Insights - Design & Product

Can Design Be Taught Online?

Traditional brick-and-mortar design education institutions have hardly any online offerings. Will the pandemic force them to change this?

A whopping 1.58 billion students have been impacted by the coronavirus according to this UNESCO report. It seems widely accepted that behavioural changes caused by the pandemic will impact education overall. People are even calling this ‘online education’s demonetisation moment’ – foreseeing that it may lead to an unprecedented surge in student numbers.’

What does this mean for design education? While the spectrum of design education is wide, and certain disciplines are more suited to the online world than others, institutional design education has always focused on ‘brick and mortar’ models. How, if at all, will the pandemic impact this and what could the future bring?

Waiting, Watching, Improvising

Thrown off guard by Covid 19, faculty around the country are working hard to keep classes going. The immediate focus is on completing the current semester (which is thankfully in the exam/project phase) and the assumption is that students will return to campus for the next semester, even if it is delayed. The usual suspects like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Webex and Miro have been pressed into action, some teachers are even using Wacom tablets to replicate whiteboards.

Improvisation is the order of the day. Kumkum Nadig, Dean, Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, says that constraints have brought out fresh creativity and resourcefulness in both students and faculty. This is echoed by Gauri Gandhi, who teaches material-oriented design at Pune’s FLAME University. In the absence of a physical workshop, she has asked students to study materials in their homes, to gain a deeper appreciation of what went behind their design and manufacture.

Remote Education is Frustrating

The frustration with the current situation was evident in my conversations with both faculty and students (in India and the US). This is only natural, given that a curriculum meant for the classroom is being repurposed for remote learning on the fly.

The inability to give one-on-one instruction or gauge comprehension, the lack of post-class discussions and spontaneity, call disturbances and patchy Internet were common laments.

“We have lots of discussions – informal, formal, student-faculty, between faculty – this leads to unexpected and innovative ideas. All that is completely lost now. You can’t enjoy design or design education without that.” 

P Kumaresan, Professor, IIT Bombay IDC

Vivek Radhakrishnan who teaches product design at Strate, Bangalore’s new design school, concurs. “The magic happens when a student stops you as you are leaving class to discuss an idea that they’ve just thought of.”

Inconsistent access is a major problem. Not all students have devices or robust Internet connections. Many feel short-changed, as an investment in an expensive education was meant to cover all resources, including studio, workshop, library and hostel access. 

Past the Pandemic: The Future of Design Education

At this point, not too many educators are thinking actively about the long-term. However, our research points to these possible trends.

1. A rise in online design offerings from institutions

Currently, there are slim pickings when it comes to online courses by the country’s top design schools. NID offers a basic course in design fundamentals. IIT Bombay’s IDC offers six, but hasn’t run one since July 2019. The IITs and IIMs offer online courses, some even doing so via Upgrad.

Surprisingly most iconic global institutions do not fare much better. Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is one of the few that offers sixteen courses, while Parsons has online certification courses as well as free sessions open to the public. Stanford’s d.School offers just one online course on design thinking! Even newer design and technology schools like Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have no online courses. This is likely to change.

“Over the last two years, we’ve always thought of offering online courses, but there just wasn’t enough time. This  has pushed us into thinking we have to do it.”

Kumkum Nadig, Dean, Srishti School of Design, Art & Technology

The immediate payoff is obvious. In 2017, University of Massachusetts surpassed $100m in annual revenue via online courses. Beyond the additional revenue, online platforms will allow institutions to reach new audiences and strengthen their brands (the author himself would love to take a design course).

Several players are filling this gap currently.

Design education is a mainstay of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms. There are 1650 courses devoted to design on Coursera alone (117% more than ‘software development’), 9970 on Udemy (25% more than marketing), and hundreds on Skillshare. These courses are cost-effective and convenient, but suffer from high dropout rates – the bane of the online edtech world.

Newer players like Springboard as well as Coursera’s certification courses are trying to bridge the gap between high-touch and low-touch, offering more stringent admission procedures, certifications, live classes, student interaction and even placement assistance.

Then there are independent design institutes such as Designboat and Designient, which offer short-term courses in everything from graphic design to UI/UX to AR/VR. However, these mostly physical institutes too are affected by the pandemic and are considering the online pivot. Sameer ul Haque, who runs the private design school Designient School of Masterminds, says that after testing the waters with an online workshop, he is considering building a course on Udemy.

The challenge for traditional educational institutions will be to create a satisfactory and engaging online curriculum, which is built from the ground up for a new medium.

