Weitzman News

Posted May 17, 2020
  • Allison Lassiter, Randall Mason, Michael Luegering, Joshua Mosley, Richard Farley, and Michael Henry

“Expanding What It Means to be a Class”

When spring semester study moved online in mid-March, suddenly Zoom or Blue Jeans or Panopto was as integral to teaching at Weitzman as the mastery of a subject and a commitment to students’ learning. In working to keep standards high and spirits up, some faculty members saw an opportunity to experiment and rethink their approach to material they had taught before. Here, faculty in the departments of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, City and Regional Planning, Fine Arts, and Historic Preservation talk about adapting their courses for the screen, and the rewards and constraints they found in the process.
 

Richard Farley, Department of Architecture
Adjunct Professor in Graduate Architecture
Spring 2020 Course: Structures II for first-year graduate students

Structures can be a daunting subject to learn. To overcome this, I walk among the class, draw large diagrams on the blackboard, and create illustrative “tags.” One thing that architecture students have in common is that they are all visually astute. So, I create visual events in the lectures that key into the principles that are being taught. This evokes responses with an acknowledging laugh or nod from the students. That has become a hallmark of my teaching style, and I’ve successfully taught this way for decades. I enjoy choreographing the class in person. With virtual classes, the inability to demonstrate twisting, bending and shearing in structures with my movements as I lecture has been the greatest hurdle caused by this shift to on-line teaching.

I had a premonition that we were heading to a virtual teaching environment several weeks before spring break. My three excellent teaching assistants and I planned an approach to transition to an online teaching model to best suit our 60 students. I created PowerPoints covering the entire content of each lecture. Using BlueJeans software, I presented in front of a flat screen television which displayed the PowerPoint, allowing me to move and gesture and create more of a presence during the lectures. This enlivened the class and lent a sense of normalcy. As I adapted to the new techniques and technology, the students and I felt increasing comfort. They became the cornerstone of a successful transition.

Part of what we talk about, in addition to the morphology of the structure, are the stresses and strains on buildings. Strain is movement and can be demonstrated. When explaining that a skyscraper structure sways back and forth when hit with a strong wind, I, too, start to sway back and forth. While increasing my sway, I emphasize that the amount of time it takes for the sway to go back and forth is a constant—independent of the magnitude of the force developed by the wind. To cite another example, I’ll tense or compress my face to consider the tension and compression stresses present in a beam. With these physical demonstrations, the students’ understanding of structures is reinforced. Former students will tell me that these images are long-lasting in their minds. It brings a touch of theatrics into teaching. Our lectures are also balanced with serious case studies discussions, often based on my professional experience. These were effectively taught on-line.

Our choice for virtual lectures was either to deliver a series of static images on a screen explained with a moving cursor, or, as we elected, to be more animated—orchestrated in a manner similar to a late-night host. It was quite effective. In fact, we also started to find ways that students could still interact with their classmates as well as their professor. On Friday afternoons, following the lecture, we initiated the equivalent of the TV show “Cribs,” where celebrities show their homes. Some brave students volunteered to show their home and workspace, and they shared how they were coping with the quarantine. With students from around the globe, this was fascinating. The biggest plus is that we have expanded the notion of what it means to be a class. 

 

Joshua Mosley, Department of Fine Arts
Professor of Fine Arts
Spring 2020 Courses: Functions for Form and Material, Mixed Media Animation

Our class is about working with materials that are unfamiliar to us. We start with fabrication processes and see how they perform and then we say, OK, it does this — now what can we design that exploits that behavior? We were relying on the materials library and the fabrication labs and the kilns and equipment in Addams Hall.

Initially, the transitions were somewhat interesting. A student who was working with concrete and casting came up with the idea of making molds out of ice, because we didn’t have any mold-making material on hand that was safe to use in the home. The student who was fusing glass started to fuse food waste and use the pores of the glass bricks to retain water for growing plants.

