Visual arts is not just a subject, it is a way of life. It embodies the way we dress, the hair styles we flaunt, the makeup on our faces, the décor at our weddings, the ambiance of our living rooms, and so much more. The importance of this art form, however, goes beyond aesthetics and has taken its rightful place within classrooms at all levels of the education system. The question is nonetheless, with its practical nature does visual arts stand a chance in online delivery?
Transitioning to online modality
The COVID-19 pandemic has most certainly forced visual arts educators to make the needed transition from face-to-face teaching to delivering a practical based subject in an online modality. This transition for most teachers, especially at the secondary level, has been extremely challenging and stressful. As a current lecturer, I too felt challenged at the onset and had to find creative and innovative ways to combat the challenges. I took into consideration four important factors as I progressed with online facilitation. These factors include: constant practice, guided instructions, comprehensive feedback, and reflectivity.
The concept of practice in relation to visual arts is not solely dependent on students. More than anyone else, we as teachers have a responsibility to ensure that we are constantly developing our practical skills and are able to demonstrate to our students adequately and effectively. In addition, the practice required for online learning has to move beyond the physical paper and transition to utilizing online tools that are available in virtual teaching platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom. As instructors, we were trained to practice our drawing and painting on paper or canvas, but now, COVID-19 has challenged us to start practicing using electronic sketch books, or demonstrate our work on electronic white boards via a virtual platform.
It is important to remember that students should continuously produce sketches of whatever drawing or concept they are working on. These preliminary sketches will automatically become part of their development portfolio. Being online, students may easily say their studies are completed in an attempt to bypass the process and move on to the major project. Thus, it is incumbent on instructors to create a folder in the virtual space where these studies are uploaded for review. Checks by the teacher will indicate students who have not completed their assignments, which should ultimately prevent them from moving onto phase two until phase one is completed. We must encourage our students to engage in constant practice in order to develop their skills. We should also challenge ourselves to keep practicing and developing our own skillsets, not only manually, but electronically as well.
Now that some of our art students are no longer in front of us physically, how do we provide them with instructions that will enable them to work without us there in person? The type of guidance provided for visual arts may differ from purely theoretical subjects. A visual arts teacher may ask a set of students to create a collage depicting a particular theme. The instructor may have explained the concept of a collage, types of collages, and the development of a collage, and may have shown the students examples of collages. Is this enough to then say to students, “Go and create a collage.”
The answer lies in the age and the ability of the students you are teaching. Some students may very well be able to look at the samples and develop their own collages, while some students may require step-by-step instructions or a demonstration on the creation of a collage. This step-by-step instruction is important because it highlights important aspects of the task and the concepts being taught, which allows students to build upon existing knowledge in efficient ways (Pressley, Harris, & Marks, 1992).
This step-by-step process should always be available in the online space where students are able to gain access if they need to be reminded of the task. This can prevent students from emailing or calling us and asking for a reminder of what needs to be accomplished. This strategy is especially appropriate for students at the primary and secondary level. Nonetheless, this is an approach that I employ at the tertiary level as a reinforcement for student teachers to practice and to keep in mind as they prepare for the classroom.
The type of feedback given to visual arts students in relation to their artwork will determine whether or not they will be capable of improving the task. If I ask an art student to produce an observational drawing of a potted plant, then after the completion of that drawing I am expected to provide the student with feedback. This feedback will indicate how well the student captured the plant through the use of elements and principles of art or the lack thereof. This feedback provided should be complemented with the drawing. Once again, we are operating online and as such, what we are reviewing is a photograph of the drawing. Hence, you are expected to make all comments on the image provided. What does this do? This allows the student to match the comments with the aspect of the drawing that needs improvement.
General comments at this stage would not necessarily help the students to improve the drawing. Making comments such as “the drawing is flat” or the “pot needs more form” are considered general comments and does not tell the art student how to correct the deficiencies within the drawing. A comment such as “the right side of the pot appears to be flat because you need to achieve a variety of tones as you shade – you have a constant tone throughout,” will indicate to students what is expected of them as they attempt to fix the issues with the drawing.
Instructors may paste the photograph of the drawing in Microsoft Word and use the textbox feature to type comments and add them to various aspects of the drawings. You also have the option of using a photo editor on your phone to type comments on images. Teaching visual arts online requires us to give feedback that will assist students in improving their skillsets without the constant need to see them physically.
It is absolutely imperative that visual arts students reflect on the process of art creation. Dyment and O’Connell (2003) noted that reflective writing is capable of promoting critical thinking skills when learners use the writing process as a means to analyze challenging issues within the classroom and to establish alternative solutions to the problems they experience. Art students encounter challenges on a regular basis, even more so that they are online and do not have the luxury of face-to-face interaction with their facilitator. Thus, instructors ought to provide an avenue for students to be able to reflect, whether through oral communication or writing. One way to promote this is through constant class critiques. This will allow students to speak about their artwork by:
- Highlighting the challenges and limitations experienced
- Justifying the use of medium/resources
- Explaining the concept behind their artwork
- Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the artwork
- Saying how they intend to fix the errors as they move forward
This reflective process will give teachers an idea of each student’s mindset and will also provide teachers the opportunity to question students about various aspects of their artwork.
Does visual arts stand a chance online? Teaching visual arts online is no easy task. However, it most certainly has a place on the online platform. The idea that this subject can be taught completely online is not impossible but somewhat improbable due to the nature of the subject, the availability of tools and equipment, and the expressive forms involved. The recommendation is for the subject to be taught using dual or hybrid modalities which would most certainly provide students with an optimally rounded experience. The four important factors highlighted (constant practice, guided instructions, comprehensive feedback, and reflectivity) have guided me as I made my transition through the online space. As we continue to operate within this space, I trust we will continue to find creative and innovative ways to impact the minds of the artistic generation.
Nadine T. Clemetson currently serves as a full-time lecturer at the Mico University College in Jamaica. She is also a moderator and an assistant examiner for CSEC Visual Arts and CAPE Art and Design. Clemetson loves the online platform for teaching Visual Arts and will remain resolute in her efforts to find innovative ways to make the offerings of Visual Arts viable through the online modality.
Dyment, Janet E., and Timothy S. O’Connell. “Assessing the quality of reflection in student journals: A review of the research.” Teaching in Higher Education 16, no. 1 (2011): 81-97.
Pressley, Michael, Karen R. Harris, and Marilyn B. Marks. “But good strategy instructors are constructivists!.” Educational Psychology Review 4, no. 1 (1992): 3-31.