Covid-19 Pushes Fashion Design Schools Into an Increasingly Digital Future

Online classrooms present particular challenges for students seeking hands-on skills — but creative solutions are on the horizon.
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Covid-19 has created a first-of-its-kind challenge for fashion design schools and colleges: How can they teach practical, hands-on courses online?

Top colleges around the globe have suspended classes and are transitioning to remote teaching. But distance learning isn't easy for students who learn by making and need access to studios and workshops.

As instructors in the US and UK scramble to rework their curriculum while keeping student morale high, professors in China share stories of creative responses to the rapidly evolving situation. The consensus amongst the over half a dozen fashion academics we spoke with is that the short-term disruption will be hard. But they also see this crisis as an opportunity to innovate old-fashioned teaching methods and realign with the needs of an industry that is rapidly moving towards digitization.

Improvisation in a crisis

Patrick Gottelier co-runs the fashion design undergraduate program at Shanghai-based DeTao Masters Academy. In mid-January, when he and his colleagues fathomed the extended impact of the virus outbreak, they swung into action. The new curriculum they created was based on quick guesswork, with room for flexibility.

WeChat has emerged as the preferred teaching platform for Gottelier and his colleagues. Through February and March, his students have attended on-screen pattern-cutting classes and watched knitting demos from tutors. On a multi-screen chat, students share their knitting progress while receiving real-time feedback from teachers.

Second-year design student Niko wrote her feedback on a blog, saying "[the] online class atmosphere is very good (no one quarrels)… Because we can't go to the studio, we can't use a professional knitting machine. If the whole knitting project is done by hand, it may be very tiring."

Gottelier agrees that the online experience cannot perfectly replicate the studio, but wants to focus on the upsides. 

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"The overall student feedback is positive," he says. "Please bear in mind these students have been in isolation with families for four to six weeks. As a community, they have come much closer despite the physical distance. The teacher-student relationship has turned informal, with generous use of emojis in chats."

His upcoming project for final year students includes repurposing a garment available in their homes — a project that mirrors the broader reality in which everyone is learning to make do with limited resources.

A similar attitude has been adopted by Layla Sailor, who teaches fashion promotion and imaging at the University of Creative Arts in Hong Kong. Her students, unable to leave their residences, recently completed a photography assignment by shooting objects at home on their phones. 

"The current semester is 90% practical, so we have rewritten as much as possible to adapt to online teaching," she says. "We have had to move all practical workshops to the end of the semester and students are producing individual shoots in their own time." 

Hong Kong has faced a much longer period of disruption due to the riots in 2019. Since galleries are shut, Sailor is planning an online exhibition in collaboration with the Hong Kong Design Institute for her students to keep the momentum going. 

"We will be using Adobe Aero to place 'virtual' artworks across the city," she says. 

Chinese students are no less enterprising than their professors in their attempts to keep the show running. Final year jewelry design student Lotus Xie is one who had to come up with creative solutions when she was suddenly unable to access industrial equipment like a soldering machine and metalworking table. 

"I bought my materials on Taobao," she says. "Using express delivery, I sent my designs online and the wax sample to my friend's workshop in Guangzhou, and he sent me the final work."

Her friends in the first and second years are attending classes on the Tencent app, she says, where assignments are shared and discussed in chatrooms.

Academia on its toes

While the professors in China are ahead on the corona-driven learning curve, their Western counterparts are still figuring out ways to move their educational content online. Several leading institutions, including Parsons, Polimoda, FIT and UAL, have announced the transition to online classes. But the details of how to make that happen are a work in progress.

"Thanks to an online learning platform we were already testing and the support of tools such as Skype and WhatsApp," says director of Polimoda Danilo Venturi, "we immediately activated all theoretical lessons online as well as some demonstrative lessons — both practical and theoretical — to ensure the continuity of our students' education." 

