Reflections on Teaching Art and Technology in China

Sun, 14 Apr 2019

Reflections on Teaching Art and Technology in China

I'm back from my latest month (my fifth in total) of teaching at Guangdong University of Technology School of Art and Design in China. Since it was the last session in this contract (I'll probably sign up to do more). I thought it was time for some reflection.

When I did the first session in April 2017 I really didn't know what to expect. I was asked to teach "creative programming" to people who had not programmed before. My initial concerns were not just with programming languages to use but also with the human ones. How would the workshop work with people who I didn't share a first language with? I also had a practical concern that I would have problems being behind the "Great Firewall of China" since I use a lot of internet resources. Finally, I wondered about my approach of teaching technical subjects through artistic projects. Would this work in China?

In terms of human language, yes, the language difference has at times be problematic. However, English is widely taught in China and the University provided student translators. Plus, translator apps are getting better and can really help in some situations. Ultimately, while language differences can slow things down, it has not really proven to be problem. Eventually the message gets through.

However, in terms of computer language it is definitely harder for people to learn to program using English command-based language when their first language is Chinese! When teaching Arduino coding I have struggled to get more than a few students beyond the copy-and-paste stage. Most of the problems are to do with typing and syntax, not the concepts. Luckily, visual programming environments such as Scratch and BBC Micro:bit Blocks and be easily switched between English and Chinese and I have found that Chinese students can make good progress with both of these. I always remind the students that, despite appearances, both of these are real programming environments that are not just for children.

The Great Firewall of China is an interesting one. The fact is that some valuable teaching resources are on sites that you can't get to in China. The inability to directly access YouTube and other Google sites is particularly problematic at times. However, it is also the case that everyone knows how to use a VPN to overcome these restrictions! I thought this would be something of a hush-hush topic, but if something is not available then the VPN goes on and people just access it through one of those.

I'm happy to say that arts-led teaching approach seems to go down well. I have progressively brought in more and more creative topcis over the five one-month workshops. This includes using examples of early computer art as inspiration for programming tasks, getting students to recreate my own hardware-based digital artworks in Arduino, and basing all the tasks during one of the months around Guangcai porcelain.

The overall experience has been a positive one, with some really good work being produced by the Chinese students. As is the case anywhere some students are more motivated than others but when they are keen on the workshops Chinese students work particularly hard and can be very productive.

Details of the workshops and exhibitions - with pictures and supporting documents - can be found at http://interactdigitalarts.uk/fe-artlab. Contact me if you have any questions about the workshop programme so far.

Author: Sean Clark