Above: Offline activities can help mitigate stress while boosting learning and connection. Hands-on data visualization is one example of an alternative to digital work, as discussed in Murdoch-Kitt & Emans’ book, Intercultural Collaboration by Design. Illustration from the book by Tammi Heneveld.
From Kelly: I’ve been sending a lot of emails to former students this week, because the tenure clock stops for nothing, and I must deliver a list of student references to my tenure and promotion committee. And I’m asking how they are doing in spite of, well, everything. So many of them have thanked me profusely for checking on them—never mind that I am also asking them a favor. Everyone needs connection and reassurance right now, myself included. Reconnecting with the bright lights of former classes kindles my sense of hope.
From Denielle: Living overseas as a faculty member has a lot of wonderful payoffs that can bring you closer to other cultures, people, and religions. I have the benefit of travel and learning not only about others, but also about myself. At the same time, separation from “home” and those I love can be difficult, even on the best of days. There are many ways I work to maintain connections with friends and family as we live abroad, from digital tools to old-school snail mail. I have a collection of cards from my mum, for instance, that arrive with the changing of seasons or during our favorite family holidays. As we face this transitional time in teaching and learning, remembering the importance of connection has never been more critical.
Connection is a fundamental human need. This is why many folks are having a hard time with social distancing. As educators and experts on remote collaborative teamwork, we’re here to tell you that it really doesn’t matter what kind of tools you use in this chaotic global scramble to suddenly remake every course online. Your students don’t care how you configure your shared cloud-based folders or employ your campus’ learning management system. They just want connection—especially in this time of uncertainty.
This need for connection is also why we have focused our efforts on understanding and designing activities to support relationship-building, communication, and trust among diverse design teams. Students historically and notoriously bemoan collaborative projects. The persistent pain points of collaborative learning are one of the reasons we research how to make collaboration easier, more pleasant, and more effective. The collaborations in our study involve student teams with participants located in North America and the Middle East. When working across cultures and time zones, achieving real connection—and going on to successfully complete projects together—becomes even more challenging. But if our participants can build connections, so can you and your students, regardless of whether your course is collaborative.
One way to cultivate connection is to talk to your students about your current situation and let them tell you about theirs, if they wish to share. They may not be in an ideal place (physically or mentally) to do course work. Safety and wellness may be a concern. Concentration, focus, and unideal work environments are likely obstacles. Now that Kelly’s four-year-old is out of school, when she meets with students synchronously, he is likely to deliver the occasional guest lecture about Curious George. Meanwhile, Denielle’s cats love to make an appearance at least once during a video conference call. With these everyday realities and shared worries coming into focus for our students, it’s also time for them to realize that you are a whole person with a real life. It will give them appreciation for everything you are managing on top of their course, and also shows that you acknowledge that they are dealing with a lot, too. Sharing some details of life with each other also creates a bond between people, which helps build empathy.
One surprising way to foster connection is to go analog with some of your class activities. This may seem counterintuitive, but in our research, we have found that introducing hands-on tangible and experiential activities helps participants of remote teams feel more connected to the project—and to each other. Connecting to something tangible helps an otherwise abstract virtual relationship and project feel more real and becomes more engaging, because using different senses stimulates learning through different channels.
For example, one activity we give our remote teams include creating a hand-drawn project timelines, visualizing goals and milestones in a space other than the screen, making updates to it based on changes in the team’s shared digital calendar. and creating analog data visualizations from found materials (e.g. food, leaves, and so on). In most cases, these kinds of creations can be photographed and shared back with the rest of the class or team.
Additionally, In our current situation, hands-on activities also provide the added benefit of helping to avoid digital burnout. Art and design students and faculty have an edge here already because of our training in analog sketching and utilizing physical materials. We intuitively know, but sometimes forget, that getting away from the computer and working with your hands engages your brain and senses in a different way than screen-based activities. Stress relief is an additional benefit—adult coloring books are popular for a reason! These benefits should not be limited to the creative disciplines, however—spread the word to your colleagues teaching in other areas, as well.
