This semester, Matt Saunders launched the biggest studio art class at Harvard. The class of 72 students in “Painting’s Doubt” met weekly to learn figure drawing and paint from still life. When the coronavirus outbreak forced Saunders to move the class online, he faced some fundamental problems.
“We lose a lot of the value of having students all together because an important part of learning in this class happens through the peer group,” said Saunders. For the first half of the semester, he framed each session and gave pointers about how to approach rendering the subject, but “students [could] see each other’s solutions, so we’re trying to figure out how to capture that energy.”
Saunders, Harris K. Weston Associate Professor of the Humanities and director of undergraduate studies in the Art, Film, and Visual Studies Department, is one of thousands of faculty members who had to adapt and innovate their courses to move them online following the evacuation of campus due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Early reports suggest that the transition has gone well overall, though not without hitches. In some cases it has even presented some unforeseen opportunities and inspired new insights about teaching and learning.
“Over the past 3 weeks, IT staff have worked tirelessly with our University partners to move Harvard’s classes online,” said Anne Margulies, Vice President and University Chief Information Officer. “The scale of this change is truly extraordinary, and this week has seen all-time high numbers of users leveraging technology to teach, learn, and work online. We are pleased with the performance of our systems so far and even more impressed with how well our community has embraced using technology in new ways.”
Like many of his colleagues, Saunders had never taught online before, but mobilized to change assignments and other logistics over spring break.
On campus, students met for a 75-minute weekly lecture and a four-hour weekly studio section. Adapting “Painting’s Doubt” to the online classroom involved shipping supply kits of paint, canvas, and other items to students around the world and establishing a schedule of one Zoom lecture and six new discussion sections led by teaching assistants, during which students share and discuss their work, which is now done independently.
Instead of walking around the classroom for critiques of works in progress during studio time, Saunders and his teaching team formed smaller groups that will meet online for more individualized assignments and direction, based on mid-semester evaluations. While the shift has disrupted his original plans, Saunders says it also offers a chance for exploration beyond the campus bounds.