And Then We All Taught Online...

Verena Paepcke Hjeltness, IDSA
INNOVATION Summer 2020

Vol. 39 No. 2, p. 42

The last time I was aware that I was living through a historic moment was when the Berlin Wall came down and we were all dancing on top of it next to the Brandenburg Gate in November 1989. This time there is no celebrating.

In March 2020, one academic institution after another made the call to move all teaching online. At first there were just loose inquiries from the administration, such as, Could you envision teaching some or all of your classes online for a few days or weeks? Then all of a sudden, for many of us overnight, the decision was made to go 100% virtual. At the University of Texas at Austin, we had a whopping two weeks to learn new platforms, tools, apps, and programs to reenvision and reframe our curriculum. We had to figure out how to deliver very hands-on studio courses that at their core are about working through problem-solving by making and testing. Other institutions weren’t so lucky; they had only one weekend.

Few of us realized at the time that this situation might stick around for a while. At this point we don’t even know for how long. However, as designers we see opportunities where others might only see problems by asking, How might we learn from living in this pandemic during this unprecedent moment in recent history? Specifically for industrial design education the question is, What can we learn from this situation that might inform how we teach in the future whether online or in person? The following are some of my takeaways from these past six weeks of teaching in the virtual space.

Takeaway #1: Create a sense of community and trust by sharing honest moments.

Building trust is one of the most important aspects in the ID classroom. Providing a safe space to share work and give and receive feedback is crucial for a productive and positive learning environment. During this current situation, many of us had the advantage of having started the term in the physical classroom, but others met their classes for the first time in the virtual space.

Re-creating the serendipitous synergies that happen in the classroom are one of the hardest aspects of teaching online. For example, how might we re-create the beginning of class when everybody gets in, chats, and shares what they did over the weekend? How might we build trust when in-person interactions are limited to a screen?

In our ID class we created a routine we called the “weekly check-in.” We started the week by spending 20-30 minutes sharing what happened in the past week that we loved, that inspired or surprised us, that didn’t go so well, and other random news. Everybody voted on what they wanted to talk about. The topics with the most votes were discussed. Every week I asked my students if they still wanted to do this activity, and every week they were game. We enjoyed this so much that we have already talked about how we might replicate what we did in the virtual space once we are (hopefully) back in the classroom.

Takeaway #2: Create a natural flow of communication and provide meaningful feedback.

Being in the virtual space is awkward. Most sensory inputs are removed, and we are constricted to staring at a screen with tiny rectangles, sometimes seeing actual people and sometimes only seeing a name or a picture. In my ID class we had the benefit of everybody being able to turn their camera on, which made a huge difference. 

We had to learn how to keep a conversation going and how to present and provide meaningful feedback. In the classroom, everyone writes their feedback on sticky notes using the framework “I love, I wish, what if?” and then shares it with the class. We tried using this framework in the virtual space with a virtual interactive diagram I set up, but it was hard to write notes on the diagram while listening to the presentation. 

One of the systems that worked the best for us was having a process for determining who would perform each role and activity. We started with one volunteer presenter and two volunteers giving feedback. After the presentation and the feedback were given, the volunteers decided who would present next and who would provide feedback, thus avoiding the awkward silence of “Who is going next?” In addition, the two providing feedback knew they had to focus during the presentation in order to be able to provide meaningful and productive critique. Which they did! During my years of teaching, I can say that this group provided each other with some of the most meaningful and insightful feedback I have witnessed. Staying focused in the virtual space for an extended time is hard. With this process we were able to be productive and learn from and pay attention to each other. In this instance, the virtual space made it actually easier to stay focused as compared to being in a large classroom.

Takeaway #3: Make creative virtual spaces that alleviate the challenges of working online.

Industrial design education builds heavily on interactivity and feedback loops. Unlike traditional lecture-based programs, we work in class through hands-on exercises, often in teams where we pin up work, provide immediate feedback, and go to the shop to build quick mock-ups to test the ideas. One of my students, Austin McGinnis, shared with me his insights about how this translates to the virtual space:

Online learning can work, but it’s best suited to certain classroom styles. Generally, the more impersonal the classroom, the more adaptable  it is to an online format. Large lecture classes work great. In fact, I see almost no reason to ever return to in-person 150-student lectures. My online psychology professors have nearly perfected the online large lecture format. Classes consist of chat rooms to discuss topics with other students and there’s a live messaging feature that allows one to ask the professors questions. One drawback is the lack of peer interaction outside of class, but introducing an online discussion forum where students could meet each other and perhaps exchange contact information might fill in that gap… For smaller, more interactive classes, the online format doesn’t seem to work as well. I think our ID class would agree that we all preferred working together in person. We could easily bounce ideas off of each other, show each other sketches and collaboratively build prototypes.

In response, our ID class met together virtually during each studio day. We were lucky that everybody had decent internet access and that we managed to meet even when we were in very different time zones. However, not everybody had a quiet work environment or even a desk.

Staying focused was not easy for everyone equally, but then is it always easy to stay focused when in the classroom? Having the right work environment is crucial whether meeting virtually or in person. 

Isabella Russo, another student in my class, shared the following takeaway: “There is no conventional way to work online; everyone has their own way to be more efficient at work. What is really important is to try things out until something works for you.”

How did we address the challenges of interactivity and visual ways of working through the process? We met using Zoom and worked together in, a visual platform that allows for preplanning on my end and interactivity during class on the students’ side. In some instances, the virtual platform worked, much to my surprise, a lot better than some of the previous in-classroom activities. The virtual activities were more focused, and the visual templates I specifically developed for each session with detailed process steps seemed to have made it clearer for some students what to do. The activities would have been the same in the classroom, but the additional written instructions were beneficial for working through the process. In addition, we can go back and look at the work.

My Biggest Takeaway

This pandemic is scary and we don’t even know if and when we will be able to look back and say, “We made it through!” What we do know is that designers are resilient, notorious problem-solvers. We are equipped with a plethora of extremely useful skills; we see the light where others see the dark. Now more than ever, industrial design education is important because we are educating the next generation of problem finders and solvers who will be even better equipped to deal with uncertainty than any of us ever were.

Isabella said it best in one of her biggest takeaways: “How important it is to use creative problem-solving skills in every aspect of your life.”

—Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness, IDSA

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