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.
  1. The technical setup is important. It should be as frictionless as possible and it should meet the demands of the teaching situation — not the demands of the administration.
  2. Live meetings via video are necessary. (Cameras are on! All the time, no excuses.)
  3. Team work and social interactions need to be managed and guided much more in online situations.
  4. Use online environments that support visual and non-linear ways of presenting and organising design work.

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.

  • Set up live meetings (audio / video)
  • Make teaching material (Videos, PDFs, images, …) available in a simple and uncomplicated way
  • Provide the students with an opportunity to connect, give feedback and upload designs
  • Support and engage in social interactions

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.

Incom Workspace

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!

Our summer class room
Daniel Eatock joins and mirrors a design class; Vimeo
  • No registration / login for participants
  • Screen Sharing
  • Supports up to 50 participants
  • Accounts can be managed by the online team
  • Create repeating meetings with the same URL
  • Break out sessions
  • Waiting rooms

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.)

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.

  • PowerPoint: Menu → Slide Show → Record Slide Show
    When finished: Menu → File → Export → File Format select MP4 or MOV.
Health and safety video tutorials for the model workshop

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.

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

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.

Fast Forward to the Past

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

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