Let's face it, students across the globe had a classroom experience like no other during the past 15 or so months. Remote learning became the norm, and in-person group projects and gatherings were practically non-existent. Indeed, tough times for college students working toward a degree in an area where collaboration is key. However, schools and students did what they could to thrive under such harsh conditions.
So, how did these higher education institutions fare since COVID restrictions went into place, and what did they do to alter their curriculums and program/degree structures to accommodate the upheaval caused by the virus? Here, we queried a number of schools focused on art, animation, game development, and filmmaking about these effects on their programs and whether they are expecting a return to normalcy based on current conditions across the country - even whether they plan to institute any of the pivots on a permanent basis.
Greenscreen stage at Academy of Art University.
Like universities all over the world, the pandemic came on quickly, and closing the on-site campus at the Academy of Art University was sudden - hitting mid-semester. As a result, the school had to figure out how to keep things going with little or no interruption. "Fortunately, the Academy was an early pioneer in online learning, so the bulk of the infrastructure and training was already in place and we were able to adapt quickly to the changes," says Catherine Tate, director of 3D Animation and VFX.
One important decision that was made in the School of Animation & Visual Effects was to open the lab - which is called rLAB - remotely. "Again, we were used to working with remote students in the past in some of our on-site classes and were comfortable using Zoom before COVID hit," Tate notes. "But, we decided to expand our capabilities by offering the lab to the students, no matter where they were located."
Academy of Art ended up using Teradici software, just as other visual effects studios did, which allows students to log in from home and access the power and software of the school's machines as if they were physically there. "This has already been a huge benefit for our students. It has been hugely successful, and the students love it," Tate says. Later, the school brought in Leo-stream's connection broker for virtual desktop infrastructures to manage the distribution of the machines to students.
“Salon” from Academy of Art University student Seoyoung Choi.
While the nation enters the summer months with renewed hope, the so-called Delta variant is becoming a new hurdle in the fight against COVID. Whatever the situation is come fall, Tate does not foresee Academy of Art going back to the pre-pandemic "normalcy."
"But that's OK because we were able to make improvements in our degree programs to better prepare students for their future careers," she says. "We are functioning on a higher level than before, with more flexibility to serve our students domestically and internationally, online, or on-site."
The university is open, and has been open throughout the pandemic. And, students now have 24-hour remote access to the lab without wait times. This means they can work safely from home at any time, a huge improvement from when there were limited hours in the lab on-site.
Also, the school is starting to phase in a few on-site classes this fall, although most of the classes will still be taught online, or virtually online through Zoom. "While I don't have a crystal ball, we expect to have many more students on-site in spring of '22 as long as it is safe for them to return on-site if they feel comfortable doing so," Tate adds.
"Again, our remote lab is a game-changer. The ability to offer our rLAB to students gives them the resources to create better work, no matter where they are. The rLAB will help unify our students and give them all access to the same resources," she says.
Continuing to Move Forward into the Future
Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) particularly was uniquely positioned at the start of 2020. With a successful eLearning program already in place, the university was able to pivot quickly and transition many of the tools and platforms students and staff were already using. In addition to utilizing video communication platforms like Zoom, SCAD also implemented SCADnow, a teaching methodology that included asynchronous learning opportunities, streamed classes, and access to online community spaces where students can engage with professors and one another.
"Students all over the world have faced unprecedented challenges throughout the pandemic, so it was reassuring for them to see how quickly we were able to adopt such a comprehensive and engaging virtual learning environment," says Dan Bartlett, associate dean, SCAD School of Digital Media.
SCAD offers its VR for Good, a special collaborative project,
This also meant that the SCAD School of Digital Media was able to continue to offer both the core curriculum for each of its programs and continue special projects such a VR for Good, a collaborative project in which students developed and produced immersive, interactive VR respite experiences for hospice patients.
Overall, SCAD only had to make minor adjustments to the curriculum, especially in response to having to close specialist technical facilities, such as its high-performance computing labs, motion-capture, and greenscreen studios. Thanks to its ability to provide access to software, rendering, and computing power via SCAD's V-Lab, students were able to maintain access to the digital resources needed to complete their work, says Bartlett. This platform meant that capstone projects and thesis films were able to stay in production, with students continuing to collaborate remotely - in many cases from opposite sides of the world.
