Art theory instructor Prof. Nie Xiaomei on online teaching

Editor's Note:

As SIGS has delayed full student return to campus in the spring semester to comply with local epidemic control and prevention regulations and classes have moved fully online, instructors have had to adjust. They have admirably stood up to these challenges, remaining unswervingly dedicated to fulfilling their responsibilities as educators. In this piece, we share how a member of our faculty is bringing innovation into the classroom during these extraordinary times and how students are experiencing these changes.

Teaching the Principles of Art online

The Principles of Art, a course taught by Associate Professor Nie Xiaomei, covers theories of art history and art appreciation. After taking the course, students gain an understanding of how art works, improve their humanistic literacy, and learn about aesthetics. The course inspires creativity via art and presents a different perspective on the world to reveal something new through the prism of beauty. It broadens students' global horizons and instills cultural confidence in them so that they comprehend and advocate for cultural diversity and tolerance to make the planet a better place.

Prof. Nie teaching from home

Despite the recent challenges, Prof. Nie maintains an optimistic attitude and keeps moving forward: “Let's get through the hardships together."

When the epidemic was brought up in the interview, she said that, although the current surge in cases in Shenzhen has had a major impact, the university and the school had been training faculty on online instruction to support them during the quick switch to remote or hybrid teaching. Online teaching is not something entirely new to the course. Back when the pandemic first hit in 2020, the course was massively restructured to adapt to online instruction and as a result was recognized university-wide for effectively adapting to the online learning environment. Lecturers must work closely with the Office of Academic Affairs and teaching assistants to get quick feedback on their courses and learn about difficulties that students have encountered. That provides a benchmark for tweaking the way they teach. "Students always come first," Prof. Nie observes.

One of Prof. Nie’s students learning from home

Technology-wise and experience-wise, SIGS faculty is already quite comfortable with online instruction. Nonetheless, unexpected challenges emerge when they face new audiences amid new dynamics. One of those is the lack of non-verbal expressions and instantaneous interaction. The consequence is that students easily get distracted in the absence of a classroom atmosphere. Besides, self-learning in a private environment takes a lot of self-discipline. Efficiency suffers greatly if students do not have enough of it. The course is challenging in itself; it is quite theoretical and each class lasts about four hours. When students spend long hours listening to me talking about theories, they may get weary. "That is the tricky part of online instruction," Prof. Nie concedes.

She has also discovered new experiences that students could have online. "According to what I have heard from students, sitting in front of a screen for class gives them a feeling of being close to the lecturer in a one-on-one setting. That magnifies both pleasant and unpleasant parts of course. Lecturers must perceive this change and move from the presentational mode, where they have to hold the attention of the whole classroom, to the conversational mode, where they must engage in expressive personal communication. Online instruction calls for imagination on the part of lecturers. When they deliver lectures, they need to feel as if they were having an insightful dialog with individual students. When it is time for group discussions, they need to think of themselves as moderators for virtual meetings.”

Student’s class notes

In Prof. Nie’s opinion, the most important thing about online instruction is to create a new teaching environment in a new teaching format. In creating this new environment, instructors should consider several factors:

1. Sound

Learning from home may occur in diverse environments, and the human ear listens from all directions. If lecturers adopt a well-designed approach that keeps students engaged by tapping into problem exploration, logical deduction, and vivid description, they can construct an information flow that lingers in the spaces where students are. They may want to use music or audio effects to optimize the pace at which a course proceeds. In Principles of Art, Prof. Nie plays over 40 audio clips, which function as the background music for breaks and immerse students in the spirit of artwork from different times.

Music during class break time

2. Visuals

Courseware is shown to students online at close range, so it must be attention-grabbing and memorable. Animations and videos are effective auxiliary means of visual communication.

Courseware from the Principles of Art course

3. Interaction

Interactions such as answering questions and posting bullet comments on Rain Classroom are not primarily for attendance checks. Instead, they confront students with questions about important knowledge and encourage them to explore their way forward. On top of that, lecturers get to track student progress in a more intuitive manner.

