From Skill-Building to Creative Research: Flexible Learning in Foundation Digital Art Studio

University Art Association Conference, 2016 Montreal, Quebec

From Skill-Building to Creative Research:  Flexible Learning in Foundation Digital Arts Studio
By:  Christine D’Onofrio

Session 4e:
Online Pedagogy in the Visual Arts
Chair: Meghan Bissonnette
Valdosta State University

Above is the session page in the conference program. The following pages present the transcript and select visuals of the paper I delivered. Please note I do not read off paper when I present, so the following is a rough trajectory of the presentation notes I refer to.

While I have been teaching only about fifteen years, it has felt like fifty.  The reason being is that there are drastic changes affecting the terrain of learning and knowing of the younger generations I currently teach.  Theories of learning such as “information storage” have become irrelevant.  As the amount of knowledge is growing in accelerated leaps, a computer can do it better, and knowledge is also quickly outdated nowadays. On the other side, cognitive learning theories determined learning as a “way of being”. Discoll’s learning theory of “constructivism” suggests that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences. But instead of seeing learning as either linear, as empty vessels to fill with knowledge, or as cognitive negotiators actively attempting to create meaning, how could we facilitate learning that utilizes knowledge that occurs in this new place, outside of the self?

Newfound challenges had been revealing themselves in my years teaching a specific “digital foundations” course at UBC. I realized these challenges presented an opportunity to understand learning differently, motivating me to engage with surprising, messy, chaotic and even abstract potentials of this new domain.  The capacity to form connections between sources of information, and thereby create useful information patterns, is required to learn in our new knowledge economy.  I was inspired by George Simens idea of “Connectivism” –Connections between disparate ideas and fields that can create new innovations, because quote “decisions are based on rapidly changing new information that alters the landscape” … “choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality”.

How can I use the virtual world as metaphor for learning?  The class that I flipped, “Visual Arts Digital Foundation” is a large introductory studio course that focuses on how the “machine” influences art making.  Through a narration of art history, theory, practice and research, students learn how to read and create visual art works. It is structured as a one-hour lecture by me to the whole class, and then segmented off into smaller 20 student, 3 hour lab sections led by TAs.  It is primarily a studio course, therefore students are required to execute artworks to demonstrate their research and critical thought process when working with sources from recording devices, then executed in digital formats, using (usually) Adobe Photoshop and Premiere software.

Usually, technical demonstrations were done by TAs in the labs and approached learning how to use these tools as systematic and something to be conquered.  This approach used a computer in a one dimensional way, to continue to just see learners as ‘cognitive processors’ of skill building.  There were and still are significant changes going on, such as the fact that learners of the generation I was teaching would move into a variety of possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime, and this should influence how we teach.  As well, technology is not an inanimate tool to be learned, but instead is actually altering our brains and how we define and shape thinking.  Instead of knowledge input, humans are becoming knowledge management systems, to know how to reach, when to use, how to find, apply and reanimate, ever-changing knowledge.

Course Summary:

  • VISA 110 “Visual Arts Digital Foundation” studio is an introductory Visual Art course that focuses on how the “machine” influences art making. The course is a combination of historical and theoretical propositions of art and artistic representation through recording devices, such as the lens, to other digital formats.  Through practice and research, students learn how to read and communicate visual representations.
  • Primarily a studio course, students are required to execute artworks to demonstrate their research and critical thought process when working with sources from recording devices. The execution format of the course projects is digital work, therefore students must use software (usually Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere) to execute.
  • Enrolment is approximately 420-480 students per year, divided into 3 large sections
  • Course structure is 1 hour of lecture time with all students, followed by 3 hours of lab time in smaller sections of 20 students run by TA’s. There could be up to 9 different TAs in a single section of the course
  • Labs consisted mainly of software demonstrations, accounting for about 60% of contact hour time with the TAs, followed by critiques as the second most time-consuming activity of contact hours
  • The first project went through “Still Image” utilizing Adobe Photoshop, and the second project tackled “Moving Image” in Adobe Premiere.


The first step was to identify my challenges:

