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Making learning happen

03 Jul 2020 | Dr Kay Hack A conversation with graduate Zara McLaughlin, on the importance of physical learning spaces and the campus environment to her growth as an artist and starting a business

As we went into lockdown academics focused on learning outcomes and how they could be met and demonstrated through remote teaching and assessment. Students and staff recognised that achieving the ‘perfect’ online learning experience was out of reach in the time-frame available. This reductionist approach to higher education delivery was tolerated by students as a short term, emergency measure, however both staff and students recognised it as a deficit model of higher education.  In the worst-case scenario it encouraged a reversion to a teacher-centred didactic model, using the VLE or other platforms as a broadcast medium. As the crisis is set to continue into the next academic year, the expected ‘stop-go’ approach to lockdown will require continued agility and flexibility to ensure that both returning and new students can access the learning environment they need, expect and deserve.

With on campus teaching critically dependent on physical locations - laboratories, art and design studios, and theatres - how can we effectively deliver authentic, participatory and connected learning experiences for students who are unable to return to campus due to on-going or intermittent travel or health restrictions?  

Prior to our next webinar in the COVID-19 series, ‘Learning Spaces and Beyond: Connecting while Physical Distancing’, Dr Kay Hack (Advance HE) chats to Zara McLaughlin (Zara Ceramics), who graduated this summer with a BA (Hons) Ceramics, Jewellery & Silversmithing from ⁠Belfast School of Art, Ulster University, about the importance of physical presence and the value of being immersed in her discipline and learning community.

Kay: Your home was about an hour’s train ride from the University campus, why was it important to you to move to Belfast, rather than commute?

Zara: I knew I wanted to live near the university campus as soon as I received my confirmed offer. I come from a small town, so I was excited about experiencing city life and being more independent. My course required four full-days attendance, and I knew that I would not want to miss a single thing or be worried about being late or missing the last train home. My accommodation was a 10 minute walk away from the studios so I could roll out the door and get the most out of my day. Literally, blood, sweat and tears went into my degree and I don’t think I would have survived or achieved what I have if I had to spend hours commuting back and forth.

Kay: In your social media posts you highlight some of the interactions with your tutors, the inspirational lecture that encouraged you to start your own business whilst in your first year and the weekly critiques of your practice with your tutor. How did your student experience as a whole impact on your growth as an artist and starting a business?

Zara: My regular sessions with my tutor were incredibly special - although nerve wracking. They always brought fresh ideas to the table and recommended other artists to look at. Their ability to see things from a different lens was critical as I was working so close to my work it was like my brain was in a cloud of fog some days. It was inspirational to get a valued second opinion from an experienced tutor, especially from someone you know has already made a name for themselves in industry. They were always floating about in the background working on their own projects so it was nice to be able to grab them for a chat if I was feeling stuck. Their skill, talent and work ethic gave us all something to strive towards.

The technicians were also critical to my university experience. During the strikes the technicians were more than happy to help to keep the ball rolling by keeping the equipment up to scratch and giving technical advice when required.

The lectures and guest talks helped us develop into professional artists; from talks on how to run a social media platform, the importance of developing your own brand and tips for getting your work into galleries. 

zara pottery

Kay: How did things change after we went into lockdown?

Zara: The first few weeks were very disheartening and lonely. I had been working harder than I had done in my whole life, and it felt like all the fantastic support I had received to date – from tutors, technicians and friends, was being snatched away.

Throughout my degree I had spent all my spare time making and selling my work in order to build my own home studio. This meant that I could continue my practice to some extent during lockdown although much of the work I had been producing at university couldn’t be made in my home studio, as I did not have all the equipment I needed or a big enough kiln. But many of my classmates had to stop making altogether, the University equipment was critical for them to complete their work. I also missed the buzz that comes from being surrounded by other makers and crafts people. I was also used to being able to get help from different departments across the university; but that was no longer available to me. Online art school is not art school in my opinion.

Kay: Thanks Zara, it is clear from your thoughts that, at its heart, learning is all about making connections, whether that is within and beyond your discipline or through interactions with peers, technicians, tutors, and experts from your chosen profession. Congratulations on your first class degree and your appointment as artist in residence at Belfast Art School.

Zara: Thank you, I pushed myself to my breaking point but I made it. Suddenly all the plaster room meltdowns seem worth it. My small business is off the ground. I’ve purchased my first large kiln, the studio set is set up and ready to take on the next chapter; this is only the beginning. 

For learning to go beyond the formulaic demonstration of learning outcomes we need to ensure that students can still experience the visceral connection to their discipline as described here; the joy of the ‘ah hah’ moment when thinking practices are transformed, literally the sight, smell and touch of the clay; the inspiration that comes from being immersed in a community and learning from and with others.

Join us for our next COVID-19 webinar, Learning Spaces and Beyond: Connecting while Physical Distancing, where we will hear from those using creative and innovative ideas to address these challenges within STEM, medicine and the arts to ensure that students experience the immersive, visceral connections that drive learning.  

Our panel this week comprises:

Dr Andrew Garrad, Deputy Head of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education at The University of Sheffield;

Professor James Pickering, Professor of Anatomical Education, University of Leeds; 

Gail Crimmins,  Program Area Coordinator for a suite of Creative Industries Programs (Courses) at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, and the Program Lead for Theatre and Performance;

Peter Benz  Associate Professor, Associate Director (Teaching and Learning) Academy of Visual Arts,  Hong Kong Baptiste University.

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