In Praise of Great Teaching: Adam Watkins

April 8, 2021

We have asked some members of UIW faculty to share their experiences from the past year. In this installment, we hear from Adam Watkins, professor of 3D Animation and Game Design.

Adam Watkins is professor and coordinator of the 3D Animation and Game Design program in UIW’s School of Media and Design. He mentors and advises students as they prepare for careers in game art, game design, film and game animation and 3D production.

Making Intentions Clear

We moved quickly to a hybrid model that allowed our department to teach lab courses simultaneously face-to-face and online. We find that students who are serious do well in class or online. In 3D Animation and Game Design, the course material is well suited for streaming the content on our screen. But there are still difficulties and you’re aware of it them in lab courses when it can be a little bit tougher to help a student who is at home. When you're in the lab, you can walk over and, if you need to, take a hold of their mouse and move it around to show them how to fix the problem. I’ve learned to be clear with my tone and intention when teaching or communicating online. It’s just that much easier for the message to be misunderstood. You have to be super careful, making sure your intention is clear.

Perspectives on Balance

Many of the changes that we see here in the program are also happening in the industry. Most of the animation and game studios went remote. On the one hand, that might be a welcome change because many of our graduates relocate to California to get work because that's where the majority of games are built. There have been a lot of proclamations for a long time about the game design industry going fully remote. The pandemic has increased that kind of speculation. I'm not so sure that I believe it. I think after this remote lull, we'll return to a studio centric model before too long.

Our department runs on a learning management system that we designed and built ourselves, long before COVID-19. We wanted to be able to share content and interact across courses — and that capability has allowed the faculty to stay connected. When we meet via Zoom, we can say — “Hey, I saw this project you were doing. That was great. Tell me more about it.” We have a full archive of past course work so a faculty member can say to her class, “let's just pull up some of the projects that have happened in the past. Let's talk about what's working and what’s not working.” It’s a great resource for students to see what students in the past have done and how they fit into the traditions and culture of the department.

We recognize that our students face a whole new set of pressures. I started taking some online courses myself and it has helped me to appreciate the demands that students face. I think I have a new perspective on the balance between deadlines and the discipline of staying on task, and also that students need to feel trusted by their teachers.

I spoke to a researcher at Texas Tech — her name is Dr. Valerie Paton — and she studied how students adapt to online learning environments. Her research confirms our experience, which is that freshman struggle with the self-regulation required when you are managing more of your own schedule and deadlines. She’s got some good ideas on how the design of online courses can consider ways of developing self-regulatory skills. We can’t assume that these skills are not automatically developed with students' online learning experiences.

I know that I am teaching a lot of people who have logged on while still in their pajamas. It falls on me to sustain the conversation and the energy of the class. It can get tough, to be honest. I’m glad we’ve been able to maintain instruction and move students towards their career goals. I'll be happy when we're able to get fully back face-to-face.