Teaching in a Time of COVID-19

Video screen capture. Lloyd Alter teaching about simplicity

This pandemic may be an extinction event for the traditional university lecture.

It's Tuesday, when I usually teach Sustainable Design to students in the Faculty of Arts and Communication at Ryerson University, mostly students from the Ryerson School of Interior Design. Except this year I am not getting on my e-bike and riding down to the campus; we are all teaching remotely thanks to the pandemic. This is actually something that really intrigued and excited me because I teach a one-term option where I have been doing a relatively traditional old-guy-stands-at-front-and-lectures kind of course, and then would have students do presentations to the class.

This year, we have been preoccupied with the 1.5 degree lifestyle; students were required to pick a topic from a long list and explain where the CO2 emissions came from and what we can do about it; I hope to collect them all and publish them. They also do book reviews that I publish online; you can see the last ten years of them here. Through all of this, I have been learning how to do a better remote lecture, and share those lessons here.

Radical Simplicity

A few weeks before we were all sent home I had a feeling that we wouldn't be here for much longer and started filming my class with my new iPhone 11 Pro. I basically gave it to one of my students, who did a pretty good job. Sound quality wasn't great, but she had a steady hand. The subject was radical simplicity, and it started off with a rant about Bjarke Ingels and unnecessary complexity that went on for far too long. I did a post based on the lecture that makes the same mistake.

Lesson: Figure out your priorities and budget your time. Nobody has to sit around an online presentation like they do in class.

Minimalism and the coronavirus

In this lecture, I used the same tech, talking about my favorite subject, the roots of modernism and minimalism as a response to the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis. Sound quality isn't terrible but it's not a very professional way to do a lecture. You can read about how modern, minimalist design (and washing your hands) can fight disease and more recently, lessons about home design in response to Coronavirus.

How we get around determines what we build

Years ago Alex Steffen wrote that "what we build determines how we get around" in a post about why people in the suburbs all drive cars. I thought he had it backward; it is the available technology, how we get around, that determines what we build. So I go through the history of the streetcar suburb where I live, and how that evolved into the car-based suburb after the Second World War. Even though most of my students are studying interior design, I felt it critical to explain how this all evolved and how important it is if we are going to reduce our carbon footprints.

The student holding the camera for this lecture was all over the place, and I decided I had to do something to solve the video and sound problems.

Lloyds Remote Microphone

Remote microphone and tripod/CC BY 2.0

I purchased this neat little COMICA wireless Lavalier microphone designed for the iPhone that came complete with a tripod, thinking it would pay for itself over the course of the year. It was much, much better in the next lecture, although it drops out here and there, I think because I didn't clip the mic onto my sweater properly. But it is so much better.

Plastic waste: How we got it and what we have to do about it

How we got buried in plastic, how the linear economy started, how we got trapped in it, how recycling is a fraud, how we have to change the way we live. I summarized it in a post recently: How plastics add to the climate crisis.

The history of the bathroom, and why we wash our hands, Part 1

I only got to use that lovely remote mic once, because then we all got sent home. I will save it for next year. So now I am simply talking over my slides, which I often do with public speaking, so it should be easy. It's also a subject I know really well, having been talking about plumbing and sewers for years on TreeHugger and thinking it particularly appropriate in this time of the coronavirus, even if it is off the theme of our carbon footprint. Wanting to keep it shorter, I broke a brief history of handwashing into two parts.

But when I do a public lecture, I rehearse it many times, often writing presenter notes under the slide. Here I just talked it through and was not happy with the results, quite a few stumbles and could have been better organized.

The history of the bathroom, Part 2

In this section, I look at how the bathroom itself actually evolved, really for the convenience of plumbers and developers rather than the health and safety of the users. It is much better; I wrote a script, put presenter notes under every slide, talked more quickly and kept it shorter. It is much better.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we come out on the other side of this. For most studio type courses, working from home is obviously going to be problematic, you live and breathe the studio. I always felt it important that my students do presentations, live in front of the class because that is what they, as designers, will have to do in the working world; their life is a crit session. However, many in the half of the class that didn't get to present in person have come up with some very clever workarounds.

Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course as the future of education. It didn't quite turn out that way. I wrote five years ago how "every January I stand up in front of a new crop of students and face a wall of white glowing apples and think that there has to be a better way to deliver a message and figure out if they learned any of it." I suspect that when we come out of this, our universities will be very different, not quite MOOCs, but when it comes to traditional lectures, this is an extinction event.