‘It is Important to View this Current Situation as an Opportunity to Experiment’
What benefits does online learning have for students? What aspects of education should be reevaluated once the pandemic is over? How should we divide our working and personal time while in self-isolation? Representatives of HSE University’s Joint Department with the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, manager Margarita Grebenyuk, instructor Anastasia Lesnikova, and student Anna Naumova, share their experience with the department’s transition to online learning.
Managing Household Obligations and Creating a Work Space
‘The Garage Museum was one of the first museums in Moscow to make the decision to switch to a remote format, so our programme made the transition much earlier than others,’ says Margarita Grebenyuk, the joint department’s manager.
Department staff and instructors did not want to interrupt the educational process, so the programme team chose an online platform over the course of a weekend, got it set up and tested it out, and, on Monday, the master’s programme continued its classes online. However, Margarita notes, despite achieving such an efficient online transition, the administrative staff continue to face new challenges.
Experience plays a huge role, and in this sense, HSE has done an amazing job
She says that not only students, but also administrative staff and teachers have to constantly be learning to keep up. ‘We look at the experience of colleagues, including those from foreign universities. We compile inquiries and problems that employees have encountered, and we use these to create detailed instructions for instructors, webinars, and master classes. The creators of our programme also quite actively respond to user requests. Updates are posted, it seems, several times a week.’
In the spring of 2018, at the HSE University Academic Council, it was decided to create a university-wide joint department with the Garage Museum. In 2019, the department’s Master's Programme ‘Curatorial Practices in Contemporary Art’ held its first admissions campaign and accepted its first cohort of students. When developing the programme’s curriculum, programme staff studied leading programmes in art history, cultural studies, and curatorial and museum and exhibition activities in both Russia and abroad. The master’s programme prepares students to work as specialists who have a wide range of interdisciplinary professional skills in contemporary art, are well-versed in different theoretical approaches, and have practical experience with curatorial, exhibition, and project activities.
Margarita says that she is comfortable working remotely, but it is not always easy. For example, her workload has increased. ‘It is important for us that teachers and students are comfortable in the new setup, and this requires serious involvement of the programme office in the process, so it takes extra time.’ It seems that all 24 hours of the day have become working hours, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A good solution, as it turns out, may be not just dividing your time between work and personal life, but also your space. Margarita decided to pay more attention to planning. ‘It is imperative to plan one small household task for the day, something pleasant for yourself, and some time for talking with loved ones. For many, these unpredictable times are very challenging, and having support is important.’
Getting out of Your Comfort Zone and Experimenting
In more peaceful times, Anastasia Lesnikova, a guest lecturer at HSE’s Joint Department with the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, gave lectures and seminars, worked on a course on organizing exhibition projects, and selected invited lecturers. After switching to distance learning, she mainly led seminars, and the lecture part of her course started only at the end of April.
‘I was partly lucky; I take advantage of the fact that my colleagues have already tested out the online format, since the Garage Museum, and the master’s programme along with it, went into quarantine mode on March 14th. This small amount of time allowed us to focus on the work within the Museum, because we were faced with a lot of challenges,’ says the lecturer.
According to Anastasia Lesnikova, the pandemic paralyzed life at the museum and radically affected the work of cultural institutions, including their exhibition activities.
‘The average amount of time that goes into preparing museum projects is two to five years, and the exhibition plan is formed several seasons in advance,’ she explains. ‘Making changes to the programme for the next two-four months forces us to rethink an entire exhibition plan and sometimes make rather complicated decisions. Many museums have already announced the transfer or cancellation of parts of their projects.’
At the Garage, Anastasia Lesnikova is coordinating the current ‘Atelier E. B “Passerby”’ exhibition and the upcoming 2nd Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, scheduled for June this year. The first project was able to be transferred online, which helped more people see it. The triennial may be rescheduled.
Despite the difficulties, Lesnikova is confident that the pandemic can be beneficial.
For our students, this is a unique opportunity to step out of their comfort zones
Graduation exhibition projects have also been affected by the pandemic. Lesnikova and her colleagues are trying to help the students by, for example, holding several lectures on the specifics of conducting museum operational activities in extenuating circumstances. ‘Initially, nothing like this was planned in the lecture course. But it was another reason to learn and teach something new,’ she says.
Thanks to online platforms, there is great potential for creating a culture of competent discussion, she notes, and this is especially useful for graduates of the department’s master’s programme. ‘Preparing an exhibition project is a process of continuous communication. And, regardless of the form it takes, the exhibition manager and curator need to build effective working relationships with partners and contractors and to be able to listen and hear. The etiquette of online communication is very important. For example, when you’re online, you cannot technically enter into a dispute without first waiting for your opponent to finish his or her thought. We are now participants in a grand experiment, which, I hope, will have a positive impact on business communication culture both on and offline.’
At the same time, Lesnikova is confident that students need support, so teachers are better off always staying in touch with them and not viewing the pandemic as a tragedy. ‘It is important to view the current situation as an opportunity to experiment and do something of a scale no one would have tried without external circumstances. Streamlined online work allows us to be more mobile as teachers and students in the future. So long as there is time and opportunity, experiment!’
A Lack of Geographical Barriers
For student Anna Naumova, distance learning is a completely new experience. But the unusual format does not put her ill at ease. In fact, going digital was easy for her, and she did not encounter any problems with time management. ‘My undergraduate studies (at the University of Hertfordshire, British School of Design — Ed.) were built on the practice of self-education and drawing, so I always had to find time for classes and work, and create a schedule on my own,’ says Anna.
Anna believes that online education has many advantages. Distance learning fully recreates the face-to-face class experience while allowing you to learn from anywhere in the world without wasting time, effort, or money on travel. ‘There are no geographical barriers in the virtual sphere,’ she says. ‘And, when it comes down to it, you get access to all the people with whom it would otherwise have taken weeks to plan a meeting, and set a place and time—and then after all that you get stuck in traffic trying to get to the meeting.’
Anna considers the expanded access to educational materials and the opportunity to use them at any time to be a big plus. ‘I think this aspect will also make it possible to reevaluate how students and teachers interact in the future when educational institutions reopen.’