Meet the Team Small Town Big Dreams – Dr Brian Dixon
Dr. Brian Dixon was our academic partner for Small Town Big Dreams audio-documentary ‘The World Turned Upside Down’. He worked with us throughout the series to shape the direction and select participants and to use the evidence gathered to create a Creative Enterprise Toolkit which we are launching next week as part of Belfast Design Week.
We asked Brian to tell us a bit about himself and share his experiences of the pandemic and its impact on University education as
well as what he learned from the interviews for this project.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m academic based at the Belfast School of Art, where I head up a master’s program and teach for the Graphic Design and Illustration course. Most of my time is either spent teaching or preparing for teaching, but I am also a researcher, which means I try to find out the answers to specific questions.
At the moment I’m most interested in defining what researchers from all fields can achieve by applying design in their research projects. For example, making, experimenting, prototyping, etc…I am also interested in how you can represent the potential of design as a method of inquiry to academics generally.
Has your work as a course director within Ulster University been impacted by the pandemic?
Mostly it’s a matter of making sure everything we did previously, in real life, through face-to-face interaction, can be delivered online or else compensated for in some way digitally. This is of course challenging for practical subjects like design. The greatest loss here is the materiality of things, the research notebooks, the sketches, and print-outs on the wall. Everything is now a PDF or a Jpg.
Can you tell us a bit about how you think the pandemic has impacted University education, particularly for creative students?
The biggest switch for all students is, as I say, from face-to-face to digital and for practical students, in particular, the possibility of developing material outcomes has all but vanished. In some fields like graphics or IxD this is fine… but for a lot of groups, say fashion or jewelry, it’s next to impossible to make things work remotely. I think there’s also the issue of peer learning. So much of creative education is based around working in the studio and bouncing ideas off each other, being inspired by what your mates are doing, and learning about things through observation, casual conversation, and discussion. This is very hard to replicate online… if not impossible. I’m sure students miss seeing their friends too. If you’re a first-year without any connections yet, it must be especially challenging.
Do you think the pandemic will create long-term change within University education?
Yes, I think things will be changed forever. It’s not that face-to-face lectures, tutorials, or studio work will disappear. These will all return in some form. But I am sure that there will be huge complementary digital emphasis going forwards now that everyone has had a massive crash course in it. We’ll be seeing far more blended learning, where you have both face-to-face and digital components, going forwards. I think too many positives have emerged for it to be abandoned. I feel this will be replicated in other sectors too.
You heard all the interviews in full, what was your biggest takeaway piece of advice or insight from all the interviews?
This is a tough one. There were so many nice insights in there. I think if you group the best of it all together the key thing to take away is that despite everything, whether work-related or personal, there remains hope. We have been given an opportunity to reevaluate our lives and to identify what is important and from this choose a new course if that is desirable.
Many have taken advantage of this and are heading off in new directions whether radically different or just subtly different. At the
end of the day, it all comes back to that age-old notion of finding opportunity in a crisis. If we try we’ll find it there somewhere.