There Are Better Paths Toward Capturing The Dynamic, The Energy, And The Learning Atmosphere That Higher Education Promises.

Writing about education in 1962, Buckminster R. Fuller described a scenario of remote learning where faculty and subject experts would “give their basic lecture course just once,” creating “moving-picture footage of the lectures.” Fuller imagined an educational utopia, a transformation where available technology would be used to help ease and distribute education. Almost 60 years, and one global pandemic later, here we are, struggling to figure out how to move classrooms over online.

So much of what I’ve seen written about the shift to remote education this year has been about “zoom fatigue,” so many of the conversations about how much slower the courses progress compared to before, or the added difficulty in connecting to students. It made me wonder if perhaps we were asking the wrong questions, or looking in the wrong direction, by trying to directly stuff a traditional classroom experience through the browser window. That collaborating in digital space shouldn’t be about trying to re-create, trying to video re-create, the classroom. That maybe There Are Better Paths Toward Capturing The Dynamic, The Energy, And The Learning Atmosphere That Higher Education Promises. And perhaps we can even find gems we didn’t expect.

I often gravitate to the creative-arts departments in education, because I see them as the world’s R&D labs: small offshoots not afraid to make bold moves, and with an open interpretation of success and of failure. So to understand how to best set up our remote classrooms for success, I talked to half a dozen professors at the forefront of design, art, and creative technologies. I wanted to hear about their experience from the past term and a half, gather methods attempted and lessons learned, and bring back a field guide of pivots and practices, tips and tricks, in order for all of us to venture into spring term afresh, and better prepared. Following these conversations, I’m even more excited about the diversity and richness with which people are approaching the online classroom, and what’s possible amid the reinvention.

This Isn’t New

I started this essay with a quote almost 60 years old, well before the era of the personal computer. Though we’re living in a very different environment than one Fuller inhabited or imagined, remote learning isn’t new. Remote communities aren’t new. And that came up again and again with the faculty most experienced and embedded in learning culture.

Cathy Davidson, who teaches at the City University of New York and is the author of The New Education, said, “One of the things I’ve been most shocked by, with everybody going remote, is there’s 30 years of research and science on how you teach with technology. And most people who were freaked out about teaching with technology never bothered to read stuff by people who’ve been doing this for a very long time.” However, for overextended faculty, who amid the pandemic are asked to do even more with less, deep-diving research on a new way of practicing might not be something they can buffer for. Hopefully that’s where this article comes in.

Paul Soulellis, of the Rhode Island School of Design, looked even wider and asked, “What can we learn from the last 30 years of cultivating online spaces? What can we learn from successes like gaming? And what can we learn to avoid from places where there’s been real trouble, and challenges, such as Twitter?” In the framing of those questions, there’s already much to be teased out: the ability to work and connect simultaneously, the high value of successful moderation, and what happens in its absence.

Shorten Your Lectures

One universal piece of advice has been to Shorten. The. Lectures. Part of me wonders if that’s due solely to remote learning, or if this was already in play, just with less faculty awareness. You can’t see your student’s expressions so well when they’re in the back row, when your body pivot doesn’t prompt a reaction from them.

A lot of faculty saw this condensing as an opportunity, or a set of opportunities. Nancy Skolos, also of the Rhode Island School of Design, said that at RISD, where they had a department helping them get ready for online learning, they would edit the lectures down to 15 minutes and that the focus “made the lectures more clear, more precise, not as boring.“ Lee-Sean Huang, who teaches at New York University, The New School, and the School of Visual Arts, compared preparing for class now to his work outside of teaching, where he would “treat it like producing a talk show; one with audience participation.”

Remote learning is also making those lectures asynchronous. Huang asked whether “the students need to sign-in live to watch these lecture? Or can I just pre-record; the students can watch on their own time and then come to a shorter class where we hold a discussion.“ At RISD they were already regularly pre-recording the lectures to make them available for students in other time-zones.

