Classroom Disrupted
Issue: Edition 2 2020

Classroom Disrupted

In this era of COVID-19, educational institutions have had to rethink the way they teach. In the spring, schools had to move to online/remote learning with just a moment's notice. With many animation and visual effects schools/departments currently on summer break, institutions have been using the time to look beyond their earlier Band-Aid approach and more thoroughly research and evaluate their teaching methods and directions as the fall semester quickly approaches.

We spoke to a number of animation/visual effects schools to find out what types of alterations they had to make to finish up the spring semester, and how that affected the students and curriculum. We received various responses. We also asked what kind of changes they are looking to adopt for the fall and what kind of impact this ongoing crisis might have on student learning.

Indeed, plans are under way to provide the best experience under the circumstances. (Keep in mind, the schools were queried in early July, just about the time when severe outbreaks were re-occurring. So, schools may be forced to alter their plans once again before fall semester begins, as the pandemic situation remains fluid.)


Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is on the quarter system, not semesters, with its traditional academic year spanning Fall, Winter, and Spring quarters, with Summer quarter optional. Earlier this year, two weeks before the Spring quarter started, the university announced the need to move all courses and instruction online due to the virus. SCAD wanted to be sure students had that time, as well as the first week of class, to decide whether they wanted to take classes in a completely online environment, or drop courses and receive a full tuition refund.

Furthermore, if a student was dissatisfied with an online course experience this past spring, SCAD has offered the option to re-take that course for no additional tuition and in-person when on-ground courses resume.

"Our successful spring and our ambitious, thoughtful plans for fall are not really about following some mythical 'playbook.' This is simply SCAD at its finest: inventive, strategic, positive, collaborative, transformative," says SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace. "Very soon, our beloved campuses will reopen and students will swarm joyfully through our doors and classrooms once again. It is a new day in academia, and SCAD is poised to shine on and keep shining, thanks to the resilience, light, and love of this heroic learning community."

In March, SCAD launched a new initiative, Guests and Gusto, a Zoom series programmed exclusively for SCAD students during the university's virtual Spring quarter 2020. The dynamic series, which will continue, features new weekly content that represents all of SCAD's 40-plus top-ranked degree programs through illuminating conversations, surprise drop-ins, and interactive games. Guests have included: author and New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz; award-winning producer and songwriter Tricky Stewart; TEDtalk's head of television Juliet Blake; film director and producer Morgan Neville; actor Alan Cumming; and GQ creative director and author Jim Moore. Students also engaged with industry leaders in their individual classes, which led to many students receiving job offers and internships.

Meanwhile, SCAD commencement 2020 was a high-energy, live-streamed event. SCAD celebrated its newest alumni with a personal digital commencement experience, featuring speaker Alicia Keys and host Rachel Brosnahan.

For the Fall 2020 quarter, SCAD will offer real-time on-ground instruction, real-time virtual instruction, and anytime online instruction. These methods all individualize the acquisition of knowledge and the advancement of student outcomes.

SCAD will resume real-time on-ground instruction at SCAD Atlanta and SCAD Savannah this fall, inviting students back into the university's award-winning studios, classrooms, and historic buildings while adhering to health and safety protocols. A SCAD task force, in close consultation with outside health and safety experts, has created plans for maintaining appropriate social distancing, with enhanced cleaning of high-touch areas, as well as recommendations on PPE requirements where appropriate, especially in situations where full social distancing is challenging.

SCAD classes are already small in keeping with the university's mission to ensure all students receive individual attention in a positively oriented environment. The average class size is 21 students, and lecture-style classes are capped at 35 students.

Real-time virtual instruction, what most SCAD students experienced during the spring quarter, will continue alongside on-ground learning this fall.

SCAD eLearning allows students to work independently, explore content, participate in online discussions, and move at their own pace on a Monday-through-Sunday schedule. SCAD eLearning offers 24 graduate and undergraduate degrees in everything from animation to interior design.

"Because SCAD has always been committed to the 'what's next' philosophy and execution in professional practice, I see our students excelling in this digital and virtual wave. Twenty years ago, we took art and design education online; over a decade ago, SCAD was one of the first universities to use REVIT as a required part of the curriculum, now it's an industry standard," says Anthony J. Cissell, AIA, chair of Architecture and Urban Design.

Virtual reality and the online collaborative studio is going to be a standard of the architectural practice of the future, and this is where our students, who are digital natives, are going to be professionally ready. "Here at SCAD, we are already working in the virtual reality realm through our programs in Motion Media, Digital Effects, and Game Design. Now we're exploring how to bring those cutting-edge resources and strategic partners to our Architecture students to position them as leaders in this virtual model of professional practice," says Cissell.

