How to teach hands-on courses during a pandemic

Are students of more practical and hands-on courses in higher education missing out as a result of college and university closures, and what effect will this have on future skillsets?


Practical learning

Student and lecturers are preparing to break new ground in higher education. Social-distancing rules have necessitated a refreshed approach to teaching and learning, with practical courses such as fashion and textiles challenged as they make the transition from on-campus to online.

“The making side of fashion is pretty difficult to deliver,” says Andrew Ibi, course leader of the fashion degree at Liverpool John Moores University. “And it’s worrying because it’s ultimately the platform for any good designers that understand any kind of craft or manufacture process.”

But Ibi isn’t content to focus on what higher education students are missing. Long days in crowded sewing rooms, art studios and design suites might be out, but he’s joining a host of peers and institutions in pursuing a blended learning approach that will overhaul the student experience.

What is a blended learning approach?

At the University of Northampton, it’s business as usual. Having adopted active blended learning in 2014, staff are already familiar with the teaching methods it engenders. Senior lecturer in fashion Jane Mills has long been videoing feedback, workshops and how-to sessions, allowing students to digest, research and prepare on their own terms.

I had classes where I had the full 60 students. My participation was 100 per cent, which had never happened before

“The time they come into the workshop is quality contact time rather than having to go over every detail,” says Mills. “Long gone are the days when students listened to lectures and PowerPoints. It’s so dull for them.”

Ibi agrees it’s time to leave outdated teaching methods behind. “A lot of what higher education currently does in the studio, I was doing the same thing in 1996. Rolling in, the tutor making their way around the room until they got to me and then leaving,” he says. “I think there’s an opportunity for a richer and far more modern university approach that improves efficiency.”

Rather than emphasising face-to-face learning, a blended learning strategy places value on flexibility, accessibility and collaboration. Instead of using online learning environments like Moodle as a place to “dump” reading lists, notes and briefs, they’re utilised as a platform for independent, interactive learning opportunities, such as forum discussions, peer-to-peer feedback and demonstrations, with sense-making activities that bring the concepts and skills to life.

Autonomy is key. Students are provided with the necessary digital tools and learning skills, and allowed to explore and develop ideas either independently, with peers, in classroom sessions with tutors or with the support of accessible, resource-rich online channels.

A new era of increased learner engagement

“When it actually came to teaching online, I was surprised how well it went,” says Isabella Coraça, lecturer in fashion history at Central Saint Martins, of her experience of trialling blended learning. “I had classes where I had the full 60 students. My participation was 100 per cent, which had never happened before.” Dataset practical learning

Worries of students missing out are valid and, without proper planning, gaps may well appear in students’ skill and experience. However, increasing living costs and rising mental health issues mean higher levels of absences and drop-outs, and blended learning can offer more flexibility for 21st-century students’ complex lives.

Commuter students, who are more likely to be first-in-family students, to come from low-income households or have an ethnic-minority background, can have lower levels of engagement and satisfaction, resulting in poorer outcomes. Sophie Johnson, lecturer in fashion business and promotion at Birmingham City University, believes blended learning could help improve their experience.

“I believe we’ll see more commuters. We’ve learnt important lessons about time and how we can use it better. Now we can offer students tutorials in their own home. It takes away the cost of transport and they can log off and apply feedback straightaway.”

Frederica Brooksworth at the London College of Fashion, meanwhile, sees benefits for students with disabilities or learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, affording students more time to “summarise, work together and share notes”, with lecturers adding subtitles to recorded sessions to broaden accessibility.

It’s important, however, for flexibility to be built in, rather than a happy side-effect. “What happens within the week, and when, can make or break a successful learning experience,” says Matt Jenner, head of learning at FutureLearn, an online learning platform which partners with higher education institutes, companies and industry professionals to offer short courses, qualifications and degrees.

“Flexibility shouldn’t just be more of anywhere, anytime. It comes to life when the learning has been properly designed for it.”

More than an online course

Whether learning to drape, model build or conduct experiments, time on-campus learning practical skills must remain a part of the blended learning experience within higher education. Rather than one-way delivery to large classes, a blended approach should focus on interactive workshops with smaller groups.

As overall access to equipment may be reduced, practical sessions must be stimulating and engaging says Mills. Jenner recommends sharing methodologies, analyses and reflections before and after the session online to maximise studio time, while Ibi notes that the focus should be on relevant skills and activities. “If the physical fashion show disappears, should we still have students planning them?” he asks.

With the opportunity for reflection on which skills should be prioritised, so too comes the chance to mould blended learning around the realities of the working world. Peer feedback, online conferencing, independent development and focused workshops echo the intricacies of modern working life more closely than instant feedback and constant on-hand support.

“The industry’s changing; we need to future-proof our students,” Mills concludes.