Writing Design
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Writing Design

Design Pedagogy in a time of crisis — COVID-19 / 2020 edition

A screenshot from a playful futuristic design class where I used a Snap filter and a future-looking (cheese grater) Zoom background.

We went into lockdown on March 13th. 2020. I know that my world will never be the same after, as a designer, an educator, a parent and a partner. In this article I’m reflecting on how the pandemic has changed my work forever.

Pandemic content and process

We closed the campus for two weeks and scrambled to think about how to pull life back together. In this time I connected with other design educators around the world through my friendships with many members of the Design research Society and the Distance Design Education meetups. The first big question for me was, would I bring this crisis into the classroom or not? And if I did, how would i? I had co-designed a class (by distance) in post-hurricane Maria Puerto Rico in 2017 with my friend Maria de Mater O’Neill. I knew I could draw on that previous experience of design education during a crisis.

It was not business as usual. The pandemic affected us all and we had to acknowledge that in the content and the process of the class. As we ended the semester, I changed my content, and I decided to intentionally create space for conversation and reflection at the beginning and end of each class, just as we had in the post-Maria design class in Puerto Rico. We talked about how people were connecting and communicating even though they were socially distancing. In the reflection at the end of the semester students said that they valued having space for discussing the crisis. One student eventually shared that he in fact did have a relative with COVID during our class, which in fact made me wonder if I should have brought it into the class or not.

Curriculum pivots… moving forward

During the summer months, two New Orleanian residents reached out and asked me if I could make my fall class be specifically about good health and wellbeing in light of the pandemic, and in this way the pandemic entered the content in Fall 2020 as well.

Pandemic process and activities

My class is about design thinking for social impact. In the old ‘normal’ we were very ‘physical’. The class sometimes included children’s school yard games in the warm up. We worked very closely in small groups at tables and standing around notes on white boards. We played music in the background and I’d see students bobbing their heads and humming while Fela Kuti, Gilberto Gil or Manu Dibango played in the background. They had probably never heard of any of these musicians, but I used our ‘thinking time’ as an opportunity to diversify their tastes in music. We’d also have drop in visits by New Orleanian community members or the students would have to go out and do ‘ethnographic fieldwork’ and chat with people outside of our classroom about their work. How on earth could we recreate that virtually. In the Spring when we went into lockdown, we had already done most of the ethnographic work. We nudged the work through the end of the semester. It was difficult but we managed to get through.

Fall 2020 was a different kind of experiment, which I was able to prototype to some extent with students in Trinidad over the summer. How would we do ethnographic fieldwork remotely? Was this even possible. We’ve just finished the semester, so I can report back. We still got to play a bit of music in the background, but it was a bit harder than I expected. We would use it as ‘thinking music, and as people joined the Zoom call. Remote ethnography is HARD!!! But not impossible. We had our community partner visits and empathy interviews via Zoom and telephone. We learnt first hand about digital divides as we struggled to communicate despite participants’ busy schedules and over bad telephone and internet connections. We tested products by creating slide decks and later websites which students presented to visitors to our class, whatsapped to friends and family, and students REALLY put themselves out there by sharing their prototypes with unknown people in Facebook groups, on Reddit and other online communities. They shared their process at the end with visitors in a final presentation.

Bringing the outside world in

Perhaps the highlight of the pandemic has been how easy it has been to connect with new people virtually. The two groups of the Design Research Society of which I’m a member, PedSig and the Pluriversal Design SIG, and the Distance design Education group have had regular online meetups growing my community with each new meeting. People have shared new strategies and approaches in all of these forums. In our classroom at Tulane, the remote nature has made it possible all of a sudden to have guest reviewers from anywhere in the world! So the mid-term review included New Orleanians, but also included participants from New York, Puerto Rico and Barbados. The final review also had folks from Trinidad and Canada join us for the conversation. I myself have been ‘all over the world’ since the pandemic started as guest faculty in classes in the US and Canada, teaching a full course in Trinidad over the summer, and popping into conversations in Australia as well. All of this without ever having left my living room.

Conclusion

This is not a real ‘conclusion’. We are still in the midst of the crisis. The pandemic has been hard on so many of us! I wouldn’t wish this experience on a future generation, but I suppose the reality is that this threat will always be there. From the experience I’ve learned other ways of intentionally bringing the outside world into our classroom through content and people, making space for people to work through pain, grief, isolation, while still meeting the objectives of the course. I’m glad 2020 is coming to an end. The year has been productive yet exhausting! I’ll take some of these key takeaways into 2021, but will also intentionally make space for doing absolutely nothing.

Writing may be easier with the support of friends and colleagues! This article was a response to a prompt from my writing group, a cohort of design educators who I met through Design Incubation. Our prompt for this piece was “COVID-19-inspired design education: how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your teaching.” We sat together and free-wrote for about an hour as a response to the prompt. Our mission is to write frequently. This is my second article from this series.

Follow our Medium publication and join my colleagues, Saskia Van Kampen, Johnathon Strube, Karin Jager, Anne Galperin and I, as we work together to get through the difficulty of writing especially through the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Lesley-Ann Noel

Lesley-Ann Noel

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Asst. Prof @NorthCarolina State University. Creator of the Designer’s Critical Alphabet and the Positionality Wheel. Proud Trini! Contact me @mamaazure.