Teaching Design in Times of Covid-19

Pragmatic reflections on how to teach design online

Empty lecture hall of the design department, FH Potsdam. Photo by Henrik Hagedorn.

The summer term is over — but the covid-19 crisis is not. When the classes start again in autumn, we won’t be able to move back to our long established ways of design teaching. Therefore, now is a good time to reflect on the online teaching activities of the last few months and plan the upcoming semester.

Almost everyone in the academic community is struggling with online teaching. My reflections are a contribution to the ongoing debate on how to teach art, design and other creative disciplines online. As I was part of the team that developed the online teaching concept at the design department of the Fachhochschule Potsdam, I want to share my experiences and discuss successes and failures.

In the last few weeks, I came across a number of comments on online teaching. A lot of them were fairly negative, ranging from frustrations with the available technology to scenarios where neoliberal forces use online teaching to advance the destruction of universities.

My take is a bit more nuanced. To be clear: I prefer onsite teaching in seminars, workshops and lecture halls. But we have to acknowledge the fact that a pandemic is raging across the world. As professors and teachers, we have an obligation towards our students to keep them safe (physically and mentally) and provide them with the best teaching and learning experience possible in these difficult times. So this text is very pragmatic. My aim is to discuss how to manage a design curriculum in the times of covid-19. I review technologies and methods that we used in the last few months, both on a pragmatic and a strategic level.

I hope the text is insightful and inspiring for design teachers. If you have any feedback or suggestions, let me know!

For the tl;dr community — here are the main takeaways:

  1. Online teaching works. Many things are cumbersome, but it also creates new opportunities and interesting new teaching formats.

Strategies for Online Teaching

At our university, the summer term started on April 1st. In early March it became clear that we would not be able to teach onsite at our campus and that we needed to move all our classes online. We basically had three weeks to come up with an online teaching structure. Obviously, we had not the time to test different systems and platforms extensively. We had to move fast and make quick decisions. Our aim was to make almost all classes available online. We wanted to makes sure that the students could complete all required classes and could get their usual 30 ECTS points.

The starting point for our considerations was the assessment of the different teaching formats in the design department. A lot of design teaching is studio-based and relies on presentations, discussions, collaboration and feedback. But there are also lectures, seminars, consultations and — the biggest challenge — workshops and labs. Furthermore, we had to accommodate the fact that not all colleagues are digital natives. So our system needed to be both flexible and simple.

We also realised that due to the small time frame and a general insecurity, we needed clear guidance and assertive management. It would have been irresponsible to delegate the teaching setup to individual lecturers and professors. Furthermore, we wanted to avoid dozens of different setups and systems. We aimed at a creating a conclusive technical setup that would work both for students and staff. This setup could be extended depending on the needs and requirements of the individual class — but we wanted to develop a consistent core structure for the entire department.

The system had to support the following things:

  • Manage groups

Here is our setup in greater detail:

Incom

When we started to plan the online semester, we had the clear advantage of already having a great online tool in place. For over 15 years, we have developed and used the communication platform Incom. The platform was tailor-made for art and design schools. It started of as a simple communication tool and has evolved into a very powerful and flexible management platform for groups and online teaching.

The core element of Incom are ‘Workspaces’. Each class, seminar, project or any other group can create their own Workspace. If you are a member of a Workspace, you can communicate with the group, upload files, images and videos, and see who else is in the Workspace. The important thing is that each Incom user can sign up to a workspace themselves. There is very little administrative work in setting up and running an Incom Workspace. Incom has a lot more features, but Workspaces proved to be essential for making the switch to online teaching.

Incom Workspace

With Incom Workspaces, we already had a system that allowed us to create a virtual representation of every class, lecture, seminar or project of the semester. Thus, we were able to communicate directly with specific groups like students in a particular class.

Thanks to the support form the Incom developers, we were able to implement a minor but crucial feature in the Workspaces: a connection to a class-specific video-conference room. The user interface of each Workspace now shows a simple button that launches a video conferencing software and directly brings the users to their specific video conference.

This was an extremely important feature. After implementing it, we were able to conduct the classes at exactly the same times as initially planned. Let’s say you have a foundation class each Thursday morning at 10:00 am. Usually you would meet up in seminar room D226. Last semester, the students just went to the Incom Workspace at 10:00 am, clicked on the video conference button and directly participated in the class. (Fun fact: compared to onsite classes, students were much more on time!)

Incom proved to be an extremely valuable tool for class management. For us, it formed the basic layer of online teaching.

(Disclaimer: Incom was initially a research project at the FHP under my direction. It is now an independent startup. However, I am not financially or contractually affiliated with the company.)