  • Diverse Student Backgrounds
    Students have varied experiences with the programs, therefore there was no way for a TA to deliver technical demonstrations in lab that would work for all students. Some students were new and needed time and repetition and a slower pace, some were bored because they had previous experience with the software, though not the concepts of the class.
  • Student Schedules
    Being a 4 hour/week class at sometimes awkward times became difficult for this generation’s schedule reality, (increased tuition, jobs, etc) thus, flexibility in certain aspects of learning could help out with the scheduling pressures. A flipped classroom would enable me to use reduced contact hours in a more fruitful way, replacing contact hours for unscheduled online learning that they could do at home.
  • TA Inconsistency
    Graduate students are admitted into a grad program because of their practice. Therefore there is no way to deliver technical demonstrations consistently throughout the labs. Therefore, a succinct standard of demonstrations was not practiced throughout the different lab sections.
  • TA as a Resource
    Specialties and research interests of the TA’s were not utilized because of the strong emphasis on technical demonstrations. Teaching Assistants are valuable because of their role as artists and researchers.  As welll, I’m sure that overall TA’s felt unfulfilled.
  • Distraction
    Because many of the contact hours were spent on technical demonstrations, students tended to be pre-occupied with technical skill-building rather than main objectives of the course -which are worth more to them of “how to read and create contemporary artworks that demonstrate an affective, ethical, critical and intelligent approach to the digital medium.”
  • Student Pride & Decision Making
    Limited contact hours and the time-consuming nature of technical demonstrations only allowed for TA’s to teach one program per project in one specific way. Therefore, many projects looked like variations of the same.  This doesn’t really work for art making where the subjective and decisions reveal much about agency.


  • Find a way to eliminate contact-time spent on redundant “technical demonstrations” and re-focus that time on active learning, inviting complex discussions to help process knowledge and meaning.
  • Find a way to allow students to make “choices” in how they research and use information archives and apply it towards making art work.
  • Find new ways to create a sense of “collegiality” in the online world, so that it wasn’t too isolating.
  • Find a way to allow students to be “self-accountable” in how they are absorbing, processing and applying information they find online.


  • Create an online technical demonstration library featuring moving image editing software, photographic imaging software, and audio/sound editing software demonstrations, Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and Audacity.
  • The videos are organized and strategized towards independent artistic practice execution planned in relationship to the course curriculum, and because video tutorials happen in unscheduled hours, they can complete the demo’s they need for their specific project decisions!
  • Creation of an anonymous “Peer Critique” system for students to participate in (and practice a collegial critique atmosphere) before their projects were due.
  • Quiz questions would accompany each video to aid in self-testing.
    To the right is a slide from presentation.

Therefore, the flipped/blended classroom model not only helped me to utilize and focus class time better, but the hybrid class structure provoked critical engagement of technology use from a generation of learners whose habits, backgrounds, practices and conceptions are products of a digital environment, working to better inform important underlying conceptual ideas of artistic practice in the digital realm.


  • An overall more satisfying learning experience for a foundation course that relies on technical skill building to complete and execute the projects.
  • Individualized learning experiences for students, some may need to replay videos and watch things slowly, others can breeze through because they know it already.
  • Re-focused class time on theoretical discussions will enhance understanding of the role of media specific to this particular foundation class (on the machine in art/digital) towards higher understanding, and will overall enhance the first year foundation program in Visual Arts.
  • Increased in-class participation will add insight for the Teaching Assistants to identify and adapt their teaching methods based on responses, knowledge, and revealed challenges of student’s grasp of the material.
  • An overall more satisfying teaching experience for Teaching Assistants, enhanced by learning how to incorporate their own research into the class, and active practice engaging in challenging theoretical discussions with foundation students about contemporary art.

Performed interaction with the computer will impact student relationship of the ‘machine’ by doing; utilizing and experiencing the tools they will philosophically dissect, informing their knowledge of the discipline and awareness in future work throughout their degree in or out of the digital stream.


To the right is a sample of one of various assessment graph slides shown in the presentation.


My top 3, evaluation assessments of the outcomes of the resources:

#1.  Wider gap between successful & less successful students – Overall, the high achieving projects were at an overall higher standard than in past iterations of the course.  Because the online component required self-directed learning, it relayed in major consequences for those who don’t have strong time & project management skills or practiced initiative. It revealed weaknesses but also heightened successes.

#2.  TA Satisfaction
- More TAs were eligible to teach the class because of the re-focus on artistic practice rather than technical skill.  An evaluation meeting after the class with the TAs revealed that most TAs that had taught the class before said they were relieved to not have to go through the drudgerous and repetitive work of teaching technical demos again.  TAs who had not taught the class before said that they found the class a springboard to discuss their own research interests, such as post-colonial, feminist, marxist theories by way of artistic practice. Other comments came forth but most noticeable was an overall spike in passion and investment in the course.

#3.  Student Grade Complaints
- Overall, I received less, (if not any) complaints of students coming to my office asking to change their grade because their TA didn’t “teach them that” or “I missed that class” or “my TA didn’t teach it enough for me to understand” etc..  Because the information was standardized for all students in the class, the expectations were quite firm. Emotionally, this was a great benefit.


Enfield, Jacob. “Looking at the Impact of the Flipped Classroom Model of Instruction on Undergraduate Multimedia Students at CSUN.” TechTrends  57-6 (2013): 14-27.

Sharpe, Rhona, Helen Betham and Sara de Freitas. Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age: How Learners are Shaping their own Experiences.  New York: Routledge, 2010.

Sullivan, Graeme. Art Practice as Research.  London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2005.

Prince, Michael. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research” Journal of Engineering Education  93-3 (2004): 223-231.