Working from home instead of in an open-plan office: Susanne Schumacher in her own four walls. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

Studying, teaching, researching and working entirely in our own four walls: this prospect was unthinkable before lockdown. In March 2020, ZHdK moved online and reorganized. A conversation with Susanne Schumacher, Chair of ZHdK’s Digital Council, about enforced digitalization and corona learnings.


Gianna Bärtsch: What was your first day of working from home due to coronavirus like?
Susanne Schumacher: It wasn’t very different because I organize my work online anyway and often work from home. But then, when everything began taking place entirely at home, keeping work and private life separate became difficult. That’s when I, like many others, reached my limits.

What did lockdown mean for ZHdK?
ZHdK underwent accelerated digital transformation within the space of a few weeks. Fortunately, important technical areas were well organized and the measures adopted amid unforeseen circumstances were coordinated by the Epidemic/Pandemic Team. Our greatest challenge was shifting teaching online. ZHdK suspended teaching for one week to transition as best as possible to online teaching. Students and lecturers were supported by the E-Learning team, central services and the newly convened Digital Teaching Coordination Group.

How has the transition to online teaching worked out?
Much was made possible ad hoc thanks to tremendous personal commitment. Lecturers and students tried out new forms of teaching — for example, they produced an online conducting tutorial or hooked up the drawing model virtually via Zoom. Online mentoring and digital excursions became part of coursework. The admissions examinations in music were conducted as digital assessments. In addition, the E-Learning team invited lecturers to share their practical experiences. In this way, new didactic and artistic questions were addressed and the possibilities and limits of digital teaching and learning were explored through joint reflection.

Where were the limits?
Artistic and design practices involving interaction between body, space and material, such as theatre, music or dance, cannot be shifted into a virtual setting, or only to a limited extent. At the same time, however, new creative techniques were developed during lockdown in order to establish virtual proximity, maintain relationships at a distance or create resonance chambers.

How does the Digital Council intend to use the experiences of the corona crisis for digital transformation at ZHdK?
Since May 2020, the Digital Council has been collecting experiences from around the departments and has identified relevant topics. We create formats that enable the university’s community to exchange ideas and information on these themes and issues across ZHdK or in peer groups and to develop images for the future together. The project is called “Digital Reports + Fictions.”

Which topics have emerged?
Digital teaching and learning methods, hybrid event formats or digital assessments. In these areas, it is important that ZHdK’s high professional standards are adequately supported or even renewed by digital means and methods. Yet the major challenges lie in the cultural and social sphere: how to participate in a virtually organized arts university? How do we create a sense of belonging in teams? What are feasible working forms to promote innovation?

What does ZHdK want to achieve in terms of digitalization?
Digital expertise and excellence. ZHdK wishes to actively shape digital culture — we want students to acquire the skills they need for today’s digital society. ZHdK is also part of the Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions. A total of 300 million francs will be invested in the project. We are involved with two focal areas — “Immersive Arts” and “Creative Economies” — as well as with activities in the field of digital skills. One example is the “Destination Digital” project, which treats low-threshold topics like social media in internal training courses, blog posts and video formats.

Does Home-X — using our homes in manifold ways — have more positive or more negative aspects?
I am ambivalent. Home-X means we experience the principles of digitalization very personally: our work becomes more abstract, encounters more formatted, everyday life more fragmented; space and time become less important and networking is everything. Fortunately, we can replace the variable X with any activity we want.

The Digital Council was founded in 2018 and actively contributes to ZHdK’s digital transformation. Since March 2020, its members have been meeting only virtually, in a hybrid format or while going for a walk together.
Susanne Schumacher (susanne.schumacher@zhdk.ch) is Chair of ZHdK’s Digital Council and heads the Digital Knowledge programme. For her, Home-X captures a common experience — one, however, that each of us makes very differently. X can stand for working, teaching, learning and research.
Gianna Bärtsch is a project manager at ZHdK University Communications. The variable X has become part of her jargon ever since she experienced working from home for such a sustained period.
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