The institution is one of many considering extending deadlines into the summer for practice-based courses. But even with these extensions, it's perhaps unsurprising that some students are feeling anxiety about their education.

"How am I supposed to be a fashion design student without fashion design resources???!?!," tweeted one Ryerson University student. Another asked how fashion design majors are holding up considering that "the campus is closed and most students don't have access to a sewing machine or serger now." 

There are management decisions galore to be made, but the trickiest and most critical of all is reworking the assessment criteria. Students in practical courses are usually graded based on end-of-term submissions that include written work and a portfolio. The latter is experimental and tactile, whether in the form of fabric or paper. It can't be submitted online, and at the moment, many students don't even have the means to make physical garments. 

"It's quite complicated because we don't know how long the shutdown is going to last," Gottlier says. "We will need a flexible solution that is fair to the students."

Another UK-based head of department requesting anonymity notes that these are "such unusual circumstances."

"We need to put the students at ease by promptly informing them about the change of expectations," she says. "They would have already made prototypes and toiles which could be considered for marking. We should also increase the emphasis on 2D and written work." 

With no access to college facilities, students from low-income backgrounds will be hit hardest by the changes. 

"Some of our students have asked about refunds, although this would be decided by the Hong Kong government," Sailor notes. "As a lot of students in the UK and Hong Kong work to pay their fees, and as work has been disrupted, I would hope that there is a fair solution somewhere." 

Other challenges include strain on the not-so-tech-savvy faculty. For the IT staff, coordinating e-learning for students in different time zones may prove tough. 

Pre-recorded videos are one of the obvious solutions and taking a page from online instructor Nino Via's handbook might be helpful. He teaches pattern-making and draping courses on Udemy, an e-learning platform. 

"Use good visual editing tools to highlight close-up details clearly and explicitly of the technique that's being demonstrated," he says. "Anticipating students' questions, I focus specifically on certain areas of design in the video that support students to achieve the objectives of the class."

Opportunity for digital pivot

Quarantines are forcing even the most traditional fashion universities and colleges to engage with digital technology. This could trigger fresh thinking towards new models of digital learning that last beyond the pandemic itself.

Simon Collins was the dean at the School of Fashion at Parsons for seven years. In 2018 he launched an e-learning platform in China called WeDesign

"I didn't want a big building, a unionized faculty or a slowly evolving curriculum," he explains. "Ours is a rapid response platform for design education. The main challenge for a practical course is access to equipment, but there are innovative ways to blend online and offline."

Whether through entrepreneurial ventures like Collins's or established university programs, being forced online for a short time could trigger the wider adoption of digital in the design and production learning process.

"Let us consider corona as a motivator for change," says Leslie Holden, head of postgraduate studies at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI). "In the short term, showing a garment via Zoom will not be perfect. But going forward, 3D virtual prototyping is an ideal technology for fashion universities to work with considering distance learning." 

Using this technology, designers can create virtual 3D prototypes of a garment and make ongoing tweaks to the design and pattern, eliminating the need for physical samples altogether. 

Had such software been already in use, students could have shared digital design and pattern files with lecturers from anywhere in the world. Over the last five years, a handful of colleges like London College of Fashion, FIT and AMFI have taken the lead in introducing software like Clo and Browzwear, even though learning to use them isn't yet compulsory for students.

"Whenever students throw themselves into such software, they realize that they can do a lot more with less time and budget," says Moin Roberts Islam, technology development manager at Fashion Innovation Agency, a consultancy housed at London College of Fashion. "The mindset shift is needed not just for students but also for their tutors."

For now, the often-bureaucratic world of academia is being pushed to work in startup mode, trying and testing things on the go. The sudden pivot to online means that the faculty will work without a break for days on end. But best practice sharing on informal information networks is already underway. 

"Craft-based artisanal fashion will [continue to] exist, but the tsunami of digitization is coming towards us and the industry will soon demand re-skilling in fashion education," says Holden.

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