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‘The Project-Based Approach for Us Is the Only Right One’

@ HSE Art and Design School

HSE University has embraced a new educational model that centres on project work. The University will begin implementing the new model this year at the Faculty of Business and Management, the Faculty of Law, and the Faculty of Humanities, after which the model will be introduced to additional faculties and campuses.

The HSE Art and Design School, however, is no stranger to project-based education. The School’s curriculum has centred on project work for 8 years now. School Head Arseny Meshcheryakov spoke with HSE University Life about why his School chose this model for training future designers, what is important to consider when evaluating projects, and why the School’s experience with this model is unique.

Why did the HSE Art and Design School choose a project-based approach to its curriculum from the outset?

— I am a designer; I came to the HSE from the industry. Having professional experience in managing a design bureau and a publishing house, I know that the essence of a designer’s work lies not in his or her ability to build a model, draw up an abstract mock-up, or put some icon in the right place on a website. A designer needs to be able to create a new product or system by analyzing a given problem and, time and time again, produce things that are consistently good quality. It is impossible to do this without regular practice. Therefore, the project-based approach for us is the only right one.

When we started working at HSE, all our ideas were new and unexpected for the academic community. I had to make a lot of difficult decisions over the course of long discussions with the vice-rectors of the academic, financial, and personnel departments, because our project-based curriculum required more hours, a re-thinking of instructor requirements, and, correspondingly, a different model for determining their salaries.

Eight years ago, our working group for creating the HSE Art and Design School consisted of only a handful of people. Of these five or six people, Tatiana Rivchun had experience with education, and the rest of us were practicing designers and artists. We didn’t know anything about education, but we did know exactly what a designer should be able to.

We immediately appreciated working within a modular system rather than a semester system—it’s as if it was specially created for a project-based curriculum. A module provides an appropriate timeframe for implementing all stages of a project at a high level. So, we began to plan our programme as a series of projects, gradually increasing in complexity and scale. A bachelor’s student in our programme completes an average of 30 projects in 4 years, beginning from very simple ones to complex projects for real clients.

If we take away university-wide courses, minors, and English language courses, and take only what remains, then 80% of courses in the HSE Art and Design School are practical and 20% are theoretical. (And we are currently endeavoring to give this latter group a practical bent.) Of course, this ratio is typical for design and by no means suitable for everyone.

How is a project-based curriculum structured?

— Students are immediately divided into small groups. The maximum number of students per group is 24, but this is pushing it. The fewer, the better—about 18-20 is ideal. Of course, there are also large lecture courses on the history and theory of art, but the project-based component—which makes up the bulk of students’ academic hours—is completed in small teams.

Each group has a lead instructor. The name ‘curator’ caught on from the very beginning, though it would be more appropriate to call this person a ‘master’ or ‘art director’. The curator provides their group guidance from start to finish: they explain the nuts and bolts, set the tasks, discuss with students how to solve them, conduct classes in the classroom or the workshop, and provides assistance while giving a sufficient degree of freedom. And throughout this, the curator is in constant contact with their group.

Students begin their project work on the very first day of class. Students are assigned a task, and the process begins: each student discusses their project with their curator, offers ideas, and develops a concept. At the same time, in design technology classes (where advanced senior students sometimes teach the first-year students, and this gives them valuable experience), students learn how to use tools and computer programmes that they can use to turn their ideas into a specific product. Meanwhile, in practical art courses, students become acquainted with creative techniques and learn to how to apply them to their projects. Thus, having all received the same assignment at the beginning of the module, each student ends up with a project that is uniquely their own.

It is important to understand that a project is not knowledge that can be evaluated formally. There is no one right project, so it requires a different kind of evaluation. In our case, final evaluations involve collective viewings of the projects. At the end of the module, each student defends his project before an examination committee, which consists of teachers and staff of the School, invited guests and, of course, their fellow classmates.

I don’t know if such an experience is useful to all areas of study, but for us it is very important. A project is not a test or exam; it does not have only one correct answer. You can see the project, discuss it, ask the student and his instructor questions, understand why this or that decision was made, and then conclude how successful it was. This system allows students to simultaneously develop public speaking skills (which are important), receive objective feedback about their work, and learn to approach projects more critically. It also expands their horizons when they participate in the evaluation of their peers’ projects. I don’t know if such an approach is possible at all faculties, but I’m sure it’s worth thinking about various assessment formats.

In order to view and evaluate projects, we specially created a digital student portfolio system, and I am proud to say that it contains the work of our very first students, completed during their very first module. At the HSE Art and Design School, in principle, it is impossible to pass an exam if the project is not laid out as a digital portfolio presentation—this is a prerequisite for admission to the exam, the official environment in which the assessment takes place. In addition, the portfolio system is open-access. It is visible to everyone—applicants, students, and new instructors.

