I’m based in Hong Kong and, one week before the start of the semester, our university told us to convert our subjects to online for at least the first five weeks of the 13-week semester. We were hoping to (after a 2-week recess period that was scheduled after the first five weeks of the semester) return to face-to-face teaching for the remaining eight weeks of the semester, but we have just been informed that we have to continue with online teaching until further notice. This is quite impossible for some subjects, as you can imagine. But we’re trying our best.
It has been tough not only to convert subjects in the last minute, but also to familiarise ourselves with online tools. Most importantly, we had to learn (and are still learning) what works and what doesn’t, in terms of student engagement, online discussions, lecturing, tutorial sessions, critique sessions, etc.
My colleagues and I have each adapted to online in our own ways, depending on the nature of our respective subjects. As you can imagine, especially studio classes are difficult to move online. My combined seminar and studio subjects on Exhibition Experiences and Experience Design have been most challenging. You can imagine that it is hard to teach such a subject without making field trips to experience actual exhibitions. Also, (later on in the students’ design process) it will be difficult to have students design exhibition experiences when they are unable to experience the spaces they’re designing for or test the (often interactive) experiences they design.
The combined subjects normally lead to a fully curated and designed student exhibition with different interactive installations. Under the current conditions, we are not sure if we can have a physical exhibition in the end. So, let me share what we’ve done so far to still get on with the combined subjects.
Because I have a relatively large class of 40 students, I have chosen to pre-record weekly lectures via Zoom and upload them on a subject website that I created with Google Sites (on this website, students can find everything they need in one location). When I record my lectures, I break them up in smaller clips of 8-15 minutes each (like chapters) so that students can click through them more easily. Also, I try to keep the lectures under an hour as students seem to have even less of an attention span online.
Via the subject website, students can also click through to Slack (an instant messaging platform) where I post weekly “discussion assignments” that respond to the topic of the respective lectures. I would ask students to partake in these discussions during the set seminar time. Some discussion assignments have worked out, others less so. I’m still trying to find ways to have students interact with each other productively. Slack allows you to open different channels and threads of messages, so in that regard it is quite convenient to team students up in smaller discussion groups and give them something to discuss or analyse in their own “threads”.
As this is a combined subject, including a seminar and a studio component, the seminar is aimed at researching and conceptualising exhibition experiences and the studio is aimed at designing them. We are currently still in the research phase and concept phase, which is easier to do online. I am a bit worried about the design phase and how that will work out.
For the studio (tutorials), I’ve broken up the class in smaller project teams and spend an hour per team (4-6 students) per week for live sessions—thus far we’ve only discussed their research and concepts/ideas. I use Google Hangouts for this only because it’s easy to use. I think I may soon change to Microsoft Teams (which is what most of my colleagues use) as it’s a bit more stable and the quality of the video and audio seems a bit better. If I could choose, I would probably prefer to use Zoom for this, as it’s easier to use and seems to have an even better video quality. However, across the different subjects in our programme, we’re already using so many different platforms. So, I will go for a platform that our students are already familiar with (so as to keep to some consistency in platform use, for their sake).
We still have a little bit of hope that we can eventually move back to face-to-face teaching and actually developing an exhibition in full. So, what I did is write up a subject brief including a careful explanation of the students’ design challenge that could be rolled out into either Plan A (physical exhibition/group assignment) or Plan B (design concept only/individual assignment) and the related adjustments and alterations to the assignment if we need to go for Plan B in the end. Plan B is for various reasons not an ideal plan, but the best under the current conditions.
Online teaching has worked to an extent. But it is certainly not ideal and particularly stressful (and pretty boring too). As teachers, we strongly feel the need for face-to-face interaction (for idea development, critical thinking and discussions, testing of design works, etc.). We have all encountered technical issues as well (e.g. poor network connections on the side of the students, students’ audio not working, etc.). What is the most challenging, however, is engaging with students during live sessions. In Hong Kong, students seem to be a bit shy and prefer not to show their faces and/or the backgrounds of their bedrooms/homes. So, we’re usually talking at profile pictures and are therefore constantly having to ask if everyone is still there, listening.
A last thing I’d like to share is that some of my colleagues have gone out of their ways to convert subjects to online. Especially the colleagues who teach drawing techniques have come up with very creative solutions. They have set up a demonstration room with lighting and a camera fixed above a table, pointing down. In this way they can demonstrate live sketching and drawing techniques.