The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled a great deal of soul-searching in higher education, as in most every industry and profession in this strangest of years. Enrollments are expected to drop precipitously for most universities in the 2020-21 academic year, from small liberal arts colleges to mammoth public universities whose vibrant campus life and large sporting events (always a top selling point) will be all but gone. Everything has been stripped away—tailgating, plays, musicals, orientation hijinks, dorm life, all those unplanned moments of magic and wonder among professors and students that make those four years the most influential in most students’ lives. The upshot is that more scrutiny has been given to what actually happens in the classroom between students and instructors. Nothing reveals the true substance of teaching and learning like virtual instruction.
At SCAD, one of the largest creative universities in the world—with more than 14,000 students and 100 degree programs in everything from architecture to writing—previous natural disasters helped prepare the institution for virtual learning. In the recent past, SCAD has had to evacuate campus twice, for Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Irma (2017), engaging in remote teaching and learning and refining that plan for future emergencies, which included curricular overhauls that ensure most classes can be offered in person or online, to guarantee continuity of teaching and learning. SCAD was prepared when the pandemic hit, according to the university’s founder and president, Paula Wallace, who wrote recently: “SCAD was among the first universities in the U.S. to announce a 100% virtual spring quarter and the immediate suspension of all events, including major exhibitions, festivals, and athletic competitions.”
Among SCAD’s strengths in offering virtual education this year are its focus on faculty professional development and a strong technological infrastructure. “We’ve established a reputation as a university that teaches teachers how to teach,” Wallace said, explaining that the university required workshops for all SCAD instructors new to remote learning. “Faculty learned how to evolve critiques, for example, where digital markup tools provide clarity that paper pinups can’t. These tools will remain a central part of instruction long into the future—a leap forward that would not have happened without the virus.”
SCAD also ensured students had access to the same technology at home that they used in class, extending licenses such as Toon Boom, Cinema 4D, AVID, and TVPaint, as well as piloting SCAD vLab, software created in-house to allow students remote access to SCAD software for digital media. Transitioning animation classes from in-person to virtual, in particular, proved a clear challenge, given that animation is both the single largest major at SCAD (with more than 1,700 B.F.A., M.A., and M.F.A. students studying animation) and these 1,700+ students work collaboratively to create and share enormous files requiring massive computing power most easily accessed in person.
One recent SCAD animation class, taught by professor Greg Araya, demonstrates how the university invented workable and productive solutions to the teaching challenges posed by virtual education during the pandemic. Professor Araya has been with SCAD for six years, after two decades in the industry. His teaching interests include scripting interactive online experiences, prototyping mobile device user interfaces, and creating story art and character animation for broadcast series. His courses range from the technical to the highly conceptual.
“One of my courses is called 2D Character Setup and Pipeline Creation,” Araya said, where students design and rig “a studio-style character puppet.” Students enjoy the class quite a lot, he said, but it’s also one of the most challenging for animation students, requiring the production of a broadcast-worthy animation. For the course, the students would use Adobe Animate.
The SCAD students were Katya Stone, Braden Wolf, Gabby Foreman, Jack Muino, Alison Agnew, Aly O’Neal, Julia Schoel, Stasia Kulcztzky, and Teresa Faller.
The pandemic had shaken things up for everyone at SCAD—students and professors alike, along with most everybody on the planet—and Araya used the new circumstances, where students worked from their homes across the world, to adapt the course to make it even more collaborative. He calls this the “sandbox” approach, where students, rather than work in small groups or alone, would have to work together on their final project, everyone’s ideas touching everyone else’s, much like in an actual professional studio setting.
Virtual collaboration is increasingly the norm in most creative professions, long before COVID-19, where animators are often working with teams spread out around the world, and so Araya and his students enthusiastically embraced the idea of working in different home studios around the U.S. and across oceans.
“Working remotely can be problematic with all the logistics of file swapping and copy/pasting of assets. With this project, it could have been a real nightmare, because I had nine people working simultaneously on a single stage and synchronizing action among them was a key part of the whole thing,” he said. The solution was to employ Adobe’s Creative Cloud Library, where each student’s square existed in a shared library.
“These symbols were linked to a master template which arranged them at their respective locations in the grid,” Araya said. “Since symbols were linked from the cloud, updates were instant and there was no cumbersome check-out or check-in process. It ended up being a very elegant solution.”
“I absolutely wanted there to be an experimental aspect to the course, but I also knew that we needed to have something to show for it at the end,” he said. “The danger of a sandbox is it can look exactly the same when you’re done playing in it as when you started, even though you got a lot of value out of the play.” The solution would be to devote the first half of the course on learning to collaborate with the software and the last half to creating an animation together.
By way of example, Araya explains that the first five weeks of the academic term were devoted to playing and experimenting with various tools within Adobe Animate. Students “explored the Asset Warp tool, and Shape-Tweening custom Art Brushes to get animated deformations,” he said. “We designed with the Fluid Brushes. We looked at Layer Parenting and Layer Depth, and did a lot of little experiments to see how far we could push some of these features and still get predictable results.”
The most interesting twist of the course came when students elected to use a grid format for their final collaborative animation project—watch the final result here. This design approach was inspired by Zoom itself, the remote connection software that every student and teacher in the U.S. has used daily during the pandemic.
“We were doing the class remotely and became accustomed to the grid format of our video meeting’s gallery view,” Araya said. “One of the students suggested doing something with that grid format and everyone immediately got on board. Luckily, there were nine students in the class, so it worked out perfectly!”
To give the final animation a unified look, students had to agree on a concept and a shared color palette.
“Each student was the director of what happened inside of their grid square, so we potentially would have had nine different movies playing at once that had no connection to each other,” Araya said. And yet, the students enjoyed collaborating and wanted something more than color to give the final animation unity.
“Once each student was comfortable with their approach and their designs, we talked about what the action would be,” he said. “We took a modular approach, more akin to animating loops for game behaviors than for linear storytelling. They planned rough beat boards for a looping idle state and also for what we called their ‘spotlight,’ for when they interacted with the ball.”
The students, Araya said, were a delight, embracing virtual learning with verve. “They were so cooperative throughout the entire process, any time there was a decision that could have been a bottleneck to production, they communicated with and supported each other to move things forward.”
Check out the final version of the student animation from Professor Araya’s ANIM 207 2D Character Setup and Pipeline Creation, with sound by SCAD sound design student Brett Francois.