In addition to supporting students by adjusting the curriculum and their access to resources, SCAD also pivoted many of its industry events to run virtually. SCAD AnimationFest ran online in fall 2020, with its biggest lineup and highest attendance to date, and SCAD GamingFest followed this past spring. This event featured presentations and speakers from Epic Games, ILM, Ubisoft, and Riot Games.
"Maintaining events like this despite the devastating global impact of COVID-19 was of paramount importance to us," Bartlett says. "More than ever, students needed opportunities to engage with these industries."
Students attend a virtual class at Savannah College of Art and Design.
According to Bartlett, SCADnow will remain as part of the university's teaching and learning strategy for the fall 2021 quarter and beyond. "Students have responded really positively to the online platforms and collaborative tools that we provided, and as with many studios that stayed in production throughout the pandemic, we've seen an explosion in creativity and innovation, which we must continue to nurture," he says.
SCAD will return to full on-ground teaching this fall, but students will still be able to use V-Lab for remote software access and rendering, and platforms like Blackboard, Discord, and GitHub for collaboration and engagement with class resources.
Restrictions on travel and location shooting also gave the university an opportunity to rethink its approach to filmmaking and visual effects. It harnessed the existing expertise in immersive tech and game development among the faculty to explore virtual production. In fact, this fall will see the opening of Phase 1 of SCAD Film Studios, featuring a virtual production facility that includes a 40-foot-wide LED volume.
Says Bartlett, "Much like our immersive reality program, graduates from our film and visual effects programs with expertise in virtual production will be uniquely positioned for creative careers in a post-COVID world."
Relying on Experience
Despite how difficult 2020 was for the world, overall, Animation Mentor fared exceptionally well. "Our campus has always been digital, so we were logistically prepared when the rest of the world transitioned online in early 2020," says Bobby Beck, CEO and co-founder.
Because so many traditional brick-and-mortar schools struggled to bring their curriculum online, students looked for savvy, reliable online courses like ours to continue their education, Beck adds.
Animation Mentor is more than just an online platform, though; it's a global community of artists. The school's digital campus allows current students, alumni, and mentors to interact with one another, which was especially important in a year when so many people were stuck at home.
Work by Animation Mentor’s Ricky Robinson from the 2020 showcase.
Because the school relies so heavy on its website, Beck says that Animation Mentor worked to make it faster and implemented a calendar feature that allowed students to set up group meetings, dailies, and check-ins. "Adding this new feature really streamlined get-togethers and connections that the students were making with each other," he adds.
In addition to the school's robust student support team, Animation Mentor also added additional mentor check-ins and Q&As to support the students' mental health and well-being. "Empathetic, tailored student support is one of the things that makes our students so successful," Beck maintains.
While some schools are discussing a "return to normalcy," Animation Mentor's "normal" has always been digital, so in that sense, the school structure and curriculum will remain the same. The difference is that more people now understand how fun and effective online communities can be. "Since we've been doing online for over 16 years, we believe those who experienced Animation Mentor during the pandemic have become true believers in what the most personal and fulfilling learning experience can look like online," Beck says.
In addition to exclusive movie Q&As during which the school's mentors talk about the latest films they've worked on, Animation Mentor also added career Q&As with recruiters from major studios to help prepare its students for the animation industry. Job hunting is stressful at the best of times, and even more so during a pandemic, Beck notes "We wanted to make sure our students have the skills and advice they need to be successful."
Work by Animation Mentor’s Kevin Shiau from the 2020 showcase.
A Learning Experience for All
"We tell our students that every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. As faculty and staff, we are also learning and growing constantly, but this year it was more apparent and the experience was more shared," says Jimmy Calhoun, Chair-Computer Art, Computer Animation, and Visual Effects at the School of Visual Arts (SVA).
The students and faculty at the school, in fact, rose to the challenge of the pandemic. They tackled the obstacles of working from home by finding new ways to connect with one another to foster the community of the computer art, animation, and VFX department.
Each year, students produce over 50 short films with SVA's thesis students, in addition to many projects for all of the underclassmen. This year, the staff and faculty, as well as the students, worked to find new creative solutions for collaborating and producing work remotely. "In the end, we evolved the workflow through new tools and ways of working that have made us better," Calhoun says.