Prof. Nie’s students during the course

4. Learning

Well-conceived homework and quick feedback are key parts of a closed loop for learning. In the Principles of Art, student groups write reports via remote collaboration. Their first reports were of remarkable quality and showed great efforts, meaning that students worked together quite well after class, even though they could not meet face-to-face.

Students’ group presentations

As a veteran educator, Nie Xiaomei always thinks about improvements as she teaches and communicates with students. Although she has many years of experience in teaching, she says with humility, “That does not mean that I have done a perfect job. Sometimes, when I finish a lecture, I look at the emotionless screen and feel uneasy. I do not know what students learned and how they felt. She wants students to know that every lecturer at Tsinghua works extremely hard and whole-heartedly to help them succeed academically. What she expects from students are understanding, coordination, and feedback.

Student Reflections

When I received the notice about delaying the return to the campus and starting online learning, I was concerned, because I thought that a theory course taught on the cold screen would be hypnotic. To my surprise, the Principles of Art was anything but that. Prof. Nie's lectures are engaging and vivid. All the slides and terminology used are just right for our knowledge-level. I literally cannot move my eyes away from the screen. Her explanations of macro-theories about art are loaded with references to classics, which are unique and thoughtful. Our assignment for the course was to pick a form of regional ethnic art from the whole world and present an analysis of it. The members of our group were in three different places, but that did not stop us from collaborating closely to conduct efficient research. Each week, two groups present their findings, and it is a good opportunity of learning from others. What an interesting course!

-Zhang Yingying,

Master of Fine Arts student

I thought that there would be a lack of lecturer-student communication in online instruction. However, the school provides a good learning environment with a stable virtual classroom platform, complete with necessary tools. Plus, everyone has the same access to the content of a course, which is not the case in the physical classroom because some seats do not have a good view of the podium. Besides, the virtual classroom brings us closer to the lecturer and sets the stage for more relaxing communication. The online version of the Principles of Art has a compact schedule and a diversity of content. I can’t wait for the next few weeks of lectures! I also really enjoyed working together with my classmates remotely to prepare materials, hold discussions, and summarize information for our presentation. In the process, we dug deep into the art of a region in a certain era. This assignment deepened our understanding of art. It was a great pleasure to share our research findings in class.

-Xiong Sui’an,

Master of Fine Arts student

After week 2, I found the course even more fun. Historical relics from textbooks appeared right before my eyes. When Prof. Nie explained the witchcraft theory, she cited a part of the plot in The Dream of Red Mansions, which struck a chord with me. I really love the way she gives lectures. I had been unfamiliar with the development of major civilizations and the whole landscape of art around the world. What she taught in the virtual classroom, coupled with what we did in our research assignments, gave me a solid understanding of art and a clear picture of its evolution.

- Zhao Yifan,

Master of Fine Arts student

The Principles of Art features rich content, including both the explanation of art theories and the appreciation of artworks. I love the appreciation of artworks, because it includes interesting stories and explanations of the cultures behind the art. The interactive quizzes on Rain Classroom are great fun. Since there is a time limit, I am kind of nervous and may rush to get it done. In the virtual classroom, note-taking is quite convenient. If I miss anything, there is always a playback to review.

-Yan Ye,

Interactive Media Design and Technology Master’s Student

When we hit a plateau in producing paintings or artworks, we start wondering what on earth beauty is and how we can create it. The Principles of Art presents a new definition for art, which helps us get over the plateau. I believe that such a theory course is essential. It actually has a broad audience that does not only cover students of art. I hope that, by taking the course, we can all develop stronger capabilities of sensing beauty in life and in everything.

- Wei Zefeng,

TA for Principles of Art, Master of Fine Arts student

Source: Wei Zefeng, Prof. Nie Xiaomei & her students

Reported by Ye Sijia

Edited by Alena Shish & Yuan Yang

Layout by Yao Shishi