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Going to school in a pandemic: Conversations with the Emerson Media Design Cohort(2020–21)

December 11, 2020

As this semester comes to a close, it’s interesting to look back and reflect on how different it’s been for students across the country. Almost everything has moved to a virtual learning environment with the help of services like Zoom or Google Hangouts. For those in the Media Design program at Emerson College, the whole program has been revamped in order to respond to the challenge of “virtual school”. To learn more, we interviewed a few students in the current cohort to hear about their experience in the program thus far.

Do you look at design and design processes differently now?

Melody Hsu: Absolutely. One example of this was when I first applied for the media design program and the pandemic happened. I questioned if I should have deferred for a year. In my head, I was thinking, ‘okay, the learning environment is not going to be ideal’, but at the same time, I realized, well, that’s life, right? You can’t just avoid it and go around an issue when it’s going on. You just have to kind of go through it. So I chose to commit to the Media Design program. I thought that going through the Media Design program itself online during a pandemic would be the biggest media design challenge that we as a cohort would have to face. I feel like this brought us a lot of different experiences that we would not have gotten otherwise, if we just had a “normal semester.”. The way I see classes and the way I see design are different, especially because nowadays when we’re presenting projects ourselves in class, we think about accessibility. This made Miro (an online collaboration platform) become so popular with our cohort because it’s such a good tool to showcase our work. Before the pandemic, we would have gone with something traditional like PowerPoint or something handmade. Now other people who are not in the same room can also access it, which is good. Now we’re always thinking, ‘how do we make this accessible?’ I think that it’s a very valuable experience that we might not necessarily have to troubleshoot and go through trial and error otherwise.

Graham Rutherford: I do. This semester(especially with it being virtual) made me consider access and barriers to entry much more in depth. I’d always considered it before, but having something that’s normally there taken away from you due to forces beyond your control really changes your perspective on things. I’m grateful for the experience because it’s made my “design scope” much broader when I’m putting an idea into place or approaching an issue.

How does the absence of a physical space change how you implement what you’ve learned regarding design theory?

Sydney Angove: The inability to be in a physical space with the presence of others has prevented growing in some areas of the design process. Collaborating with others is changed when interacting virtually and understanding nonverbal cues that indicate where to adapt practices. I think it will be interesting to see how understanding design through a virtual framework will translate into interacting physically and within communities at the conclusion of the pandemic. Specifically, getting feedback and using visuals together will look much different and take adjusting as a designer. In contrast, I think it has been an enriching experience to face the challenges of virtual learning as a collective. The course of this program thus far has emphasized the importance of being able to adapt and pivot to be successful.

Drew Genova: This was extremely troubling. The lack of equipment, resources and help made this semester extremely difficult. I feel like I could have watched youtube tutorials instead.

What’s the biggest challenge of attending classes virtually? Conversely, what’s the biggest benefit?

Grace Fu: The biggest challenge of having classes virtually is communication. Since we have a lot of conversations and discussions in class, we’d be able to be more productive on-campus. It would be easier to keep eye contact while talking. It is so strange to have classes in this way because everything doesn’t have a feeling. Since we are doing everything online, the quality of the internet connection seems like a basic requirement, but it’s also a very important one. Many times, I need to turn off my video because I cannot see others if I have it on. Background noise is a big problem. When others are talking, the audio sounds really broken up sometimes. One benefit of students taking online classes is we don’t need to get up early, get ready, and go to school. It certainly saves time, but based on my situation (Grace is attending classes virtually from China), I have to have class at night and I don’t like that.

Ramon Montes: The biggest challenge of attending classes virtually would be the limitation of practicing what you learn and/or talk about in class that could be accomplished in a physical setting. As someone who enjoys learning in school environments, I find it harder to concentrate in my home environment as there are more distractions than I would encounter attending class in a physical setting and completing work on campus. Personally, I find it easier staying on task with my assignments in a learning environment. Therefore, during my undergraduate studies, I would typically schedule my classes with breaks in between to do my work in either a dining hall or study space within the campus. One of the biggest benefits of attending classes virtually would be putting the time usually designated for commuting to better use (whether that is for completing schoolwork, entertainment, or more work hours). Commuting can take a considerable amount of time throughout one’s week. This can definitely be a strong benefit.

As media designers, the students of this program are no strangers to adapting or restructuring processes. They’ve taken what they were given at the beginning of the semester and treated it as a “design challenge” in itself. Taking things that are normally done in a physical space (interviews, field scans) and considering accessibility offers a new perspective on familiar tasks, and the students are glad to get experience from it. With the semester drawing to a close and a global pandemic still occurring, they’re ready for any challenge that comes their way.

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