A classroom at the School of Visual Arts.
In fact, generally the changes in curriculum were additions rather than eliminations. By introducing new tools that allowed students to access the school's systems remotely, such as Teradici, IDrive RemotePC, the NoMachine remote desktop program, and Signiant Media Shuttle, students were taught ways of working that the school had never taught before. "Experience with these tools will be valuable to them in the new landscape of remote work," Calhoun notes. Structural changes, meanwhile, mostly consisted of teaching over video, finding ways to take advantage of Zoom breakout rooms and Canvas (SVA's learning management system), and being creative in the types of asynchronous content the school provided to its students.
According to Calhoun, SVA will return to in-person classes in the fall, "with plenty of our old selves intact, but also evolved for the better." He adds: "Many of our new remote tools will allow students new options for producing their work with us from within and outside our facilities." Inspired partly by being remote and also by the changing industry practices, SVA will continue to promote real-time and GPU rendering solutions.
"I know the thing we are all looking forward to the most is the ability to collaborate and communicate while being in the same room. Discord, Slack, and Zoom are here to stay, but face-to-face conversations are extremely valuable on an emotional level, and we are all looking forward to being together again," says Calhoun. "As the Muppets said, 'Cause no feeling feels like that feeling! Together again!'.
“Pawn” short film directed by Zishu Xiang, SVA.
The school will continue to invite guest lecturers and hold special online workshops from around the world, and although there was the occasional remote guest prior to the pandemic, this experience has made that practice more accessible and acceptable. Also, the thesis screening events have increased their audience sizes by being held online. "Our industry jury was four times larger and more diverse in location and professional level by having easier access for participation, Calhoun points out. A happy discovery that will be folded into the SVA's traditional in-person screenings and events.
Taking Advantage of New Opportunities
Like many universities across the globe, Full Sail University was faced with unique challenges, including keeping students, faculty, and staff safe and engaged during the pandemic. Due to the university's technological expertise, and more than a decade of experience with online degrees, it was able to quickly and seamlessly help over 5,000 students transition to its fully online learning model. The Computer Animation bachelor's degree program is offered both on-campus (20 months) and online (29 months). As a result, Full Sail was able to maintain its enrollment during this time, as well as introduce a range of initiatives to benefit its students, including virtual guest lectures, workshops, and more.
"For our students pursuing the campus-based program, over the past few months it has been wonderful to welcome them back to the campus as we continue to see their return," says Pete Bandstra, program director, Computer Animation.
As Bandstra explains, Full Sail's Computer Animation bachelor's program has had an online version for 10-plus years. The announcement of the COVID lockdown and the transition to online was a smooth one for the instructors and the students. "Our campus students had minimal adjustment, and the course continued to run exactly the same as the campus moved into the online environment," he says. "The instructors maintained the same number of lectures and labs as they would on campus, and included increased connection opportunities with Discord [a VoIP instant messaging and digital distribution platform]."
The entrance to Full Sail University’s campus.
One area where Full Sail did have to define a new methodology was for the Motion Capture course, which it was able to do using Radical software that allows for real-time 3D human virtualization. "By embracing and implementing new technologies, we were able to keep our students moving forward, in addition to giving them access to explore and create utilizing relevant industry tools," Bandstra contends.
Throughout the pandemic, Full Sail has taken a number of precautions to help keep its university community stay safe. As a result of those actions, the university began welcoming some students back to campus in July 2020, and more students have returned to campus in the time since. Currently, it is preparing for a fully open campus in August.
While Full Sail hasn't made any changes to the curriculum due of the pandemic, there have been changes to the curriculum as a result of industry changes. For example, the addition of Epic's Unreal Engine to the film industry created an opportunity to put the tool in the student's hands.
"In looking at the current industry, there have been some variations that will impact the educational structure - for instance, we have seen more interviews move to an online (Zoom) system, and developing students' expectations of actively engaging and participating in this environment is important," Bandstra says, as the school continues to examine growing trends that will be important to its students.
