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Liz Cohen wasn’t eager to teach online. The Guggenheim-winning associate photography professor, who considers herself a people person, didn’t think it was for her.

When COVID-19 happened, Cohen threw herself into figuring out “how to use this (ASU Sync) platform in ways that are interesting.”

To her surprise, she said, “I like it. COVID has taught us something — not that I’m going to give COVID too big a pat on the back.” She appreciates the “dynamic relationship” between herself and the students — “there’s banter, and everyone’s engaged”—and she likes the ease and convenience of teaching via ASU Sync.

On Zoom, Cohen requires each student in her photography studio on labor and representation to use a different background related to that topic, which the student explains to the group.

“It’s a great way for me to assess where they’re at,” Cohen said. “And we learn about labor movements around the world.” 

Many of her students are also fans of the platform. Zonnie Notah-Begay, a senior in Cohen’s class, says she actually prefers ASU Sync learning in some ways.

“I am really a shy and introverted person who doesn’t like interacting with anyone,” said Notah-Begay. “The computer provides another wall for me to keep that boundary up.”

Paradoxically, Notah-Begay says that ASU Sync has helped her talk and engage more than she would in person.

“Liz’s class is a studio class, which means there are critiques, and Sync has helped me be more involved. In in-person critiques I am very quiet and rarely give my feedback, which is a shame.”

Alice Buyer, also a senior in Cohen’s class, does miss human interaction. But she says there’s a lot about ASU Sync learning she likes, especially not having to commute to campus anymore.

“Parking passes on campus are very expensive, and riding my bike to campus feels like a chore when it’s so hot. I really love that I can get out of bed, make my coffee and sit on my couch to attend class.” 

“I think I was surprised at how well (ASU Sync) actually works,” Buyer said. “I was surprised at how well everyone was able to make the technology aspect work. All of my professors picked up on how to utilize the technology fairly quickly for a smooth experience.” 

Cohen and her students were not alone in finding unexpected benefits to moving coursework online. And now, as more people get vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions are lessening, Herberger Institute designers and artists find themselves in a new hybrid space for teaching, performing and more. 

“What I hope is that this integration of using Zoom will continue because it’s kind of giving us an ability to reach students all over the world,” Naomi Ellis, a faculty associate in the School of Art, told ASU’s Devils in the Details last fall. “I have two students right now, one that’s still in China and one that’s in Brazil and they’ve never missed class and they’re just as engaged.”

“My hope is that by creating this virtualized environment, students will be able to connect in a more intimate environment and perhaps recreate, to some degree, the creative, collaborative digital culture community.”


Daniel Jackson, tech support analyst, School of Arts, Media and Engineering

Thanks to cutting-edge technology, Cathal Breslin, assistant professor of piano in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and a Yamaha Performing Artist, is able to conduct groundbreaking four-way “remote” piano master class, with participating students located in three Chinese cities — each student more than 6,500 miles away

After successfully moving courses online during the pandemic, The Design School made the decision to offer an online Master of Architecture degree, an option school leaders had been discussing for a couple of years as part of its efforts to make the architecture program more accessible and inclusive.

Online spaces also provide greater access to Herberger Institute’s performances, exhibitions, and resources and tools. 

Early in the crisis, ASU Art Museum created programming specifically for an online space; Andrea Feller, curator of education at the museum, said they will continue that programing and serving audiences both in person and virtually. 

“We are planning to continue doing Masterpiece at Midday in a hybrid format,” Feller said. “We started it in person in January 2020, then moved to hybrid, and in our first program for the school year in September 2021, we will be both in person and on Zoom.”

She also said the museum hopes to continue its Couch. Coffee. Culture. series, which gives viewers behind-the-scenes studio visits, in a hybrid format, with Zoom sessions and small, in-person visits to studios. 

In April 2020, Herberger Institute’s National Collaborative for Creative Work launched Cultural Innovation Tools, a site that brought content and solutions together for communities to understand how arts and culture at ASU were responding to the moment. At the time, Herberger Institute faculty and staff leveraged their creativity to pull together tools and resources for artists, designers, culture makers, families sheltering at home, educators adapting their work online and for community organizations and government leaders seeking to partner with creative workers. These tools were meant to uplift people in their time of uncertainty and isolation, but also consider ways to responded and eventually rebuild resilient and equitable communities. As the country looks forward to life beyond the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the content and tools provided on this platform should remain relevant and responsive. The National Collaborative for Creative Work will continue to maintain the site and update it for those embracing this new hybrid space we work in now. 

