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What We Learned (in 48 Hours) about Putting Together Online Project Presentations that Don’t Suck

Photo credit: Patrick Beaudouin

A week ago today, as Stanford entered the weekend before the last week of Winter Term, my colleagues and I received an evening email from our Provost. It began with what have quickly become common reminders about good personal hygiene practices and minimizing contact with others to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and then came this:

For the final two weeks of the winter quarter, beginning Monday, March 9, classes at Stanford will not meet in person. To the extent feasible, we will be moving classes to online formats in place of in-person instruction. Any winter quarter final exams that were scheduled to be administered in person will need to be administered in take-home format, complying with university rules for such exams.”

But what about when the “exam” is actually a project presentation or a design critique with outside guests or judges? The end of the quarter term is always a bit frantic at the Final projects offer a slew of presentations, expos, and critiques as our real-world project partners come in with colleagues and expectations in tow. This Winter Term those audiences include business leaders, middle school students, and NASA astronauts.

Students in our d.leadership course had invited partner organizations that they had been working with all semester to present to each other and their fellow students (about 80 guests in total).

Students in our Safe by Design course were planning a final trip of the term to ASCEND Middle School in Oakland to do a design critique with Stanford and ASCEND students, giving feedback on each others’ work to reimagine school safety.

Students in our Inventing the Future course were scheduled to engage in futuristic debates on utopian and dystopian possibilities related to dating apps and socialization 50 years from now.

Students in our Design Thinking Studio were expecting to screen their final videos on reimagining the work-life balance for astronauts, give a three minute presentation, and receive feedback from a panel of judges.

After receiving the email from the Provost, we spent the weekend communicating with our students and colleagues, revamping our presentation plans, and studying up on how to use video-conferencing software. We were determined that when Monday rolled around, we would be ready!

But that proved challenging. With the exception of a few members of the’s teaching community, many of us have little experience with teaching online. Our approaches to teaching and learning bias toward highly interpersonal interactions animating physical spaces and activating as many of the human senses as possible.

Photo credit: Kavindya Thennakoon

Needless to say, the last few days have not gone perfectly. In fact, if you are looking for pro-tips from professors with decades of experience in online instruction, we are certain there are other Medium posts to check out by people who have been teaching through cameras, screens, and microphones for much longer than us (here’s a list of resources our colleague, Leticia Britos Cavagnaro assembled during an Institute for the Future webinar several of us attended Wednesday morning). What we can share is what we learned over the last week about some of the challenges inherent in leading dynamic educational experiences online and how to put together ones that don’t suck.

Consider issues of access.

Does everyone have a computer or a smartphone capable of video-conferencing and using other applications simultaneously? Does everyone have internet bandwidth that can accommodate these uses? Does everyone have a quiet place to sit for an hour and a half? Especially given the quick pivot to the virtual format, we had to make sure that not only our Stanford students had access but that their collaborators and critics did.

Some things we tried this week that seemed to help:

Communicate in advance about plans — even though we had just over 48 hours, we reached out immediately to share our thinking about how we would proceed and to make sure participants had what they needed.

Make it possible to present by phone — in the event that someone was unable to join by video, we made it possible for them to join by phone with one of us using our device to show their material.

Offer “tech check” time — We hopped online for an hour before the presentations began to give participants time to join the video-conference, test their audio and video connections, try screensharing, raising their virtual hand, etc.

Everything takes. . . and feels. . . longer. Plan accordingly.

The teaching teams from the three courses mentioned above noticed that things took about 30% more time to do via video. Hand-offs between presenters are more awkward and unwieldy. As Kelly Schmutte, one of the Design Thinking Studio instructors said, “We’re so used to being nimble and responsive in class, and it just takes more time to scan the comments field, look for ‘raised hands’ the sidebar, etc.” Every time the next group has to figure out how to share their screen or be told that people can’t hear them slows things down. Some of the subtle signaling techniques we use to let a group know that their time is coming to a close don’t translate to video. And time feels longer online. When we’re in one of our physical studios doing final presentations in one of our physical studios, we are often moving around the room as a group, sitting for some presentations, standing for others. Online, we’re all stuck in one position for the entire duration — it just feels longer.

Some things we tried this week that seemed to help:

Collect work in advance — asking students to send all their materials to the teaching team in advance allowed us to “DJ” between presentations and minimize technical glitches.

Assign order ahead of time — presenters knowing they’re “up next” sped up transition times.

Focus in on what’s most important — we cut some of the group activities we had planned to make sure that every student group had time to present.