Keeping Healthy and Continuing to Work
Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) operates on a calendar year, January through December, with two semesters commencing in March and July - different from most US schools. So last March, when Australia first implemented COVID-related restrictions, RSP had to quickly move its students to a new location to accommodate social distancing. During that it, it closed for a week, refurbished a former bike store adjacent to RSP, and moved desks into the space. Teaching assistants and the infrastructure team ensured that the new safety guidelines were met.
In-person instruction resumed according to distancing protocols through October, when restrictions were eased. "Our students were amazing. They followed [safety] protocols at all times, and the work they produced at the end of the year was amazing," says Anna Hodge, manager, Training and Education at Rising Sun Pictures. "We wrapped up our coursework in October without further disruption. And, our graduates were very successful in finding employment - while remaining healthy, which was the most important result."
As Hodge points out, following health guidelines and safety protocols remains especially important, then and now.
In terms of curriculum, alterations due to the virus have been minimal at the school. Last October, RSP considered worst-case scenarios and response strategies, and developed resources so that, in the event of a lockdown, students could work from home. They haven't had to use them, but were ready just in case.
Last April, RSP temporarily moved evening courses it runs with the University of South Australia (UniSA) online. They have since returned to in-person classes, but this has raised new possibilities for the future. "We pride ourselves in teaching face-to-face and giving students a full industry experience, but it's good to have alternatives. It can lead to innovative practices. It could be as simple as providing a student, with a prolonged illness, a way to catch up and an alternative means of accessing learning materials for further reinforcement of skills," Hodge says.
RSP's enrollments were not impacted in 2020, and its full-time day classes are at full capacity this year. In 2020, career expos were curtailed and large marketing events with mass crowds stopped or modified. Also, the school adopted alternative methods to continue its outreach to schools. UniSA was also proactive, creating an online, free careers expo. During the peak of COVID, Hodge also conducted a lot of online presentations to schools locally and interstate. "Now, things are ramping up again, as we are in a stable situation with COVID. We're participating in live events again, including the Adelaide Film Festival Creative Careers Expo. We're also opening our theater here at Rising Sun Pictures for schools to come and visit," she adds.
In Hodge's opinion, it's a great time to be studying visual effects, as there is excellent demand for graduates due to there being so much work. RSP is getting contacted by a lot of companies that are scaling up very quickly - a company in Brisbane hired seven students who graduated from RSP's program last October. RSP also hired seven graduates. Moreover, some students have received multiple job offers. The ability to work remotely as a junior is something that wasn't available before, so students are now able to stay in Adelaide while working interstate, she points out.
Despite the pandemic, DigiPen fared well during the past school year, making the switch to an all-online educational delivery over the course of a weekend and, as a result, was able to successfully teach almost all of its courses online. "We offered a successful online commencement ceremony, expanded our technology infrastructure, and streamlined a lot of processes to digital, all while continuing to prioritize our community's health and safety," says Angela Kugler, senior vice president, DigiPen Institute of Technology.
DigiPen will leverage some “lessons” from the past year.
DigiPen's curriculum remained the same this past year, but delivery had to be adjusted for teaching students online. Knowing that online instruction might be difficult to adjust to, the school added additional staff positions to support online delivery and teaching. It also added staff to support students who needed on-site assistance to supplement their online learning.
While DigiPen plans to return to in-person courses this fall, the school will continue to leverage some of the lessons that it had learned from the past year. "This year, we benefited from moving a lot of our processes and communication channels for students online, which we plan to continue," says Kugler. "We will also look to use online delivery of courses as part of future offerings, and we have expanded the locations from which staff and faculty can participate."
Additionally, realizing that the rising sophomores had a very atypical first year, the school plans to offer a special orientation for them at the start of the school year.
And, the institution is moving forward. Having now had a successful year of online delivery, it is moving forward with launching two new online master's programs - a Master of Science in computer science and a Master of Arts in real-time visual effects. The details of these two programs are still forthcoming, says Kugler, but they have been approved by the accreditation body to offer in the near-term.
A DigiPen student game, "Dino Delivery."
Moreover, Kugler believes the school has benefited from moving a lot of its processes and communication channels for students online, "which we think will continue to be beneficial in the future."
Indeed, it has been a tough year of social distancing and online courses for many universities and colleges, but as these educators have indicated, they have learned a great deal from the pivot, and the schools are all the better for it.
A DigiPen student game, “Homeland Lay to Rest.”
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.