More than a few years ago, I found myself leaving the professional design community to reenter academia. After years of working across multiple design platforms in freelance and professional design firms, I’d taken a position at Miami University teaching Graphic and Interior Design in the School of Fine Arts (now the School of Creative Arts).
It was my first day on campus. My “interview” had consisted of meeting the then-Director of Graphic Design at a local coffee shop where I could pick up copies of the most recent syllabi and older slideshow files. So I’d never actually seen the campus—much less navigated it—before day one. It was late summer, and my son’s school had not yet started, so I brought him with me thinking this was going to be a quick and simple experience.
When I arrived at the designated classroom (well ahead of class time, so I would have time to set up my presentation), I was met by a hallway full of students. The door was locked and I did not have a key. I froze for a minute. This was not how I’d envisioned my first day back in front of students.
After locating the administrative offices in another building (a student had to point the way), borrowing a key, unlocking the room, returning the key, then setting up for my first presentation, all with my seven-year old son in tow, I shakily stood before a room full of clearly annoyed third-year design students, all clearly judging me, albeit very silently. It was 8:45—a full 15 minutes after the scheduled start-of-class. I was hot, out of breath, and clearly out of my depth. Not a good start.
“Welcome to the Business of Design. As you know, this is a professional practices course. And I thought I’d start today’s lecture off by showing you what not to do on your first day at a new job.”
Laughter sounded through the room. Hardened expressions softened. And I stopped shaking, found my teaching voice, ditched the slideshow, and started a conversation with the students that helped me shape how the class, and my academic tenure at Miami, would take shape from that point on.
A few years later, I found myself working at my current position, in another “first class.” This one was totally different. It was a second-year design studio instead of a lecture course, taught during summer term, so the semester was already on a quickened pace. Because it was taught during the summer, I had only five students on day one, as opposed to the standard 20-cap studio attendance. And it was taught entirely online—I have never once actually met any of these students to this day.
Having been an online student but never an online instructor, I had lots of grandiose visions of what I should do. Here, I had the opportunity to put into play all of the ideas I had wished my own education had encompassed. I planned weekly meetings via Skype. I did all project critique using video, walking page by page, line by line through each project so the students understood I was actually looking at their hard work. I added discussion topics aimed to increase morale and engagement between students, including a “no teachers allowed” topic (my boss’ suggestion, btw) where they could interact with each other without fear of judgement from me. And I set up an iChat office where they could ask questions any time of the day, any day of the week. All they had to do was ask. I even set up iChat forwarding to my phone, so they’d have instant access even when I was away from my desk. I made sure I was there for them, even though I wasn’t physically there, any day, day or night.
But, because it was an online class, I had to leave the structure of the class itself alone—it was locked to me. All teaching content was already in place before I “walked” into the room. All assignments were paced out to meet semester schedules and expectations. Most discussion topics were set up and ready for student ideas. So aside from these external channels and added topics I made up, the class itself was not “mine.”
In other words, aside from setting up my grade book, there was nothing for me to do before the first day of classes. But beyond this, there was no way for me to have an actual voice, much less a voice of authority or understanding, inside the classroom. Nor to adjust the schedule as needed to fit the realities I might find when I actually met my students. Which I really wish I could have done.
So how did it go? Poorly. All of the extra topics I set up were void of student comments on the last day of class. No one ever showed up to any of the scheduled Skype meetings. Over the eight week condensed semester, the class dwindled from five students to three. Two of these were producing barely C-quality work. None of the feedback I’d given seemed to help. No one contacted me in my iChat office, ever. Everyone produced the minimal amount of work needed to pass, and turned it in without a word. And worst of all, I received my first “bad” instructor evaluation… From my “good” student. With comments including “she rambles on in her critique and really has nothing useful to say or add.”
As I read the comments from this one student I’d honestly thought I was helping, I suddenly realized the obstacles I was facing in my new job. And though I, along with everyone else on my academic and administrative teams, have worked hard to improve the overall online education environment, we still have a lot of work to do.