Build in breaks — even though we might not build a bathroom break and a stretch break into a 90 minute in-person session, it helped a lot to insert short breaks into our online sessions.

Ask students to keep an eye on their own time — one advantage to all being on computers is that everyone has a precise clock right in front of them, we made sure everyone knew their presentation lengths and encouraged our students to monitor their time accordingly.

It’s harder to create culture and compassion.

Human connection fuels the learning experiences we create. It’s at the center of our research methodology. And it is what powers presentations and makes them resonate. Shifting from 3D to 2D literally shaves off an entire dimension of how we experience each other. We have not figured out how to hologram out of our computers to occupy space together. We have not figured out how to replace the feeling of a high five. But we know we need to develop a new lexicon of love.

Some things we tried this week that seemed to help:

Explicitly acknowledge to everyone that we are all in new territory — there are no “experts” and we have to be gentle, patient, and flexible with each other.

Lead — or invite a student to lead — a group mindfulness exercise — intentional breathing reconnects us with ourselves and breathing together can connect a group across great distance.

Set new norms around what presence means and looks like — students suggested stating some explicit rules of the remote road, such as a commitment not to check other tabs, email, or phones.

Breakout into smaller groups — when we facilitate in-person sessions, we almost always vary group sizes, many video-conferencing platforms allow “breakout rooms” which can be used for smaller group/one-on-one conversations.

Find ways to connect via physical objects even from afar — even if you can’t “break bread” in-person, everyone can bring a snack and enjoy it at the same time (Barry and sam had given out stones to all the Stanford and ASCEND students at the first class and shared this poem by Robert Lax. At the end of the presentations on Monday, all the students held up their stones at the same time. Touching these objects which we had imbued with meaning at the same time created a feeling of connection [and a few tears — at least on the faces of the instructors!]).

Use visual claps — some of our groups use finger snaps, others use American Sign Language applause or jazz hands, a recent favorite is the firework clap.

New opportunities

In addition to some initial thoughts on how to address the challenges inherent in online presentations, we also got some early glimpses of opportunities that virtual sessions might open up:

Video-conferencing offers close-up views of your audiences’ faces — and you can stare at them without being a weirdo! One of our students reflected: “The session felt surprisingly personal given the technology barrier. Being able to see everyone’s face up close on the screen was actually somewhat more intimate, in some ways, than being in a large group in a room.” Another student added: “Feel like I had a better read on people’s reaction when I could see each face on the tiles.”

Behind faces are spaces. There’s an intimacy to being on video and seeing each others’ spaces. One of our students told us: “I felt very at home (maybe because I was actually home!)” Being in our own spaces of comfort can help ease the nerves that some students feel when presenting.

Feedback via shared document has its advantages. Empowering quieter voices. Offering anonymity. As one student wrote: “Collective document-building works amazingly.” Another said, “Amazing to see a ton of cursors moving across the screen at the same time!” Several other students shared how much they appreciated getting and giving feedback in real time on a shared document. It certainly sped up the process, brought all voices in, and led to a greater volume of feedback in a shorter period of time with an easy-to-access record of it all.

Monday was a long day. By the end of the evening, all our students got to share their work, receive feedback, and feel some closure on the term; we learned some things about what works for online project presentations; and we learned a lot about what we don’t know yet about making these experiences engaging, meaningful, and educational. By the end of the day we were exhausted.

Then Tuesday we received a message from Stanford’s President: “Stanford will begin the spring quarter on time, but we will use virtual learning, rather than in-person classes, until further notice.”

This launched us into another series of questions about how we teach. Carissa Carter, our Director of Teaching & Learning, sent a note to instructors Wednesday that said:

“After only three days of remote Zoom calls, I’m exhausted. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for students to take every single one of their courses online. This is a place where our creativity as designers can shine.”

Carissa asked us three questions:

How can our online classes not just be two and a half hours in front of a screen?

Can we create prompts and have students work on them offline?

Can we design asynchronous learning experiences that students complete at their own pace, and then punctuate by coming back together with intention at key moments?

Please let us know what you think and help us get better at creating powerful online learning experiences with — and for — our students.

Acknowledgements: Insights above come from the instructors of the four classes mentioned at the beginning of this article: Kathryn Segovia, Yusuke Miyashita, Jeremy Utley, Perry Klebahn, Bob Sutton, Barry Svigals, Lisa Solomon, Tina Seelig, Drew Endy, Kelly Schmutte, and Seamus Harte. Carissa Carter and the’s Teaching & Learning team have led and supported us all in making the transitions and capturing the learning described above. Everyone at the has been supporting each other in lovely ways over the past few weeks.



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