So I know that I have written before about the transition to online teaching that occurred last spring, but I am going to revisit this situation once again. I recently wrote an article for Texas Architect Magazine (Sept/Oct issue) that was completed prior to the start of the school year discussing the wide array of possibilities and getting plans from various architecture schools around the state. So now that the fall semester is underway, I want to talk about the current system in place at my University. To put it bluntly … it feels like garbage. I do not mean that in any specific instance, policy, or as a reflection of the college, department, or university. It is just the difficulty of the situation, which in my small college town is very complex, has me frustrated and concerned. I won’t get into all of those issues, but it’s not an easy place for anyone involved from the University to the Community and all those in between. Therefore, due to many circumstances, I am teaching my design studios this semester online and in-person simultaneously. This is where the garbage shows up. I say this for a few reasons which I am about to hopefully explain.
The most basic reason for my lack of enthusiasm about this situation is most specific to the design studio. I taught a fourth-year design studio this summer which was completely online. Due to the transition to online last spring, the summer went rather smoothly and I think the level of instruction, interaction, and production was very comparable to a typical in-person studio. These fourth-year students understand design studio and have established their design process enough that my goal as an instructor is to coax them into seeing different perspectives and pulling the best concepts I can out of them. Gently nudging their thoughts in a new or supporting direction is a key aspect. It is not as much about the process of design itself, but my ability to subtly impact their process at this point in their education. So the online instruction portion of the design studio is in good shape in my opinion and it can get close to the condition of a face to face studio. Close. Not 100% but maybe 85% to 90%. But that is mainly due to the fact that all of the physical aspects of the studio were omitted. Meaning everything were only computer models and digital elements and there was nothing physical to discuss in a sense. No hand-drawn sketches for me to sketch over, no rolls of trace to use; you know the good stuff. But it still managed to allow for meaningful instruction. So architecture design studio is difficult to teach online, but it was becoming more normal and effective.
The second issue is that I am teaching first-year students this semester. Let me repeat … first-year students. Not only are they first year, but the first semester ever in college and in Architecture. There is so much going on in their world beyond the introduction to design thinking that it can be overwhelming in a typical situation. Now there is this element of “less contact” with these students and with each other. I believe that this first semester (and year) creates the groundwork for the next 4-6 years of study. You learn about being creative, how to speak about design and architecture, the design process, what other students think, how other students work, different perspectives, what campus is like at 2:00 am, about yourself, and what you are becoming. All of these things begin to formulate in this first semester of college and with an additional layer for those architecture school. I believe it is difficult to see the world in a new way when you are looking at the same screen you were 6 months ago. Now that may make me seem “old fashioned” like you cannot learn things from a screen. I know that it is possible and can be effective. But there is a visceral quality of being present in a space, in a community, in a studio environment. Not only is this social, but also very academic in its nature. That is not a full functioning concept under the current conditions. Even when I have some students in studio, it is still simply not the same. At least not at the moment.
My third difficulty here is solely based on synchronicity. I am navigating this notion of attempting to teach a studio in person to some students and online to other students at the exact same time. While I think this is not as problematic in a typical lecture course (this may be blind ignorance on my part), studio discussion and critiques, and explanations are extremely difficult to navigate simultaneously in a design studio setting. They are more interactive and less lecture/listen classes. At least for me at this moment, this is the largest challenge I am facing through all of this. I have been teaching for four full weeks now and this is still killing me on some levels.
Essentially my pain is all about the synchronicity issue. Partly due to the limitations of technology, and partly due to the nature of studio. I think there are some technical solutions, but even then I am not certain they could create an optimal teaching/learning environment. I think live streaming from a GoPro camera strapped to my forehead might be the ultimate teaching method, but the technology to allow that is not exactly possible within the current systems. Or maybe if they had some new version of Google Glass that was affordable. Or if I could buy some of those Snapchat Spectacles and they worked beyond Snap. Well and weren’t sunglasses. But even then there are security issues and other such complications. But maybe if this (omg please no!) is still the situation in the spring semester, I will work towards one of these application types as a solution.
Yet at the moment, I feel that I am unintentionally slighting all of my students. That is what honestly bothers me about this situation. At the end of every class, I feel that it was not my best instruction for either the online group or the in-person group. That is what I am focusing on at the moment. How can I keep the level of instruction at its peak while accommodating two different formats of providing it? At the same time. From a single location to their multiple locations. At the same time. (yes I know I repeated it) So I am about to try something new and see how it goes or if I get in hot water from my department or college.
Here is my thinking… studio is about 3 – 3.5 hours of “class time” per day. This is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So I plan to experiment in a few different methods. The first method I am going to try is that I simply divide the three hour block into online/F2F. So the online portion is experienced by those students in studio and online via the typical Zoom call condition. Then, depending on how many students are present in the actual studio, I end the online portion of the class and shift to an in-person mode only. That may be an 80/20 split or 50/50 split depending on the day and the class. (attendance is a whole separate issue) But that way I feel I can truly FOCUS on one method of delivery at a time. So online is truly that, and in-person is truly that. But each as best as they can be in this situation. So in person, it is socially distanced, but still pointing, looking, scribbling, examining models, and all of those typical studio activities. My concern is that is may seem like a slight to the online-only students, but I do not think it should be viewed as such since I am teaching them in the same manner I would if the studio was entirely online. So for them, the experience is the same. It is just different than those students who come to the class on campus. While this is not an attempt by me to push students to physically come to studio, I believe at this moment, this is my best effort to provide the proper attention to each group. So that maybe at a minimum, each group does not have to spend half the time looking at the back of my head while I talk to the other half.
Please understand, I do not want this post to come across as me whining about my situation, because it is not that. I am not attempting to complain here, but more work through my circumstance and see what you all think. I am certainly glad to be employed and be able to teach students. I simply want to provide them the best instruction I can under the current circumstances. And currently (4 weeks in of 15) I am still trying to figure out how “best” to do that. Honestly, that is a frustration for me and not typical. So I guess we will see how it goes. Maybe at the end of the semester, I can post an update… and it’s a positive one.
Until next time,