As we all find ways to foster and build our connections with one another, here are some insights from our research to help you and your students sustain relationships, communication, and trust:
- Assess access. Start by assessing students’ access to tech and materials through an anonymous survey. There is no guarantee they will have access to particular hardware, software, or wifi access, and because your course didn’t start out online, none of these things were required of them. Inquire as to whether any of them are in a different time zone, as many institutions have requested that students travel home, if possible. This helps students feel cared for and helps communicate your interest in equity. Even if you cannot achieve it perfectly, you can still strive for it.
- Pair ‘em up. Create a buddy system. Even if your class isn’t collaborative, assigning small groups or pairs of students to check in with each other on assignments and general wellbeing will help everyone in the class maintain a sense of connection. Students can create their own means of connecting with people in their small group. This strategy works for giant lectures and tiny seminars alike. It requires some upfront legwork by you, but investing your time in supporting a sense of community is more important than making pre-recorded lectures right now.
- Adjust expectations. Depending on the size of your class, you may be able to use these pairs or small groups to have more productive real-time check-ins with students. It’s just not practical to have a discussion via videoconference with more than a handful of people, and as a design educator it can be hard for the class to exchange meaningful feedback with each other when we meet online as a large group. With pairs or smaller groups, we can use designated class time to have short meetings with each group of students in real time (through video or voice chat, as students’ resources allow), and it is a much higher quality experience. We can periodically connect online as a large group for other types of activities; things like lectures can easily be flipped so they can do them on their own outside of class time. But, speaking of class time, you also may need to throw the entire idea of “class time” out the window and move everything to asynchronous work. Notions of ‘participation’ and ‘attendance’ will look very different in this space.
- Find an ed buddy, too. You also need emotional and tactical support during this time. Connect with another educator who is going through this. Share ideas, resources, and kindness with each other. You might even find ways to collaborate and keep each other from reinventing the wheel. This is good for your mental health. In fact,the reason we have maintained a research project for the past 8 years and been able to write a book entirely remotely is because we have invested in a personal connection with each other.
- Collaborate. Every course is a collaboration because it is a community. Whether or not you teach team projects or intentionally apply collaborative or cooperative learning principles to your course, there is undeniable symbiosis between students, faculty, and your learning environments. Now you’ve all been thrust into an unfamiliar learning environment, with overwhelming distractions around you. Give yourself a break and your students a sense of purpose by engaging them in co-creating your new reality together. Don’t confuse this with ‘distance learning;’ instead, you are making the best of an unprecedented catastrophic situation. Ask them for ideas, ask them about their expectations, ask them what they hope to learn or accomplish in the remaining weeks of the course. Give them a chance to lead. This is a great opportunity for students to realize they are responsible for their own learning. They might not have the answers, but opening up this dialogue provides an opportunity to connect around a common goal.
- Engage each other. Meeting via videoconference isn’t an option for everyone, for reasons of access, bandwidth, and cultural expectations. But your class can still utilize communication tools that support social presence. For example, a group messaging platform that supports emojis and photo-sharing can encourage emotional connection and self-expression, although. This helps students feel connected and doesn’t require high-speed internet or camera-enabled devices. However, it is important to be sensitive to cultural nuances in assessing whether this is an appropriate tool for your class.
- Go analog; avoid digital burnout. Don’t forget your design education roots; stay connected to hands-on making. Remember that analog activities—sketching, walking, cooking, singing, etc.—will help you and your students not only to maintain your sanity but also to feel connected to the projects and meaningfully engaged in learning. It is ok to step away from the screen, take a breath, and slow your pace.
Many educators are taking to social media to seek solutions and mourn their in-person courses. Your students’ class isn’t over yet—it has merely changed course. Make connection a priority right now. If your students don’t learn anything else this semester, a crash course in maintaining human connection is a valuable lesson that will stick with them for life.
Kelly M. Murdoch-Kitt, an assistant professor in the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design, is a user experience designer and educator focused on people, systems, and interpersonal interactions.
Denielle J. Emans, an Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, is passionate about intercultural learning and visual storytelling.
Their co-authored book, Intercultural Collaboration by Design: Drawing from Differences, Distances, and Disciplines through Visual Thinking (February 2020), uses visual thinking to empowers diverse teams and is based on more than 8 years of researching remote intercultural design teams. Educators can request free access to the e-book.