Interview with Prof. Bridget Z. Sullivan, Online and Arts Professor at Towson University. She was Towson University’s first 100% online instructor. In this interview Prof. Sullivan addresses issues that will challenge artists and musicians as they move into online instruction. October 16, 2018. Hosted by Terry B. Ewell.
Terry B. Ewell: Well, welcome. I am here with my colleague Bridget Sullivan, who teaches at Towson University. She was my first online professor. I took as a student one of her web design courses. I was so impressed with her knowledge of how to teach online and everything that I thought she would give a splendid interview here.
Bridget Z. Sullivan: Thank you, Terry.
TBE: When did you start teaching online?
BZS: Well, I started here at Towson University in 1998. I was interested in the World Wide Web. I did some web work for the Department. I put up the Art Department’s first website. In my previous position, I worked at Anne Arundel Community College and I produced video telecourses. One of my larger projects was a fifteen-week history, 101, with Dr. Dave Tangwall. But it was all on video. I shot the video and we edited it and put it together. It was all put over the cable broadcast through Anne Arundel County.
TBE: That was before you could put video on the Internet.
TBE: We did not have the compression and the bandwidth.
BZS: The Internet was in its baby stages. In fact, my husband started working here at Towson. I think it might have been in 1995. He brought me in—he works in the Office of Technology Services—he brought me into the basement of Cook Library to show me the Internet, which was fascinating. He said, “You have to come in and see it.” I knew that people had access to it, but I hadn’t really seen it because it was somewhat prohibitively expensive for us. We didn’t have a computer—not one that could do that. Anyway, I did some searches. This was before Google. I think that AltaVista was the search engine. I found a former professor of mine who had his own webpage. I was so excited to see that he was talking about himself and his artwork online, to the world. That was thrilling to me.
At some point the idea of the idea of disseminating a college course through the TV seemed, well, why can’t we do this online? It was not that I was the first person to invent it, other people were starting to experiment with it around the same time. So, I applied for a grant through the university, CIAT, at the time. I received a small stipend that I used to pay for some software with the idea of producing one of our general education requirements at the time, which was Using Information Effectively. So, I created a 100% online version of that for the Art Department. That was the first 100% online course here at Towson.
TBE: What were the most difficult aspects of the transition from being a face-to-face teacher to an online instructor.
BZS: Well, not that anything was particularly difficult, but it presented unique challenges. For any teacher at the undergraduate and graduate level, it is always a challenge to engage your students if your students are not sitting right in front of you. You know that hopefully they have a desire for the knowledge that you are guiding them through, but there is no way to really know how or what they are retaining.
It was a challenge for me to think about how they might move through the content, knowing that they maybe wouldn’t see everything 100%. As humans we move quickly—skim—through things. So, trying to make the course…you are collecting things along the way. Assessing what they are collecting and if they are collecting a good bit of the content information.
TBE: Do you see a need to assess more often in an online course than you would for a face-to-face course?
BZS: Yes, but the assessment of the online course is different, it is much more task oriented. It is less performance based. They still have to perform and create things. I come from a studio art background, so the history of all of the learning and teaching I have done previous to online has been in a studio or watching physical demonstrations of particular activities, whether it is fine arts or ceramics. Even on the computer they are watching demonstrations and then they turn around and use their new-found knowledge to create something. That is still the mechanism in the courses that I teach online now. But there are a lot more “carrots” that I hand out. I tell students, “You need to do this, and you get so many points. You need to do this, and you get so many points.” It is just a motivator to get them to move through the different exercises and projects. While they are accumulating their knowledge base they are accumulating points primarily for completion because most students if they complete the class do well. It is the students that don’t attempt it…
TBE: So, it sounds like if you are an online instructor you have to break down the final project into a series of tasks and staging efforts, which are then looked at and examined and critiqued.
BZS: Right. I think that what is interesting was that in 1998 when I wrote that first course, this was before Quality Matters existed. That came into being to address some standard for the quality of online courses. Even the idea of learning objectives was not talked about—certainly not in the Art Department. Granted we would write a regular classroom scenario with assignments and goals for the assignments. But we weren’t educated on measuring goals, you can only measure objectives. That came in later. But the structure that has been created in teaching online makes more of these “check boxes.” Using rubrics for assessment is very popular, it is encouraged. Actually, it has just been six years now that I use them for everything so that the students understand exactly why they are earning so many points for each activity. Which makes it easier, ultimately, for me too.
TBE: Absolutely. How is online instruction uniquely positioned in today’s education of college students?