Open It Up

“Distance is completely irrelevant now,“ said Forest Young, of the California College of the Arts, “I realized how much I was geographically limited before” he continued. “If I had a friend in Lahore, Pakistan, I was thinking, OK, I can’t talk to him because he’s in Pakistan. I had developed communication patterns that were physical-limitation patterns, but they didn’t have to be.” We’ve all become embedded in geographical proximity for learning and holding classes, but this pandemic has broken that into near-irrelevance. Whatever time-zone or technological hurdles existed before, we’ve now leaped over them, and with that we’ve broken a barrier toward more accessible, and dispersed, learning environments.

“What was most beneficial was the ability to pull in visiting designers who could give a lecture, or run a workshop, that I wouldn’t be able to have brought in otherwise,” said Adam Lucas, who teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Where before, bringing someone in would have demanded geographic proximity and additional time commuting, now any expert or fresh perspective is more readily available regardless of where they reside. That allows the students much greater benefit of learning, and intermixing, with the top thinkers in whatever niche they’re studying. It allows them insights into diverse viewpoints. And access to more people that could potentially help them on their career journeys. No longer are the top professionals bungeed to the large cities, and a forward-thinking professor in Bozeman, Montana, has just as much flex in capturing visiting talent as one in London.

Hong mentions that opening up can work not just on the lecturer level but also on the audience side. “I could have a guest speaker, and then I can invite the students from my class—but I can also invite other students, or other folks in the University, to attend the same session. So that scalability,” that technology allows, lets you gauge discussions by what’s best for the conversation, not by the lecture hall size. This could be leveraged for broadcasting interesting projects happening within the class, fostering collaboration between classes or departments, or simply letting in curious or ambitious students.

Consider Your Tech

A large part of remote learning is the technology we’re interfacing through. While universities often default to certain software, those aren’t the only game in town. “Tools aren’t automatic things,” said Dan Taeyoung, who teaches at Columbia University. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all you have is 3D modeling, you do something, and if all you have is clay, you do something else. Our tools shape us.”

At this point, Zoom has more or less become a proprietary eponym. It has become interchangeable with video conferencing and interchangeable with remote learning. It has started sprouting its own compound words, like zoom-bombing or zoom fatigue. While it enables us to do so much, the platform is also a shorthand for many of the things people have come to hate. Davidson stated that “we know Zoom is exhausting and terrible for attention,” and Taeyoung mentioned how much he underestimated the effects of a “landscape where the students are doing Zoom for so many other things too.” There are concerns over the amount of data Zoom collects and its attitude toward privacy. Not to mention the bandwidth (and energy) requirement that synchronous audio-video feeds require to run without glitches.

Taeyoung articulated that Zoom “can accidentally be a space where the person teaching has too much power, so that really has to be held carefully.” Soulellis agreed, noting that in remote teaching, “all those things that we take for granted in real-time, real-space teaching were suddenly heightened and exaggerated.” Above I touched on how this showcases in witnessing the boredom of long lectures. So, if we’re to go beyond or around Zoom, what else is there?

There was a lot of appreciation for chat spaces and various whiteboards among all the teachers I’ve spoken to, seeing them as pathways to greater participation and more play. “Typing allowed for different ways to participate” Huang said, emphasizing the impact of written communication for “quieter students, or those less confident with their English. Or if they just didn’t get a chance to speak before the conversation moved on,“ noting how helpful that second channel is in terms of accessibility.

There was a lot of love for Miro, another breakaway app of 2020. “Miro really saved us,” said Skolos. Soulellis felt the same, describing his excitement upon seeing the “swarm-like activity, the incredible energy where students were commenting on each other’s work in real time.” Miro also seemed to win out over the remembered classroom experience, with Skolos saying that in it students were more focused as well as “much more candid and detailed without the pressure of formulating their critique on the spot, in front of everybody.” Chris Hamamoto, who teaches at California College of the Arts, used Figma for a similar interactive whiteboard effect.