Separate but Equal?
In my current position, we strive to assure that there is content alignment between the onsite and online versions of each class. In other words, we make sure that all deliverables from the onsite class will also be explored by the online studio. We make sure any lecture content delivered onsite is also delivered online. And now, because we have to build so much of the online content before the class actually runs, we’re now funneling much of our online lecture material into the onsite classroom to assure those students receive the same information. Basically, we’ve flipped the onsite classroom using the online content, setting up our online and onsite worlds as separate (aka “not hybrids” or “not blended”), but equal.
But we all know that separate is never equal.
By this point in the life of online education, it should be abundantly clear that there are wide differences between teaching onsite versus teaching online. Especially in a creative industry, where the traditional studio course tends to contain little to no lecture content in a live class, but instead builds its strengths from the one-on-one personal interactions between the faculty and their students.
Onsite, you can walk into class (late) on day one and realize your syllabus simply won’t apply to the students in front of you. Within the first week of classes, it’s easy to determine the benchmark levels of each student. Who will be the stars? Who will be the bricks? What types of interaction do each respond better to? Can you play them off of each other, teaming them up or placing them next to each other as a means of improving the work of both? What changes can you make in the overall project schedule that can help each student gain a better understanding of the overall objectives? Do you need to spend more time on grids? Or can you skip that lesson on visual balance? These are the types of questions and decisions onsite faculty face each day. And because the physical studio structure is malleable, these are the types of decisions that truly help strengthen the overall engagement and success of each student.
In the online world, again, all content has to be in place before day one of classes. Not all students can access the class at the same time, so establishing “live” learning simply cannot happen the way it does in the traditional studio. Yes, we can record meetings and post those for students to watch at their leisure. Yes, we can record feedback for the entire class and post a single video all students must wade through to get to their critique. But having been on the student end of that, I can tell you, they are not watching the full video (they scrub through to find their critique and shut it down when their stuff is taken off the screen). Yes, we can set up discussions to encourage engagement and test an understanding of that week’s lessons. But frequently this is seen as busy-work, and thus approached with apprehension and resentment rather than the enthusiasm we’d hoped to establish.
So what do we do?!?!
Not Actually Sure I Know
One of the things I told that first class back at Miami was that I don’t know everything. Yes, I was hired because I’m some form of “expert” in design. But there would be ideas and questions I would not have the answers to. I told them that I would be upfront with them when those questions arose. And I told them I would help them find the answers to those and any other questions they may have.
I tell my online students the same thing, every time I critique their work. “This may or may not work. I think it will. But you need to try it to figure that out yourself.”
Today, I tell you the same thing. All of the magic bullets we try in online education may or may not work. Some have clearly failed me in my own classes. But some have made a dent in the anonymity and isolation an online education can set up, helping me build stronger relationships with my “invisible” students than I ever thought possible.
I still haven’t met all of my students to date. I’ve had a few tell me they live within a 30 mile radius of me, but even then, we’ve never actually met (though I do wonder if I might have passed them in the design book section at Half Price Books). I can tell you that the first time I ventured to “the mothership” (our physical campus) for the annual spring show and graduation celebrations, I had more than a couple of students actively hunt me down to thank me for being their teacher. And I’d not done anything differently with them than I had done with the one super-critical student I’d had in my first online class. So the magic bullet that doesn’t work for student A might still be valuable for student B.
One article I read this morning says we should keep the human element in our classes through the incorporation of presence (actually answering questions, leaving video comments, etc.), empathy (recognizing our students are also humans!), and awareness (ask questions about how they think they’re doing). These are great ideas. They might really work. And, given my own experiences, they might backfire.
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. I do, however, have optimism. And as long as I continue to put myself, shaking and out of my depth, in front of students, I will continue to look for the answers, adjusting the shape of how I teach as necessary in that search.