BZS: Well, I felt in the beginning and I still feel the same way that it addresses the need of flexibility that many students need. The program that I run now is a four-course, post-Baccalaureate certificate. Those are graduate level courses. So, most of the students that I have coming in to the course work full time. They are older; they may have families. So, coming to the brick and mortar campus a couple of days a week is a hardship. Whereas this can fit in to their busy week. I think that they really appreciate that flexibility. That is probably the most obvious reason. But I think even more importantly, and this is something that I learned when I wrote certificate, the four courses, around 2007 and 2008—the initial versions of them. What I discovered because I was pulling content from different sources or directing students to different sources was that the courses give the students an understanding of how vast is the knowledge that is available to them at their fingering tips. If you are just a casual computer user, you may not understand that there are so many “how to” videos about pretty much anything you wanted to do. That, I will say, has changed with my children who are in High School, they look for everything. Even my husband, who is older than I am, looks up how to fix the car.
TBE: I notice that in your art course you had us look at Lynda. Is that part of the “how to” videos you are talking about?
BZS: Yes, that is a subscription service and those are published. To me they are of quality like a textbook. They are very high quality. But there is a lot of free information too. In these courses I feel that I am a curator of knowledge where I am picking and choosing pieces of information. The content of the course is web design, so it changes fairly rapidly. So, every semester I run a course I go through and I am checking all of my resources to make sure that they are current and that they are still available. Some of them disappear and then I have to find new ones, which is fine and important to do. But I think that it is empowering to the students to know that they can find what they need when they are done with the class. They know how to do that research. I think for web designers especially the technology will always be changing. Where ever they work, they should have lynda.com available so that they can keep their skills up to date.
TBE: Do you find that most successful students in your online courses are self-motivated?
BZS: Oh, absolutely. The online courses take a level of discipline and focus. They (the students) tend to be professionals anyway. This is not excluding anyone else. There are other students that are not in the same position and do quite well. But, I would say, they are almost a guarantee. There is something they want, and they are very driven to get it.
TBE: I have a last question for you. Your creative activities mostly produce digital products. What are the unique challenges with being a digital artist?
BZS: Well again, it is the changes of the technology. I wouldn’t say that I am 100% a digital artist because my background is originally in photography and then paining. My digital skill sets evolved out of my professional career, but when I started as a professor, I turned myself solely to the digital manipulation of photographic imagery. Now that has evolved into digital photography and I draw and paint on top of it. I am not completely a digital artist in that sense. I do have to stay current with the technology just to stay up with photography and the printing that seems to be changing.
When I started getting high quality print, for instance, it was extremely expensive. I drove to Cecil Community College to have a really high-end printer for the time, which was an inkjet printer. The printer was $250,00-$300,000. So, if I paid for a class at the community college, I had access to that high-end printer. So, I was able to produce bodies of work that way. I could produce things on the computer, but I couldn’t afford personally to own the printing device to outlet them. That has since changed. With a university faculty development research grant, I was able to buy a large format printer and now I can print things myself. It is much less expensive, a couple thousand dollars. Much less expensive!
TBE: So, it sounds like a theme for both being a teacher as well as an artist is that you always have to keep up to date with the new tools coming out. Unlike a Rembrandt, who mastered the art of brush and paint, grinding your own paints, you then had a stasis there.
BZS: Well, may be yes. Depending upon when you were born, and when you practiced your art.
TBE: But know it seems that you have to develop and re-educate yourself constantly.
BZS: Well, I think that painting techniques and the drawing techniques are traditional, and, in that sense, they are not changing that quickly. But yes, anything that has to do with a computer is changing rapidly. I do think of it as there was a point of time in when frescos or paintings were going on wet plaster and someone said, “Let’s use linen.” There was a big shock and I am sure that people rejected it. Just recently a friend of mine who is a cartoonist did a piece about pencils. The younger child in the cartoon says, “I never use pencils.” The father is mortified. I said, “Well, can you imagine when they invented the pencil how all of the quill writers were saying, ‘I will never use a pencil.’” So, I think it is just a matter of being current in the time that you are alive and making work. I think that all artists embrace new materials all the time and incorporate them. Artists are inventors. It is always kind of like a puzzle. What things what can I do with it, what can I make, and how can I make it interesting? I think that a lot of developing content for online is a certain level of artistry. You are taking the materials and inventing. What can I do with it? This is like web design. What can I do with it to make it interesting and compelling for someone to look at? So, I think that is the driving force.
TBE: Thank you, Bridget, for such a compelling interview. It was good to talk with you again.
BZS: Nice to talk with you, Terry, thank you.