Video Conferencing

While Incom itself is already a good platform for online teaching, we felt it was important to have regular meet-ups with the students. Even if a video conference is not quite the same as a meeting in person, it is much better than just exchanging files and messages. As a general rule, we met every week. Sometimes we had extensive presentations or discussions, sometimes we just had a quick chat and then moved on to individual or team consultations. But I can’t stress enough how important it was to meet and to talk!

During the semester we realised how important it is that everyone keeps their camera on for the entire class. If you want to engage with the group, you have to be able to see everyone. Furthermore, this rule created a certain degree of social pressure to be more attentive. And if you don’t want everyone to see your room, you can create a neutral or fun background for your personal video stream.

Our summer class room

Video conferencing can be tiresome — but it also creates new opportunities. It is really easy to invite interesting people to your class. If I invite external lecturers to our university, they usually have to travel which is time consuming and expensive. But it is really simple to join a class for an hour online. My friend and colleague Sven Voelker even did a trip around the world with his class. They met a number of famous designers from different continents— all via a video conference.

Daniel Eatock joins and mirrors a design class; Vimeo

Choosing a video conferencing tool for the entire design department was the most difficult and controversial decision we had to make. Considering our tight schedule, we spend quite some time testing and evaluating different platforms. We looked a DFNConf, Jitsi, MS Teams, Slack, Skype, BigBlueButton, Whereby and Zoom. After some deliberations, we decided to use Zoom. This decision initiated a heated debate among staff and students. I strongly argued for Zoom — and after spending days after days in video conferences, I am still convinced that it was the right choice.

Why Zoom? In short: it is a lousy company with an excellent product. Slightly longer: only Zoom fully met our requirements for a video conferencing system:

  • Super stable and reliable

Super stable and reliable

Obvious — but really important. And I am sorry to say that stability and reliability were the main problems with open services like Jitsi. For us it was extremely important that the switch from onsite to online teaching was as frictionless as possible. We did not want to frustrate students and staff with an erratic video conferencing service.

No registration / login for participants

It was paramount not to exclude anyone from participating in a class. Therefore, we wanted to avoid even small thresholds like logins or registrations. Campus accounts are sometimes not available for exchange students or visiting lecturers. So we wanted to have a system that would allow anyone who has the URL to join a video conference.

Screen Sharing

Very important feature as students were asked to present work from their own computers. All services offer screen sharing — albeit with different degrees of reliability. Whereby (which I otherwise really liked) was a bit flaky in that respect.

Supports up to 50 participants

Again — an obvious requirement. But many open source systems did not hold up to this point.

All accounts can be managed by the online team

The importance of this feature dawned on us, as we did the scheduling of the video conferences. For us, it was crucial that the online teaching support team could create video meetings from and for all user accounts. This way, we were able to support colleagues who are technically inexperienced, create meetings for external lecturers, manage the security settings and optimise the teaching schedule.

Create repeating meetings with the same URL

As described above in the Incom section: for each class, we just created one video meeting that was repeated every week at the same time. Extremely convenient as we only had to create one video meeting per class for the entire semester.

Breakout Sessions

If you want to conduct things like brainstorms during your class, breakout sessions are very useful. Everyone stays in the same video meeting but they split up in different groups. You can jump between the main meeting and the breakout group which is nice.

Waiting rooms

Waiting rooms are really useful for exams. The examiners can decide when the students can come in and when they have to leave. (I am not writing more on exams as this subject touches on a number of legal questions. We are currently updating our Studien- und Prüfungsordnung.)

Zoom accomplishes the above points very well. So why is Zoom a lousy company and why was the decision for Zoom so heavily criticised? Well — Zoom has indeed a very patchy history of privacy and data security. They had a couple of scandals — at one point the Zoom app even installed a server on each host computer which is close to malicious hacking. They did, however, address a lot of the criticism and worked a lot on the security and privacy issues. I would not trust them blindly — but unlike Facebook or Google, Zoom relies on paying users. So they have a high incentive to provide a save and secure service. And they made a number of improvements to the service in the last few months.

Zoom deserves our scrutiny — but they do have a good product. We knew that video conferences would be crucial for online teaching and a successful semester. So we decided to use a system that was criticised for good reason, but that made online teaching accessible and reliable. In any case — there is no big commitment. Maybe we will switch to Whereby or BigBlueButton in the future.

Video lectures

Live video conferences were reserved for discussions, presentations and meetings. Lectures, however, were usually pre-recorded and made available via a video streaming service. Here, our (uncontroversial) choice was Vimeo. The service works really well, allows you to password-protect each video and embed it in different contexts.

