Student Ayano Kamakiri working in the London College of Fashion studio

LONDON — What does creative learning look like in the midst of a pandemic, especially when the lockdown rules keep changing?

In Britain, where students returned to college a few weeks ago, universities are opting for a hybrid approach, blending physical and online classes, while U.S. institutions like the Fashion Institute of Technology are going all remote.

Students, particularly those who are studying design and need studio space, are not entirely convinced by the new formats, however, and some have opted not to return — or start — the fall term.

FIT said it had “a 6 percent decline in degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking student registrations,” including new admitted students, who eventually opted not to enroll.

Students returning or starting this year have been the first to test new, virtual-only teaching formats, including a digital iteration of studio experiences, done via web-based class sessions of real time demonstrations, which are also recorded.

Fifty studios are available to book, but physical classes will not resume.

“This is an opportunity for students to engage with new methodologies and work more collaboratively with their peers and faculty,” said FIT chair and professor of fashion design Sandra Markus. “It’s a different experience, but it allows for more expansive learning opportunities.”

It also means lots of uncertainty for incoming students.

Inside LCF's fashion, buying merchandising studios

Inside LCF’s fashion, buying merchandising studios.  Courtesy of Alys Tomlinson

“When you apply for a course, you can get a good idea of what to expect by talking to former and current students,” said Central Saint Martins M.A. fashion men’s wear student Dominic Huckbody. “But no one can really answer our questions or alleviate our concerns.”

Many students had their minds set on a course, but the outbreak of COVID-19 made them rethink their choices.

“I had it all tentatively planned out at the beginning of the year: my application, my portfolio, my graduation project. The uncertainty that followed did rattle my confidence,” said Aparna Aji, who is starting an M.A. in fashion image at Saint Martins.

Aji’s classmate Rosa Bluebell Ross added: “Without much of an initial plan once finishing my B.A., I had a shocking wake-up call that my future wasn’t looking easy.”

“I try to crowd out the apprehensive feelings and remind myself that I’ll be taking courses I’m genuinely interested in. Remote learning gives me more opportunity to maximize my time and be able to focus on other projects,” said fashion business management student Sasha Korniychuk, who started her B.A. classes in September at FIT.

She said it took a while to convince herself that pursuing a degree, under the current circumstances, was the right thing to do. “It’s difficult when you see friends deferring or opting not to return,” she said.

Controlled access to buildings, social distancing, increased cleaning, revised seating arrangements and mandatory face coverings are among the measures undertaken by fashion schools in the U.K.

“It has been important to limit the occupancy rates in the building; a normal program and timetable would not support any form of social distancing,” said Paul Haywood, Central Saint Martins’ dean of academic programs in art and performance.

Studios for fashion design students have also been reconfigured to add space, yet access to those facilities remains limited.

“I will be able to go to the pub, but I won’t be able to sit behind a sewing machine whenever I want,” said design student Aaron Esh, who is doing an M.A. in fashion men’s wear.

Central Saint Martins at King's Cross

Central Saint Martins at King’s Cross.  Courtesy of John Sturrock

His fellow designers are also worried about the consequences of having less time in the studio. ‘‘Going digital is my biggest concern,” said Zeid Hijazi, a B.A. fashion design student at Saint Martins. “A lot of the work will be done from home, so I am afraid this will limit my creativity.”

The schools would argue that they are doing their best in a moment of great uncertainty in the U.S., the U.K. and worldwide as coronavirus cases continue to spike, in many cases reaching record levels in some countries and causing nations such as France and Germany to reintroduce lockdowns in limited form, although in both countries schools are remaining open for now.

Kingston University in London said its online-off-line teaching approach will stay in place until at least December, while a cloud-based virtual environment will enable teaching staff and students to stay connected during this period.

In addition, the use of preset timetables will be used to prevent the schools’ web sites from becoming overcrowded.

Istituto Marangoni, which is based in east London, said while it usually does not have more than 20 students per class, it has been offering extended hours and space next term given the extraordinary circumstances.

“Seats are clearly marked with red dots and tutors are being trained for hybrid learning and digital integration, with social distancing in mind,” said the director of education Mevin Murden.

The aim for all of these institutions is to deliver a proper college experience for all students to ensure they keep going with their studies — and continue paying their fees.

While tuition in the U.K. is considerably cheaper than in the U.S., students and their families still find the need to take out loans and take on debt.

The Fashion Institute of Technology campus

The Fashion Institute of Technology campus.  Courtesy Photo

Tuition fees for M.A. students from the U.K. and the EU doing a two-year program at Central Saint Martins range from 11,220 pounds to 12,910 pounds. Fees for international students — who bankroll many of these universities’ programs — range from 25,880 pounds to 32,900 pounds for a similar program.

That’s one reason why investing in technology to optimize online learning has been key.

University for the Creative Arts has given its digital infrastructure a major boost by offering students Adobe Creative Cloud licenses. University of the Arts London is also offering international students free college accommodation for the period during which they might need to self-isolate upon entering the U.K.

Some of those measures are resonating with students.

“The time away from studying has ignited my passion for wanting to go back to university,” said Central Saint Martins fashion communications student Rosie Davenport. “The future is very ambiguous at the moment, but there is an element of excitement that comes with the unknown.” 

The schools are hoping for close collaboration between teachers and students. “It will be our students who help us navigate a way through these challenges and design our way to a better world,” said Rachel Dickson, dean of academic programs at Central Saint Martins.