4 Insightful Tips For Teaching a New Digital Arts Curriculum

Digital Arts
More and more teachers, art departments, and districts, are either willingly or grudgingly adopting technology in the art room. Whether you’re a techie or a technophobe, teaching a new, tech-centric class can be a little daunting. Digital arts brings with it some specific pros and cons.

The pro in teaching digital arts is the technology itself. It is the native language of most students and is where so many of them spend their time. The con is… also the technology! It can malfunction! It can have a steep learning curve, and students’ and teachers’ attitudes toward it can have bring their own pitfalls.

I learned so much this past year when integrating a new digital arts curriculum, and I’d like to share some insights with you today. New or seasoned, brave or tentative, there’s something for everyone!


1. Think about the order in which you teach skills.

digital photo
In other words, do digital photography first! For some reason, I just got right into design work and teaching the nuts and bolts of image editing software. I probably made this mistake because it’s how I was taught: just get right into the toughest thing- the software. But then I realized all too late the students would be forced to work with unoriginal imagery. Had they done an entire unit on digital photography first instead of towards the end, we would’ve been editing and using original, meaningful imagery. Think about all the skills you want to cover before planning out your curriculum.


2. Start with basic, portable software.

digital arts
My school is 1-to-1 with Chromebooks. However, I did have access to 23 decrepit Macs that had the newest version of Adobe Photoshop Creative Suite 6 (CS6). What to do? I decided that starting with basic software was the way to go. We used Sumo Paint, a free, web-based graphics program, but there are other options you could choose from such as GIMP or PIXLR. Although this intro project got voted as a “dud” by my students, I would do it again because it allowed them to take their Chromebooks home and work on their skills at their own pace. However, I would make the intro unit only last for one or two projects. I definitely overstayed my welcome in “freeville” and learned the hard way that you often get what you pay for!

While Adobe CS6 is an industry standard for graphic design, having new students use it on day one would be like  jumping into a Rolls-Royce while only having a learner’s permit. Starting with some training wheel programs definitely helped. When we transitioned to CS6 and took off the training wheels, all work had to be done in class at a regimented pace, so the time spent slogging through the basic, portable software was well-spent.


 3. Keep students away from filters…at least at first.

If you want students to learn about text, color nuance, layers, and the finer points of overall composition, STAY AWAY FROM THE FILTERS TAB IN PHOTOSHOP.  If you show students a “cool” yet gimmicky function like filters, expect every swirled rainbow gradient background imaginable. The genie of bad design is a difficult one to put back in the bottle. In my classroom, we call this phenomenon “clown vomit” or “rainbow puke.” If you want students to learn some fundamental technology skills, make sure you know where all the shiny baubles are located and put them away.

 4. Hit ’em where they live — GIFs and movies.

I’m a firm believer that if you want your curriculum to resonate with students, you have to hit them where they live. Use the tools and media they enjoy. These days that seems to mean Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram among others. I feel it’s our obligation to be somewhat fluent with these programs. I know GIF files (constantly looping images) are really popular with Twitter and Tumblr, so I had my students make some. While difficult, making GIF files with Photoshop was rewarding for my students. Plus, the project was a great Photoshop capstone project and transition into cinematography and making original movies with iMovie. The concepts of animation and timeline editing in Photoshop had a good deal of crossover when it came to editing our video creations. For a stellar student video example check out “Killer Trains”.


I’m looking forward to keeping you posted on what’s next for my digital arts curriculum. Next year, I’m expanding with a new advanced class. I’m looking to explore 3D architecture and modeling with Sketchup and Blender, 3D printing, and rudimentary video game design. It’s exciting to have AOE as a platform to share these discoveries with all of you. Stay tuned!

What digital arts programs are offered at your school? 

What questions do you have about crafting a digital arts curriculum? 


Andrew McCormick


This article was written by former AOE writer Andrew McCormick, a STEAM, PBL, and tech integration specialist.


  • marnioberpriller

    Pacing has been a constant challenge for me teaching Digital Arts (Imaging/Fall and Photography/Spring). At the HS level, I have struggled with when to move on and setting deadlines for assignments; student-stragglers, those students that then attempt to work on a previous assignment and then continue to lag behind their peers.

    Having taught Elementary for 16 yrs before transitioning to HS, I previously waited until 50% or more of a class was finished before moving on. There are those students that remain on-task and those that wander to many distractions and hurdles in the digital lab: social media, an attitude of frustration due to learning new media, and lack of access to media outside of the digital classroom.

    Students had their own iPads this year, this made a notable difference with student-access to work-time outside of the classroom and access to individual cameras vs camera check out (with a sacrifice in digital quality). I like the notion of using more free software.

    This summer I plan to critically look at my digital curricula and take the time to revamp what and where I am teaching a unit. Thanks for the insightful tips as I move forward…

    • Andrew McCormick

      Pacing is a bear with technology. Some projects drag on and some go way faster than I was anticipating. I ditched deadlines long ago.

      I’m like you in that we move on when I feel a critical mass of students are done, but I can’t abide letting students do nothing so I try to create individualized bonus projects for those faster students. Those students are talented and relish having more challenging work thrown at them. I don’t do extra credit points however as I do a SBG hybrid report card. It’s just another opportunity to make some cool art which is all the reward students would need!