Because of the physical limitations we also moved from using actual materials to using photogrammetry to 3D scan samples of wood from the Wissahickon and other materials that would later become elements of designed objects. 3D scanning on our mobile phones allowed us to work with different material samples that introduced unique material attributes—no more need for adhesives, no struggles with gravity, and now we can scale, duplicate, and subtract one substance from another. Ultimately, we used an AR app to reinsert the scanned designs into space. Many projects like this were addressed in special interest groups of 3-4 students that we formed to bring focus and to sets of techniques that the students were exploring.

I don’t know what I would have done if the semester was one week longer. The students really reached a point of needing more material and especially more library and fabrication resources to carry forward with their investigations.

 

Michael Luegering, Department of Landscape Architecture
Lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture
Spring 2020 Course: Media IV

The class is mostly focused on media methods and techniques surrounding the urban design core landscape studio: everything from geoinformatics to parametric grading, 3-D modeling of building envelopes and urban design features. To a certain degree, it’s entirely reliant on software and resources on the campus. The IT Department has done a wonderful job of making most everything that the lab computers offer available remotely.

As a landscape media team, we ended up setting up so we could pre-record the lectures on Sunday evening, and we received a lot of positive feedback from students. They would be disbursed on Sunday evening and be available for everyone. So rather than take my course on Tuesday, the students essentially could take my course any time they wanted that week, knowing that they had an assignment due the following Tuesday. Part of the reason why we did it that way was to accommodate people’s schedules, so say you just weren’t feeling right one day, or you got dumped on in studio, or there was emotional or mental pressure, or even just technical difficulties—the course could flex to accommodate. Just giving them the power to set themselves up and succeed in this, I felt, was really important. I’m working for a firm and I really appreciate the latitude I’m given to make that happen, and I feel like other people would want the same thing, so that’s kind of where we went with it.

BlueJeans has a really handy feature in there which allows you to control and manipulate someone else’s computer live. So, I had 10- to 15-minute student meetings each week where I could have dedicated time, and the big advantage was they could see my face but they could also watch me write code on their computer. So, when we were done, it was left with them. They had a video recording, they got to talk to me live, and they could actually see me work. Which mimics a little bit of the lecture environment, including my terrible jokes.

 

Allison Lassiter, Department of City and Regional Planning
Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning
Spring 2020 Courses: Water Policy and Planning, Sensing the City

The intent of the Sensing the City class is to learn about digital urban interventions and then work in groups to create and build prototypes for these interventions, so it was sort of impossible to transition to a virtual class, and I had to totally reconceptualize it. We ended up partnering with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology. They run this program called Pitch & Pilot, which is about identifying issues that the city is dealing with and soliciting smart city-type projects to help deal with some of these issues. One of the ideas that the city had was that they want to do a smart opioid set of projects dealing with the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. So, we decided to take this on.

The students spent the last six weeks taking all the skills they had developed in the first six weeks of this class, when they were learning about all these electronic and digital interventions, and then thought about applying that to different opioid use and overdose issues. One of the challenges always is that we tend to try to solve the problems that we experience first, and I don’t know that anybody would have really taken on opioid issues as one of their projects.

I think it ended up being surprisingly relevant to a lot of people. It was maybe a leap to make that transition, and for sure we all felt a little behind and under-informed. It was a lot to ask of students to wade into that, but I do think students learned a lot and got to some interesting ideas too. One was basically a kiosk that would have Fentanyl testing strips in them, for risk mitigation. The idea was that you could put these kiosks at partnering fire stations and provide test strips and let people have the ability to test their supply, and then link those to a database of when Fentanyl is present in the city and when it’s not. There was another one that was a vending machine for clean needles. There was a pop-up bench that was like a safe-injection site that enabled different technologies to help people monitor what was happening on the bench.

They came up with ideas and then what they did was, they filled out this form that the OIT has for any company that’s going to submit an idea. The groups just pretended they were businesses and filled out the form, and then they delivered their pitches to the Smart City director. So, this was a really nice way to engage in something that’s an extremely serious problem in Philadelphia and something that students really don’t engage with very often.

