"The crit" is central to traditional design education and I sat in on one this week as part of my current research at Sheffield Hallam University. It brought back memories of doing it myself, it is a fairly scary experience, and it made me think about the Japanese craftsmen's apprenticeship experiences described in Edo craftsmen : master artisans of old Tokyo.
Firstly let me describe "the crit" for the uninitiated; it's a little like X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, but the audience are also putting on the show, they are students each showing their latest work. One by one they go to the front of the room and show images of their work on PowerPoint and hand around things they have made. The 'judges' are a group of lecturers who sit around a table making notes, discussing, asking the students questions and offering advice.
It is only three weeks until the students hand in their final projects and they need help knowing what to do to get it finished satisfactorily. Quite a few haven't made good use of the Easter holidays and are going to have a busy few weeks. The atmosphere is a bit tense, the lecturers at times have to be quite blunt to the students about their work, but whilst they are tough, they are also very fair and very supportive. There feels to be a close bond between the lecturers and students. At the end of the session another student drops into the room to give a little box to one of the lecturers; it contains a cup-cake and pinned to the top is a handwritten thank-you note!
Whilst the students go through this many times during their three years at University, the old craftsmen in Toyko had often started at a very young age and continued under the critical eye of their master for many years. For some it was clearly a positive experience, but others spoke with perplexing pride of the fact that their masters never praised their work and they were reluctant to praise their own work themselves. I can't decide if it is false modesty or a genuine feeling that they ll never be as good as their masters. Either way, it doesn't strike me as healthy.
This somehow joins up with my other major project with Open University where I have been part of the team writing a new course in Design Thinking which is entirely delivered online and all the students study it remotely. I am tutoring one of the first batches of students through the course and also moderator on the student forum so party to a wide range of online interactions. In this situation it seems to be quite difficult to "crit" the students and even getting them to do critical analysis of their own work is not easy. This too is not healthy!
I feel that for online / distance learning to be successful there needs to be a way of getting the right sort of "crit" into the arena. It needs to fall into the 'tough but fair' category, which partly comes from the attitude of the teachers (those I observed clearly worked well together as a group), and partly from their relationship with the students. Fostering all this online is very different to dealing with face-to-face relationships and so much of it falls outside the scope of the sorts of learning resources I have been designing, however it is clearly vital to their success. Hmmmm ...