March 16, 2020

Online Teaching Tips

I’ve been teaching online since the late 90s when I first started working on the Omnium Virtual Design Studio project. Back then 50 participants from all over the world, across all levels of education, working on a design brief together, was radically new. Omnium’s founder, Rick Bennett, got in touch because he was interested in the work we were doing at Antirom.

The thing that really interested Rick was when I showed him how we used the Hotline server/client to connect with each other when we were traveling. We had it running in the studio with clients on our machines, so there was a second layer of communications going on even when we sat side-by-side, much like Slack these days, except this was the 90s. Rick saw how we would swap files back and forth to work on them and how much this virtual community kept us in the loop.

Via Omnium, I developed and taught interaction design, graphic design and interdisciplinary art and design courses online for many years. Since then, I’ve worked remotely from Germany to Australia as well as from here to the rest of the world, teaching purely online and blended (some participants face-to-face, some remote).

In those early days, we had to spend a lot of time teaching people how to use the tools. Even how important it was and how to set up a profile. A couple of years later, thanks to early social media, everyone got that and the tools started to become less present and we could concentrate on the pedagogy. That should be everyone’s aim. It’s like learning an instrument — at some point you stop learning the piano and start focusing on the music. We wrote a paper about some of this.

I realise this may seem obvious now to anyone under 30, but going through the process of learning this was an education that you young ‘uns missed out on.

Online Teaching Tips

A lot of people will be learning how to work, teach, and learn online in the coming weeks. Most educational institutions have closed and a lot of them already have online classes, but not everyone is used to teaching online. Here are some tips based on what I learned over the years:

  • The big one: real-time is generally over-rated because we are used to it in workshops. It is not a naturally strong affordance online, hence all the audio problems and customary video call greeting of “can you hear me?” Asynchronous collaboration has many advantages, not the least of which is that it’s often more inclusive. Think of some of your favourite online social spaces and most of them are not real time. Message and discussion boards, though old school, are great. I prefer them to Slack, actually, since the content is better organised (This post contains more on the concept).
  • Work to the affordances of remote and use its strengths, don’t try and do a live workshop in front of a camera.
  • Shorter and more often. A one-day workshop is now four or five 2-hour sessions online.
  • The flipped classroom of “lectures” as videos and the interactive teaching as discussion and activity works well.
  • Don’t forget that you can now include readings as part of the teaching material up front - this doesn’t usually happen in workshops. It’s a nice way to break up the rhythm.
  • Audio is powerful - nowadays podcasts are the norm, so audio recorded material (you can even put in slides on chapter markers) can be great. Good for those who are still commuting, but also listenable whilst you are cooking, etc.
  • Slack/chat/messaging platforms are better for activities and workshop groups where real-time interaction is helpful. Or you use these as a Q&A space to recorded content.
  • Tickle over time - feedback, activities, check-ins - keep people engaged and prepared for any “face-to-face” (by which I mean video) interactions.
  • Real-time time should be treated as a precious commodity.
  • Video and audio recorded feedback and comments are quick and easy and personal. It’ll save typing.
  • Get creative - if people are at home they also have access to materials, products, services from home that can make for useful activities, prototyping and examples. You can bet more people have access to a craft knife and cardboard boxes at home than they do at work.
  • Remember you’re asking people and getting a peek into people’s personal lives - this can be a really nice way of getting a group to born in a less worky way than usual. With a distributed group, you can explore cultural differences in design. You get a little bit of ethnography for free and it’s useful to remember we’re all human beings with lives.

I hope that helps – if you’re interested in a deeper dive or have some tips to add, get in touch or ping me on Twitter or LinkedIn.


Photo: Marija Zaric on Unsplash