We are seeing that every year the student projects get better and better: projects that received 10s several years ago would not receive them today. Students look at and analyze the work of their predecessors and try to do better.

What problems might HSE encounter in implementing project-based education at the university as a whole?

— It is clear that the project approach requires a review of programme content, additional training, and, in some places, staff adjustments.  

Right now a department’s main objective is to gather scholars or scientists and ensure a high level of publication citations, while a department’s academic supervisor’s main objective is to understand what knowledge or skills are needed in a particular industry and to recruit specialists from the faculty who can impart these assets to students in lecture courses and seminars. The academic supervisor gathers faculty members, each of whom is an expert in his or her field who can give lectures, teach seminars, and engage students. Project-based education is different. The aim is to build a strong chain of projects within a particular discipline and develop common assessment criteria. Developing a project-based curriculum requires more teamwork on behalf of the faculty members as well as the department and the programme leadership.

Combining human resources management and programme management was something we had to insist upon when the HSE Art and Design School was being established. The separation of these two forms of management ran contrary to the principles of our project-based approach. In our School, there is no division between these, because our programme’s staff and content are inextricably connected. One and the same team designs the curriculum, develops a sequence of projects, and ensures that the projects are overseen by competent instructors.

At the Art and Design School there are 23 different offered areas of specialization in the bachelor's programme alone, so we have instructor meetings constantly. All the work of the programme managers involves consulting with instructors about the details of project modules, recruiting new competent employees, discussing and analyzing student final exam performances, improving programmes, and creating new ones.

It’s a kind of production method—it’s constant brainstorming, which ultimately leads to the creation of a product. The product is difficult to create alone. Once again I will say that, in my opinion, designing a project-based curriculum involves much more of a collective effort than designing a traditional one does.

When we first started and we were a team of only five or six people, we met three times a week over the course of a year to design the fundamental course that is now the curricular foundation of the School. We thought through each project so that it would align with our tasks as much as possible. None of us could have done this individually.

One of the serious challenges in the transition to the project-based approach will be the fact that, to a certain extent, professors and lecturers work individually and not as a close team. As things currently stand, HSE most highly values its researchers; researchers essentially work one-on-one with the university, and this is reflected in the university’s monetary bonus system that rewards faculty members for publications. In my opinion, this is not conducive to developing project-based curricula in programmes. In my view, it is not always effective for team research work either, but that is a different matter.

When we were launching the HSE Art and Design School, we had to reconcile the fact that a project-based curriculum requires more academic hours than a standard curriculum does. We did not fit the standards, yet we didn’t want to sacrifice quality for the sake of standards. We had to change the project hour system as well as the payroll system in order to set up an effective curriculum.

Let’s not forget that project-based education also implies appropriate conditions for academic study. We cannot require a student to make a project on a computer without ensuring that they have access to a good computer for as long as they need, nor can we ask a student to be proficient in a particular design programme if we cannot provide it on campus. Therefore, when designing a project-based curriculum, it is necessary to clearly understand the obligations it will impose on the University—how the resource base will need to be expanded and how often it will need to be updated.

What do you think is important for effectively implementing the project-based approach?

— It is key that a project course be clearly reflected in the programme curriculum. Project courses are not stand-alone elements of an educational programme like a project seminar or an elective. This is not something supplementary to the existing curriculum. It is nothing of the sort.

Rather, it is an integral part of the curriculum; it is a subject (a module course, as we call it) on which an exam is taken and which affects the student's rating. It is the main discipline, not something auxiliary.

While completing project-based work, students gain not only experience and skills, but knowledge. An important advantage of project work is the flexibility it affords students in terms of their subject. In our curriculum, subjects are overarching, and multiple module courses can fall under one subject heading over the course of year or longer. These large subjects sound broad, but this structure provides students the flexibility to customize their projects (i.e., the module courses). The real curriculum—the projects themselves—can change. By definition, in fact, it must always be changing. If it were to remain the same, that would contradict the idea of project-based learning, which involves constantly analyzing and improving the programme in order to maintain its effectiveness and relevance.

Today, computer science and design encompass such vast fields of knowledge, that it is impossible to master it in four years. But that’s okay. One doesn’t need to master it all. This is the idea behind project-based education—students identify a task, figure out ways of solving it, and gain the necessary knowledge that is needed to solve it in a variety of ways. This allows students to be able to respond to market changes in a flexible manner. For example, let’s say a new computer programme has been released. We can instantly, without making any changes to our curriculum, modify a project to maximize the relevant, cutting edge skills that students gain from it. This practice, however, requires that there be a central mechanism in place that promptly coordinates these kinds of changes. New project modules cannot be adopted without substantive discussions and appropriate staffing decisions.

What qualities, in your opinion, are important for an instructor to have?