Academy of Art University

Academy of Art is but one of the many institutions that swiftly responded to address the pandemic issue this past spring by locking down its San Francisco campus and moving classes online and virtually. It may seem like such a drastic shift in learning environments, but the truth is that it was a transition that required no fanfare on the school's part because it was an environment already set up and functioning in place.

The university's online education program, established in 2002, allows its students and faculty to carry on as normal in their classes, albeit with certain modifications. Make no mistake, our online courses are designed to be just as rigorous and comprehensive as those taken on campus, says Catherine Tate, director of the School of Animation and Visual Effects.

"It will require just as much effort and commitment to make the grade. To put it simply, our students haven't missed a beat.... It's a challenge that puts a lot of systems to the test, but it's a challenge that we've long been prepared to ensure our students' education is not interrupted," she adds. For instance, the school's Spring Show was held virtually this year and was a success.

For now, Academy of Art University will continue to offer its remote and virtual classes for the Fall 2020 semester. However, the school will be opening its labs and workshops for studio course homework along with its residence halls and dorms. "We will be taking precautions to protect our campus community by utilizing virtual classes for lecture, demo, and critique (which we feel is an unnecessary group risk to perform in-person), and allow students to reserve facility time for on-site labs, studios, and workshops," says Tate.

In addition, Academy of Art has been forced to accelerate the StudioX process, a student-run, faculty-mentored experience that emulates a real-world animation and VFX production environment where students work with real clients, on real films and games, with real deadlines - and real problems to solve. The situation also is enabling the school to offer more flexibility and options to online and on-site students, including face-to-face contact via Zoom with instructors and other students, Tate notes.

School of Visual Arts

School of Visual Arts (SVA) suspended in-person classes beginning Wednesday, March 11, and began remote learning on Monday, March 16. "In the midst of this global health crisis, it was critical for us to continue on with the semester so that students' progress towards their degrees went uninterrupted," says Jimmy Calhoun, chair of Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects.

SVA, like every single free-standing, accredited college of art and design, made the best of it via Zoom and the school's online learning platform, Canvas. Once remote learning began, the school used RemotePC to provide students with remote access to the facility. In addition, many software companies graciously provided the students at SVA with licenses for the remainder of the semester. "We're very grateful for how generously and quickly they provided support," says Calhoun.

Calhoun also applauds the dedication of SVA's faculty to unwaveringly deliver their course content, even for studio disciplines, and who will continue to meet and engage with students virtually until restrictions are lifted.

The Fall 2020 semester at SVA is scheduled to run September 28 through December 22, spanning 12 weeks, with extended class durations. The spring 2021 semester is scheduled to start on the previously established date of January 11, and is to run for the full 15 weeks.

Upon reopening, SVA will follow government guidelines and best practices in higher education for social distancing, which could include some or all of the following measures: limiting class size, wearing masks while inside campus buildings, and limiting the size of campus functions and activities in accordance with state and local requirements.

Rising Sun Pictures

There was minimal disruption to the courses and the curriculum when COVID-19 hit at Rising Sun Pictures Education in Australia. It took some time to pivot, but the time lost to set up the new classrooms was added to the end of the course, plus a few extra weeks; submission deadlines were extended also.

"Students were still able to receive the experience they expected, which was incredible given the circumstances," says Anna Hodge, training & education manager, Rising Sun Pictures. "With protocols put in place, students said they felt safe attending classes during the pandemic. They also enjoyed the amendments that were made to the course due to social distancing, and were grateful for the experience and opportunity."

RSP wrapped up the semester with students presenting their work in the RSP theater to key artists. Pre-COVID, the FX & Lighting and Compositing & Tracking students viewed one another's presentations together. However, with restrictions placed on room numbers, the groups were split into two separate sessions. Zoom was set up so the students in the other session could still watch the presentations, albeit from another room.

Two weeks after the students completed scheduled classes, RSP invited other local visual effects companies to come and view the students' work and provide individual feedback. According to Hodge, the students valued the networking experience and appreciated the feedback about their projects. Already, she has received follow-up emails from employers making queries about the graduates.

LA Film School

The Los Angeles Film School was able to maintain its graduation ceremonies earlier this year, albeit in a virtual setting with the plans to have a larger in-person graduation when it is safe to do so in the future.

Meanwhile, campus classes were revamped to be 100 percent online as of this interview, in addition to the school's existing fully online programs, and will remain this way until it is safe for students to return to campus in line with the CDC and local governmental guidelines. According to a school representative, it is also studying the guidelines of the DGA, major studios, and the local IA and SAG AFTRA, and will make adjustments to the curriculum to support the new reality of making films in a post-COVID-19 world. ¢

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.