  • Abby Schukei

    Just what I needed to read, as I’m creating a Digital Art Class for 8th graders next year. I might send some questions your way!

    • Andrew McCormick

      Shoot me questions at any time. I made a ton of mistakes last year so I learned a ton! I’m happy to share.

  • Dan

    “The genie of bad design is a difficult one to put back in the bottle.” (That’s a great way of putting it. I may have to borrow that!)
    Have you or anyone else out there taken the jump to Adobe Creative Cloud? Any thoughts out there on using it in the classroom?

  • Andrew McCormick

    I just started using Adobe CC this week. So far I’m pretty impressed but I’m only using a tip of the CC iceberg. If your district will get it, I’d say go for it. I hunk my district is going that way so I’ll have access to Premier and Illustrator which I haven’t had in the past.

  • Welcome, Andrew! It’s great to see your first article published! The AOE readers are lucky to learn from you.

  • Sylvia Latham

    Oh wow totally needed to read this! I will be adding a digital art class to my schedule this fall…they are sending me to a week long Adobe in the classroom workshop. It’s a part of Louisiana’s Jumpstart program and my kids will be taking the Adobe Photoshop certification. We will also be producing the Yearbook using Jostens (I know it’s a lot I’m kind-of freaking out!) Do you happen to have a curriculum map? I’m starting from scratch and I’m sure it’s going to be a wild ride!

  • Pingback: 5 Pieces of Solid Advice for your Digital Photography Students | The Art of Ed()

  • Rachel Duryee


  • Rachel Duryee

    Hi, I attended the conference today and watched your gif tutorial which was super awesome and something new I learned about photoshop. I took two semesters of digital art class in college which revolved around photoshop and your tutorials are right up my alley now that I have been thrown into teaching a digital art elective to my junior high students. The only problem is we don’t have photoshop! I used sumo paint a bit this last year but was unimpressed, though it works in a pinch, The IT guy suggested pixlr because they can save to their google accounts but I am afraid it will be a flop too :/ We do not have one to one but we do have class sets of chromebooks available for students. I have students for an average of 9- hour long classes before they rotate each trimester. Do you have any suggestions for projects or programs to use?


    • Andrew McCormick

      Hey Rachel, I’m not sure I ever to a chance to reply to you! I’ve been using pixlr editor this semester and I actually like it better than sumo paint. More like photoshop, crashes less, and you can unlimited layers where sumo paint caps how many layers you can have.

  • Angela Miller

    Our 7th & 8th graders are getting chrome books to bring to Art class next year? Any tips from experience? or classes on Art of Ed I missed for chrome books?

    • Angela Miller

      We are also using Canvas LMS like MyBigCampus & GoogleClassroom

      • Andrew McCormick

        Google Classroom looks pretty cool but I’ve heard there are some limitations in grading, rubrics, and assignment creation. I’m a huge fan of Schoology as our LMS. I’ve looked at Canvas and we went with Schoology as we found it to be more user friendly, especially for some of the slower tech adopters on our staff.

        • Jenny Goswick

          Love Schoology!!!

    • jan

      Angela…… Did you ever find any good apps to use with Chromebook in your classroom? Did you hone any good tips?

  • AlmaAlma

    Incredibly, incredibly inspiring. Thanks for the great tips!

  • Adj Jordan

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the ideas, I’d love a good resource for more. I’m not an art teacher, I’m a math and computer science teacher but will be pitching in teaching computer graphics this year. We do a little GIMP, Inkscape and Blender in the class. I’m taking a Blender workshop to get me going with that application. In the previous years, teachers did photo manipulation for a GIMP project( it looked a little boring to me…) but maybe it isn’t! A GIF looks pretty fun and wondered what skill sets and educational goals I can tie into that project. Or any thoughts, ideas, or resources( like lessons and curriculum) would be Greatly appreciated. Anyone else reading this, please add your thoughts! :-)

  • Rachel Cohen

    My principal has asked me to teach digital arts to the kids as well as “regular” visual arts. I have no idea where to being. Suggestions?

    • Abby Schukei

      What kind of programs/devices do you have available? There are so many ways to incorporate digital arts as a stand alone in the art room as well as using digital resources to enhance the “regular” art projects.
      Here are some resources you may find helpful.

      You might also find the “Technology” subtopic on our magazine to be extremely helpful. https://theartofeducation.edu/magazine/technology/

      • Rachel Cohen

        thanks a million for the resources. Some of the problems that I foresee include the lack of technology, as in like maybe I can get my hands on 3 tablets or chrome books. But from all the research I have been doing we would need fast processing computers that can handle the software. Ugggg I feel like I am being set up to fail. :-(

        • Andrew McCormick

          How big are your classes? I would try to hold fast for at the very least a 2:1 ratio of technology. You could pull it off with 2:1 iPads, Chromebooks, or desktops. It’s going to be really tricky to do without tech. You could add a bonus project or TAB like technology station if you don’t have enough tech as a choice for students.