Visual Arts Embraces Remote Learning

Art instructor Rossi Todorova assembles kits in the drawing studio.
Rebecca A. Eckland

Typically a drawing class happens in a studio where students have access to supplies and instruction in a skill that, let’s face it, isn’t something most people could learn from YouTube. For the second half of the 2020 Spring semester, however, TMCC Art Instructor Rossi Todorova is facing a challenge that academic faculty across the nation are facing in light of the public health crisis: how can you teach a very hands-on class remotely?  

Instructor assembles drawing kits for students.

Part-time art instructor Chris Newhard puts together kits for students in his class.

In the coming weeks, we will highlight the creative approaches that our faculty from all different disciplines are adapting their curricula to remote technologies. In some cases, the new format has enabled new methods of instruction. In other respects, it has created a lot more preparation and, frankly, a lot more work.  Yet, this change has also brought out creativity, ingenuity and determination to continue the learning process.

Teaching and Learning Remotely

It’s Tuesday night around 5 p.m. when I make a visit to Todorova’s virtual office hours she holds through a module in canvas called “Conferences.” It’s a module that has enabled her to adapt to teaching remotely. “I create a conference, and I send my students the link,” she said. Honestly, it’s as easy as it sounds. When I click the link, I’m face-to-face with Rossi even though I’m in my home-office and she’s in her private studio—where she has been teaching classes since 10 a.m. that morning. 

She takes a few minutes to show me around the Conferencing module—unlike other conferencing platforms, our images remain the same size no matter who is talking. The module also allows Todorova to share her screen (where she can share a PowerPoint with students in a lecture format). She has also added an additional camera that faces a drawing pad, enabling her to demonstrate certain techniques to students in real-time.

Todorova is no stranger to adding an online learning component to her classes. “I have used Canvas in all of my studio classes for the past several years,” she said, because it enables students to reference class materials. “Prior to joining TMCC, I taught a hybrid Drawing class at Arizona State University, and that further cemented how I use these online tools, and in particular, as a way for students to turn in their work digitally.”

Kit containing tools and materials for sculpture class.

Todorova created kits filled with supplies when she received word that classes would be taught remotely.

What’s new this semester is translating everything that would happen in a class into online spaces. “Pedagogically, I believe that there are many different types of learners—visual, auditory and kinesthetic—and so I am addressing all of these in my online classes now. So, I walk them through a PowerPoint presentation, which is visual. Then, they have to read my handouts—which are posted on Canvas—which helps the audio learners. Finally, they have to do the lesson themselves, and that addresses those who learn by doing.” 

From an outsider’s perspective, what are most impressive are Todorova’s series of YouTube videos that accompany every lesson. The videos stand in for the live demos she would normally complete during in-class studio sessions.  One reason for the large volume of videos has to do with the kinds of assignments students are tackling at this point in the semester.  They are more complicated, and require that students master a variety of skills along the way. 

Getting Students the Supplies They Need

The success of Todorova’s move to remote instruction comes, in part, to not only her dedication to her students, but to the commitment of her department as well. When she received the news that she would need to retrieve everything from the Dandini campus that she needed before it closed over the Spring Break, Todorova wondered how she would teach these classes—especially sculpture—remotely. 

“And then I saw a post from a friend who teaches in Illinois. She posted about kits she made for students in her sculpture class so that her students could have everything they needed in a bag they could take home with them,” she said.  

Kit containing tools for ceramics class.

Art professor Candace Garlock created kits for her ceramics students so they could complete the class learning objectives remotely from home.

Todorova spent the next day gathering the supplies her students would need and contacting each of them by phone, telling them that they needed to collect these kits before the campus closed. “I was literally on the phone with every single student,” she said.  She spent the next day with part time instructor Chris Newhard and Art Professor Candace Garlock assembling the kits for art students enrolled in their various classes.

The kits contained materials paid for by the lab fees associated with each class. “The kits that Candace made for her ceramics classes were beautiful,” said Todorova.

Luckily, all but four of Todorova’s  students were able to come in and pick up the kits before the campus closed. “That just tells you the dedication of our students,” she said. “I am also grateful that the administration worked with us—it was essential for us to get those packets out.”

How Students Are Reacting to the Remote Platform

By all Todorova’s accounts, the technology available to teach classes online is extraordinary, but the true test came on Monday, March 23 when students returned to their virtual classrooms. The first day back, Todorova invited her students together using the conference module in Canvas to explain how office hours and classroom sessions would work.

“They got to see each other,” Todorova said, which provided a visible difference in not only their anxiety level, but also in their morale. One student admitted that seeing how the class would work on line made her “so much calmer.” “This is the most social I have been all week,” said another student.

Yet, it hasn’t been easy. With five preps for five different classes, Todorova now schedules time for her to create instructional videos in addition to the time she spends teaching and offering office hours. Due to the revised delivery of the course, lessons had to be streamlined.

Most importantly, though, this new course delivery has at least one silver lining: students must submit their assignments by providing individual links to a post on their social media account or website. Too often, art is “lost”—either to the constraints of a learning management system like Canvas (when the class ends, so does access to course content) or when a student decides to give away their art to friends or family, but maintains no record of it. “This is helping students to get in the habit of documenting their work,” she said. “So, if they want to apply for a Bachelor of Fine Arts program, or need to show their portfolio, they will have a solid record of their work.”

The second, unexpected perk comes from the technology itself. Todorova also hosts office hours in the morning before classes start. Even though these are also offered through the conferencing module in Canvas, Todorova said it’s like she’s sitting in her office with the door open. “My department chair stops by, and then a student comes in and he has to go. If anything, it has made the social distancing we are doing less lonely.” 

Todorova’s online teaching methods were recently featured in an article entitled "The Show Must Go Online"  in the Double Scoop. You can also check out Todorova’s YouTube channel, “Art Lessons with Rossi” if you are interested in  seeing her demos firsthand. 

For more information about studying the visual arts at TMCC, contact the department at 775-673-7291.