integrated Google Calendar functionality allowed the team to easily communicate class schedules and session times to students. The information for classes, such as Zoom links, can all be found within the Google calendar meetings – helping to keep students organized. Other interactive tools, like H5P, have allowed the team to make interactive questionnaires and lessons and Panopto has streamlined video recording and storage within the platform. Padlet, a digital canvas and collaboration tool, is also being used by the team to serve as a flexible workshop environment and another location for peer review. 

One of the most influential tools the team has used is PebblePad. To replicate the experience of being in the studio, the Graduate Diploma team is using PebblePad to act as a student sketchbook and blog space. Since it has a live aspect, students can see when other individuals are working within their own sketchbooks. When work is published on a blog, students can comment, critique, and engage with other students’ work just as they would in a real studio. It can help to break down the barriers students feel by completing work alone and provides another location for interaction. PebblePad is also serving as the primary assessment tool for the programme.

PebblePad, which students begin using in the application process for the programme, has provided a unique assessment style that allows students to be more introspective and take control of their journey. “Assessment isn’t traditionally thought of as a way to show a student’s voice, but it really can be a way to show how much they have learned and how they are processing what they have taken in”, said Gary Clough. The integrated digital platform allows learners to pull from past work, such as blogs and tutorials, and package them together alongside reflections to demonstrate progress.  

“Using PebblePad in our learning environment has allowed students the ability to interact with their work at their own pace”, said Gary Clough. Additionally, PebblePad has helped students develop critical skills regarding building an engaging portfolio and a better understanding of how work is reviewed.  

Innovation 

Not only were students’ learning environments brought online, but they also had to creatively adapt to a lack of studio space that they would normally have during the programme. Students no longer had access to laser cutters and pristine materials, and instead they learned to adapt to what was around them and the materials within their reach.  

“Students have lost the crutch of the studio, so they have become more inventive and learned to look at materials around them in a different way. The circumstances have forced new waves of creativity and new ways of working. It has been very interesting to watch the students adapt and they have produced absolutely phenomenal pieces”, said Anna Beel, Senior Technician, Graduate Diploma & 3D Making.

To provide more effective instruction to foster that creativity, instructors have also adjusted to using multiple cameras and different angles in their online instruction. They have also fostered that creativity by encouraging students to embrace the new opportunities they have in their own neighborhoods. Students have used local maker spaces, joined groups, and truly engaged with their communities as practitioners themselves.  

“They have gone from being students to practitioners. Being dispersed across the world means our students have had access to other facilities that they might not have had or utilized at RCA, such as maker labs, local groups, and others. They take those experiences and bring those back into a critical dialogue with us. So even though they have been limited from their traditional space, there has been a balance that has allowed them to have new experiences”, said Richard Nash. 

Building a Community 

Building a community of students while teaching and learning from a distance was a priority for the Graduate Diploma team. Students often join art school with the desire to foster a community, so students, instructors, and staff were eager to encourage the building of community in creative ways – both for their Spring cohort who were all located in London and in their Fall cohort which was dispersed across the globe.  

The Graduate Diploma team immediately engaged students in how they could best build the virtual environment, ensuring that students felt heard and supported and they would all be unified in their approach.  

“Moodle™ has been absolutely vital in supporting students who are dispersed. Students are empowered to find things within Moodle™ on their own and they are able to access all the resources they require. Moodle™ has helped them take their courses and learning into their own hands, manage their own time, and answer their own questions. Moodle™ serves as a member of staff walking down the hallway that students can ask questions, inquire about resources, and more”, said Gary Clough.

The students are encouraged to take ownership of their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The team at the Graduate Diploma programme has encouraged students to use the whole environment as an opportunity to design and allow their creativity to shine, while creating ownership over their VLE. From blogs to virtual sketchbooks to video discussions, collaboration and community is encouraged throughout each step of the process, which has led to a high level of student success.

Student Achievement Through Obstacles 

The students of the Graduate Diploma programme have shown increased resilience and creativity throughout bringing their programme online, but the changes have not affected the rate of passage and matriculation to other education opportunities. 90% of students in the programme have progressed to further study, while 60% have entered an RCA Masters programme upon completion.  

The Graduate Diploma programme team has worked to break down the obstacles for their students, and clear innovation has come from these changes. “There are a lot of complexities to making this platform come together. However, we have maintained the idea of the learning ecosystem as something we contain, manage, and can measure. Not having too many other products is beneficial to our students. We want students to think about innovations in their work, not the complexities in submitting their work. The familiarity with the platforms allows them to truly put their energy into succeeding and producing amazing work”, said Richard Nash. 

The Graduate Diploma programme team recognizes that their transition to an online format isn’t unique, but they have found one of the most helpful approaches to teaching in this new format has been to view their Moodle™ platform as just another tool, something that is very relevant to their art and design programme.  

“We forget in art and design how unique we are in our teaching and learning model. We have always been tool based and we have had a tool kit. Our Moodle™ site and the other components of our learning ecosystem are all tools. These tools allow students to develop their own learning journey”, said Gary Clough. “We are still here and we are pushing to create the most successful learning environment for our students”. 

One of the most essential mindsets that the team approached this new challenge with was a “rip the band aid off” mindset and acceptance that online learning was their new normal – at least for the time being. It allowed them to truly embrace the positive changes that came with the transition. “Other educators should not worry about the transition online, because it doesn’t have to be lesser even if it is different. It takes ingenuity and creativity and that is what we do all day”, said Richard Nash. 

Throughout the challenges presented by the global pandemic, the team has found a new way of working and has come together as a more unified group. That group has extended beyond engagement with colleagues from the programme itself, and has extended to the wider community, other schools, and the administrative teams at the wider university. “We have worked very closely with Juli MacArthur – learning technologist at RCA – and with others colleagues at the university to ask about what tools are out there to see how we can expand projects and how we can work more collaboratively on more aspects”, said Charlita Hall, Administrator, Graduate Diploma Art & Design.

Moving forward, the Graduate Diploma team at RCA is ready to take much of what they have learned and see how they can continue to create an effective and efficient learning environment for their students. “We are here, and we are thriving”, said Anna Beel. “There is so much we will continue to use from this experience, and it is one we will remember forever”.