Expanding the Canvas through Technology: There’s an Art to It | Teachers College Columbia University

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Expanding the Canvas: A new art education program based on technology


In the Myers Media Art Studio in the basement of Teachers College’s Thorndike Hall, a space formerly dedicated to sculpture, students hunch at iMac computer work stations or operate 3D printers, vinyl cutters and laser etching machines. The things they are making move around, light up and make noise.

Welcome to teacher preparation for 21st century art educators – specifically a 15-credit Specialization in Creative Technologies for Ed.M. and Ed.D. students, and, a credit-bearing Advanced Certificate Program in Creative Technologies (CTC) for educators and other artists who don’t wish to pursue a full-time degree.

Watch Channel 13's segment on TC's Creative Technologies program.

“Technology vastly expands our canvas, and opens up new realms of creative endeavor,” says Judith Burton, Professor of Art & Art Education. 

Art education programs centered on technology are springing up across the country, so when Burton, Richard Jochum, Associate Professor Art & Art Education, and former Instructor and Studio Manager Sean Justice set out to create the College’s new offerings, they thought long and hard about why TC should join the party. Certainly such programs are in high demand, as evidenced by the trio’s meticulous documentation of institutional offerings in the tri-state area alone. But that argument, or blanket statements that “we can’t be Luddites” or “technology isn’t going to go away,” were not sufficient. What would Teachers College – which in the early 20th century, under Arthur Wesley Dow, launched one of the first graduate programs to blend art education and studio practice, and whose alumni include artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, William Daley, Charles Alston and Elaine Sturtevant – provide that others could not? 


For Burton, who received a lifetime achievement award last winter from the National Art Educators Association honoring a perspective that has “cut through the fads and fancies of our field over the decades,” the answer lay in asking a much bigger “why.”

“We have to ground this new work in some system of social, interpersonal, aesthetic values, set in a human context of continuity and value,” says Burton, who is also the driving force behind TC’s Macy Gallery. “We have to stop and ask ourselves what we are doing and why, and what value does it have? We are entering terra incognita. New social, cultural and pedagogical interpretations for these media have yet to be constructed.”

In other words, the new programs do not blindly embrace new technology, but instead, constantly consider where it comes from in the history of ideas – and where it may lead.

“Where do the traditional humanities fit into all this?” Burton demands. “They have a profound role to play in this world that we haven’t even begun to think about yet.”


Fab Facilities

To that end, even as TC was outfitting both the Myers Studio and the “Fab Lab” (for “fabrication”),  Burton, Jochum and Justice used a TC Provost’s Investment Fund grant to hold two Creative Technologies Symposia at the College in November 2014 and June 2015 that served as the crucible for the new course offerings. An exhibition this past spring in the Macy Gallery, titled “New Gifts,” featured the work of 27 artists and hinted to the larger community about the ground-breaking possibilities of new media in the art world.  The events brought together a wide array of artists and scholars in discussions aimed first at defining exactly what is meant by “creative technologies,” and then building on those definitions to develop practical ideas for implementation at the program level. 

“It’s one thing to have a space and buy equipment,” says Jochum. “It’s quite another thing to build a curriculum around it, to come up with something where students can integrate all this into something that is part of their overall studies.”

First came the identification of six core organizing principles around which learning objectives would all revolve.  The three skill-based principles that emerged include fluency (aimed at lowering anxiety about working with new technologies); making and building; and integrating new materials not only within the art curriculum, but across different school subjects. Three conceptual principles emphasized meaning making (“because we are not just playing with technology, but trying to create something meaningful”); collaboration, mandatory in a world in which technology is rapidly expanding and no single person is an expert in all areas; and stewardship, which enables graduates of the program to pass on their knowledge and expertise to others in their own schools and communities.

The next stage was identifying specific learning objectives, and then, finally, building a sequence of courses that carefully distributed the objectives in a coherent way that avoided duplication and ensured that the whole was greater than the sum of the individual parts.  As difficult as the early stage of re-examining existing curriculum was, the final product was well worth the effort, Jochum says.

“It was magical when it all came together again,” he says. “We came away with the feeling that we were developing an interesting and up-to-date program.”



Philosophy and Practice

The program design that emerged from all this follows a two-year sequence that includes everything from a course called “New Media, New Forms,” taught by Jochum, to “Digital Foundations,” studio courses, workshops in Digital Fabrications, electives, and both a Research Seminar and Colloquium in Creative Technologies. The courses not only explore the philosophical and practical considerations of emerging technologies in the art world, but introduce students to a range of practices that they may be unfamiliar with – including coding, 2D and 3D fabrication, and working with electronics – which many may introduce to their own students in K-12 or even college classrooms.  Several courses address the issue of functionality and the growing confluence in all art forms of art and design, a theme that lends itself particularly well to a program concerned with making things.

Justice emphasizes that this type of program always keeps the big questions front and center.

“If we’re going to use something fancy like a laser cutter to produce some kind of object, we have to ask how we are coming to know and make meaning from that object in a way that is different than if we were using scissors and paper, or clay, or some other medium,” he says. “We no longer live in a world that resembles that of our parents or grandparents. The digital network affects everything we do and who we are. If you want to be a teacher, the first thing you have to do is understand how digital networks change everything. We have to keep asking the question, how does your world as a teacher change when digital networks become a primary material in your practice?"

The College has already approved the concentration, which it is hoped will appeal to TC alumni and others who already have an M.A. in the field but want to earn an Ed.M. or Ed.D. addressing themes that were barely on the map when they earned their initial degrees. The Certificate program (CTC) would open up these same courses to a wider audience of art educators, particularly those who may not have the time to pursue a full-time program, but would benefit from earning additional credits and a certificate designating their expertise in the field. Final approval from the state for the CTC is still pending, although courses are already being offered this year.

Burton notes that the course sequence fills a significant void in teacher education that has left many school art educators unsure how to meaningfully incorporate new technologies into their classrooms. As she points out, children and adolescents today are often out in front in terms of their knowledge of cutting-edge technologies, but it is the teachers who need to guide them in ways that will challenge them not only to be creative but also to draw on the fundamentals of artistic practice and be reflective as they do so.  

“The real issue is the question: In what way is this scholarly?” she says. “I’ve always argued that what we’re doing in this work is taking what students bring with them, and inviting them to rethink it in relationship to the contemporary world, to history, to culture, to pedagogy. We are inviting them to make these connections and think about knowledge as it begins to coalesce differently. It’s something that philosophy has always done – but we’re doing it now not only through words, as we have always done in the past. We enter new realms of knowledge and insight that have been obscured through the limitations of language, to stretch into the world of feelings and values.”


Broader Application


Burton believes that technology is in the process of rewriting all traditional disciplines, and that programs such as the new concentration and certificate in Creative Technologies will be at the forefront of helping redefine them at an institution that long ago embraced an interdisciplinary tradition.

“The arts are experience, as Dewey so eloquently wrote about,” she says. “Experience isn’t confined to any one happening or discipline. It’s what enters our cognitive, social, empirical, psychological worlds we walk around in every day. The arts distill from the experiences and pull them all together.” – Ellen Livingston



Published Tuesday, Nov 24, 2015

The New Gifts exhibition held this past spring in TC's Macy Gallery featured the work of 27 artists and hinted to the larger community about the groundbreaking possibilities of new media in the art world.
The New Gifts exhibition
TC's Macy Gallery
Myers Media Studio
Left to right: TC's Sean Justice, Richard Jochum and Judy Burton spearheaded the creation of the College's new Creative Technologies program in art education. "Technology vastly expands our canvas, and opens up new realms of creative endeavor," says Burton.