Questions from a design lecturer

In this post we try to respond to a few real questions asked by a (real!) faculty member having to (really quite urgently) move to distance and online methods.

I’ll be holding online office hours in 1 hour. Not sure how to do that… 

Have a look at our post on staying connected.

Your emergency priorities are likely to be:

  • Connecting and reaching out immediately to all your students to let them know what’s happening; what you will do; what they need to do.
  • Set up regular communications (e.g. a weekly update via email and posted to Blog, VLE, and social media. Reminders and notifications sent out via VLE announcement and text message)
  • Set up pastoral communications (e.g. at the OU, many tutors ask student to email them at any time and that they will try to respond within a specific time period.)
  • Set up tuition communication and contact (e.g. how to engage with students to continue teaching and learning design (primarily in ‘broadcast mode to start))

Do you have tools provided by your institution / ready to hand? Any conferencing software that they use? VLE communication? Mailing or SMS systems?

If not, and your priority is one-to-one tuition, then a simple Skype (or Zoom, Facebook, Google video chat) setup might be the way to go, suggesting that students sign up to slots using Doodle if individual slots are needed? Keeping things going in the very short term is the priority here – you can add extra features (like activity co-design or Using an online Whiteboard) later as you all build confidence in distance working.

I need to cancel the projects in both my classes because they are impossible without software (our students don’t necessarily have the software on their personal computers) and access to a workshop. What projects to do?

Are they really impossible, or just tied in to particular software? Is there nothing that can be salvaged from the project? How would this have been achieved 15 years ago? Is this an opportunity to consider the mode of design you are engaging in as well as what you are designing?

For example, could you take the intention of the learning and make it less software specific? Or to use freely available software e.g. SketchUp; Open Source equivelants (e.g. OpenBIM; GIMP).

Alternatively you might (re)focus on other design stages, such as research, idea generation, presentation/communication, lifecycle analysis: all of the other aspects of design and ask students to use manual methods: sketching, diagramming, sketch prototyping, and even … writing. All with a view to later translation into software forms.

Or could you even to let students find their own way (as a practitioner, I’ve had quite a few last minute hand-in panics…):

Example Activity 1 – YOUR BRIEF:

All the IT and kit in your office just went on fire. But, it was a really, really specific fire, so all the paper and pens and stuff is OK – just the computers and kit that got melted. There is one office mobile phone left, though. Weird…

Anyway, you have a big deadline for Friday for a major client. You still have to produce a response to [INSERT BRIEF]. Go!

PS – the client called to let us know that their helicopter is broken so they can’t come into the office. They want the proposal presented online to them.

But is will also depend on what discipline is being taught, meaning there will be some very specific IT and tech needs that student might not have access to at home.

If this is the case then you might need to switch to other curricula. For students early in their course you might be able to postpone rather than cancel and pick up the project later in the course.

For students at the end of a course it might be critical to their completion. In this latter case, have a look at the learning outcomes you need to get to and think about how you might do it in other ways. It would also be a really good idea to do this with students as part of their learning – negotiating what they need to do to become professionals in design domain X. Could you set a professional development task and plan to aim for the end of the course?

How do you deal with external partnerships that are being cut short? How to maintain a strong working relationship, despite not delivering anything?

Ask them for support and help in this – they might be really supportive (and it might even open up new ways of working). Involve External partners in online meetings, show them concept designs, invite them to an online crit, encourage students to engage with them directly.

If they can’t be involved synchronously, can you involve them asynchronously? Could you prepare a feedback pro-forma for them to give feedback on student work? You could facilitate this feedback and hold it like a client feedback meeting in an office.

If the partnership can’t hold up at all (and there may be good or bad reasons for this!) then you might need to switch to some alternative. Have a look at what your priorities / drivers are: why do you have partnerships: for external or industry client? For student experience? For variety of brief? Each of these could be simulated in other ways (and there are lots of willing online clients – in fact, could we create a community of design educators prepared to act as external clients?

What about students that don’t have an internet connection at home?

Distance learning is not just online learning. Set work that can be done offline and submitted later when connectivity is possible. Or make more use of mobile connectivity, whether through school VLE or social media.

Set work that is easily uploaded (short video; small images instead of hi res; FB posts instead of large online VLE spaces). This is a really good chance to practise digital crafts and housekeeping.

Set the task of finding out where there is free wifi in their neighbourhood. Tell them it’s ok to hang around outside buildings with good wifi as long as they do a bit of design observation sketching too!

How do you hold a graduation show for undergrads and thesis show for grad students?

Create an online show space, like our annual exhibition space, or use an interface such a Flickr in which images could be curated and linked to from a blog and other social media. If your subject area makes use of a particular online portfolio then use that.

Also, think about using time-based media to give students the ability to talk to their work. For example, set them a 3 minute video challenge and start a YouTube Channel to host the series. Hold an online session that screens the videos with 5 minutes discussion feedback on each.

PS – You could consider graduating in Minecraft

How do grad students continue their thesis projects (‘research for design’)?

With online chats, sharing online where appropriate, any kinds of social media could be used to facilitate this, you could use live streaming on facebook for discussions that you want to share with the group.

How do you deal with psychological needs of students – lots of stress, tears, disappointment?

I really liked a tweet I saw from a teacher to their students – but I can’t find it now! The general message was “We’re in this together – I’ve got your back and I’ll do what I can to help with whatever is going on with you

I think it’s no bad thing for you to be as human as you can too. Connecting can be harder online but it it’s not impossible so, provide or suggest the spaces for them to support one another and be there as a listening ear when more than that is needed.

How do we account for the new responsibilities for students – caring for a sick relative ( or in the case of one of my students, driving across country to pick up sibling at college)?

Make allowances, these are exceptional times and they require compassionate and commensurate responses to the situations that they face. See the above response on supporting student needs and remember not to isolate yourself either – there can be an incredible compulsion to try to do everything when you are at a distance because you feel isolated and feel you have to do it.

Support your students by making sure you get the support you need from your institution. What allowances have been made for alternative circumstances, especially assessment? If your institution isn’t supporting what your subject needs, can you constitute a smaller working group of other design academics to assist? (this might need to be a future project for this group

Another question might be how do you deal with staff getting sick and not being able to fulfil their responsibilities. These are issues that institutions will need to grapple with at the highest level, possibly postponing graduations and completions of studies until the pandemic has passed, but continuing to provide teaching and support where possible.


A massive thank you to the lecturer / faculty member who sent in these questions. We’ll try and update with links to recipes and resources as they come in.

If you have any other responses or suggestions to these questions (or any other questions) then please let us know (#DistanceDesignEd or Contact us).

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

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