Taeyoung pushed that candidness further by activating anonymity, and pseudo-anonymity, within his classroom. He said the conversations that resulted were “very playful, very playacting; people would take on different roles. I think it was very cathartic.” These anonymous chats would take place as comments in Google Slides, Zoom with cameras and microphones off where people would alter their names, and in DIY chat spaces that he or his students would design and develop. (I would caveat with this not being for every set of students, nor for every class. When discussing it with Taeyoung, he emphasized he had already set up a code of conduct, his classes weren’t lecture-hall-sized, and he employed this further on in the term after a lot of trust was already established. Hamamoto put in the extra work and zagged analog, mailing his students packaged kits as part of an exhibition design course he taught.

Another question to consider is, do we need to watch most of these lectures? Davidson recounted a story of a professor, Michael Wesch, of Kansas State University, who instructed his students to “put on their earphones and go for a walk wherever they are, or do their chores around the house,” as he read. I’ve similarly been invigorated by the use of, and response to the use, of Clubhouse. Clubhouse has been referenced time and time again as the closest to an IRL feel, “mimicking the spontaneity of parties and large social interactions” and compared to “a class with everybody in the world.” Due to their positive launch, there are now various other, more easily accessible, competitors entering the market: Twitter is testing Spaces, and Telegram just came out with Voice Chats. I’m anticipating holding a large segment of my classes in a space where students aren’t required to look directly at me the whole time, and aren’t in turn themselves on stage. I’m allowing them to do what they would normally do in a long studio class: work while still engaging in chit-chat, ask questions, or listen for background sparks of inspiration.

Ease Up on Formality

With the personal and professional boundaries blurred because of the pandemic, many have reactively tried to barricade themselves with professionalism. But letting down those barriers can open up communication, give people an opportunity to express themselves, and with that, make space for more authentic engaged learning. Most people currently in remote classrooms haven’t had the years or decades to develop a working-from-home practice. Davidson outlines our reality clearly: “We’re in a pandemic, on the verge of a financial collapse, leadership collapse, conspiracy theories everywhere—it’s a very strange time to be a college student.”

Talking about the shift in his professional world, Young says that the more experienced remote communicators were actually the ones more at ease. “They were almost coaching us in terms of how to be comfortable fielding meetings in less-opportune settings. They would look at us squirming to try to fix our cameras and get perfect lighting while they were comfortable with their cats jumping on their laps, living and fielding meetings inside of their own homes.” Davidson told another story of a professor, Denise Cruz, of Columbia University, taking the idea even further in hosting a pajama class, where “everyone came in flannel pajamas, or funny pajamas, to the Zoom meeting, including the professor.”

I’ve personally wondered about the invasion of privacy, where all of a sudden a student’s home life (and economic circumstance) is put on display. Hamamoto said he has struggled with that in his classes as well, and that “on a personal level, the biggest challenge has been just the access and insight you get into students’ lives that you never had before; that can be overwhelming.” Hamamoto described students who shared cramped housing quarters with multiple roommates, or watching students navigating various medical needs. Whether this new insight is overall positive or not is debatable, but I would argue that this level of intimacy and disclosure should never be forced in a classroom setting. I’ve asked students to use video backgrounds in groups where I thought it could serve as an equalizer, with a double benefit of being an ice-breaker or personality avatar. And I would encourage faculty who demand cameras-on to interrogate the true reasons they need it and the side effects it might have.

This negotiation of formality also exists in the digitally shared or submitted work. When everything is onscreen, there’s no longer an easy way to tell that what you’re looking at is a work in progress or the final product. Young says, “The moment I take a picture of my napkin sketch, send a Zoom invite, and show it on camera—it becomes a presentation.” A lot of the education process is about a sandbox environment, and discourse that happens while the learning is still taking form. Taeyoung rallied for that unfinished space, saying that “when it’s working, it’s a little chaotic;” that the chaotic means that everyone is showing up, that that’s what thinking looks like. I think both settings are needed, but it’s important to differentiate and mark a divide between works in progress and final presentations. And that there’s value to works in progress feeling like works and progress. (As an aside, the more I write professionally, the more I intentionally misspell and mistype personal texts as a sign of playful thought or intimacy.)