— In project-based education, the instructor is directly responsible for a project’s outcome. Our evaluations of student projects are first and foremost a test for the instructor.

I attend a lot of final project evaluations every exam session, and my criticism is not always aimed at the students. More often than not, it is aimed at the instructors. Sometimes, I am even criticized for this; they think this is not a good approach. Nonetheless, I am certain that constructive dialogue with instructors—as well as with students, as is often the case—about how we should change the programme is a good thing.

As I said, the instructor is responsible for a project’s outcome. The instructor didn’t just give some lectures; the instructor is a master, an artistic supervisor, a director. Sometimes an instructor’s decisions lead to lower grades for the students. Sometimes, to the contrary, an instructor develops an innovative concept for their course, and all of the students involved receive 10s. In this case, the instructor is proud, and it is a personal success for them.

In design, this kind of personal involvement and responsibility of the instructor is very important. Of course, there are also student teacher evaluations, which provide a useful tool for measuring an instructor’s performance, but in a project-based programme like ours we have the additional tool of the collective project evaluations held during final exam sessions.

Imagine that you are the director of a design studio and that you have employees—these are your students—and you have a shared project outcome. You are evaluated by a committee of your peers. In my opinion, in project-based education, this collective assessment and an instructor’s reputation are very important.

What is also important is the desire to keep going. Most of our instructors are practicing professionals, and we support them in their efforts to continue their own professional development: they win international competitions, complete successful creative or commercial projects, organize exhibitions, and make films. This is the only way we can keep up with the field and impart high-demand expertise as well as the idea of continual development to our students

How are project tasks developed and assigned to students?

— All of the project formats are indicated in our Map of Creative Competencies and are developed when we finalize the curricula for each area of specialty. We understand what kinds of expertise and skills we want our students to have when they graduate, so we design the line of projects in accordance with these objectives. Though all the tasks are finalized, the question of which student will work with which one and how they will fulfill it is decided on an individual basis. For example, we may have a task involving the development of an application interface. In completing the task, a student can come up with their own concept or work with a real client through a briefing system.

Our school has a Design Lab, and one of its tasks is to prepare briefs for students or solicit briefs from real clients and involve students in their implementation.

Sometimes curators, being active players in the industry, supply client briefs or give their students the task of obtaining a brief on their own. This involves, for example, meeting with museum staff and agreeing on a project and obtaining the technical specs from them. Indeed, one of the functions of the curator is to immerse students in the realities of the market they are going to work in.

For example, when a student completes a project developing a new corporate identity for a well-known museum, it can be magnificent, excellently executed, and highly praised. But it’s one thing when it remains at the project level, even if it’s very good, and it’s quite another when the student’s efforts bring it to production and implementation, and the student receives not only professional recognition, but also material compensation. It often happens that clients—i.e., fairly large institutions and companies interested in high-quality young personnel—come to us themselves with a proposal for a real task involving something they actually need.

Thus, we are already working with real projects, but so far less than we would like. In the near future, we plan to consider them a separate category and create a system similar to the incentive system HSE has in place for publications: if a project is brought to implementation and a student is compensated for their work, the supervising instructor will receive a check mark, and, after some time, when the system is debugged, we will introduce a reward system for these check marks.

Did you have any models to emulate when you were introducing design-based education at the HSE Art and Design School?

— There was no ready-made path. Naturally, any kind of training in the arts in the world is design-based, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that we began to introduce this kind of model at HSE. There were some beacons, but we were building a new education system in the context of a big university, in the context of an orderly educational process with very high consistency and established rules and regulations. Within the first three years of the School’s existence, we were able to bring our programme in line with the HSE educational management system.

I think that, in the end, we nevertheless created some innovative aspects.

We have developed two digital systems: the first one is a Map of Creative Competencies, which regulates the content and management of the educational process through a series of projects. This system fully meets the requirements of the HSE curriculum. So, other departments of the university can take advantage of our experience with this if they wish.

Secondly, knowing from the very beginning that the HSE Art and Design School is not a small institution, but part of one of Russia’s largest universities, we designed and implemented a digital student portfolio system, despite working with extremely limited resources. This system serves as the basis for all student evaluations and all of our project-based education. Though I’m not about to say this as a fact, I personally have not seen any analogues to our system at other universities.

This system allowed us to easily implement our approach at the St. Petersburg campus, where we opened a design programme two years ago. Through our digital portfolio system, Moscow instructors can participate in St. Petersburg campus project evaluations and vice versa. As such, the Map and Portfolio allow the School exist in a unified digital environment with common principles and shared remote-controlled programs. On this basis, we can open our programmes in any region of the world.

I hope that our developments can be useful to the Faculty of Communications, Media, and Design, and possibly other faculties at HSE as well.

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Author: Anna Reznikova, February 07, 2020