The challenge was not to come up with the right service, but find the right pipeline for the video production and publication. We came up with the following recommendation for the entire teaching staff:

Prepare slides in Keynote or Powerpoint. Then simply record the presentation:

  • Keynote: Menu → Present → Record Presentation
    When finished: Menu → File → Export → Movie… then select ‘presentation recording’.

The result is a movie that can be uploaded to a video platform like Vimeo and be used as teaching input.

Sounds simple. There are, however, a couple of caveats. The file size after the export is usually fairly large. This makes sending and uploading the movie difficult — especially as most Vimeo accounts (also pro and business) have an upload limit per week.

In order to reduce the file size without compromising too much quality, we recommend to recode the movie with Handbrake. This reduces the file size to about 25% of the original. Conveniently, Handbrake already offers specific settings for Vimeo.

However, video is not limited to recording lectures. It can also be used for tutorials and introductions to hands-on practice.

Health and safety video tutorials for the model workshop

Videos cannot replace the experience of working with your own hands. But they can support the learning process and they can initiate the students to workflows and setups. Even before the covid-19 crisis, our motion design team (lead by Klaus Dufke) created a number of very successful video tutorials as an introduction to the health and safety regulations for our workshops.

Pinboards / Brainstorms / Mood Boards

A common practice in the design process is to fill a wall with inspirations, sketches, charts and mood images. Be it as a space for unsorted visual ideas and inspirations or a more structured design thinking workshop — pinboards and white boards are essential tools in the design process. A linear presentation like a slide deck is no substitute for this synchronous, visual and explorative way of presenting and discussing ideas.

As a replacement for a real pinboard, we used online tools like Miro.

Miro board from the ‘Klimagrafik’ class – team ‘Tipping Points’

While Miro was obviously no replacement for the walls of a design studio, it provided us with a non-linear way of collecting, compiling and presenting visual material. We even used it with external project partners for evaluating design concepts and ideas. One of the fun things was that Miro supports real time interactions very well. Every active user is represented as a coloured pointer so it is fairly easy to follow the activities of other user or use your mouse pointer during presentations.

The greatest advantage of a virtual pin board is its spatial flexibility. You can extend it endlessly in any direction and you can regroup and scale clusters and elements. During a semester it is often impressive, how a design studio wall changes and evolves. Under the right conditions, it is just as impressive to see how a virtual board evolves. Encouraging students to document their visual process on a shared virtual board worked really well for me.

Even in normal times, I encourage my students to keep a design process diary. It is a great way to document the evolution and progression of a project. (If you are curious — here is a nice example of a process diary.) Final prototypes are usually polished and refined — but the process behind them is often more complicated and more interesting. Keeping an online diary worked really well — especially for student teams. Some used blogs or Incom project documentations, but many just created a virtual pin board with Miro and documented every stage of the design process there — sometimes just by pasting, clustering and commenting screen shots.

Evaluation and Student Feedback

In the last semester, we probably learned more about online teaching than in ten research projects. And — considering the circumstances — the semester was a success. We did an evaluation and got a lot of positive feedback. A large majority of the students was happy or very happy with the way we handled the situation.

However, one of the reasons the semester worked so well was simply that we had already an existing community of students and teachers. People knew each other and had already met onsite. So it was easy to re-connect online. But we burned through a lot of social capital in the online semester. The longer we have to keep up online teaching, the more difficult it will become. And while most students were content with the communication between teaching staff and students, many had difficulties working together in teams. If the studio space is missing, it becomes much harder to have planned or casual meetings as a student team. This is something we have to look into next semester.

Furthermore, the students really missed the workshops and labs. If you work on the computer, it is easy to make the shift to online teaching. But if you usually spend you time in the model workshop or in the printing lab, then you have a problem. This is also something we need to address and manage in the future.

Fast Forward to the Past

Kick-off event for first year students back in 2017 — and hopefully in 2021

We don’t know how the next semester will play out. But we know that the health and safety of students and staff have the highest priority. So we will plan for another online semester. However, it will hopefully be some kind of hybrid, where classes occasionally meet in the large lecture halls, wearing masks. And now that we have the technology for online teaching in place, we can be more experimental and try new things out.

It is amazing what you can do with the digital tools that are available at this time. The quality of online teaching today would have been impossible ten years ago. But we need to acknowledge the fact that university life and studying design is much more than online teaching. It is based on events, exchange, collaboration, building things, critique, personal meetings, hands-on practice, places, objects, serendipity, exhibitions and experiences. Not everything can be done online.

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de | http://esono.com

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