For the past 14 years, Nina Smith has been teaching sewing and pattern-making in the Fashion Design course at UTS. I asked Nina what a typical on-campus class was like in her first-year subject, pre-COVID-19. “Students learn how to use industrial sewing machines in the workshop. The 23 sewing machines are deliberately set up in pairs with the students facing each other, they get to know each other and start talking. There’s a sense of community.”

What went through your head when you heard UTS was moving to remote teaching from Week 2?

Nina Smith teaches in UTS Faculty of Design Architecture and Building

“At first I didn’t know if I had a head or not! But I had an obligation to these students: if I put my head in the sand, what would that mean for the future? There was no other option than figuring this out. Plus, I didn’t feel like I was alone or that I would be judged, because this was new to everyone.”

“I started talking with two of my absolutely amazing colleagues who coordinate and teach menswear and bespoke – Todd Robinson and Alyssa Choat – and we bounced ideas off each other. And I started exploring Zoom together with some other amazing colleagues. We tried out breakout rooms and backgrounds, and it started to feel manageable.“

“Students also stepped up and started coming up with ideas. About one third of our students don’t have a sewing machine at home. So our first session was: What are you going to do if you don’t have a sewing machine? One student had the idea of using a hair straightener instead of an iron – just brilliant!”  

A skirt filled with a pillow and blanket to simulate a body shape or mannequin.

How did you go about moving such a ‘tactile’ learning experience over to remote teaching?

“Initially, trying to demonstrate a task on my machine over Zoom was challenging – wherever my finger went, it showed as the opposite way on screen. So I started researching a bit online. I found you can link up your iPad through Quicktime Player to be a kind of a mirror or second camera. It’s slightly laggy. But I can point it to my sewing machine showing students how I sew a sample.”  

“Then, with Jason Benedek and Sarah Marsh from DAB Production Support Team, we created videos that were very clear and specific in demonstrating each task. And the videos have been absolutely amazing. Now students are watching the videos, making their samples beforehand, bringing them to class and discussing what they’ve found. To me, their learning has just gone through the roof.”

Will you reuse the videos?

“I will definitely reuse the videos, and there was another unexpected benefit. If we have five classes, that means I have to sew five samples every single week. Replacing this with videos reduces a lot of fabric wastage, which has always been an issue in our industry.” 

“At first, I had made a list of shops that were still open during lockdown and suggested how students could purchase the correct fabric. But did the fabric really have to be this cotton drill they had to buy from this particular shop? No, it didn’t have to be. One student in America made a skirt out of another garment, another student used an old bedsheet, others used curtains. They began to repurpose things, and this all happened organically. It was a really interesting first step to exploring how I as a teacher could be more flexible, and how students could be more innovative in this space.”

How did you redesign the assessment tasks?

“Online, you can’t turn a jacket inside out, you can’t touch it. So we asked students to document their work, to talk their garment through. For the first assessment in a second year subject we asked students to create a website with clear images of their garment taken from different angles. Some students started making little videos, with the garment modelled on someone in their family, or on themselves – and really explained their garment in 360. I felt like I was touching the garments!”

“Students actually started to become quite honest about their work and they might point out things that didn’t work so well. When you don’t see students in person – when they make a video or write about it – it’s more detached. They felt safe to show their mistakes. And as teachers, we stepped back and said, okay that’s really great learning that they acknowledged that, rather than us judging them for that mistake.”

“It also really streamlined the assessment submission and marking. I didn’t have to go onto campus and spend hours looking at garments, I could sit at home on my sofa and mark five students at a time. And at assessment time we normally get a mountain of submissions that we have no space for on campus. This has always been a big problem that we’ve had to manage – where am I going to put 130 skirts? And this situation gave us an alternative.”

How Nina explains a pattern draft to make a garment – here with an iPad, iPen and the app Notability. 

How did you keep a connection with first-year students who had only experienced that one week of face-to-face teaching?

“When students are studying on campus at UTS, they have this beautiful nurturing environment where they meet students from other years. There’s a cross-pollination that we don’t have so much in the digital environment. So how could I give them a little bit of UTS and bring that into their home? I’ve organised second- and third-year students to present at a Zoom meeting, to tell the first-year students what drives them and to motivate them to continue in a positive way.” 

“In many ways though, I actually feel more connected to the students. I make it quite personal in the breakout rooms, I ask them how they are going. People want to see that you are real, hear your life experience. This is a real benefit of the online environment. For example, it can sometimes take two years to form a relationship with international students. Online they open up more quickly, you get really honest feedback from them.”

So you’re hoping to continue with some online aspects in the future?

“On a personal level this has been hard for students, but from an experience point of view, their learning has exploded. Working on their own at home, they had to be persistent. Rather than asking for help straight away, they had to try something, make a mistake, try it again and work it out themselves. They might not achieve a perfect outcome, but they have learned so much more from that.”

“It will be a missed opportunity if we just go back to business as usual. We were thrown into this and we wouldn’t have had the chance to try it this way. It’s a gift that we need to use, to appreciate, even if it’s hard.”

Nina’s advice for others facing similar challenges with teaching practical work remotely:

  • Have empathy for your students 
  • Be generous with your time 
  • Everything is possible 
  • Don’t give up – there is a solution for everything 
  • If something doesn’t work out as well as you have thought, change your tactics 
  • If students don’t react or aren’t engaged, try and change your teaching 
  • Don’t forget you are the expert in your field and students will look up to you for that
  • Make students feel that you are confident – however, you are also evolving!  

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