 

Michael C. Henry, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
Adjunct Professor of Architecture
Spring 2020 Course: Building Pathology

The transition into Zoom was relatively easy, and as a practitioner I had already spent a lot of time on Zoom. The challenges for me have been developing the muscle memory to navigate between screens smoothly and seamlessly and to stay on top of what the students are asking and how they’re responding. It’s very different from the live environment where you can scan the room easily, tell who’s looking a little quizzical at what’s being said in a lecture, who needs to be prompted to ask a question—that sort of thing.

I delivered five lectures remotely and each one was approached as a trial. I engaged the students in this as a group effort. We’re in this as an experiment together—let’s set up a feedback loop so I can make adjustments, understand what works and what won’t work, and what we need to do if we have to do this again next year. Elizabeth Sexton, who assisted with the course, was really helpful at collecting that feedback in real time after each lecture. And we made contributing to that a part of the class participation grade. There are some adjustments that we made instantly but other suggestions are being withheld by Elizabeth until I submit the grades.

I came into this field as a practitioner, not as an academic, and so I want to understand the learning process. To me, how we’re changing the learning process and how it can be beneficial is the crucial issue, not how we adapt our current mode of teaching. My approach to this has been trying to understand it from the students’ perspective, and what they’re getting out of it. I open the classroom half an hour early on screen, and I’m there on camera waiting for students to come in. And I stay in the classroom half an hour beyond and tell them I’ll stay beyond even longer if they like. What’s interesting is that normally, when students come into a classroom, even if I’m there early, they’re talking to each other. There seems to be a distance between talking to each other and coming up and talking to me -- not that I’m formidable or anything. It’s different on the screen. Students have been a lot more conversational in that half-hour period with me than they are with each other. So remote teaching presents a different relationship and in fact, that’s kind of cool, because some students who’ve talked to me before class have never asked for a meeting. The screen flattens things in some respects, I think.

 

Randall F. Mason, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation
Associate Professor, Historic Preservation
Spring 2020 Courses: Cultural Landscape Studies, Social Justice and Heritage, Preservation Theory II

Having three classes at once, I tried to take advantage of that by using each one of them in a different way to explore different tools in different ways and different formats. And I did that purposefully, not just willy-nilly, thinking that we’ll be embracing some forms of online teaching next year and beyond.

I worry we’re missing out on the lateral learning that happens between students. It’s a real thing and has real value. Being in person in a room, hearing each other’s voices, and hearing the hesitation or the enthusiasm or the frustration or the excitement — those maybe can be discerned on a screen but they really can’t be felt. And that’s one thing all teachers hope for in classroom discussions: to provoke everyone to engage fully, then let it happen. There’s an unscripted-ness to a lot of my teaching that is really intentional, and that kind of disappears or at least becomes much less possible in the online format.

One thing that I feel like worked fairly well for me, and I’m eager to hear how well it worked for the students, was to substitute some class meetings for modules that gave students freedom to make whenever they wanted out of material I teed up for them. I created the content for half a dozen different modules in the cultural landscape class. To introduce those, I would research and prepare notes, then create an audio file with my phone. They listened to my 10-minute or 15-minute intro, and then did some readings, looked at some images, and wrote a short response. That was the totally independent, decoupled version of teaching. In another class I did real-time lectures with slides, interspersed with breakout groups. More traditional, but it worked pretty well. Having guest lecturers is easier, in ways, with the online format. They usually take a lot of organization, and there are limits to money and people’s time and things like that, but these days it is easier to organize. In one of my courses, I did a few interviews, and I treated them kind of like podcasts or YouTube videos. Students use it as a resource to listen to as opposed to have it be in real-time. In the last few weeks, I’ve done several guest talks and studio reviews for other universities; it has worked well, engendered good conversations, and the logistics suddenly seem very easy!