Remember the Fundamentals

It’s always good to remember the goal, and in a classroom, the goal is some combination of students learning the course material, deepening their existing expertise, gaining transferable skills, and learning to navigate a professional world. “I learn in between,” said Soulellis, reflecting on his own process. “I read something, I see something online, I go to a talk—and then these three things I didn’t expect to connect, suddenly they’ve connected. And I have an aha moment. I need that stimulation all the time, but it’s not coming from one place. It’s coming because I’ve set up a network of possibilities.” So that’s our goal, not to “deposit knowledge” but to set up a network of possibilities. And what could potentially allow for that set-up greater than a diverse array of inspiration, amid channels that cater to different learning styles. A smorgasbord of options for our students to pick up, suit to their tastes, remix, and exchange with each other.

Taeyoung discusses setting up his courses in a jigsaw manner, where he works in daisy-chain review processes and steps away. He works to, as he said, “create spaces where people feel free to talk to each other” outside his gaze. This is especially important now, as the mingling that normally happens before and after class is no longer there. He notes that “the act of giving feedback to others is also the act of honing the process of giving feedback to yourself.” In my classes, I often harness the motivation that got students to sign up for the course in the first place as free rein to dictate their research, seeing my role as much as a concierge as a tour guide, and one that allows students to get excited by the divergent paths their classmates are also taking.

Now that we’ve refocused on, roughly, where learning happens, the next step is to understand what might inhibit it so we can address it. Davidson says the biggest distractions aren’t cell phones or other low-hanging fruit that most often gets attacked, but rather “heartache and heartburn,” as in “emotional loss and anything that’s physical.” Davidson then explained that, especially now, “emotional and physical loss are the conditions of our life. And unless you’re paying attention to that, all the bells and whistles don’t matter. We’re all distracted.” So, to teach, and to teach well, we must first make sure there’s nothing blocking it. And we do that with whole-human caring and flexibility.

Keep the Wins, After the Pandemic

The pandemic has shown us that the accessibility issues that disabled communities have been speaking up about for years are actually quite doable. We all now have access to learning without having to physically attend classes, allowances for missed lectures, being able to read rather than listen, or learning tuned to different attention spans. “After we have a vaccine, can we make education more accessible to people who can’t physically move somewhere?” Huang asked, pointing out additional accessibility elements they’ve recently implemented, including a live-captioning plug-in for Zoom, allowing for reading of the lectures.

We’ve dissected the candidness, and abundance, of feedback that can happen in digital spaces that faculty weren’t used to seeing in classrooms. Those that I spoke with are already thinking about how they might integrate some of these new methods into the in-person experience. Skolos said that she’s likely to move away from linear presentation software like Keynote, and instead to “use Miro even once we’re back in the classroom: showing examples on boards, doing in-class exercises together, then projecting it.” Soulellis asked if “it is possible that there’s something about this situation and the onscreen space that allows a kind of intimacy that has never before been possible?” before answering it himself with “yes, because I feel like I’ve experienced that.”

In terms of bearing witness to the heartache and heartburn, the pandemic, along with the bedroom- or kitchen-table-view video feeds, has given faculty a front-row seat. Many teachers and professors, some for the first time, have experienced how hard it is to learn, or be productive, amid life’s difficulty and complexity. Can we bring this understanding and empathy to the other side, or when that intense disruption is happening to only some of us?

Soulellis reflected on his growth as a professor, stating that he sees his role as a teacher “differently now. Though it’s a process that began before, the pandemic experience has accelerated that.” Huang mentioned how being more flexible about deadlines has worked really well and kept more students from dropping out compared to past years. Skolos said that, prior, she’d occasionally feel that the students weren’t working hard enough, and this year she didn’t have any of those nuances. Instead, Skolos’ attitude was to “treat them all like they deserve the very best of everything.” She would give extra meetings and generally cut them more slack “if they didn’t get their work done. I felt like, oh, they’re probably depressed this week. And then I noticed, the students, they really brought it. Everybody who was there was giving it their all. And they were super creative.”

We went into the pandemic with a patchy and bloated higher-education system. Like in other areas of life, the pandemic has pushed on preexisting pressure points. It has made us wonder what credit hours really mean and has forced us to observe how students learn in an always-connected culture. And, for many, this time has fostered a reassessing of the true value in leading a class.

This news was originally published at Wired.