Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Combating technology restrictions and anonymity online
Shannon Criss, Architecture

It has been challenging teaching sophomores new soft skills (Media Hub, Blackboard and Microsoft Teams) and a robust introduction of other content-related architectural skills. All this is happening remotely on various computer types, some students with poor internet connection and limited background with computers, while others have much experience and all of the benefits of strong internet access. ALL students are remote in their homes and trying to cope with the sheer overwhelming situation of not being with their peers in the ways that they had anticipated. I see three key challenges in our current situation: 1. the inconsistency of students’ internet access, 2. the varied soft and hard skillsets of the emerging sophomore, and 3. the separation and loneliness that Covid-19 imposes on us.

Having taught the architecture sophomore-level lecture course, Visualizing Natural Forces, to over 100 students for many years, I found myself last spring wondering how I could possibly pull off an engaging and useful remote course that meets students where they are. I grappled with the prospect of what an asynchronous/synchronous, remote course could be. I participated in CTE’s summer camp and was challenged to reconsider and flip my lecture course. What it came down to in my mind was to figure out what I could control with the key challenges we face.

First, why give synchronous lectures to students remotely? Instead, I have altered my lectures and recorded them through Camtasia, saved in Vimeo and placed in Blackboard for student access. What I like about this is that I can control the quality of the presentations and other resources (including online tutorials and quizzes), and I don’t have to fight temperamental internet access. Students can view these whenever and wherever works for them. It reduces a lot of unknowns and allows us all to develop consistent life management patterns, reducing a lot of stress.

Second, I have tried to change the narrative of Covid-19 making us isolated and alienated from each other and instead encourage students to draw freehand drawings and annotations in response to the lectures, readings, and other resources (yes, actual pencil and paper!). Once done with those, they create video/voice-recordings that further verbally explain what they learned, relating it to the visual notes on the screen. This allows them to portray their learning through the hand and mouth to their peers, who I have organized as small group teams—discussion groups of five to six students. So instead of “class periods” where they listen to a single voice lecturing at them, I have created sets of small group peers that meet each week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, responding to discussion prompts and short exercises. Students are developing trusting, supportive relationships with each other as they process information and provide each other with feedback. My teaching assistants and I check in on their discussions and their responses in the Microsoft Teams chat space. Students are helping each other with the soft and hard skillsets they need and being connected with their peers and upperclassmen mentors.

And finally, the visual notes, the video/voice-recorded narratives, the feedback received in the discussion groups and labs, all is collected into a working document I am calling a “Guidebook to Future Self” where students articulate and apply key terms, concepts, and applications of these principles to their architecture design studio (a parallel course where students are required to synthesize knowledge and skills from courses like mine). Through 11 learning unit modules, students build a body of knowledge that in the best of worlds will be useful to them now but also in future design studios. It is the goal that this guidebook reveals an engaged and active learner—students know this from day one and are challenged to consider how to show this in their document. I think this sort of engagement and space for students to share what they believe matters is a good way to combat the potential anonymity and drudgery of remote learning. We haven’t finished the semester yet, but the mid-term drafts are showing promise. This may be an approach I will take for this course from now on.

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