Teaching Information Design and Research Virtually: Challenges & Learnings

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EGR487 last week’s idea generation session. I designed a Mural template specifically for this class to support group brainstorming and the needs of each student’s project. The template has a space for each student, where they have to write their project goal, persona needs and HMW challenge they wanted to generate ideas for. Then there was space for “post-it” ideas, and convergence and discussion.

The last week of class before spring break was challenging. I went to sleep prepared to go teach my class the next day, and when I woke up, everything was changed: campus was close and classes had been moved online for the rest of the semester. I had one week to plan and prepare how to teach online two design, studio-based classes. This semester I’m teaching EGR381: Design for Understanding and EGR487: Advanced Design Thinking. The first one is an introduction to information design and visual communication, and the second one explores the role of field research in design, but both are rooted in:

  • Strong classroom interaction
  • Iterations
  • Constant feedback and discussion
  • Weekly design critiques
  • Going into the field

These are my three top challenges and many learnings from the last five weeks:

Challenge 1: Adapting syllabus and learning objectives

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EGR487 warm up exercise to visualize the current state of the problem each student has been working on.

I have never taught online before, so my first thought was to replicate the in-classroom experience. After spending too much time thinking and testing how I could adapt exercises and projects to the new constraints, I realized that what I should do was not to replicate but to find new ways to address the core course learning objectives. So, I searched for teaching strategies and redesigned exercises to achieve the class goals and keep some of its core elements:

  • How might we help students see what everyone else is doing?
  • How might we help students give and receive constructive feedback?
  • How might we have visibility into what each student is doing?

Put simply: I created a different class structure and weekly flow to address the above questions.

Challenge 2: Encouraging classroom interaction

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EGR381 students used Mural to analyze other students’ projects looking at content and design. Students organized their feedback in a pre-designed 2×2 matrix based on what works, what needs attention, new ideas and questions.

Gaining familiarity with online tools, and learning how to effectively and efficiently work with them was key to determine the new flow of each class. My classes are now taught through a combination of digital and “analogue” tools:

  • Zoom. Main platform for class meetings. Break out rooms help students interact further, and provide a space for giving individualized feedback and answer questions. My role is to jump from one room to the other while students work, similar to what I would do in the classroom.
  • Mural.co This digital workspace acts as the classroom. In class exercises, students use murals to work in small teams to analyze each other’s work, share design drafts, provide feedback or work on their own projects. Rather than using the generic/default Mural templates, I create my own templates in line with the specific needs of each exercise.
  • Class blog. Space for asynchronous feedback, where students publish deeper analysis on design pieces, post work in progress, and publish comments to other students. Peer feedback involves a large portion of students’ learning.
  • Google drive. Normally only used for students’ project submissions, now it acts as students’ virtual “lockers” where they upload and store project related files and document progress.
  • Analogue tool kit. Post-it notes, paper, color markers and highlighters to work at home. Some students prefer working outside the computer when they can.

Defining and clearly communicating new class rules has been key. For example, for which tasks we use each of the above tools or the importance of choosing a color and using it consistently in each Mural exercise, so we can track who did what.

Challenge 3: Doing & Assessing the work

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EGR381 students’ sketches created during class to indicate proposed changes. Other exercises focused on assessing someone else’s report or simply working together to make progress.

Each course has its own Mural Room, and I create Murals for each class session or specific activities. Additionally, each student has created their own Murals to work on their projects. The following are other changes to support students’ learning:

  • In-class working groups.  During class time, students are teamed up and share their work with their team members.
  • Visual instructions: I create one or two slides to visually show what I’m saying to the class, even if the instructions are short. This accounts for any audio issues and helps reinforce my words.
  • Keep hands-on exercises. Warm ups at the beginning of class or sketching exercises during class. In these cases, I asked students in advance to get prepared with paper and markers. Students need to take a photo to document and share what they have done with the class.
  • Process and evidence. Students document their process for class exercises and projects. Each student created a “Process” folder in their Google drive class folder where they upload photos and screenshots work in progress. This helps us identify whether students are understanding concepts that we would normally discuss more in-depth during class time and “see” their progress.
  • Assessment criteria. To support students’ self-documenting task, the final grade for a project is the result of both process and final deliverable. Furthermore, students write a reflection explaining their thinking and rationale.

Timings are very different too. Exercises take longer, briefings take longer. Each class is clearly structure with small but concrete goals to help students focus and get work done. My online classes are not perfect (I still prefer the physical-classroom interactions), but so far I have learned a lot in the process.

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