Lessons learnt during the lockdown will help. Says NID’s Austin Davis, “I realised that giving feedback to students via video calls had problems, so I sent feedback via a video recording. Now they have a permanent record, and some believe should be permanent even after we go back to the studio”

2. … But not the old online

There exists the perception today, that online education is restricted mostly to digital design and at best, can help designers plug gaps in their skills. Aman Bhadauria, co-founder of tech-meets-interior design firm Deckor has done both offline and online design courses. While he found the latter valuable, he says that it was the offline course that taught him perseverance, patience and to ‘find one’s hand’.

Vivek Kumar, India MD of Springboard, says that the live mentor-led, online design models are the way to go.“A lot of things can be taught and practiced online, including material design. If I were to give a live example, look at the worldwide competition and collaboration to build masks and ventilators, which is happening entirely online.”

Whether one gets a design education online or offline doesn’t seem to matter too much to hirers. Says Chetan Sharma, who heads Kotak Bank’s design team. “We are not really concerned about where the student comes from – online or offline. What matters is if they are able to understand and deliver what we need.”

We believe that new models of online design teaching will evolve, which will address the drawbacks of the current offering – including more ‘hands-on projects’ and a better feedback cycle. 

3. It may take an ecosystem

Question: Who brought about the digital transformation in your organization? 

Answer: Covid-19

This joke doing the rounds signals a big opportunity for the education ecosystem.

We envisage a surge in service and product providers, who will support the shift that has been forced upon educational institutions. This is not restricted to design alone. There will be the rise of specialist firms translating faculty expertise to online video, content packaging and distribution, digitising offline resources or just building better student-teacher interfaces.

For example, Involvio, a provider of SaaS products for universities has launched a new product called Remote Campus whose focus is on addressing distraction and social isolation, giving scattered students a sense of continuity and community.

The technology underpinning collaboration will also progress rapidly. Says Scott Belsky, Founder, Behance in a tweet ”My bet is that Brady Bunch style video will run its course while some new co’s under the radar brew a 10x better way for us to remotely meet and collaborate; video just being a part.”

Medical education is already using VR solutions. Eon Reality, a California-headquartered firm offering AR and VR solutions, has seen a 400% increase in educational inquiries since the pandemic. “While the haptic and material feedback that design education requires is not available just yet, that’s definitely the direction things are going”, says Richie Chen, the company’s Director of PR and Strategic Engagement. 

The space is ripe. Don’t forget to thank us if you take one of these ideas and turn it into a unicorn.

4. Re-examining curriculum and pedagogy – finally

The current disruption is an opportunity – and perhaps a wake-up call – to re-examine the ‘what and how’ of design education.

More collaboration, virtually

A  world habituated to virtual meetings may actually allow for more collaboration. While it may take some getting used to, removing the need for physical travel may also remove barriers to collaboration. We could see greater industry interaction, more cross-campus courses and stronger visiting faculty programmes.

Post-pandemic, institutions will have a greater comfort with virtual collaboration

More doing, less broadcast

Around the world, flipped education (where students consume pre-recorded lectures on their own, while classroom is used for discussion and practice) is an ongoing trend. This is low-hanging fruit in terms of technology adoption for many institutes – optimising both student and teacher time.  

“Imagine if a student spends two months learning a specific skillset, like type design or pure animation. I feel this will help industry to evaluate, as most times when we look at college-level portfolios, they show a lot of average work across various disciplines, rather than focusing on the strengths of a student.”

Lokesh Karekar, Founder, Locopopo, a graphic design studio

Design’s changing role

The pandemic has been responsible for shining a light on the role of design in a crisis. It has also helped institutions realise that the adoption of technology and virtual methods is more a matter of mindset than anything else.

Every “what will ___ industry look like after the pandemic?” article is really a call for design skills. The needs of industry will change – and it will be disappointing if institutions do not respond in an adequate manner.

Phygital, Like the World Around It

For too long, industry has complained that education does not keep up with technology or indeed, with the real world. There is now an impetus to change that by creating a new kind of design education: One that combines the offline and online world, using each one to its best advantage. One that is more relevant to current industry and societal needs, because it is agile and can respond quickly to a world, that we now know, can be dramatically unpredictable.

“This is an opportunity to relook at the vocabulary of design itself, and what kind of design futures we have. How can design re-translate itself? That’s something for design gurus to think about.”

Nanki Nath, Professor NID.

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