Analogue Students, Digital Teachers

Just before our MA course broke up for the Christmas holidays we had our first major submission deadline of the year. As a visually-driven design course, we need to assess not only the quality of final design solutions from the students (based on sound criteria from the brief), but also the quality of process. In fact it's the students' design processes that are most important of all; most of us can stumble on a great solution some of the time, but having sound processes makes for repeatable and consistently good design.

Within the School, the standard form for collecting and evaluating the students' design process is the Reflective Visual Journal. This is pretty much what it sounds like: a sequential and linear document of the process from start to end, incorporating design research, creative visual development, thinking and reflective evaluation of potential (and selected) design solutions to given briefs. It's actually a very effective tool for assessing a student's mastery of their own design processes, and how they're developing these through practice and reflection.

Over the last ten years we've regularly debated the merits of analogue over digital, and frequently looked at the current state of digital tools in terms of allowing the students to capture the flow of their creative development in a way that's at least comparable to the easily-accessible sketchbook format, and though students from time-to-time offer up digital examples of the RVJ, we've frequently found them to be limited in their ability to fully articulate the richness and depth of the design process. Instead they tend to be a kind of edited distillation of process and reveal less that is surprising or insightful about the student's design journey. Perhaps this reflects the kind of messy, analogue student that we've tended to attract, but it's a reality that we have to deal with when discussing the potential for a move to digital-first assessment.

This acknowledgment of the importance of analogue processes in assessing the students often gets viewed (especially when challenging those of us who evangelise digital tools!) as a kind of admission of failure, and I've seen a number of otherwise smart digital-savvy lecturers get tied in knots over this, constructing ever-more-elaborate schemes to have their students submit digitally. I don't believe it has to be a problem though: We can allow students to use the 'traditional' analogue methods for capturing their processes where they work best, while moving the parts that make most sense across to the digital domain.

It's actually on the Assessment side of the equation that I've been able to get the most rapid gains out of moving from analogue to digital. While students still need to capture their processes in a single analogue sketchbook, lecturers gain significantly from being able to convert this material as rapidly as possible into digital formats, with the big wins being in terms of:

  • Portability: 30+ thick A3 or larger journals representing 12 weeks of design work isn't something I want to carry around with me. Even moving them all from one room to another is a chore. Digitising them in the room where they were handed in is a big plus, and I can move the digital files around with far less friction.
  • Simultaneous assessment: Parity of grading across multiple tutors requires us to double-mark 10% or more of submissions, but physical sketchbooks creates a bottleneck. Digitising them means we can distribute to all assessors at once.
  • Security: Having a single physical copy of each sketchbook inherently carries the risk of loss, especially when moving them around or transferring between lecturers. Digital copies can be backed up immediately.
  • Archiving: Even on a relatively small course with 30-50 students per year we simply can't archive all the material that we might like to, and our move to a new building later this year means that we're being urged to dump paper wherever possible. Keeping digital copies of student submissions means that we can refer back to them for things like external examiner visits, and we've got plenty of example material to show new and prospective students what's expected of them. Additionally, we can hand work back to students quickly so that they can use it as a basis for future development.

The details of how we do this actually pretty straightforward. Speed and convenience take priority over archival quality, since the primary purpose is to be able to mark off of the digital copy, so the iPhone was a natural choice for me in capturing the images. When I started experimenting with the process I was using the 5 Megapixel iPhone 4, and quality was fine (I've since moved onto the 4S and 5 at 8MP). The iPhone is easily usable one-handed in decent light (I shoot on a table near a window), and I can turn the pages of the sketchbook/journal with my free hand which means I can get through the 50 or so pages in an average submission in about 5 minutes. I'm generally shooting a full A3/A2 spread in one go, unless fine detail warrants a closer crop on specific pages. All the pages are shot sequentially in order, and Photostream pushes them to the cloud over wifi to ensure they're backed up. Once they're shot I bring them all into Preview on my office iMac. This is probably still the clunkiest part of the process: Pages need to be rotated where the iPhone's orientation was incorrect, and all the images for one journal need to be selected (I shoot the student name tag as the first image for each book and a blank marker as the last to make this quicker) and 'printed' to a separate PDF, and then saved with the student name. Dropbox handles transferring all the files to my home iMac (where they're also properly and automatically backed up), and of course making them readily available on my iPad. The whole process takes the better part of a day at the moment. Not an inconsiderable investment of time, but one that is already making the process of assessing much more flexible.

The irony here of course is that we're urging students to master digital processes, yet encouraging them to retain aspects of analogue for documenting their work, and moving even faster to digital processes for assessment at the same time. This is bound to change. There are also a number of caveats, and we're offering guidance to students in recognising which parts of their processes need to be fully digital from the outset. I'll go into this in greater detail in a later post.