‘Click here’ & ‘try this key command’ –Thoughts on empowering a creative community.

Like many educators, over the last six months, I’ve been looking again at how I do my job. Lockdown, blended and online delivery have created a dynamic where teaching and learning occupy different physical spaces. Interestingly, despite all our worries for how disadvantaged this current cohort of students are, there is no shortage of teaching. They are bombarded with input — lectures, films, carefully worked out break out room workshops, endless online support from industry professionals and a plethora of material shared via Vimeo and YouTUBE provide an abundance of teaching material. But what about learning? My observation is that what my students really need is to speak to humans who are not teaching. A community. Face to face contact with like minds to help them informally deconstruct, disseminate and analyse the significance of the teaching materials that have engulfed them.

A community of learners has always been key to learning in creative higher education. Unfortunately, even before lockdown, successfully establishing such a community had become more and more challenging. Tighter budgets, pressures on space, institutional catharsis and (if I’m totally honest) the fact that too many educators’ refuse to shift from outdated definitions of ‘the studio’ as it existed in ‘art school’ have all led to a decline in cultures where students learn informally with their peers.

On the BA Hons Advertising & Brand Design at Ravensbourne, we bucked this trend and in our 2020 publication, We Are 906! I used the Foreword to pay tribute to what we had achieved.

In January 2021, what I wrote seems even more relevant…

‘Click here’ and ‘try this key command’.

Over the course of my 25 years in education I have evolved a belief in 3 key pedagogical principles. Ravensbourne University, London has provided an environment that has enabled me to put these principles into practice. On my arrival in 2018, one of my first jobs was to head up a team that would design an exciting new course. My brief to the team was that we carefully consider each phase of the program to create an incremental learning journey that would enable graduates to exploit the opportunities that are rapidly emerging at the intersection between Advertising and Branding. Over the last 3 years we have been able to create a dynamic, relevant and contemporary set of undergraduate experiences that have been building toward this finale. We have urged students to ‘trust the journey’ and now this journey is reaching its fruition. Another criteria for shaping the course was that it should engage with professional practice throughout the three years. Our students ‘learn with industry’ and later in this publication you can read about how this has meant them working with the likes of Apple Europe, Sky Creative, The O2, JKR, the Mill and Moving Brands. These two principles feed into everything we do, but it is the third principle that I intend to examine in this foreword. It provides the concept behind our degree show and explains why we have chosen to entitle this publication ‘906’.

906 is the number of our studio. A slightly austere open plan space designed to allow students to hot desk on laptops. It has none of the paint encrusted romance of art school mythology, but the culture it is at its heart is very true to this tradition. It is a space where students learn from each other and explore creative ideas with independence and autonomy. When I first came to Ravensbourne, 906 was a room at the top of the building that nobody else wanted. A dumping ground for unwanted electronic equipment and a space that was only occupied when no other studios were available. For us however, it was perfect — a blank canvas, somewhere that we could shape to our needs. We set about badgering and cajoling the premises team into actioning the improvements we needed, beginning the long process of turning a neglected dumping ground into a dynamic learning environment. What we eventually did was actually very simple — we found some room dividers, replaced a projector and bought some cheap IKEA bookshelves. Our most significant action was to create a spreadsheet. A live record of how 906 was used across the week, designed to allow students to plan how they would use the space. It allowed them to understand, at a glance, the opportunities for learning that were available outside their specified contact. Which visiting practitioner lectures they could take advantage of, which workshops that they could join in on and when they could use the space to hang out with their friends. A very simple and easy initiative but deeply significant in its affect on student behaviour.

As a result, 906 has evolved into a space where we can learn together and where the teaching staff are supported by the input of just over a hundred fellow learners. The space hosts formal lectures and technical workshops chaired by visiting practitioners and ABd alumni like Josh Burgess (now part of the Experience Design team at Barclays Bank) alongside more experimental hands-on sessions designed to examine core principles such as the visual dynamics of typography. These sessions provide an important scaffolding for development but each student must decide how they want to climb for themselves. Outside of formal sessions, the studio enables students to share ideas and expertise between the three year groups. It is a base for informal conversation and the sharing of tips, tricks and workarounds.‘Click here’. ‘Try this key command’. ‘Watch this YouTube channel’. ’You should speak to her/him’. ‘Have you seen this website’. or even ‘No! the brief says do this — not that!’ It facilitates the valuable extension of a conversation with a tutor and ensures the multiplication of our advice.

At a time when Universities are under pressure to commodify and quantify each individual component of the student learning experience, the value of a ‘studio culture’ is hard to explain. Much of what binds students within a space, does not seem connected to learning, but I am absolutely sure that it has a benefit to it. 906 is a place to hang out. A space where students can waste time, bitch about each other, moan about their love life and plan great nights out. A space to be human, feel at home and relax. A space to consume a Tesco’s meal deal, Chicken Katsu curry or even a cheeky Nandos. A place where students build trust and establish the connections that will enable opportunity in later years. It is the topsoil from which creativity grows.

Read the manifesto at the beginning of this publication and I am sure you will agree that this topsoil has been extremely fertile for the Class of 2020. Unfortunately, lockdown and COVID-19 have robbed us of the climax of three years and the joy of late nights, with music on, putting the finishing touches to what would have been an amazing degree show. But the fantastic energy of this graduating group has not been diminished. What you hold in your hands is part of their solution to an unprecedented challenge and I’m sure you will agree that what they have created offers a joyful antidote to this very dark moment.

As I said earlier this is my 25th year in education, and I need to thank these students for three of the best. I’ll await their future successes with keen anticipation.

More on my website.

https://www.altshift.online

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