“This semester, I am teaching two classes: EGR381 Design for Understanding and EGR487 Advanced Problem Solving Through Design Thinking. Unlike a history class, adapting a design class to be taught online presents very different challenges, because design classes are studio-based and hands-on based. These pillars are essential in my classroom:

High interaction: In a classroom students can easily share work and see each other's progress, interaction is crucial in both the creative process and being able to analyzing work

Design critiques: Learning happens from seeing and understanding everyone’s mistakes and successes

Constant feedback and support: The TA and I are continually jumping from one group to the other answering questions and providing feedback

Rapid iterations: Students create various drafts in a class based on feedback and critiques

My first realization was that a design class taught online could not replicate the same characteristics of a physical classroom. Instead, the challenge was, how might I address the same learning objectives of each class but using a different set of tools? In what other ways could students learn core concepts? I focused on rethinking my usual methods and testing other techniques and exercises that could help me teach learning objectives similar to those I have initially planned. Rather than replicating the same exact syllabus, my approach was finding different ways of achieving the initial learning goals.

  • How might we help students see what everyone else is doing and encourage collaboration?
  • How might we help students receive rich and varied feedback?
  • How might we have visibility into what each student is doing?

To address the classes' hands-on experiential environments, we are introducing the following ten changes:

  1. Working with a combination of software: Mural.co for in-class exercises where students work in small teams (even though they are working on individual projects) analyzing each other’s work, sharing design drafts and providing feedback. Zoom for group class meetings and 1:1 feedback sessions. Google Drive for documenting students’ processes and sharing materials for in-class exercises. Blackboard for readings and discussion boards. WordPress for the EGR 381 blog.
  2. Defining a clear structure and concrete goals for each class to help students focus and get work done.
  3. Dividing students into breakout rooms in Zoom to encourage peer-discussion and be able to provide more specific feedback and answer questions.
  4. Creating team digital whiteboards in Mural to provide a space where students can work and collaborate in the same way as they would do on a physical whiteboard: writing, drawing, adding sticky notes, creating diagrams, and other visual thinking frameworks. For my classes, this is a great tool to support different steps in the design research process, such as coding, analyzing, interpretation, and diagramming. This tool helps students provide feedback on each other’s projects and share prototypes.    
  5. Defining new rules: organization and consistency is super important! In order for us to track down who does what in in-class team exercises, students need to choose a color and use it consistently, and we need to be very diligent in capturing who uses each color.
  6. Jumping from one “space” to the other, providing feedback and answering questions.
  7. For EGR381: using the class blog for asynchronous feedback. Students publish in-depth analysis on design pieces (super interesting that many of the students chose COVID-19 information graphics, but none of the analyzed artifacts are repeated!), publish work in progress, and publish comments to other students to provide feedback. 
  8. For EGR487: creating “in-class working groups” where students are teamed up and share their work with their team members, as students are working on individual projects.
  9. Giving visual instructions: even if you are repeating the same words aloud, putting content in writing as a slide is super important as you never know when sound could fail. 
  10. Shifting the emphasis from only grading the final deliverable to asking students to document their process (even when they are not in the class). We created “Process folders” in Google Drive, where students upload photos and screenshots of their work during the week. This helps us identify whether students understand concepts that we would typically discuss in-depth during class time.

Our first week of online classes was exhausting. Orchestration of so many different tasks while becoming familiar with new software took a great deal of focus for everyone. Sending relevant links in advance, sharing the right screen, muting and unmuting, reading and responding to questions in the chat, as well as actually teaching the material proved to be arduous.

This week has been more encouraging: we all seem to have adjusted to this new way of learning. Students have started creating their own murals to advance their work, and it is super exciting to observe how their work significantly evolves throughout the class. We opened team murals to all students, so they can all see and learn from what each other is doing. We are rotating the in-class teams, so students can have a fresh pair of eyes looking at their work and providing feedback. 

Not all students are working with Mural. I let them decide which tools work best for them. Some are working with classic tools like Microsoft Word and Excel. While others are hand sketching and drawing, but all are making progress, which shows they are learning and understanding content delivered during the class. To me, this demonstrates that tools are just a small part of the learning experience; what matters the most is the thinking and motivation each student brings to the experience. The biggest challenge so far is how to deal with individual technical problems and helping students navigate the different glitches of each digital tool.

Note to self: Encourage students to move or stand up from time to time; my classes are long: staring at a screen for three or four hours is a long time.”

Seeing Professor Pontis’ process in restructuring her courses illustrates to all that she practices what she preaches. By understanding her students' needs, working and creating outside the box, finding solutions through open-mindedness, creativity, technology, and collaboration, we envision a strong finish to spring 2020 for her and her students. We are thankful for her and all our faculty for their leadership, dedication, and inspiration during this unsettling time.