At Island University, Arts, Media, and Design Programs Rise to Challenge of Online Instruction

By Richard Guerrero | Published: April 03, 2020

At Island University, Arts, Media, and Design Programs Rise to Challenge of Online Instruction
Islanders in the Audition Prep course taught by Associate Theatre Professor Alison Frost interact with actor Ben Rappoport. Frost taught Rappoport when he attended The Julliard School.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Across all six colleges, the faculty of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has worked diligently to transform the learning experience from a classroom one to a digital one as a result of the ongoing public health emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while each college has its own set of challenges, the School of Arts, Media, and Communication within the College of Liberal Arts faces the unique situation of having to replace traditional face-to-face interaction between faculty and students during lessons and group rehearsal sessions with two-way digital interactivity that provides a new set of technical issues on top of individual performance.

In the Department of Music, Dr. Brian Shelton, Chair and Director of Bands, said faculty have reported that the ability to practice is a hurdle for students studying specific instruments.

“Many of the students do not have keyboards for piano class, and we have had to loan out percussion equipment that would typically stay in the building,” said Shelton. “But everyone is banding together to make it work.”

Shelton said the Music Department is using video conferencing apps like Zoom and WebEx for live-streaming and recording in order to provide synchronous instruction like live remote lessons as well as asynchronous instruction, which allows students who are not able to attend a live remote session to play back the lecture.

Faculty members in the Department of Theatre and Dance are having to create similar workarounds to continue educational instruction. In the Movement for Actors course, which has 22 students this semester, Theatre Professor Kelly Russell said he had to become creative for a class that focuses on teaching student actors to use their bodies to communicate 90% of messages that an audience receives during a performance.

“Since it would be impossible to do one of our original group performance assignments once we moved to distance learning, I wanted to give the students a fun, substitute project. Everyone in class would do a lip-sync/movement piece to the same (quarantine-related) song,” Russell said, adding that the class unanimously chose the Elton John hit “I’m Still Standing” from a short list of three options.

“Each student filmed a video for the entire song. Then our wonderful video editor, Kim Newlin, chose the moments from each individual video to splice together,” Russell said.   

As of April 3, the video has garnered more than 1,000 views on the Theatre Department’s YouTube channel.  

In the Department of Communication & Media, Dr. David Gurney, Associate Professor and Department Chair, said members of the faculty have moved to online discussion forums and are posting audio and video files to continue to share perspectives.

“A lot of assignments and projects have had to be radically altered, condensed, combined, etc.,” Gurney said. “While this is not ideal, our faculty are dedicated to getting our students to the learning outcomes we’ve set out for them, and we are going to be doing just that.”

Gurney credits Dr. Michelle Singh and the Office of Distance Education and Learning Technologies for working with Adobe Systems Inc. to allow students to access the Adobe Creative Cloud from home computers and laptops. However, challenges do remain, he noted.

“Not all our students have access to computers that can run this software. Fortunately, for those, there are opportunities to find access to new resources through the Islander Help line and, in particular, the Office of Financial Aid,” Gurney said. “Faculty are also working individually with students to make sure that remaining tasks and assignments can be accomplished by students with the tools that they each have available.”

According to Louis Katz, Professor and Department of Art + Design Interim Chair, the experience of transitioning to online instruction has varied depending on the specific discipline within the program.

“In terms of concern for students, nothing has changed. However, there is a big difference between trying to teach throwing on pottery wheels to students at home, metal casting, and drawing and painting. Drawing and painting require little in the way of specialized equipment, but ceramics and casting often require specialized equipment,” Katz said. “For some of these classes we have shifted assignments to others related to the discipline such as glaze technology or contemporary practices.”

Katz said that printmaking faculty have sent students home with materials or had them sent via US mail and are teaching students how to print without specialized equipment. He also said the sculpture classes, which already had a large online professional practices component, have changed assignments so they can be done with found items and materials. 

For all classes still making art as assignments, those projects are being turned in digitally. Graphic Design is taught almost exclusively on computers, Katz said, and while the change is some work, the courses are similar to what they were like before the move to online instruction.

Katz added that technology is the key reason educational instruction can continue in a time of a public health crisis. He recalled spartan living conditions during a different public health event decades ago – a time that did not allow for remote learning.

“Cellphones with cameras, the internet, fast speeds, video chats – this would have been wonderful when I was a child. About 55 years ago, I was quarantined with rubella because I was in a neighborhood with many pregnant women. I could watch TV and listen to records, but I remember it being a very boring time,” he said.

The challenge of abruptly shifting to online instruction as a response to a rapidly evolving global health emergency is perhaps most pronounced on students themselves.

Communications Studies senior Savannah Spears said it has been a challenge to cope with the changing nature of classes and project assignments, but added she is thankful to have the opportunity to finish her final semester online. A Digital Journalism minor, Spears is a former intern in the A&M-Corpus Christi Office of Marketing and Communications who is also working on a certificate in Dance.

“I miss seeing my classmates and my instructors – my Islander family. It’s hard not getting to dancing together, not receiving instant feedback from my instructor, and not having a big space to dance,” Spears said. “But the dance faculty has made the transition better than I ever expected. They have been so supportive and understanding throughout this whole transition. They are still giving us the ability to dance at home, continue our practice, and find a little joy in all this madness. I am so grateful for that.”