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What I’ve Learned Teaching Online

I’ve taught for the USC School of Architecture for seven years, all of it online. When I started, I was an outlier. I’ve become one of many online instructors, lecturers, and professors. My students have consistently surprised me, year by year. Some semesters, they are lively and willing to get into conversations. Other students are feeling disconnected from their peers and teachers. The pandemic has brought out the strengths and weaknesses of all of us, and of teaching online.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Cross-Pollination

Students influence each other. Projects cross-pollinate. Any group will spread influence among its members, but this is especially true in my online classes. I made a point of encouraging cross-pollination.

I start out most classes by leaning on my production and media expertise, sometimes giving a talk about production techniques, or by calling out good examples of online communications. Those talks are fun, but I believe the students learn the most from each other, not from anything I say.

My classes have students from many time zones. They can look away from their screens and see different worlds. The whole class benefits from the variety of these perspectives. Our conversations are richer. The project proposals are more inventive. In the media class I teach for USC, I ask my students to pursue making videos that matter to them, not projects that may merely add to an existing portfolio. This freedom opens things up for them, and I sense they are willing to get behind their work in a new, more dedicated way. It’s not just a “class assignment” for them.

And to go deeper with that thought, the differing points of view mingle and enrich the maker’s project and the observer’s view. For example, one student might want to do a project about cyberbullying, another about trans rights, another about designing for urban spaces, and another about being lonely during the pandemic. All of these views cross-pollinate each other. We may all be pursuing a different storyline, but the commonality is that we benefit from our shared views.

Small Groups

The unsung hero of the Zoom class is the breakout session. Students have a new opportunity, in every class, to learn from each other, in a free exchange of ideas, usually without oversight from a professor.

I see myself in my online classes as a facilitator and jump-starter of conversations. I can encourage everyone to build their projects in front of the group. Being witnessed in your work, and “creating in public” is a powerful confidence builder. It helps everyone experiment. Our best projects grow out of a safe environment, one where we are free to express ideas — even unfinished ones — and early-stage concepts. Building in public helps with that, and it’s even more powerful when practiced together.

In architecture school, students work on physical projects. They build models. They present to each other on Zoom or in studio settings. The connection this creates strengthens their projects. Your cohort sees your project come to life. It’s a great way to learn something new, like video or audio production, or develop skills, like communicating your ideas to an audience.

And I’ve discovered something else about this project-based style of teaching: It works best when we discover our storytelling motor. That means that there is a narrative driver at play, whether we are making videos or podcasts, or other online media. People are narrative animals. They will look at your work and seek a narrative, whether there is one there or not. Why not give them the narrative they crave?

Building a Story

The building blocks of a narrative are story arcs, pacing, characters, and the voice of the piece. These elements shape what we’re building, whether we’re making a video or a podcast. Once we’re talking about these things in class, I know we are in a power zone. These terms are the vocabulary that allows us to discuss what we’re trying to make in class. A common ground, it’s a new creative connection.

The Grammar of Cinema

If you went to film school, or hang out with someone who did, the term grammar of cinema will eventually come up. It refers to the collection of effects, tricks, and techniques that communicate mood, time, and place. Examples are: A visual dissolve will tell us that time has passed. A narrator’s voice can control the story, much like the author’s voice in a novel. Fast cutting may make us feel jumpy. Slow cutting may make us feel relaxed. All of this is operating on a emotional/somatic level. We may not be aware that these techniques are acting on us. But they are! And they are magic.

Once we establish this creative vocabulary, we have the tools to take apart the narrative machine. We can talk about how the story works on a somatic level. If we can do that, we can make a story of our own, maybe a better story than one we’ve ever seen or heard before.

This language connects the varied perspectives, backgrounds, and creative output of the folks in my class. Every session, one of the most exciting moments is watching when a student exceeds their own expectation, builds something they didn’t think was possible, and gets the good feedback they deserve for their work. This is more likely to happen when there is a collective, a cohort, and a safe space in which to create.

Feedback in a Safe Space

There is one last part to this, the feedback a group can offer. Often, when we make something and ask for feedback, we get comments like, “I liked it,” or “It’s good,” or “I didn’t get it.” We need better feedback, more specific feedback, actionable feedback, to make better projects. This can happen only when we feel we are in a safe space. This is my most important task when facilitating classes or working groups.

Creating an atmosphere of mutual respect is gold.

How to give and get good notes? Here are a few ideas. Ask your audience to state the main idea of the project to you. What did they think you were trying to get across? If they say something that’s close to where you’re going, you’re in good shape. If they come up with something that doesn’t have anything to do with what you intended them to think, you’ve made an art film (maybe?) or you need to try another edit or draft.

I like to ask these questions as well:

Sharing good feedback is part of a journey that begins with a diverse group learning something new together, developing a shared vocabulary, and finally, creating a safe space so that we can give each other good notes on our work. I’d say that journey is the best part of what we offer each other in a class or working group.

I’m starting a creative podcast Working Group to workshop your podcast ideas. It’s open to hosts, producers, editors, writers, actors, and activists. Learn more here

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