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In Teaching Under Quarantine, Connection & Tangible Work Are Key

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:

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.

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