How Digital Arts and Music Classes Have Been Adapting to Virtual Learning

by Nicole Fitzsimmons & Zoe DeFazio, Asst. News & Features Editor, Staff Writer

The landscape of digital arts and music classes is rapidly changing in the midst of at-home and remote learning. Professors at Manhattan College have been diligently trying to shift their curriculum and learning style to give students opportunities to learn effectively in environments that would have usually been hands-on, in the studio or in the classroom. The expectations of the arts and entertainment industry are changing, and MC students are learning this first hand.

The new normal for students taking the course Art of Digital Photography with art history and digital media professor, Lili Kobielski, has changed quite a bit from the way it has been taught in previous years. More one-on-one meetings, shorter class gatherings, virtual group critiques, weekly photo projects, photo editing, and flexibility on what students can choose to shoot have been some ways Kobielski has adapted to teaching a digital arts class without being able to interact with her students in person.

“In my other in-person classes, we would do more small group activities, or we would go out and shoot more, so, you know, all of these things, I miss,” Kobielski said. “But I think it’s amazing that we are able to have class and be together and have this sense of community, and to do this work and to connect. So yes, it’s not ideal, but I think it’s actually going well. And I think I know that the students are doing really amazing work, maybe even like, another level of excellent work this year. I think just because everyone is, I don’t know, so stressed with what’s going on. It’s good for artistic expression.”

A major challenge, however, that comes with remote learning in digital arts classes is the lack of equipment needed to succeed in these classes for many students. Whether it be cameras, editing software, television equipment, or microphones, students have little access to the equipment they would be using on campus to get a real-life experience on what life in the industry may look like.

Manhattan College has been able to send out cameras and other equipment to students taking Art of Digital Photography. The class has even been able to utilize editing software online that mimics Photoshop and allows for students to effectively work on their pieces. While this was a challenge in the beginning, life now seems to place so much value on the ability to adapt to these kinds of changes.

“I miss being in the lab, which, you know, has great software, great computers, and not being able to use the photo printers and the little studio, you know, that’s sad” Kobielski said. “But I think really, the spirit of the classes is expression and learning about photography and learning some of the history. You know, it’s such a difficult time for everybody, I think, students, including myself, kind of appreciate having an outlet. So I think it’s been very positive. And I know, for myself, I’m so happy to have this sort of interaction with people since you know, I’ve been so isolated. So that’s been very nice to connect.”

For students taking Studio Television Production with communication professor Thom Gencarelli, a major aspect of the class would usually revolve around learning the art of television production and the techniques with the help of the extensive industry-standard technology and production studio MC has to offer. This studio allows students to practice with audio, staging, cameras, graphics, lighting and more, as listed in the description on the communication course catalog. The remote status of the class this semester created a new challenge: how to allow students to effectively learn how to broadcast without being in the studio. Even further, how to allow students to understand the professional world without having much access to the major components used in it.

After a declined request to hold this class in-person, Gencarelli needed to evaluate these questions and make changes to the curriculum to make these aspects a reality.

“I had to say: how do I re-imagine, re-conceptualize, re-plan this course in a way that will give the students what they’re paying for?” Gencarelli said. “You guys pay a lot of money, we better give you your money’s worth. And so how in this class, do I give people their money’s worth given what the class was supposed to be? And, so, a typical day is that the class is nothing like what it would be on premises. But I’ve still tried to find a way to teach some of the basics of what they’re supposed to learn.”

Students have been able to utilize an online software that allows them to broadcast from the place they reside. This adjustment to the class was not just necessary, but also beneficial. This is the software that industry professionals are now using since they also can’t always be together with a crew to broadcast.

“He’s [Professor Gencarelli] teaching us how to broadcast out of our house,” Christopher Plate, a sophomore communication major, said. “You know, it’s pretty cool that I’m just sitting in my dining room and I can broadcast something, or live stream something out to you. It’s neat. It’s something that you never thought of.”

As for changes, students and professors alike recognize that things are very much up in the air right now. Kobielski plans to adjust to her classes needs as the second half of the semester approaches, making minor tweaks to ensure that students are not too stressed and can express themselves effectively in what they are passionate about.

“Just last week, I could tell that the students were really, you know, excited about their midterm projects and working on something that’s like completely their own,” she said. “So I cancelled the assignment that I had last week to give them another week to just to work on their midterm. So I don’t have any particular changes planned. But you know, week by week, I try to be sensitive to the needs of class and adjust accordingly.” 

On the other hand, there is only so much professors can do to make sure that these classes are being taught the best way possible without actually being on campus. 

“In this studio television class and my other class, I’m trying to gauge what is going on with my students,” Gencarelli said. “And, I’m trying to think ahead and try to be both careful, but also attuned with what seems to be going on with them. And I don’t know, again, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make things better or make things work better for them. I don’t know.”  

One of the biggest questions that arises for digital arts and the entertainment industry in general is if the changes that need to be made will affect the way things work once the pandemic is over.

“You know, given what’s going on now, and this is an interesting question about education too,” Gencarelli said. “After everything gets back to normal — and it will, it must, you know — after everything has, how will some of the things that we have done and learned during this time bring about change for good? And so, if you can produce a television show, from a platform on a laptop, and record and broadcast it to 10s of millions of households, why do you need to have a studio and crew at all? And so you know, well, that’s a scary question with respect to jobs. But at the same time, it’s a really interesting question with respect to teaching people something that is a version of what they may very well be using in their future when they work in the industry.”

Being able to express themselves in ways that they may use in the future is a major benefit to learning in these classes virtually. While it is not ideal, it may be effective and valuable to students who are currently exploring certain industries.

“I like to be hands-on,” Plate said. “But I guess that’s the way the industry is going, as you see from the news and everything. So I guess in a way, it is effective, in the perspective of that’s the way the industry is going.”

Adapting to virtual learning has not been easy for any classes during this chaotic time. Professors and students have been tested to find ways to adjust and learn without the basic items they have been used to. After all, this may lead to innovation and new skills for the betterment of the preparing students for their professional careers.

“I think I said it before, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with amazing, talented, hard working young people,” Kobielski said. “And, you know, I’m grateful every day for the connection and to hopefully, you know, help some people who are interested in this kind of medium, find their voice. It’s very fulfilling and, you know, makes me happy every week. So I’m grateful to be here. And I hope sincerely that we can all be back in person as soon as possible.”