The New Normal: Educating in times of Corona. An interview with Carlo D’Alesio

Buckle up folks. Today’s interview is a special one. Some of you may know the interviewee in question, a certain Carlo D’Alesio, as co-founder of Milan-based lighting design studio D’Alesio & Santoro and lighting specialist at Design Group Italia. Others such as myself will know Carlo as Professor and lecturer for the Master’s degree in Lighting Design and LED Technology at the Politecnico di Milano.

I was fortunate enough to be taught by Carlo during said masters in 2017. I was hugely impressed by his passion for light, design and propensity to pepper a wide array of cultural, artistic and design references into his teaching. It’s exactly this awareness of a wider sense of design which formed my approach as a lighting designer, and also that of this platform, warmwhite. 

As my fellow students will attest to, Carlo is just as passionate about education as he is design. In light of the corona pandemic, which incidentally hit northern Italy first, it seemed appropriate to discuss some of the educational implications for Carlo, who continues to teach lighting design through the medium of the internet.

The following interview between former student and teacher is an attempt to reflect upon the relationship between teacher, student and online learning in the new Corona normal. We hope you find it insightful. Enjoy.

Carlo, how has the corona crisis impacted your activities at the Politecnico di Milano? 

I must say the Politecnico di Milano responded in a very timely and precise way. Teachers have been put into condition of re-scheduling their activities in advance, with minor to no delay at all. Students requests for further activities have also been accepted, and in my particular case, this represents a brief extension of the overall learning experience. 

I’m assuming there’s been a shift towards online learning? 

Absolutely. In this particular situation, the shift escalated abruptly. Those who were prepared did it quickly and properly. But I hear that many other institutions couldn’t keep up with the pace, not being up-to-date in the first place. This Covid-19 induced lockdown is an unlucky episode, but I believe that it will serve as a critical evaluation parameter for the quality of an institution going forward. I guess that distant learning benchmarking will also acquire more importance in future ratings.

Beautifully intricate student’s notes

As I recall from my time studying on the course back in 2017, the course is very ‘hands on’, with a significant proportion of the masters dedicated to group based project work. In my opinion, this was so effective precisely because of the day to day contact and exchange between individuals and groups. I suppose my question and concern would be whether the same kind of intensity can be reproduced through online interaction? 

We have two levels here. The first is how you do it. It’s about the set of human interactions and soft skills which actively take part in the learning process. For instance, I realised how important non-verbal communication is in being fast and effective. Take a grunt, a smile, a sketch, a red question mark on a printed technical drawing. These information packages may integrate a thousand words into a couple of seconds. If this applies to the Teacher/Student relationship, I know that this is also valid for internal student group discussions. 

The bottom line is, whether we like it or not: new game, new rules… let’s play

I could also say that, on the other hand, being familiar with distant learning tools (HW/SW/Methodology) would be useful for the students’ upcoming professional career. The problem is that, you have two de facto educational threads in parallel: the subject of the lecture/workshop, plus how to carry this remotely. A possible first-hand solution would be a basic student/teacher training on how to effectively go through the learning process, prior to even running the classes. This requires new sets of tools with evolved methods, designed for digital reality.

On an emotional level, I just miss you guys. I can’t tell if the same amount of energy can be delivered through a screen. That energy is the drive to me. But maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental here. The bottom line here is, whether we like it or not: new game, new rules… let’s play.

In my experience, if the lecture is about theory (e.g. Lighting Theory at Polimi MD Interior and Spatial Design), distant learning might turn into a successful model. It’s a different story when it comes to creative problem-solving experiences, like in the case of project workshops I’m curating at Politecnico di Milano (Lighting Design for Commercial Interiors) and SPD (Master in Product Design). In these cases, the impact of what I described above is much higher and potentially compromising. 

The digital crosses over into the classroom

There are different types of learners. Some students inevitably respond better to the ‘freedom’ of online learning. For others (and I would include myself within this category), the one on one interaction and routine of classroom learning is preferable. As a teacher, where do you stand on the subject? 

The physical complexity and depth of physical human experience at large is not yet replaceable with digital overlays. The barrier is biology, not technology. Some historians say “teaching” started around the first bonfires, where proto-humans sparked the very first confrontations around that shared, safe, warm spot. Language is actually born around fire. Rewiring our biology will take some time I guess. We will see if – and when – the real digital transformation will come on a deeper, human level. We find ourselves in a process of transition, off evolution.

On a side note, one of the criticisms which I would have with the masters course is that there was too little practical hands on experience playing with lights, programming lights, that kind of thing. Maybe there is a danger that the shift towards online learning leaves students of lighting design even more disassociated from the physical experience of light? 

Thank you for this Patrick. This is another, important shade of I was referring to about the “what”. Light is a subject matter of its own. The physical experience of lighting is – and will be – in my opinion, a must.

The student presentation

Finally, do you think that the Corona crisis will accelerate the general shift towards online learning, or will we go back to normal afterwards?

Interesting one, made me grind my gears. I think in the near future distant learning will no more be intended as a commodity, or some sort of a side-offer. I’m speaking about the perceived value of it, by every stakeholder: educational institution (offer/producer), student (demand/buyer), and your next HR job interview (adopter/investor). 

Distant learning is now a safe, reliable and practical option. It’s reached a different level. Rather than “going back”, I guess it’ll be about “going parallel”. We already live parallel physical and digital realities – on social, sexual and business levels. The next big one will be educational: a transition which was already underway, but has now been accelerated massively. W

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