Writing Design
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Writing Design

Quaran-Taught

Editorial note: This piece is an educator’s personal reflection. Thoughts gathered from a single lived experience. The following are issues that remote teaching has asked me to consider. Issues to consider as inspiration, reflection, evolution, and change. Presented with the potential for connection and conversation.

There is no question that the 2020–2021 academic year was challenging. It challenged all aspects of life — personal and professional. It forced people apart and asked us to find new ways of coming together. As educators, we had to learn new ways to teach. We had to re-contextualize the classroom. We had to redefine the act of teaching. We had to re-think: communication, tools, methods, material, delivery, and assessment. Yet, through this process, we re-affirmed that learning is still a holistic act. An act that takes presence — both intellectual and physical. And, an act that is not defined by delivery, technology, or proximity.

Tools Created to Connect Have Moved Us Apart

Disconnected in all ways, we are now tethered to devices and digital translations. We focus on profiles and pings, not shared moments of discovery. We resign ourselves to reply all — hoping that acknowledgement is understanding. We cry collaboration, while working from individual, isolated spaces. Sharing and engaging is nothing more than navigating an interface.

It’s true that digital gatherings end the physical barriers of time and space. Yet, they present no commitment to engagement. Logging on does not require participation. And participation does not create accountability. Learners can appear present, and not take part. Attendance (especially remote) can no longer be a measure of accountability.

Yes, particularly in design, project-based learning creates tangible accountability. Learners present their understanding and proficiencies through material artifacts. But, we know that learning requires more than material artifacts. We know that is requires dedicated conversation. Conversation that develops the ability to communicate conceptual understanding.

Can we measure accountability with conversation? Yes. Learners need to reflect on their individual experience — in-person or remote. Asking one simple question might create intellectual accountability: What is the most important thing you learned today?

Not everything we learn is course or content specific. But, the things that we learn are the things that we remember. And we remember the things that teach us about our individual role in a shared experience.

To Communicate is to Learn; To Learn is to Communicate

Language is paramount to learning visual communication. Or, at least a shared vocabulary is paramount to learning. Separation has challenged our ability to develop a shared vocabulary. We no longer get a sense of call-and-response that leads to agreement. An agreement that leads to investigative production. Investigative production that leads to conceptual understanding.

So much lost in translation. We are in a constant back-and-forth: go ahead… no, you… no, go ahead, no, you… I’m sorry, you go. Thoughts start and stop without realization. Or, we engage in a one-way conversation. The one where the perceived “expert” does all the talking. But, the perceived “expert” is still learning. The perceived “expert” is researching, writing, and practicing visual communication.

Learning is a shared conversation. A mutual dialogue that reflects an individual journey. A journey where the “expert” and the learner communicate about their learning experience. An experience recorded for clarity and reflection. It is easy to blame communication breakdowns on external factors. It is much more difficult to reflect on our individual role in communication. We ask: “What don’t they get?” But, we should be reflecting on our own conceptual understanding. We should be reflecting on our own effective communication. We should be asking ourselves: Am I fully engaged in communicating the learning process?

If we are to learn from this moment, then we need to be listening. We need to be learning a new vocabulary. A vocabulary that is being defined in real-time with our learners.

Learners Are Not Getting the Whole Educator

This issue underpins the previous two. Learners are not getting the whole educator. Rather, they are getting a persona. A persona that must hold their attention through performative skill. Educators are now “competing” for attention. Remote classes are a secondary activity—background noise. Educators watch as learners cook meals, lie in bed, and even do their hair or make-up on camera. We chalk it up to “unprecedented” times and default to grace as a replacement for focus. We have accepted that attention is a value factor in a transactional exchange.

In response, educators work on their media presence. Otherwise, learners turn their attention to more “interesting” content. And, not without holding educators accountable for a perceived loss of time or money. Learners have conflated education with media, leaving educators to try every possible technology. Methods and techniques are not developed through research and logic. Yet, developed from hopeful ignorance.

We click buttons. We log on. We mute. We “share”. We send. We read. We react. We respond. We encourage. But, these digital activities are superficial. We know we are capable of more, but we may not know what each is missing. Each missing a unique piece in their own way — built on their unique view of the world. Our synthetic conversation might be limiting us from discovering it together. We ask: How can digital tools advance the human experience?

Moving forward, technology will play a vital role in the learning experience. But, technology cannot define the learning experience. Educators must place a premium on in-person communication. We must find tangible ways to relate with individual learners. Educators must reclaim their attention. Educators must prove themselves invaluable in a transactional economy. An economy where students become successful commodities of personal investment and mentorship.

Educators Teach People How To Be People

Knowledge, skills, and experience are a by-product of our shared time together. We share what we know, how we know it, why we know it, and how it has shaped our human perspective. A perspective that structures the experience in our classroom. But, when the classroom is a weblink, we lose the physical and material energy of our world. Our physical world is no longer a resource, yet a constraint. We have to make and think in the abstract — for sake of the abstract.

It’s true, this won’t go on. A new way will emerge. A way in which we will use technology as a communicative tool and not a proxy for the lived human experience.

As we return to the classroom, what will you be reflecting on? What will you be evolving? What lessons will change the way you teach in person?

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Scholarly writing is an integral part of many design faculty’s research agenda. As designers and writers, we know it can be daunting to sit down in front of a blank screen. A writing group provides structure, support and feedback. Cover photo by Amador Loureiro.

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Johnathon Strube

Johnathon Strube

Assistant Professor of Graphic Design

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