And within the Herberger Institute, students, faculty and staff found ways to build a community that will continue into the future.

School of Arts, Media and Engineering’s Daniel Jackson and a group of students developed a server on the video game Minecraft where students, staff and faculty co-mingle and build replica ASU environments. 

“My hope is that by creating this virtualized environment,” Jackson said, “students will be able to connect in a more intimate environment and perhaps recreate, to some degree, the creative, collaborative digital culture community.”

Joe Burgstaller, world-renowned trumpet player and associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, outlined several benefits to a hybrid teaching space, including building connections between students and alumni. 

Former students who have “made it” in the music world can Zoom in to talk to Burgstaller’s class more readily.

“This would not have happened with this frequency under normal circumstances,” Burgstaller said. “We’d have guests, but not access to as many guests and not as often. And with the guests, students are getting an opportunity to immediately address what’s going on in the world.”

Burgstaller and his colleagues spent summer 2020 figuring out how to fully leverage the technology and use it to their students’ advantage. As an example, the brass faculty released a video of their virtual performance of the “Love Theme to Cinema Paradiso, ” produced using only resources that are free to ASU students, such as BandLab and Adobe Creative Suite.

“COVID is not decelerating your learning process — it’s reordering it,” Burgstaller said at the time. “We’re in this situation where we can make a lot of difference in helping students learn technology skills that are usually acquired later or once musicians are out of school. In my era as a student, these are all skills I learned on my own and use intensively.”

Burgstaller also noted that in-person ensemble skills are “greatly enhanced.” Under typical circumstances when playing in-person, faculty encourage students to record their sessions so that they can listen back and more effectively understand what to refine and how to implement what they are learning. Now, using this collaborative recording-studio technology, students are passing their recordings back and forth, building a virtual ensemble from the ground up and gaining a different depth of understanding.

“They’re taking ownership,” Burgstaller said of the students, “which is really what we want. The teaching dynamic is a partnership. This situation is enhancing their power and agency.”

For the Fall 2020 semester, Carley Conder, clinical assistant professor of dance in the school and founder of the company CONDER/dance, made several adaptations in teaching postmodern dance in hybrid fashion, which meant a portion of the students were online and a portion were in person for any given class period. Those adaptations included a complex sound configuration, the result of troubleshooting by dance faculty for almost a month before classes started, that included students in the studio (masked and physically distanced), students on Zoom and a remote musician; wearing a scrunchie on her right wrist and right ankle so that online students could easily determine right from left, and devoting the last 10 minutes of the class to the online students.

During a virtual town hall for The Sidney Poitier New American Film School students in August 2020, faculty members explained that the ways students were having to create in this moment mirror the ways professionals in their field are doing it. Because the pandemic is global, artists around the world, at every level, were being forced to figure out new ways to make and present their work. (Who could have predicted a virtual Emmys ceremony, with celebrities accepting awards in their own homes?) 

According to Dariush Derakhshani, academic dean of the John Hughes Institute, moviemakers were already using virtual filmmaking techniques before the pandemic.

“Since the production of ‘Avatar,’ virtual filmmaking has been a large and visible feature of Hollywood productions,” Derakhshani said.

To ensure film students master moviemaking in a hybrid environment, the Sidney Poitier New American Film School in the Herberger Institute partnered with the John Hughes Institute, an educational organization headed by visual effects producer John Hughes, and with the visualization studio The Third Floor.

Through the partnership, students used previsualization technology, which allows the filmmaker to digitally plan and design complex scenes in advance with 3D animation. 

“This collaboration with ASU, with valuable insight from The Third Floor, allows our professional artist faculty to bring Hollywood’s best and most current practices to the film production students at ASU,” Derakhshani said. “JHI looks forward to helping The New American Film School build a world-class, future-forward program.”

As Andres Torres, an award-winning filmmaker who is a professor of practice, told students in the film school’s fall town hall, “If you focus on what you don’t have, you never make anything. If you focus on what you do have — more access to faculty, more flexibility with faculty — you can do great things. That’s what creativity is. We can talk about limitations, but there are also all these challenges we can use to make great art.”